It’s not every day that you finish a book and are inspired to be a braver person, but we guarantee that the books on this list will compel you to do just that. The women highlighted here struggled through a range of challenges, including poverty, racism, and sexism, but they faced the hardships head on and became people we can all aspire to be. Their stories are sure to embolden you and provoke engaging conversation within your reading group.
Life Undercover by Amaryllis Fox
“Fast and thrilling . . . Life Undercover reads as if a John le Carré character landed in Eat Pray Love.” —The New York Times
Amaryllis Fox was in her last year as an undergraduate at Oxford studying theology and international law when her writing mentor Daniel Pearl was captured and beheaded. Galvanized by this brutality, Fox applied to a master’s program in conflict and terrorism at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where she created an algorithm that predicted, with uncanny certainty, the likelihood of a terrorist cell arising in any village around the world. At twenty-one, she was recruited by the CIA. Amaryllis Fox’s riveting memoir tells the story of her ten years in the most elite clandestine ops unit of the CIA, hunting the world’s most dangerous terrorists in sixteen countries while marrying and giving birth to a daughter. Life Undercover is exhilarating, intimate, fiercely intelligent–an impossible to put down record of an extraordinary life, and of Amaryllis Fox’s astonishing courage and passion.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron de Hart
“In a revealing new biography, 15 years in the making, Jane Sherron De Hart helps untangle the mystery of the decorous Ginsburg as feminist gladiator.” —The Atlantic
In this comprehensive, revelatory biography historian Jane Sherron De Hart explores the central experiences that crucially shaped Ginsburg’s passion for justice, her advocacy for gender equality, and her meticulous jurisprudence. Ruth’s journey begins with her mother, who died tragically young but whose intellect inspired her daughter’s feminism. It stretches from Ruth’s days as a baton twirler at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School to Cornell University to Harvard and Columbia Law Schools; to becoming one of the first female law professors in the country and having to fight for equal pay and hide her second pregnancy to avoid losing her job; to becoming the director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and arguing momentous anti-sex discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. All this, even before being nominated in 1993 to become the second woman on the Court, where her crucial decisions and dissents are still making history.
“A must-read…. Slevin treats [the First Lady] and her accomplishments with the detail and nuance they deserve.” —Elle Magazine
This is the inspiring story of a modern American icon, the first comprehensive account of the life and times of Michelle Obama. With disciplined reporting and a storyteller’s eye for revealing detail, Peter Slevin follows Michelle to the White House from her working-class childhood on Chicago’s largely segregated South Side. He illuminates her tribulations at Princeton University and Harvard Law School during the racially charged 1980s and the dilemmas she faced in Chicago while building a high-powered career, raising a family, and helping a young community organizer named Barack Obama become president of the United States.
“Disarmingly candid and immensely readable…an invaluable inside glimpse of the most critical turning points in American journalism.” —Time
Graham’s book is populated with a cast of fascinating characters, from fifty years of presidents (and their wives), to Steichen, Brancusi, Felix Frankfurter, Warren Buffett (her great advisor and protector), Robert McNamara, George Schultz (her regular tennis partner), and, of course, the great names from the Washington Post: Woodward, Bernstein, and Graham’s editor partner, Ben Bradlee. She writes of them, and of the most dramatic moments of her stewardship of the Washington Post (including the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the pressmen’s strike), with acuity, humor, and good judgment. Her book is about learning by doing, about growing and growing up, about Washington, and about a woman liberated by both circumstance and her own great strengths.
“A wonderful and poignant book…. [Kanfer] gives a superb picture of how [Lucille Ball] changed television.” —David Thompson, The New Republic
As a movie actress Lucille Ball was, in her own words, “queen of the B-pluses.” But on the small screen she was a superstar—arguably the funniest and most enduring in the history of TV. In this exemplary biography, Stefan Kanfer explores the roots of Lucy’s genius and places it in the context of her conflicted and sometimes bitter personal life. Ball of Fire gives us Lucy in all her contradictions. Here is the beauty who became a master of knock-down slapstick; the control freak whose comic alter ego thrived on chaos, the worshipful TV housewife whose real marriage ended in public disaster. Here, too, is an intimate view of the dawn of television and of the America that embraced it.
“Delightful and ebulliently written…. Her joy just about jumps off the books pages.” —The Christian Science Monitor
Julia Child singlehandedly created a new approach to American cuisine with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, but as she reveals in this bestselling memoir, she was not always a master chef. Indeed, when she first arrived in France in 1948 with her husband, Paul, who was to work for the United States Investigations Service, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she immersed herself in French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever with her newfound passion for cooking and teaching. Julia’s unforgettable story—struggles with the head of the Cordon Bleu, rejections from publishers to whom she sent her now-famous cookbook, a wonderful, nearly fifty-year long marriage that took them across the globe—unfolds with the spirit so key to her success as a chef and a writer, brilliantly capturing one of the most endearing American personalities of the last fifty years.
“Jane Franklin’s indomitable voice and hungry, searching intellect shine through these pages; she will not be forgotten, and the world is richer for it.” —Time Magazine, Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year
From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth, but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator. Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one extraordinary woman but an entire world.
“This is a page-turner, beautifully written and novelistic in its tale of family, love and triumph. It hums with hope and exhilaration. This is a story of human triumph.” —Nina Totenberg, NPR
The first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor has become an instant American icon. Now, with a candor and intimacy never undertaken by a sitting Justice, she recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, a journey that offers an inspiring testament to her own extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.
“Desert Queen, as timely as today’s headlines, plucks Gertrude Bell out of the shadow of Lawrence of Arabia.” —The Boston Globe
Turning away from the privileged world of the “eminent Victorians,” Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T. E. Lawrence’s brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire.