I was going to title this "My Favorite Biographies of Women," but I realized that a bunch of the books I wanted to include are not, strictly speaking, biographies. I also realized how much my tastes run to books about women in the Gilded Age onward. I think it's because I find it easier to understand the perspective and experiences of people living in the post-Civil War World. A few of these are books I read in school, but most were just for fun.
Cleopatra is the only non-American subject on this list. Stacy Schiff brought the legendary Queen of Egypt to life, two thousand years after her life. I read Good Wives and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl for college classes. If you're curious about everyday life for women in colonial New England, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (of "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" fame) captures the realities and hardships of life. Harriet Jacobs' memoir is one of few "slave narratives" written by a woman. Her story is heartbreaking, and compelling, and served as part of the inspiration for Colson Whitehead's novel Underground Railroad.
I read Invincible Louisa as a kid. Little Women is a touchstone of American literature, and Louisa May Alcott's life is even more fascinating. Growing up outside Boston, she came into contact with the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau, and her family even spent time in a planned idealistic community where men and women lived separately.
Pioneer Girl is both a first draft of the Little House on the Prairie series and a scholarly work. Heavily annotated with clarifications and additional information, it reminds the reader that the Little House series is fiction and tells the true story of Wilder's life and how her series came to be.
Triangle is about the deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in March of 1911. Most of the 146 people who died were young women, and it was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in American history. It led to changes in labor laws and better fire safety standards.
I'm fascinated by the art world, and Edith Halpert and Peggy Guggenheim were major influences on the modern and post-modern art market. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who was instrumental in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art- its first home was in her home- and Colonial Williamsburg, is another interesting art influencer.
I've written before about how much I loved Hidden Figures, both the movie and the book. One of my favorite things I learned is just how many women were part of this branch of NASA and its predecessor, NACA. Nathalia Holt tells a similar story about women at the Jet Propulsion Labs in California; they were respected contributors to developing missiles and rockets. The Girls of Atomic City, about women working on the development of the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, tells a similar story of women making real contributions to developing new technologies.
Katharine Graham's memoir is so good it won the Pulitzer Prize. Daughter of the Washington Post's owner, she took over the paper after her husband's death in the 1960's. She ran the paper during Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and for many years afterward. Graham also owned Newsweek, and figures into The Good Girls Revolt, about the lawsuit brought by the women of Newsweek to challenge gender discrimination in their workplace.
Finally, I wholeheartedly recommend Alex Prud'homme's two books about Julia Child, his great-aunt. He wrote the first with Julia not long long before her death, and the second solo more recently. My Life in France is the basis for the movie Julie & Julia, and includes more insights from Julia herself. The French Chef in America spends more time putting Julia's career into the context of American food culture in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. All they're missing is Julia's career as a spy during World War II.
What biographies of women have you enjoyed? I'm always looking for recommendations!