The best new biographies of American suffragists

The Books I Picked & Why

Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

By Kimberly A. Hamlin

Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

Why this book?

Helen Hamilton Gardener secured crucial support from leading politicians in Washington, DC for the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Despite her significance, few know the story of her exciting and controversial life. Fortunately, Kimberly Hamlin tells Gardener’s dramatic story in her book Free Thinker. Born Alice Chenoweth in 1853, she had to leave her job as a teacher in Ohio after an affair with a married school commissioner in 1876. She adopted the name Helen Hamilton Gardener and a range of modern ideas: women’s rights, opposition to the sexual double standard, and freethought. Gardener eventually became the highest-ranking female official in the federal government by the time of her death in 1925. Free Thinker provides a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics that led to the 19th Amendment’s ratification.


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Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement

By Cathleen D. Cahill

Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement

Why this book?

Too often textbooks and documentaries recount the stories of white women who fought for the vote, but Cathleen Cahill’s Recasting the Vote spotlights six women of color who led the movement. Yes, I know, Cahill’s book isn’t a traditional biography of one figure, but I promise this collective biography offers a thought-provoking look at their remarkable lives. The book highlights three Native American women who fought for gender equality and for Native American rights: Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša), and Laura Cornelius Kellogg. Black activist Carrie Williams Clifford, Chinese-American suffragist and scholar Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Adelina Nina Luna Otero-Warren (of Spanish descent) are featured alongside them. Recasting the Vote tells a fresh story of the suffrage movement that you don’t want to miss.


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Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

By Alison M. Parker

Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

Why this book?

Unceasing Militant is the first-ever biography of Mary Church Terrell, a prominent activist who fought for gender and racial equality. She lived a long, noteworthy life. Terrell was born enslaved in 1863 and died in 1954 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools. She was among the first Black American women to complete a BA and an MA, and she became the first president of the National Association of Colored women in 1896. Terrell was a popular speaker, and--just like some of us--she also loved to wear fashionable hats and clothes. Terrell picketed the White House with suffragists in 1917 and picketed against segregation even when she was in her 80s! Alison Parker captures her fascinating life in this essential new biography.


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Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

By Anya Jabour

Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

Why this book?

You might be surprised to learn that some prominent suffrage leaders had intimate relationships with women, including Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams. However, some of these women destroyed their papers to make it difficult for historians to learn about their personal lives (ahem, Anthony and Addams). Scholars are in the process of recovering these stories as much as possible, and Anya Jabour’s Sophonsiba Breckenridge gives us an amazing glimpse into one woman’s experiences. Born in 1868, Breckinridge became one of the first American women to earn a PhD in Political Science. She was a prominent social worker, peace activist, and women’s rights activist until she died in 1948. Breckinridge navigated the spotlight and same-sex relationships, and Jabour tells us how she did it.


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Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells

By Michelle Duster

Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells

Why this book?

You’ve probably heard of icon Ida B. Wells, but how much do you really know about her life? Wells actually knew Mary Church Terrell, and Terrell’s father even provided Wells with early financial support. Wells was a journalist who led the fight against the lynching of Black people. She left the South and moved to Chicago after white supremacists destroyed her newspaper office. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to advance the political interests of local Black women and marched in the first national suffrage parade in Washington, DC. In the beautifully illustrated Ida B. The Queen, Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, tells Wells’s life story. Duster details Wells’s place in current popular culture and the legacy of her social justice activism that still inspires us today.


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