The best books on 19th-century women’s rights activists who weren’t Susan B. Anthony

Who am I?

My expertise: I specialize in writing about scrappy women in American history. I started with a trilogy of nonfiction history books about American women in the Philippine Islands who lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II. Then I found a biographical subject that combined the fascinating topics of war and suffrage, so I wrote Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights. The next woman who grabbed my attention was a big name in Hollywood in the 20th century. Queen of the West: The Life and Times of Dale Evans is due out in 2022. 

I wrote...

Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights

By Theresa Kaminski,

Book cover of Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War: One Woman's Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women's Rights

What is my book about?

In late 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Walker the Medal of Honor in recognition of the incomparable medical service she rendered to the United States Army during the Civil War. To date, she remains the only woman so honored. After the war, Walker joined the more well-known Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their efforts to secure support for women’s suffrage. But due to conflicts over ideology and tactics, the doctor soon found herself unwelcome in the movement. Walker quickly became a divisive figure, and her contributions almost disappeared to history.

The books I picked & why

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Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

By Nell Irwin Painter,

Book cover of Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

Why this book?

Most people who’ve heard of Sojourner Truth known her only as the Black woman who famously asked a group of white women’s rights supporters, “Ar’n’t I a woman?” Historian Painter brilliantly examines the speech Truth delivered in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 and unravels the real story behind it. Painter reveals the life of a remarkable woman who threw off the shackles of her enslavement to become one of the 19th century’s most powerful speakers on gender and racial rights.

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography

By Elaine Showalter,

Book cover of The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography

Why this book?

Howe is best known for writing the song that inspired countless Northerners during the Civil War, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Showalter pulls back the curtain on Howe’s life to reveal a woman stuck in a bad marriage with a stifling husband, overwhelmed by childbearing and rearing. Howe took up writing, first completing a novel before turning to poetry. She embraced the abolitionist movement and after the Civil War--after writing her most famous work--focused her energy on women’s rights, serving as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association.

Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life

By Sally G. McMillen,

Book cover of Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life

Why this book?

With all the research skills of a historian, McMillen pulled together fascinating information to show that Lucy Stone deserves recognition as a founder of the women’s rights movement right along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stone risked her reputation to become a public speaker on the topics of slavery and abolition and women’s rights (it wasn’t considered appropriate for a woman to talk in front of audiences). Her dedication to securing rights for the newly freed enslaved people after the Civil War caused a break with Anthony and Stanton, which resulted in her near-erasure from the history of the postwar women’s suffrage movement.

Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull

By Barbara Goldsmith,

Book cover of Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull

Why this book?

Goldsmith vividly recreates the life and times of Woodhull, a shrewd manipulator who traded on her physical beauty and her intellect to run a successful brokerage firm after the Civil War. Woodhull, along with her sister Tennessee Claflin, used some of her profits to publish a women’s rights newspaper that supported suffrage and other women’s rights causes. Stanton and Anthony, initially intrigued by her keen business sense and her suffrage commitment, soon shunned her for her radical views on sexuality. Woodhull pushed all sorts of boundaries designed to contain women, even political ones--she ran for president in 1872.

The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

By Dorothy Wickenden,

Book cover of The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights

Why this book?

Wickenden’s three agitating friends were Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward, and Martha Coffin Wright, women who likely first connected through their work on the underground railroad. Of this estimable trio, Tubman remains the most well-known to history as the formerly enslaved woman who regularly risked her life to guide enslaved people out of bondage before and during the Civil War. Seward, the wife of Lincoln’s secretary of state, used her wealth and power to fight for the rights of Blacks and women. Wright, a Quaker, was the sister of Lucretia Mott, and the two of them helped plan the first women’s rights conference, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Wickenden skillfully excavates existing source material to craft this compelling group biography.

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