In the sum years of human history, there have been many biographies written by men about other men. While the scope of their achievements shouldn’t be downplayed, there are countless women whose achievements have been forgotten or lost. In more recent years, the publishing industry has started to redress that balance, and there are many biographies about women lining the shelves. In addition, more and more women are undertaking research to tell tales of the women who have come before them, and plenty of women are putting pen to paper (finger to keyboard?) to tell their own stories.
Here are some of my favourite memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies, written by women, about women.
The Goddess Pose by Michelle Goldberg
Indra Devi was born in the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century, and arrived in India in her 20s having experienced the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. She studied yoga under Sri Krishnamacharya alongside his most famous students, BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. She taught the first yoga classes in China, and in America she popularised yoga among the elite in California. If her goal was to bring yoga to the west, she succeeded, but her name remains unknown compared to her more famous peers. Goldberg has dug deep to find information about an incredible woman who lived through some incredible times.
Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story by Stuart Kaplan, Elizabeth Foley O-Connor, Malinda Boyd Parsons, and Mary K Greer
Pamela Colman Smith is best known these days as the illustrator of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. Her images are ubiquitous in tarot, but her contributions have long been undermined and forgotten. This is the only book in this list which features a male co-author, but with good reason; Kaplan has spent decades poring over Colman Smith’s life and the book presents essays, research, and images from Colman Smith’s life work. The book traces her life from the UK to Jamaica and America, giving an overview of her career in illustration and publishing, and details a truly extraordinary life of huge artistic merit.
The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh
I hadn’t heard the name Marie Duplessis before, but I picked this book up by pure accident at a Tube stop in London. Duplessis was a courtesan in 1800s France, fleeing her father at just 13 to head to Paris, where she rubbed shoulders with Alexandre Dumas and Franz Liszt. Duplessis was an entertainer, elegant and stylish, and lived in the opulence of the Paris aristocracy of the time. She died at just 23, but was remembered even by Charles Dickens. This is a great story if you want to read about a woman who seems truly timeless.
My Beloved World by Sonya Sotomayor
Sonya Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and Latina woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, a job title that brings instant recognition globally. This is her story in her own words: a complex childhood in a tumultuous home, through health scares and into the hard graft that made her a lawyer to follow in the footsteps of the worlds she watched on television. Sotomayor’s book is a warm hug of hope and dreams, which is possibly what everyone needs in this weird year.
A Singular Woman by Janny Scott
Scott set out to tell the tale of Stanley Ann Dunham, the mother of Barack Obama, who has written that he credits his mother for “what is best” in him. Scott interviewed hundreds of friends, colleagues, and relatives to produce a portrait of an inspiring woman living an untraditional life, and whose character has somehow persevered into her son. Tracking Dunham from Kansas to Washington, Hawaii, and Indonesia, this is a particularly poignant look at a mother’s influence on us all.
Things I’ve Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi
Another woman telling her own story, Azar Nafisi’s book is about her life growing up in Iran with a complicated mother in the midst of a national political revolution. This is a story about family, culture, and change—and even though it’s a world away from the experience of many of us in the west, it’s a relatable, genuine, and beautiful read.
Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang
Arguably the most powerful woman in Chinese history, Empress Dowager Cixi is credited with bringing a medieval society into modernity, but she also has a reputation for cruelty, despotism, and self-interest. The book dissects that image and presents a new perspective, offering a different view of a woman who rose from concubine to absolute ruler of a vast swathe of humanity. She is, the author suggests, someone history has been unkind to, copper-fastened by general misogyny and stereotyping of Asian women. No matter your opinion on this complicated figure, this is a great deep dive into a China that isn’t so far in the past.
The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott
In 1938 Pauli Murray, at 28 years old, wrote a letter to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to protest segregation. Eleanor wrote back, and the correspondence became a friendship that changed the course of race relations in the United States. They taught us quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt in school, but nobody ever mentioned Pauli Murray. I love biographies that tell me how someone well-known arrived at their perspective on life, and this is a golden version of that story.