The best books about women you’ve never heard of

Who am I?

There's magic in a book that opens a window to the lives of ordinary people who lived in a time and place very different from our own. That’s why I enjoy exploring these stories. The narratives of the famous are often polished to the point that all the odd edges of a delicious pea soup or a long trip in uncomfortable boots are worn away. But I love these little details: how certain boarding house rules meant women had no place to stay when Jack the Ripper was prowling, or how a journal might consist of rag paper with a hand-stitched binding. They show us a distant era, but also reinforce our common humanity.

I wrote...

Sensational: The Hidden History of America's "Girl Stunt Reporters"

By Kim Todd,

Book cover of Sensational: The Hidden History of America's "Girl Stunt Reporters"

What is my book about?

Sensational is a vivid history that brings to light the “girl stunt reporters” of the Gilded Age who went undercover to expose corruption and abuse in America—pioneers whose influence continues to be felt today.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century, women journalists across the United States risked reputation and safety to expose the hazardous conditions under which many Americans lived and worked. In various disguises, they stole into sewing factories to report on child labor, fainted in the streets to test public hospital treatment, posed as lobbyists to reveal corrupt politicians. Inventive writers whose in-depth narratives made headlines for weeks at a stretch, these “girl stunt reporters” changed laws, helped launch a labor movement, championed women’s rights, and redefined journalism for the modern age.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Why did I love this book?

Book of Ages brings to life a woman I didn’t know existed. It excavates the story of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, using her letters and the “Book of Ages” she kept, along with research into child-bearing, marriage, and education for women in the 1700s. Jane Franklin’s life was hard, and her writing was halting, unlike her brother’s polished prose. But still, her sentences are full of personality.

She wrote about kissing her children’s injuries because “The Litle Rogues all want to be Pityed by them that Loves them” and scolded Benjamin for his infrequent letters: “I See you do not forgit me tho I have so Long mourned the want of a line for your own hand to convince me of it.” Lepore immerses us in a whole busy world of Colonial America, one that both features quiet pleasures and shows the stark difference in opportunity available to women and men, even from the same family.

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Book of Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


NPR • Time Magazine • The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe


From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.

Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore…

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Why did I love this book?

One of my favorite things a book can do is offer to show me what I think know is wrong. Many readers passionate about history might think they understand the lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper in White Chapel in 1888. Weren’t they prostitutes? Well, no. In this masterful book, Hallie Rubenhold digs into true stories of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddows, and Mary Jane Kelly, shifting the focus from the killer who has gripped the public for more than a century, to his victims. She reveals complex women, invariably struggling, invariably poor, but deserving of being remembered for more than their wounds.

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth. Powerful and shaming' GUARDIAN

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but…

Book cover of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up

Why did I love this book?

Written by Chinese reporter and government critic Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker is based on interviews of those he met in prison: street singers, migrant workers, grave robbers. Yiwu’s subjects are of both sexes, but portraits of those like “the Yi District chief’s wife” and “the Falon Gong practitioner” introduce readers to memorable women. Not all the portrayals are sympathetic, but they shed a light on people who are in the margins--in some cases literally locked out of sight.

By Liao Yiwu,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Corpse Walker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Corpse Walker introduces us to regular men and women at the bottom of Chinese society, most of whom have been battered by life but have managed to retain their dignity: a professional mourner, a human trafficker, a public toilet manager, a leper, a grave robber, and a Falung Gong practitioner, among others. By asking challenging questions with respect and empathy, Liao Yiwu managed to get his subjects to talk openly and sometimes hilariously about their lives, desires, and vulnerabilities, creating a book that is an instance par excellence of what was once upon a time called “The New Journalism.”…

The Witch of Eye

By Kathryn Nuernberger,

Book cover of The Witch of Eye

Why did I love this book?

Different stylistically than the other books on the list, The Witch of Eye is a collection of lyric essays about those accused of witchcraft. In its pages, we meet Lisbet Nypan of Norway, who cured patients using a “ritual of salt” only to be put on trial in the late 1600s, and the German midwife Walpurga Hausmannin, who allegedly coupled with the devil in the clothes of the neighborhood corn farmer. The sentences are dense and hypnotic, transporting readers into fields and courtrooms. One essay begins by describing the language of magic: “You begin a spell with an invocation like Hear me or I beseech you or Oh friend or Listen.” Let yourself be drawn in.

By Kathryn Nuernberger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Witch of Eye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This amazingly wise and nimble collection investigates the horrors inflicted on so-called "witches" of the past. The Witch of Eye unearths salves, potions, and spells meant to heal, yet interpreted by inquisitors as evidence of evil. The author describes torture and forced confessions alongside accounts of gentleness of legendary midwives. In one essay about a trial, we learn through folklore that Jesus's mother was a midwife who cured her own son's rheumatism. In other essays there are subtle parallels to contemporary discourse around abortion and environmental destruction. Nuernberger weaves in her own experiences, too. There's an ironic look at her…

Book cover of Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

Why did I love this book?

You may have heard of Ida B. Wells, the fierce anti-lynching campaigner of the late-1800s and early 1900s, who used journalism to expose these crimes when many larger papers ignored them. Wells won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020 and was well-known in her day. But Crusade for Justice, her engaging autobiography, detailing conversations and the decisions behind her uncommon bravery, was only published in 1970, almost forty years after she died. And it was only re-released in 2020. Her story, and its recovery, is a reminder of how easily the most significant historical figures can be forgotten.

By Ida B. Wells,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Crusade for Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"She fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight, with the single-mindedness of a crusader, long before men or women of any race entered the arena; and the measure of success she achieved goes far beyond the credit she has been given in the history of the country."-Alfreda M. Duster

Ida B. Wells is an American icon of truth telling. Born to slaves, she was a pioneer of investigative journalism, a crusader against lynching, and a tireless advocate for suffrage, both for women and for African Americans. She co-founded the NAACP, started the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, and was a…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the working class, Boston, and China?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the working class, Boston, and China.

The Working Class Explore 84 books about the working class
Boston Explore 154 books about Boston
China Explore 549 books about China