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

The Books I Picked & Why

Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

By Nell Irwin Painter

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.


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The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography

By Elaine Showalter

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.


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Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life

By Sally G. McMillen

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.


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

By Barbara Goldsmith

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.


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

By Dorothy Wickenden

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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