The best stories on American women’s lives from the American Revolution to the late 19th Century

Janet Farrell Brodie Author Of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America
By Janet Farrell Brodie

Who am I?

I have loved these five books for many years. I used them often in college history classes and students always loved them, too. We learn much about women’s lives and hearts (and, of course, about men’s) from each book. They bring into vivid detail women’s hard work---domestic labor and paid work---but the books also vividly illuminate the joys, pleasures, and griefs in women’s lives--sickness and healing, children, sexuality, love, and loss. We see deeply into the lives of slaves, into the lives of the working poor, as well as of the middling classes during decades of enormous change. These books cover true events and real people, based on letters and diaries and traceable events.


I wrote...

Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America

By Janet Farrell Brodie,

Book cover of Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America

What is my book about?

My book analyzes the choices available to women, to men, and to couples wanting to control pregnancies and births in the 19th century years before abortion and contraception became illegal. I focus on what was known and available as printed and verbal information, as devices, instruments, and as medicines. I drew on many types of sources from ancient folk remedies to more modern advice of the mid-19th century that circulated via cheap pamphlets and ads posted on public buildings, to lectures given on steamships and in city auditoriums.

I look at women’s writings and letters including one woman’s secretly-kept records of menstruation, contraception, and abortions. I argue that some methods may have worked at times (including widely advocated variations on the “rhythm method”) and that abortions before “quickening” were widely practiced.

The books I picked & why

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The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

By Patricia Cline Cohen,

Book cover of The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

Why this book?

This book is a riveting account of the life of a beautiful, well-established, young prostitute in mid-19th century New York City, her murder by one of her patrons, and his sensational trial and its aftermath. As compelling to read as a modern mystery novel, it is also brilliant history that illuminates much about early 19th century small New England towns from which young men and women fled, drawn by the allure of big cities. We learn about the lives of young male clerks “on the loose” in urban America, about the clothes and jewelry and hairstyles of the young female prostitutes as well as their inner lives and longing for culture. We are reminded that the police and the judicial systems could be as brutally unjust then as now.

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

By Patricia Cline Cohen,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Murder of Helen Jewett as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed…


A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,

Book cover of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Why this book?

This is one of the best-known and loved books in American history and it remains as riveting today as when it first appeared to wide acclaim. It follows the life and work of a woman midwife in Maine for several decades after the American Revolution. Martha Ballard delivered babies (traversing rivers, sometimes canoeing to reach the cabins), helped families far and wide with medical problems, and kept her own household fed, clothed, and clean. Ulrich makes everything come vividly alive: the hardships and rewards Ballard found in midwifery, planting and weeding her gardens, wrestling with endless household chores, the pains of old age. Violence intruded into the rural peace: a family was murdered, Ballard’s husband was jailed for debt, family members married badly. We come to know Ballard and her world as though they were ours.

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Midwife's Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, "A truly talented historian unravels the fascinating life of a community that is so foreign, and yet so similar to our own" (The New York Times Book Review).

Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and…


More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

By Ruth Schwartz Cowan,

Book cover of More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

Why this book?

This is the best book I know for helping us understand women’s domestic chores. The book moves from the early colonial period through the mid-20th century, but the theme remains the same: no matter what wonderful improvements were made in household technology, women’s work remained long and demanding. The hard physical labor of cleaning, cooking, and household maintenance may have eased, especially over the decades of the 19th century, but changing expectations about proper meals, cleanliness, and clothing meant that women rarely did less work. The book is lively—a page turner—and the illustrations throughout add to the pleasure. It is a serious work of history, though, with powerful arguments that resonate even today.

More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave

By Ruth Schwartz Cowan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this classic work of women's history (winner of the 1984 Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology), Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows how and why modern women devote as much time to housework as did their colonial sisters. In lively and provocative prose, Cowan explains how the modern conveniences,washing machines, white flour, vacuums, commercial cotton,seemed at first to offer working-class women middle-class standards of comfort. Over time, however, it became clear that these gadgets and gizmos mainly replaced work previously conducted by men, children, and servants. Instead of living lives of leisure, middle-class women found themselves struggling…


Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

By Sharla M. Fett,

Book cover of Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

Why this book?

Slaves brought deep knowledge of healing cures and medicines from Africa and that knowledge remained and circulated, helping “to heal the body and preserve the soul” as they endured slavery. Slaves held a “relational view” of sickness and health, focusing on the broader slave community and its health rather than the wellness or illness of the individual. This book in no way romanticizes slave healing as aiding an idealized communal harmony. Fett never lets us forget that slaves always faced conflict and struggle, especially since slaveholders intervened constantly in matters of health. Here, though, we gain a deep and powerful—and painful—understanding of certain kinds of relations on plantations, particularly male and female slaves’ work of curing and healing, and the uses of “conjuring,” “working roots,” divination, and “the clandestine practices of antebellum hoodoo.” Interpreting medical beliefs and practices, Fett illuminates broader social struggles over power.

Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

By Sharla M. Fett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Working Cures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Exploring the charged topic of black health under slavery, Sharla Fett reveals how herbalism, conjuring, midwifery, and other African American healing practices became arts of resistance in the antebellum South. Fett shows how enslaved men and women drew on African and Caribbean precedents to develop a view of health and healing that was distinctly at odds with slaveholders' property concerns. While white slaveowners narrowly defined slave health in terms of ""soundness"" for labor, slaves embraced a relational view of health that was intimately tied to religion and community. African American healing practices thus not only restored the body but also…


Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore,

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

Why this book?

Who knew that Benjamin Franklin had a much-loved sister with whom he stayed close throughout their widely diverse lives? Jane Franklin married young to a n’er-do-well who never provided for the family. Only a few of the many children she bore survived; she worked ceaselessly to provide food and shelter for those children and her aged parents, and, although barely literate, she found time to write to her beloved brother as he rose to political heights. Lepore, a diligent and imaginative historian, makes the lives of the working poor in Revolutionary era New England vividly real, especially the lives of women like Jane Franklin, scrambling to provide the most basic needs of life—shelter, firewood, food, clothing, medicines. This book is deeply moving and unforgettable.

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

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?

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
NPR • Time Magazine • The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

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…


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