Putting my two girls to bed is a task that usually consists largely of about an hour of me lying on my bed browsing on my phone and periodically yelling at them to put their pajamas on and brush their teeth, and tonight was no different. As usual I was on the Reddit app, scrolling through my feed, when a post from a book recommendation subreddit caught my eye. In honor of President’s Day, one intrepid user had typed up a massive post listing the past 44 Presidents of the United States and, for each, one or more biography recommendations. There was really nothing remarkable about this post, save perhaps its length, but for some reason it really stuck in my craw. For starters, just a few weeks ago (around Martin Luther King Day) I came to the (obvious, I realize, yet long overdue) realization that we have not a single federal holiday devoted to a woman. And to be honest I have half a mind to give my girls a school holiday on Sally Ride’s birthday and tell the school exactly what I’m doing. (It’s May 26th, by the way, which sounds like a perfect playground day to me.) Anyway, this post just kind of irked me for no particular reason, and it seemed like the most sensible thing to do would be to ignore my to-do list and sink full of dishes and respond with my own post of biographies of the First Ladies.
I quickly realized that was probably not a category rife with bestsellers, and instead armed myself with a list of notable woman from the presidential eras of history and took to Amazon to compile my bibliography. My criteria were pretty simple – for each of the women, attempt to find an Amazon listing for a book with at least, say, 100 reviews (usually a good indication of a book worth checking out), that could serve as a representation of more information about that woman and her life’s work. I quickly came to a couple of really disheartening realizations:
1. HOLY SHIT THERE ARE NO BIOGRAPHIES ABOUT WOMEN AVAILABLE.
NO LIKE REALLY.
Ok some of the women I was looking for might be a bit obscure, or niche figures, or ok maybe there’s just not a lot of info about Mary Lacy or Ka’ahumanu. But then I got to like…Susan B. Anthony. Do you know there are no books on Amazon about Susan B. Anthony with more than, like, 4 reviews? Ditto Clara Barton. Elizabeth Blackwell. Margaret Mead. The lesser-known and non-white women on my list didn’t stand a chance.
I also tweaked my criteria a bit. A few things to clarify:
-I was not looking for kids books. There were actually usually a few kids books in each category, and that’s super great and I encourage that and want our schoolchildren to continue the time-honored tradition of dressing up like characters from history and writing half-plagiarized reports about them. But I was looking for books an adult could sink their teeth into, ones thorough and decent enough that more than a book club’s worth of people had read and liked them.
-I also do not want your crappy books about a woman AND the man who shared in her accomplishments. Keep your coattails, thanks.
-Also thank you for all your cute and fun compilation books about Gutsy Women! and Famous Broads!, and Sciency Women Who Do Science, and Great Dames and Ladies Who Were Badass and whatever, but we can do better. We don’t all need to be crammed into fun anthologies aimed only at girlz. We can fill our own books, thanks.
2. My second big realization of the night: in the cases where I was finding biographies about women that had been well received? Overwhelmingly, those women had to write the fucking book themselves.
Now around this time I’m going to anticipate a couple of things you may be thinking such as:
–Well maybe YOU should write a biography of a woman! Let me tell you I am not ruling that out at this point, because apparently the field is wide open.
–Well actually the thing is there isn’t a lot of information about these women because blah blah blah and during their lifetime they weren’t appreciated etc. and honestly you can save your breath because I know a lot more has been done with a lot less and if Barbara Tuchman can write a biography about a man literally from the dark ages you can cobble together a book about Emmy Noether.
-Also don’t @ me with the really interesting book you read about a woman because I know they exist, and they’re the exception that proves the rule. What I’m talking about is an apparent lack of substantive, definitive books about women I mistakenly thought were cultural icons and therefore must have already been attacked with the same gusto as Alexander Hamilton, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill and every Civil War general ever.
By the time I had exhausted my list of women, let me tell you I was damn near tears. But just in case, I started running down the list of presidents and punching their names into Amazon, and all I can say is thank god for Martin Van Buren because he was the first president I ran into who didn’t have multiple well-reviewed books about him available. Apparently no one cares about him either. The afterlife probably relegated him to “girl heaven” with all the dullards like Nellie Bly, the Dahomey Amazons, Babe Didrickson and Grace Hopper, who was a pioneer of computer programming and still has fewer books written about her than Millard fucking Filmore.
On second thought go ahead and send me any recommendations you have and I’ll add them to my list. Here’s what I have so far. I haven’t actually read any of these as the point of my original list was to gather ideas for future reading.
Bird Woman (Sacajawea): The Guide of Lewis and Clark by James Willard Schultz – still managed to cram two men into the title, didn’t you JAMES
Florence Nightingale: A Life Inspired by Lynn M. Hamilton
Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People by Sarah Bradford – “Maybe if we mention a man in the title, men might accidentally read it”
My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst – colon, I Wrote It My Damn Self
Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly – not technically a biography but I’m counting it
Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia – this woman is so badass she needs two colons and they STILL FELT THE NEED TO NAME DROP A MAN
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller – colon I’m Blind and Deaf and Still Wrote It My Damn Self
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt by – shocker – Eleanor Roosevelt
Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last by Mike Campbell – I would proceed with caution here because I’m extremely unsure if this is a biography or just Mike “Mansplaining” Campbell giving us his conspiracy theories about her disappearance.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portrait by Carlos Fuentes – how is it both of those things and yet also somehow written by a man?
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks – with additional reporting by Rosa Parks
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu – “The best way to get people to read about women is to make them sound like Barbie dolls, right?”
Janis: Her Life and Music by Holly George-Warren
First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas
Diana: Her True Story — in Her Own Words by Andrew Morton
Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr
What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey – I don’t think this counts as a biography but I have a migraine
I also want to throw in shoutouts to:
-one of my favorite websites, amightygirl.com, which actually has TONS of recommendations for both nonfiction and fiction books about strong, interesting women and is an amazing resource. It is mostly geared toward kids and teens but 1. who doesn’t love a good YA read and 2. there are lots of books that overlap with adult reading as well.
– Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions and Heretics by Jason Porath. Yeah, it’s one of those crappy compilations but holy shit, it’s chock full of really fun, inspiring stories of women from a wide variety of time periods, cultures, and ethnicities each one of which could easily have her own fascinating book.