The best biographies about American women activists

Who am I?

I have always been drawn to biographies. Individual stories make the past personal. Biographies also transcend the usual boundaries of time and topic, illuminating multiple issues across an individual’s entire life course. I’m especially interested in feminist biography—not just biographies of feminists, but biographies that combine the personal and the political, showing how individuals’ personal experiences and intimate relationships shaped their professional choices and political careers. I also enjoy group biographies, especially when they weave multiple stories together to illuminate many facets of shared themes. Ideally, a great biography will introduce a reader to an interesting individual (or group of people) whose story illuminates important themes in their lifetime.

I wrote...

Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

By Anya Jabour,

Book cover of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

What is my book about?

Sophonisba Breckinridge's remarkable career stretched from the Civil War to the Cold War. She took part in virtually every reform campaign of the Progressive and New Deal eras and became a nationally and internationally renowned figure. After earning advanced degrees in politics, economics, and law, Breckinridge established the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, which became a feminist think tank that promoted public welfare policy and propelled women into leadership positions.

In 1935, Breckinridge’s unremitting efforts to provide government aid to the dispossessed culminated in her appointment as an advisor on programs for the new Social Security Act. A longtime activist in international movements for peace and justice, Breckinridge also influenced the formation of the United Nations and advanced the idea that "women’s rights are human rights." Her lifelong commitment to social justice created a lasting legacy for generations of progressive activists.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas

By Helen Horowitz,

Book cover of The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas

Why this book?

M. Carey Thomas is an excellent example of the generation of “new women”: a cohort of mostly well-to-do white women who pursued higher education and professional careers at the turn of the century. Thomas, thwarted in her ambitions by gender discrimination in the United States, traveled to Europe to pursue higher education and became one of the first American women to earn a Ph.D., in 1882. She subsequently became the president of a women’s college, Bryn Mawr College. Thomas also was a dedicated feminist, advocating for both women’s suffrage and an equal rights amendment. The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas exemplifies feminist biography by placing her career in the context of her personal life. Helen Horowitz highlights her long-term romantic relationship with philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Garrett, who used her fortune to promote Thomas’s career and to advance educational opportunities for women.

Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

By Annelise Orleck,

Book cover of Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

Why this book?

Common Sense and a Little Fire is a group biography of four Jewish immigrant women who became important leaders in the labor movement and the New Deal: Rose Schneiderman, Fannia Cohn, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and Pauline Newman.  Building on their shared experiences growing up in New York City’s Lower East Side, these women challenged sexism in the labor movement and classism in the suffrage movement and became leaders in “industrial feminism,” which fused labor organizing and feminist activism. Annelise Orleck skillfully weaves together a variety of sources, including interviews with the women, as well as the women’s life stories to produce a compelling new history of working women’s activism.

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

By Cathleen D. Cahill,

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

Why this book?

Recasting the Vote retells the familiar story of the movement for women’s suffrage with a new cast of characters and an expanded set of goals. Focusing on Indigenous, African American, Hispanic, and Asian American activists, Cathleen Cahill places the fight for women’s voting rights within the context of BIPOC communities’ struggles for self-determination. For these women, the battle for women’s suffrage was connected to protests against lynching and segregation and demands for tribal self-government and freedom of religion, among other issues. By highlighting the work of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa), Laura Cornelius Kellogg, Carrie Williams Clifford, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Adelina Nina Luna Otero-Warren, Recasting the Vote demonstrates that the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment was neither the beginning nor the end of women of color’s struggle for equal citizenship.

Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics

By Susan Ware,

Book cover of Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics

Why this book?

Susan Ware, who describes herself as a serial biographer, is a champion of feminist biography. I like this one so much because she so forthrightly acknowledges the importance of Mary W. Dewson’s partnership with Polly Porter in her wide-ranging activism, which included “Minimum Wage Dewson’s” battle for a living wage and “More Women Dewson’s” campaign to appoint women to prominent positions in the New Deal administration. Not to be missed are the wonderful images from the “Porter-Dewson” scrapbook, including the women’s photographs with their beloved canine companions. In addition to highlighting the couple’s personal relationship and political activism, Partner and I is one of a small (but growing) handful of studies that highlight women’s continuing activism after the successful achievement of women’s suffrage.

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

By Katherine Mellen Charron,

Book cover of Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

Why this book?

Freedom’s Teacher traces the lifelong activism of South Carolina-born Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987), a public school teacher who developed a citizenship training program that empowered African Americans to register for the vote and cast their ballots. I love this book because it highlights African American women’s essential, if often overlooked, role in the “long Civil Rights Movement.” For instance, Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops shortly before launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In addition, Charron’s study calls attention to the importance of education as a tool for activism.

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