I love, love, love reading historical women’s biographies. They’re history, art, science, anthropology, and gender study all in one convenient little package. I wouldn’t consider myself an ardent student of women’s studies, and in fact avoided the admirable Women’s Studies Department at my college like the plague, but reading about women and how they’ve been portrayed in and how they’ve adapted to society over hundreds or thousands of years is, quite possibly, the thing I enjoy the most about being an avid reader.
Do you like art, history, society, and women too? Then you might enjoy these books (all the links go to the book’s GoodReads profile):
American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante It calls itself “The Dramatic Story of America’s Founding Mother,” and while the story is little-known and indeed dramatic, there is so much to Anne Hutchinson’s life — her philosophy, her religion, her social ideas — than can be contained in one volume such as this. What this is is a bare introduction to proto–Colonial New England society, with all its attendant issues and intrigues, that just whets the appetite for more. The story of Hutchinson is clearly, cleanly, and very well told. Do no blame me if you suddenly find yourself wanting to reread The Scarlet Letter.
Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel We all know about Galileo, right? And how he was a scientist in Renaissance Italy, and he said he thought the Earth revolved around the Sun, not vice versa, and the Pope got mad at him? But I’ll bet no one knows the name of Suor Maria Celeste, born Virginia Galilei, until they have read Galileo’s Daughter — and then her name will be written in your heart. Committed by her father to a convent near Florence at age 13, Maria Celeste kept up a voluminous correspondence with her father that illuminates not only her own intelligence — a rival to his own — but also the mental and spiritual struggles Galileo endured as a result of his quite-literally-Earth-shattering scientific work and his conflicts with the Church through the end of his life, and the comfort and support which Maria Celeste gave him in his darkest hours.
Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster by Alison Weir My especial favorite! Katherine de Roet sits at the root of an enormous and powerful family tree, and Weir’s work as a documentary historian shines here in her reconstruction of Katherine’s life and times. Through her life-long love affair with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Katherine gave birth to the Royal Houses of York, Tudor, and Stuart, and her descendants continue to shape the world stage today. And yet we know so little about Katherine, and much of what Weir puts forth here is very well-informed conjecture. But she lays out her proofs and her documents with a clear purpose and says with confidence what she can in all fairness say, points out where she disagrees with other historians and why, and admits when the evidence is sketchy and she’s building puzzle pieces as she goes.
Mistress of the Vatican: The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope by Eleanor Herman As a young girl she barely escaped the cloister; as a woman, she dominated the ear of Pope Innocent X and as much as ran the Papal States — to her own ends, of course. Olimpia’s life was chock full of adventure and intrigue, and Olimpia herself was full to bursting with life and vitality, and it shows in this lush bio by Eleanor Herman. Here was a woman who wasn’t about to let life (and men) tell her what to do, SHE told THEM. Do I think she was her brother-in-law’s mistress? In the sexual way, a resounding No; but in the social way, an emphatic Yes. She knew her social powers and was not afraid to use them in any way that would keep her secure and protected. Herman’s prose paints vivid pictures of Olimpia, the Papal Court, and the influence Olimpia held over the Papacy and therefore over all of Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, for she who holds the purse-strings controls the world.
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The Tragedy of Katherine, Mary and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle Speaking of women controlling the world… Many people know the name of Lady Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen,” so called because her reign, if it could be called a proper reign, lasted only 9 days. De Lisle’s biography of the three Grey sisters turns the traditional view of Jane Grey and her sisters on its head — instead of as victims, it paints Jane, Katherine, and Mary as rebels and real women who were very clearly aware not only of their power, but of what they could do with it. Being a woman with royal blood in her veins — and her uterus — made these girls into dynastic pawns. Not for them stable lives and love matches. Jane, the oldest sister, was Edward I’s legitimate heir by the terms of his will, and she knew she had a legal leg to stand on — even though she wound up on the block for her troubles. She was in the right, but the Tudor side simply had more brawn. If things had gone differently for the Grey sisters, the last 500 years would have looked radically different and even today, we’d be living with the aftereffects of Jane, the First Queen of England. It is time we saw Jane Grey and her sisters through a proper lens — contrary to degrading the three women, de Lisle’s work lifts them up to their proper places as women and royals.