Three Biographies of Incredible Women You Should Read

Well, my break from editing is over, and now I’m back at it full-time, which is AWESOME. It does, however, mean that my reading progress has slowed down a bit. That being said, I’ve got some incredible books going right now. While I haven’t finished reading these three, I am in love with them all, and I really think everyone should read them. Especially if you are interested in powerful women in history.

As always, when I finish these books I will write up my full review. For now, here are a few books I am enjoying. I think you should read them.

About the Book

From the very beginning, she was a radical. At age nineteen, Charlotte Cushman, America’s beloved actress and the country’s first true celebrity, left her life—and countless suitors—behind to make it as a Shakespearean actress. After revolutionizing the role of Lady Macbeth in front of many adoring fans, she went on the road, performing in cities across a dividing America and building her fame. She was everywhere. And yet, her name has faded in the shadows of history.

Now, for the first time in decades, Cushman’s story comes to full and brilliant life in this definitive, exhilarating, and enlightening biography of the 19th-century icon. With rarely seen letters, Wojczuk reconstructs the formative years of Cushman’s life, set against the excitement and drama of New York City in the 1800s, featuring a cast of luminaries and revolutionaries that changed the cultural landscape of America forever.

A vivid portrait of an astonishing and uniquely American life, Lady Romeo reveals one of the most remarkable women in United States history, and restores her to the center stage where she belongs.

Published on June 9, 2020
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Why I like it

This is a really well written account of a woman I have never heard of before. It’s a bit offbeat, a little colorful, and really engrossing. Cushman was a powerful, popular celebrity in her time. She was also openly queer, and had a wife (though she didn’t call her that) named Emma. Her storied career really managed to change a lot of American culture at a time when the nation itself was just a baby. She redefined celebrity, and altered a lot of the popular landscape. The author takes us through Cushman’s life, from her childhood and on. Detailing not just her personal evolution as she grew and developed into who she became, she also explores a bit of the cultural evolution of this fledgling nation, and Cushman’s powerful place in it.

Not only is this a fascinating book, but there aren’t enough books written about powerful queer historical woman, and I am really enjoying this one.

About the Book

In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”

This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman–rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg–who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill’s “ministry of ungentlemanly warfare,” and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France.

Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the “Madonna of the Resistance,” coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had “more lives to save,” she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell’s signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importanceis the breathtaking story of how one woman’s fierce persistence helped win the war. 

Published on April 9, 2019
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Why I like it

I’ve been on hold for this book forever. It’s wildly popular and there is good reason for that. It’s FASCINATING. I mean, unforgettably put-your-ass-in-the-chair gripping. Virginia Hall was a woman who is still wrapped in mystery, but she transformed espionage, and managed to go where no one dared go before her. Disabled and determined, she powered through all the barriers set before her and blazed a trail through World War II, becoming one of the most pivotal, and unknown transformative figures of the era.

What’s not to love about that?

The writing is superb, and I can really tell that the author had a passion and devotion for her craft. In the introduction, she talks a bit about how much work it was to get what information she could get, including going through nine levels of clearance, and even then a lot of the documents were apparently missing or misplaced. There’s still a lot about Virginia Hall we don’t know, but what we do know fills this book and it is… WOW.

About the Book

Romantic Outlaws is the first book to tell the story of the passionate and pioneering lives of Mary Wollstonecraft – English feminist and author of the landmark book, The Vindication of the Rights of Women – and her novelist daughter Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Although mother and daughter, these two brilliant women never knew one another – Wollstonecraft died of an infection in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, a week after giving birth. Nevertheless their lives were so closely intertwined, their choices, dreams and tragedies so eerily similar, it seems impossible to consider one without the other.

Both women became famous writers; fell in love with brilliant but impossible men; and were single mothers who had children out of wedlock; both lived in exile; fought for their position in society; and thought deeply about how we should live. And both women broke almost every rigid convention there was to break: Wollstonecraft chased pirates in Scandinavia. Shelley faced down bandits in Naples. Wollstonecraft sailed to Paris to witness the Revolution. Shelley eloped in a fishing boat with a married man. Wollstonecraft proclaimed that women’s liberty should matter to everyone.

Not only did Wollstonecraft declare the rights of women, her work ignited Romanticism. She inspired Coleridge, Wordsworth and a whole new generation of writers, including her own daughter, who – with her young lover Percy Shelley – read Wollstonecraft’s work aloud by her graveside. At just nineteen years old and a new mother herself, Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein whilst travelling around Italy with Percy and roguish Lord Byron (who promptly fathered a child by Mary’s stepsister). It is a seminal novel, exploring the limitations of human nature and the power of invention at a time of great religious and scientific upheaval. Moreover, Mary Shelley would become the editor of her husband’s poetry after his early death – a feat of scholarship that did nothing less than establish his literary reputation.

Romantic Outlaws brings together a pair of visionary women who should have shared a life, but who instead shared a powerful literary and feminist legacy. This is inventive, illuminating, involving biography at its best.

Published on April 28, 2015
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Why I like it

I don’t know a whole lot about Mary Shelley, and my knowledge, before reading this book, of Mary Wollstonecraft was “who is that?”. That being said, this book might be one of my favorite biographies I’ve ever read. If it’s not my favorite, it’s seriously up there in my top five. It’s that good. Each chapter alternates between Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, flipping back and forth. Thus, while this is a biography of two women, you get to read about each woman at roughly the same age in each chapter, which is an interesting comparison.

Both Marys were revolutionary thinkers of their time. Both had children out of wedlock. Both of them. really wanted to reassess the role of women in society, and both of them had opinions and stuck to them.

Their stories are told with a lot of social context, which makes everything so much more powerful. You see Mary Wollstonecraft’s abusive childhood, and how that impacted her relationships with people and her perspective of women in society. You see Mary Shelley’s helplessness and frustration when her role in the family unit was subverted by a stepmother who really didn’t like her. You see how all of this created the sort of formative, society-defying thinkers that paved the way for so many others in their days.

Fantastic writing, a care for detail and nuance, and a subject that is not only interesting, but important and still relevant today, this book is really one that I cannot recommend highly enough.


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