The best books about women you’ve never heard of

The Books I Picked & Why

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Why 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.


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

By Hallie Rubenhold

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

Why 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.


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

By Liao Yiwu

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

Why 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.


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The Witch of Eye

By Kathryn Nuernberger

The Witch of Eye

Why 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.


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Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

By Ida B. Wells

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells

Why 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.


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