A Woman of No Importance
Imagine being so threatening to the Gestapo that in 1942, it names you as the most dangerous spy for the Allies, and urges your immediate capture. Virginia Hall was a daughter of Baltimore who, impatient with America’s delay in entering the war, went to Great Britain to volunteer with the Special Operations Executive. Hall had one prosthetic leg, and when her cover was blown, she nearly died in escaping via a treacherous trail through the Pyrenees Mountains. But that’s not the end of this epic tale. Hall refused to be intimidated by the Gestapo’s search and returned to France to continue her vital work for the British and the French Resistance.
River of Fire
Sister Helen Prejean is a force of nature. She came to national prominence for her work with Death Row inmates and her activism around the issues of unequal justice and the cruelty of capital punishment. Played by Susan Sarandon in the film, Dead Man Walking for which Sarandon won the Best Actress Oscar. In Prejean’s searing memoir, she recounts joining the Sisters of St. Joseph as a teenager, but not finding that her purpose in life was to immerse herself in the struggle of poor people. For readers who are on their own journeys of faith and sense of purpose, or for those who are admirers of the courageous work she does on behalf of those who suffer, this memoir offers many places to enter it.
The Truths We Hold
Kamala Harris knew from an early age that she wanted to be an advocate for equal justice. As the former California Attorney General, her 2020 presidential campaign has garnered her nationwide admirers, especially among those who are troubled by the country’s current leadership. Here Harris share her life story, beginning with her childhood in California. Her parents—one a cancer researcher from India, the other an economist from Jamaica—met when they were both civil rights activists at the U.C.-Berkeley. Long regarded by her peers as an innovative agent for change, Harris reflects on how her experiences have shaped her and how her vision for what we could be as a nation drives her in her quest to be president.
Maria Popova has been providing readers with excellent essays and articles that draw from the width and length of the internet. Now she has taken that impressive brain and applied it to a series of connections that link women who have been — it not lost — neglected by history. Beginning with Johannes Kepler, a sixteenth-century German mathematician whose biography has pride of place on the N.A.S.A. website, Popova traces the connections between his work and women, most of them queer, down into the last century. Among his intellectual descendants are names familiar and not-so-familiar: astronomers such as Maria Mitchell and Caroline Herschel, poet Emily Dickinson, environmentalist Rachel Carson, and a host of other women whose intellectual accomplishments have been forgotten. A worthy read for anyone who loves math and science, or anyone who wants to know more about these “hidden figures.”
Sandra Day was born in 1930 on an Arizona cattle ranch. At a time when women’s greatest aspirations were usually marriage and motherhood, Day went to Stanford. When she graduated near the top of her law school class in 1952, no law firm would hire her. She married later that year, becoming Sandra Day O’Conner, and she took a volunteer job with the district attorney’s office in San Mateo, California. Thus began a storied career, resulting in her selection as the first female justice of the Supreme Court in 1981. Her remarkable story in which sexism and misogyny actively worked to keep her out of the legal arena is one of eventual triumph. Sandra Day O’Conner helped to blaze the trail that has continued to be forged by women like Justices Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
In early 1942, just after the United States entered World War, Great Britain had been fighting Germany in the west alone since France’s surrender in in May, 1940. But the Allies had a secret weapon, women who worked for the Special Operations Executive. Winston Churchill had recognized that, with every able man already fighting the Nazis, women would have to pick up the mantle of espionage. Thirty-nine women answered the call. In this meticulously researched history, Sarah Rose introduces readers to women such the streetwise Andrée Borrel who sabotaged power lines by blowing them up. She was joined by Odette Sansom, who originally became a saboteur to escape an unhappy marriage. The damage they did to the Nazi installations greatly aided the war effort, and helped to make possible Operation Overlord, what we now know as D-Day.
Long before gay marriage finally achieved legal status in the United States and other nations, Anne Lister married another woman in 1834 in London. In this extraordinary history and biography, Anne Choma draws from Lister’s diary in which she kept lengthy details of her daily activities. From her first days living on a crumbling estate in Yorkshire to her days at the Danish court, Lister’s life would have been extraordinary whenever she had lived it. But her willingness to brush off her culture’s prejudices and rigid gender roles makes her a heroine of the LGTBQ movement. Choma’s biography features excerpts from Lister’s diary, and the book makes a perfect companion text for fans of the HBO series.
Golda Meir was born in Russia in 1898 during the last decades of the Tsars. She came to America in 1906, and then moved to Palestine in 1921. Her socialist politics and fierce intelligence attracted the attention of statesman David Ben-Gurion. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, she became a prominent member of Cabinet. Her fiery speeches in front of crowds of thousands made her one of the most famous women in the world. She became Prime Minister in 1969, one of the only women in the world to lead a nation at that time. Golda Meir was a force of nature, a negotiator who went toe-to-toe with Henry Kissinger, and wait. Why haven’t you clicked on the “buy” button yet?
The White Devil's Daughters
Julia Flynn Siler
When many Chinese immigrants came to San Francisco in the late nineteenth century, they were held as enslaved labor. Long after the Civil War had been fought to ostensibly end slavery in this country, it existed in California. The Occidental Mission Home was erected in 1874 to provide sanctuary to Chinese women fleeing bondage. The female abolitionists who ran the home battled authorities, the wealthy, and those who thought that these women deserved their wretched fates. In her heavily researched history of the Occidental Mission Home, Siler introduces readers both to the women who fought to keep other women free and the women who were lured to the Land of the Free under false pretenses.
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are the two New York Times journalists whose explosive investigation of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize. Here, they further investigate the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the workplace and write about how the reaction to their work—the literal thousands of sexual harassment and sexual abuse accusations against men in power—shocked even them. They continued to advocate for women whose livelihoods and entire careers were scuppered because they said “no” and were labeled “difficult.” The #MeToo era is far from over, and reading the writing pair’s stories, investigations, and advice for those in similar situations will both enrage readers and arm them for any future encounters with men who abuse their power.
Robert & Lois Lilly
The American Goddess in question was Jean Patchett, the secretarial school graduate who went onto a multi-decade career as a top fashion model. She was the cover model for Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Elle magazines, among many others. Fashion houses, among them Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, wanted to drape her in their fabrics in order to sell clothes. But her life, until now, has been a bit of a mystery. In this knockout collection of photographs and prose detailing her life, Patchett emerges as her own person. Fashion may have loved her face, but Patchett’s mind remained her own right up until her death in 2002.
Monster, She Wrote
Are you a horror fangirl? Me, too. Here’s a guide just for us. The women who pioneered what we call Horror and SciFi started long before history gave them any credit. In the Seventeenth Century, Margaret Cavendish wrote a novel called The Blazing World in which she imagined an Utopia in odds with that dreamed of by Thomas More. She was also known for taking her clothes off in public, one of the delightful details contained in this book. There’s also Violet Paget, who wrote under the pen name Vernon Lee, and who surrounded herself with some of the greatest and most innovative female brains of her era. And, of course, there’s Mary Shelley, daughter of a fiery feminist, author of Frankenstein, and rumored to keep her husband’s heart in a desk drawer. Spooky!
Looking for Lorraine
It feels impossible to believe that Lorraine Hansberry was only 34 when she died of pancreatic cancer. In the brief time she was here, she left behind a literary legacy that still knocks audiences back in their seats. The author of the play, A Raisin in the Sun, she was a powerhouse during her brief life. In Imani Perry’s beautiful biography, readers learn that Hansberry was not afraid to speak truth to power. She confronted Robert F. Kennedy on the slow progress of the Kennedy administration on Civil Rights issues, and when Malcolm X chastised her for her marriage to a white man, she clapped back, hard. A remarkable woman who has been brought back to life in this beautiful tribute by Perry.
Billie Holiday: The Last Interview
Billie Holiday has come down to us as a broken woman with a tremendous gift whose tragic early death from cirrhosis came to define her. In this collection of interviews and articles drawn from earlier in her career, a far different woman emerges. Instead, readers meet a powerful woman whose decision to sing “Strange Fruit” would stun white audiences, hear about her experiences with the Count Basie Band, her famous fallout with her sax player, why she loved gardenias and adopted it as her signature item, and many other things that has been lost to history. Billie Holiday’s voice still speaks to those who appreciate beauty, truth, and the strength of womanhood in the face of oppression.
Madame Fourcade's Secret War
After France was humiliated by the Nazis in 1940, the work of the French Resistance became crucial in French patriots’ efforts to take their country back. Among them was a thirty-one year old mother, a woman whose life previous to the war had been one of glamour and unmitigated privilege, who became one of the leaders of that resistance. Madame Fourcade’s secret spy service within the Resistance earned the name “Noah’s Ark” from a Gestapo who knew only that the network gave its operatives the names of animals as noms de guerre. Among her spies’ greatest contributions to the war effort were the maps they provided to the Allies previous to D-Day. The details of Norman beaches assisted in the selection of the beaches that were eventually chosen. She and her spies helped to make D-Day happen.
What happens to the stories that are never told? Is there some place in the universe where these stories gather, waiting for the moment that they’ll be rediscovered and brought back to life? I think about these questions mostly when I’m thinking about the unknown histories of women, people of color, and the LGTBQ community.
In this selection of fifteen nonfiction accounts of women and history, readers will meet women who helped win World War II, lead countries in their darkest days, and accompanied condemned prisoners to the death chamber. Each of these women are just single representatives of a history that is still yet to tell. Perhaps one of them will inspire readers to tell their own stories.
Featured image by Jinny Kwon