March is National Women’s History Month. As we were thinking about the many women who shaped our world, we browsed our biography section and picked out some titles currently on our shelves featuring women from different historic periods. Some of these women are household names, while others are largely forgotten, but all of them lived (and in one case, is still living) a fascinating life worth reading about.
THE WOMAN WHO WOULD BE KING: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney
Hatshepsut—the daughter of a general who usurped Egypt’s throne and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty—was born into a privileged position in the royal household, and she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her improbable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just over twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of pharaoh in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays in the veil of piety and sexual reinvention. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut shrewdly operated the levers of power to emerge as Egypt’s second female pharaoh.
Hatshepsut successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her monuments were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her unprecedented rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.
MARY BOLEYN: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir
New York Times bestselling author and noted British historian Alison Weir gives us the first full-scale, in-depth biography of Mary Boleyn, sister to Queen Anne as well as mistress to Anne’s husband, Henry VIII—and one of the most misunderstood figures of the Tudor age. Making use of extensive original research, Weir shares revelations on the ambitious Boleyn family and the likely nature of the relationship between the Boleyn sisters. Unraveling the truth about Mary’s much-vaunted notoriety at the French court and her relations with King François I, Weir also explores Mary’s role at the English court and how she became Henry VIII’s lover. She tracks the probable course of their affair and investigates the truth behind Mary’s notorious reputation. With new and compelling evidence, Weir presents the most conclusive answer to date on the paternity of Mary’s children, long speculated to have been Henry VIII’s progeny. Alison Weir pieces together a life steeped in mystery and misfortune, debunking centuries-old myths to give us the truth about Mary Boleyn, the so-called “great and infamous whore.”
ROSE KENNEDY: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch by Barbara A. Perry
In her compelling and intimate portrait, presidential historian Barbara A. Perry captures Rose Kennedy’s essential contributions to the incomparable Kennedy dynasty. This biography—the first to draw on an invaluable cache of Rose’s newly released diaries and letters—unearths the complexities behind the impeccable persona she showed the world. The woman who emerges in these pages is a fascinating character: savvy about her family’s reputation and resilient enough to persevere through the unfathomable tragedies that befell her. As a young woman, she defied her father, Boston mayor John Fitzgerald, by marrying ambitious businessman Joseph Kennedy. During Joe’s diplomatic career, she began carefully calibrating her family’s image, stage-managing photo shoots and interviews of her nine children and herself. After husband Joe’s isolationist views on the eve of World War II made him a political liability, Rose took to the campaign trail for son Jack. Her perfectionism, initially a response to the strictures imposed on Catholic women, ultimately created a family portrait that resonated in modern politics and media.
THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore
Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history.
Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights—a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later. Sure, she’s fictional, but through her story the lives of real women in the 20th century is revealed.
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor tobacco farmer whose cells – taken without her knowledge in 1951 – became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells as riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.
I AM MALALA by Malala Yousafzai
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education.
On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive. Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she became a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize. I AM MALALA is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.
This list is by no means comprehensive! There are thousands of fascinating histories, memoirs, and works of fiction out there starring the women who made history.