If you’ve already started to forget what a normal presidency looks like, it might be time to crack open a few of those presidential biographies in your TBR pile — and for more than a literary trip to happier (or at least less bizarre) times. In Masha Gessen’s New York Review of Books article, Autocracy: Rules for Survival — bookmarked in my web browser for easy and frequent reference — she cautions readers to believe the autocrat (like, for example, if he says he’s fired someone for investigating the corruption of his presidential campaign) and to avoid finding hope in small signs of normality (like wearing pants in the Oval Office… I really can’t think of any other recent examples right now.) To that list, I’d also add: avoid normalizing the maybe insane politician in the room.
This is something we do all the time — in our personal lives and in our political lives. It’s both exhausting to be enraged and appalled all the time, and it’s also basic nature to adapt to situations outside of our control. So, what do we do: we normalize. We find ourselves surrounded by varying degrees of crazy, and begin to accept the least-insane option as the best one. Let’s not normalize ourselves into the death of democracy. Because, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her latest introduction to The Handmaids Tale: “I knew that established orders could vanish overnight.”
No presidency is perfect. But neither should they be insane. If you’re starting to forget what normal looked like before Inauguration Day, check out these eight presidential biographies every woman should read (and probably every man too.)
1‘Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography’ by Stefan Kornelius
In the wake of a Trump presidency, current Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has been described as the “liberal West’s last defender” by the New York Times and “the leader of the free world” by countless other publications — so it might behoove all of us to study up on the woman who is not only tasked with holding strong to modern world, but who is unquestionably the most powerful woman in the world today. During her tenure, (she took office in 2005) Merkel has been considered a measured and steadfast voice for progressive politics, social justice, and human dignity. In Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography, Stefan Kornelius tells the story of Merkel’s life, from her childhood in East Germany, through her global travels, all the way to her election as the single most powerful political figure in Europe — and now the world.
2‘Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson’ by William Elliott Hazelgrove
In 1919, just a little over two years into his second presidential term, Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke that left his wife, First Lady Edith Wilson, in charge of the daily tasks of the American presidency. At the time, she was described as "the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man" — sure, not the most feminist way of describing Edith Wilson’s newfound role in the Executive Office, but for 1919 (reminder: that’s before the 19th Amendment giving American women the vote was ratified) the fact that her authority was recognized and respected in Washington was significant. So, while Edith Wilson wasn’t exactly elected into office, but her legacy as the first acting woman president shouldn’t be forgotten to history.
3‘Wilson’ by A. Scott Berg
Woodrow Wilson himself was also considered something of a feminist American president for his time, in 1918 presenting a speech to Congress in favor of women's suffrage, and supporting their cause throughout much of his presidency. The 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote, was passed by Congress during Wilson’s presidency, on June 4, 1919, and later ratified on August 18, 1920. New York Times bestselling author and biographer A. Scott Berg has had a lifelong interest in Wilson — a personal passion that makes Wilson an interesting read — and this 2013 biography is the result of more than a decade of research.
4‘This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President’ by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and the first African female president in modern politics, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of the Republic of Liberia in 2006. Her political autobiography, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President, tells the story of Sirleaf’s unique and groundbreaking life — starting with her childhood and taking readers through the Liberian civil war, to her presidential election win. As a champion of women’s rights, economic equality, and free education, Sirleaf is a leader that women and politicians around the world should look to for inspiration.
5‘A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama' by Michael D'Antonio
Barack Obama began his political career as the young, Illinois Senator whose message of hope took American’s by storm and invigorated voters — certainly like no candidate in recent American history has. In his book, A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D'Antonio details the most significant successes and disappointments of America’s 44th presidency, and the lingering influence former President Obama will have on Americans for generations.
6‘The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister’ by John Campbell
Another “first female” Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to serve as served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, where she held power from 1979 to 1990. In The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister, biographer John Campbell traces the political rise and fall of Thatcher, offering readers a balanced portrait of the complex and controversial life of one of the most infamous political figures in history.
7‘Women of Power: Half a Century of Female Presidents and Prime Ministers Worldwide’ by Torild Skard
Torild Skard’s Women of Power: Half a Century of Female Presidents and Prime Ministers Worldwide was published in 2014, and in some ways, does seem to assume that Hillary Clinton would succeed as the 45th president of the United States. (So, try not to get too disheartened by that part.) In other ways, this book is the also heartening, offering readers the most comprehensive overview of female presidents and prime ministers across the globe, by examining the lives and work of 70 women leaders throughout 50 countries, beginning with Sirivamo Bandaranaike, who became the Premier Minister of Sri Lanka in 1960. And don’t be surprised by the fact that women can become corrupt, ruthless dictators too — sometimes too much power is too much power, whether you’re male or female.
8‘The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power’ by Kim Ghattas
OK, OK… we all know Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected. (But most of us also know that the title of this biography should really be “The President”.) But as far as global leaders are concerned, Clinton has dedicated more of her life to government service and political leadership than most of the men who graced the Oval Office. Kim Ghattas’s The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power features the BBC foreign correspondent's writings from the road, where Ghattas traveled with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, witnessing Clinton deal with everything from Arab Spring to WikiLeaks to the war in Libya. Encouragingly, this biography also explores both the power of a woman like Clinton, and the massive global influence she’s had, despite the 2016 election.