We’re living in a time of transformation—an era defined in no small part by women who are acting collectively to create a more equal world. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve selected eight nonfiction books that are essential reading for today’s take-action women and their allies. By focusing on historic victories that led to the present day, these terrific titles provide direction for the future.
The year 2020 will mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, which prohibits the U.S. government from denying citizens the right to vote based on sex—a major achievement in women’s fight for suffrage, albeit one that primarily benefited white women. In anticipation of that date, an important new anthology, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, brings together a wealth of writings related to the social crusade that changed the nation. Edited by renowned author and women’s history expert Sally Roesch Wagner, the collection features a diverse sampling of historical material dating back to the 1830s. The variety of perspectives and backgrounds represented in the volume is extraordinary. Letters, speeches and articles by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams and Victoria Woodhull give readers a sense of the visionary minds that shaped the movement, while pieces focusing on Native American and African-American women illuminate the experiences of minorities in light of the campaign. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem provides the foreword to the book. Capturing the spirit and purpose of a pivotal period in American history, this stirring collection honors the forward-thinking women who fought hard to win the vote.
That fighting spirit is alive and well today, as actor Amber Tamblyn makes clear in her book Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution. Tamblyn, whose show-business career began when she was 12, hit a wall as she approached the age of 30. An aspiring writer and director, she found few opportunities in the male-dominated entertainment industry and decided to take charge of her life. She worked hard to bring her own creative projects to fruition and became an outspoken champion of women’s rights, joining forces with like-minded activists to establish the Time’s Up movement. In this candid, unapologetic book, Tamblyn—now 35—reflects on her awakening as a feminist and discusses vital topics like workplace discrimination and sexual assault. Throughout, she weaves in anecdotes about marriage and the birth of her daughter, her participation in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the challenges of being a woman in Hollywood. An “era of ignition,” she explains, is a time “when dissatisfaction becomes protest, when accusations become accountability, and when revolts become revolutions.” Briskly written, earnest and honest, her book is sure to galvanize a new generation of women.
In She the People: A Graphic History of Uprisings, Breakdowns, Setbacks, Revolts, and Enduring Hope on the Unfinished Road to Women’s Equality, writer Jen Deaderick and artist Rita Sapunor paint a vividly compelling portrait of the women’s movement using rousing quotes and clever cartoons and illustrations. Throughout, they spotlight wonder women such as suffragists Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone, African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune and modern-day role models Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Organized into 12 sections, the book covers more than two centuries of history, and Sapunor’s dynamic, comics-inspired sketches help bring the past into focus. Rewinding to the American Revolution, when Abigail Adams famously counseled her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” at the Continental Congress, and progressing through the decades, Deaderick covers the ups and downs of the fight for equality in a style that’s lively and conversational. Her advice for women: “We shouldn’t look for leaders to save us. We make change together. We’re stronger together.”
Those are words to live by, and social-justice advocate Feminista Jones shows that women are doing just that in Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets. An update from the front lines of the fight for equality, Jones’ book explores how black women are coming together to make their voices heard. She explains that because the digital world has provided fresh, effective platforms for the expression of ideas, black women are now more visible and vocal than ever before. “Go to almost any social media platform today and you will see a gathering of some of the most important feminist thinkers of modern generations,” Jones writes. In this impassioned volume, she examines how black women are harnessing the power of the internet and using hashtags to bring awareness to issues such as self-worth, motherhood and sex. She also considers the roots of black feminism and takes a deep dive into the concept of black female identity. Featuring insights into her own story and conversations with other influencers, Jones’ book is a powerful call to action.
The ongoing need to move women out of the margins and into the mainstream lies at the heart of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. In tackling the topic of big data, Perez makes some startling discoveries. The numbers that impact everything from healthcare systems to workplace conditions and public transportation—figures that affect the day-to-day workings of society in countries around the world—are inherently biased, because they use men as a standard reference. Since women are left out of the equation, Perez says, data is discriminatory. “Most of recorded human history is one big data gap,” she writes, because “the lives of men have been taken to represent those of humans overall.” An activist, feminist and academic, Perez conducted scores of studies in Europe and the United States and presents an engaging account of her findings. By looking at the way women live today—as breadwinners and consumers, wives and mothers—she brings immediacy to what could have been a dry collection of figures. An invaluable study of a critical subject, Invisible Women powerfully demonstrates the dangers of biased data.
Female visibility is also emphasized in Women: Our Story, a comprehensive, impressively organized survey of the triumphs, achievements and differing ways of life for women across the globe. Organized by era, the book opens in prehistoric times and moves forward through the centuries. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching volume that takes stock of how women have shaped every aspect of society, from politics and religion to education and the arts. Along with standout graphics, the book is packed with photos, illustrations, vintage ads and other historical memorabilia. Featuring text by scholarly experts, it tells an epic story through brief sidebars and timelines, as well as substantive sections on the rise of feminism, women in the workforce, the lives of notable figures (Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Simone de Beauvoir—the list goes on) and what the future may hold for tomorrow’s reformers. As journalist Rebecca Boggs Roberts writes in the book’s foreword, “When we neglect women’s stories, we aren’t only depriving women and girls (and boys) of role models and empowering lessons; we are getting history wrong.” This spectacular retrospective gets it right.
The importance of looking back in order to move forward is underscored in Pamela S. Nadell’s America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. Spanning more than three centuries, it’s a compelling and well-researched chronicle of the women who worked behind the scenes and in the public eye to establish a place for Jewish women in this country. Nadell—a noted women’s history scholar—is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, and she imbues the book with urgency and personal insight. From the nation’s earliest Jewish women, who set up homes in Philadelphia, Charleston and New York in the 1700s, to groundbreakers like Emma Lazarus and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nadell looks at the shifting roles of Jewish women and their influence on American culture. As her research reveals, the meaning and significance of being Jewish has differed among women over the years, as some set their religious practice aside to pursue careers, while others maintained strict, orthodox households. Differences abound, Nadell writes, yet “one thing binds America’s Jewish women together: all have a share in the history of their collective American Jewish female past.” The contributions of these remarkable women shine in Nadell’s impressive book.
The centuries are rich with inspiring examples of female empowerment, including many a madam president. All Hail the Queen: Twenty Women Who Ruled showcases these lady leaders—notable stateswomen whose accomplishments were often eclipsed by those of men. Writer Shweta Jha contributed the text for this intriguing book, which tracks the careers of Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette, as well as those of less familiar figures, like Japanese ruler Himiko and Maya queen Lady Six Sky. Some were born monarchs; others achieved eminence through marriage. Nearly all of them—as is only fitting for a queen—led operatic existences filled with incident and spectacle. Jennifer Orkin Lewis’ lush, colorful artwork gives readers a sense of the time and place that produced each leader—and of what the lady herself might have looked like. “Had they followed the cultural norms of their times, they ought to have been quiet and unassertive,” Lewis writes of the female leaders. “Each and every one of them overcame those expectations and made her mark on the culture and people she ruled.” Perfectly suited to its subject matter, this regal volume has golden endpapers and a cover that sparkles. Here’s to the royal treatment—and here’s to women who make history.