15 Books About Lesser-Known Women Who Made History
The traditional historical narratives that put male experiences at the center have the unfortunate tendency to draw a veil over the contributions of women. This tendency deprives us of the knowledge about the experiences of half of those who came before us, across all spheres of human history – politics, science, literature, art. These skewed histories are used to bolster patriarchal narratives about what women can and cannot do.
This has been changing in recent times, as scholars and historians are using novel research methods and previously ignored sources to bring to us the stories of women who made an impact on history, but were forgotten, erased, or misrepresented. I enjoy reading these stories. They are empowering and inspiring. They help develop a nuanced understanding of how the world as we know it came to be, and drive home the importance of social justice and inclusion. March is celebrated as Women’s History Month in the United States to highlight the contributions of women in history. Here is a list of 15 books about lesser known women – rulers, scientists, activists, artists, journalists – who made history, for your Women’s History Month TBR pile.
The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney
As a child, I was fascinated by the myth and mystery surrounding ancient Egypt, and I enthusiastically sought out books set in the region. I first came across Hatshepsut, the longest reigning female pharaoh of whom very little is known, in a Bengali mystery adventure story, and was immediately intrigued. This book by Kara Cooney explores the rise to power and the reign of this powerful ruler, and the impact that she had on ancient Egypt.
Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal
Nur Jahan is a fairly well-known figure in South East Asia, but only for her legendary beauty and her romance with Mughal emperor Jahangir. She ruled the empire alongside her husband, a very unlikely arrangement in 17th century Mughal India. This book explores the many previously glossed over facets of the life of Nur Jahan – her political acumen and how she might have developed it, her many skills and interests (she was an expert markswoman, poet, and a designer of clothes and gardens), and her legacy.
Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China during a turbulent time, and launched several social and economic reforms in the country that set it off on the path to modernity. In this book, Jung Chang presents an evocative portrayal of her rise to power, and of her personal and political life.
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
Sophia was the daughter of Sikh ruler Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was exiled to England. Though brought up among the English aristocracy, Sophia dedicated her life to the fight against injustice. She was a passionate suffragette, and a supporter of the struggle for Indian independence. Anita Anand’s book is a well researched, engrossing portrait of this extraordinary woman and the tumultuous times she lived in.
The Light of Days: The Untold Stories of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion
This is a chronicle of the extraordinary courage of the Jewish women resistance fighters who were hitherto absent from historical narratives despite the proliferation of writing about the Holocaust and World War II. These young women transported supplies, pamphlets, and weapons to ghettos, igniting and nurturing Jewish resistance, despite the great danger this posed to their own lives.
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s book is an oral history of Soviet women during the Second World War. It includes accounts of women who were at the front lines alongside men, working as pilots, snipers, doctors, scouts, and so on. These women’s testimonies delve into their experiences during the war as well as the very different challenges they had to face as women, despite their immense contributions, when trying to adjust to civilian life after the war.
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: The True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone
Elizabeth Friedman was a pioneer of modern cryptography who worked with the American government during the two world wars, making crucial contributions to the American cause. In this book Jason Fagone presents her contributions which were systematically erased, along with a background of the science of codebreaking, and meditates on the ethics and consequences of intelligence operations in the long run.
Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted Upon Equality for All by Martha S. Jones
The barriers to Black women voting were not all removed with the 19th Amendment. They had to fight for equality and justice for decades afterwards, and this book details the contributions of remarkable Black women, both well-known and little known, in their long struggle for equal political rights.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman
History is made not only in extraordinary events, but also in day to day lives – especially those of the marginalized who have to fight for their normal. Saidiya Hartman’s book is an exploration of the lives of young black women living in the fringes of society in northern cities, sustaining and celebrating themselves, and building communities, in dogged defiance of the unidimensional roles assigned to black women by conventional narratives of history.
Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters” by Kim Todd
In the 1880s and ’90s, newspapers started engaging “girl stunt reporters” to uncover sensational stories that sold. Even though the work of these investigative journalists often led to real social change and important conversations, their work was often not seen as much more than money making projects by their employers and contemporaries. Kim Todd’s Sensational is an engaging history of these trailblazing investigative journalists.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
This is a book about the women astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory, who studied the universe as captured in glass photographic plates of stars, which enabled them to measure distances across space. Their work has shaped our understanding of the universe, but the women themselves are little known outside of their field.
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans
Despite what the highly male-dominated Silicon Valley of the present might suggest, women played a big role in the making of the internet. This book is a look at the women who contributed to the development of this integral component of modern life, from early pioneers like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper to the many important but overlooked women who came after them.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The cells taken from Henrietta Lacks shortly before her death, without the consent of her or her family, revolutionized medicine. This book is Rebecca Skloot’s quest to get to the woman behind these cells, and to explore the difficult questions of ethics in science and medicine. It is also a poignant exploration of the impact of Henrietta Lacks’s unknowing contribution had on the family that survived her.
Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America by Mayukh Sen
This book focuses on seven immigrant women, each from a different country, who played important roles in introducing the cuisines of their countries to America. While Americans have taken to these cuisines, the contributions of these women have been largely forgotten. Mayukh Sen rediscovers their legacy in intimate, sensitive portraits.
Women in Art: 50 Fearless Creatives who Inspired the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Art has the power to change the world as much as technology and war. This is a beautiful illustrated collection of short biographies of 50 inspiring women artists across a variety of media and from diverse backgrounds from an author who has also written similar books about Women in Science and Women in Sports.
Want to read more about women’s contributions to history? Check out these four favorite women’s history books and the rest of our women’s history archives.