The best books on Australian women in history

Who am I?

Dr. Samantha Battams is an Associate Professor and has been a university lecturer, researcher, policy professional, community development worker, advocate, health service administrator, and management consultant. Samantha resides in Adelaide, South Australia, is widely travelled, and has lived and worked in Switzerland in global health. She has published academic articles and book chapters in the fields of public health and global health, social policy, and sociology. She has a passion for history and writing and has written a self-published family history and three non-fiction books.


I wrote...

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

By Samantha Battams,

Book cover of The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

What is my book about?

How did a serial killer from the 19th century almost get away with murder? At the end of the 19th century, Martha Needle became known as ‘The Black Widow’ after secretly poisoning her husband and children. The Black Widow was a media sensation in her day, as infamous as Ned Kelly (even sharing the same lawyer). After poisoning her husband and two of her children, Needle became obsessed with the kind-hearted son of a Danish immigrant and began picking off his brothers one by one. Reported as far afield as the New York Times, Martha’s story was front-page news in Australia, edging out many stories of the day that remain in the public consciousness today. And yet very few remember Martha Needle’s name.

Stranger still a generation later Martha Needle’s nephew Alexander Lee seemed to follow in his aunt’s footsteps when he poisoned his wife and three of his children. What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives connected through family to commit virtually the same crime? 

The books I picked & why

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A Spanner in the Works

By Loretta Smith,

Book cover of A Spanner in the Works

Why this book?

I really enjoyed reading this tale about Australia’s first female-owned and all-female garage in Melbourne in the 1920s. I was given the book twice, once as a gift and once as I presented with the author, so knew that I just HAD to read it. I was astounded to find that the subject of my book (with Les Parsons) The Red Devil - pioneer aviator Harry Butler – had a garage (Butler and Nicholson) which had sponsored Alice Anderson’s (garage owner’s) adventurous trip from Melbourne to Alice Springs after his death.


The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller: A True Story of Murder, Adventure, Danger, Romance, and Derring-Do

By Carol Baxter,

Book cover of The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller: A True Story of Murder, Adventure, Danger, Romance, and Derring-Do

Why this book?

I was amazed to read about the adventures of Mrs ‘Chubbie’ Miller, whom I had never heard about previously. She was an Australian woman aviator who competed in the US National Women’s Air Race (the so-called ‘Powder Puff Derby’) and other Women’s Air Derbys with Amelia Earhart and others. Why had I not heard of her before? Because she was embroiled in a scandalous love triangle that saw the end of one life?


Miss Muriel Matters

By Robert Wainwright,

Book cover of Miss Muriel Matters

Why this book?

The entertaining story of actress and elocutionist come UK suffragist from my hometown of Adelaide, where women were first granted suffrage in 1894. Muriel Matters was a fierce ‘lady’ who chained herself to the UK House of Commons ‘Ladies’ Gallery’ and really made a name for herself as an expat, whilst helping other women along the way.


Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse

By Cassandra Pybus,

Book cover of Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse

Why this book?

I have been intrigued by the story of Truganini since living in Tasmania. There are many myths about Truganini, including that she was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian. This is her full story, based on eyewitness accounts researched by a writer whose ancestors had a connection to her subject. It depicts a devastating time for Aboriginal Tasmanians, including the Nuenonne clan of Bruny Island which Truganini was from. Truganini was a survivor who experienced profound upheavals and many personal tragedies. She was part of the team of guides for missionary George Augustus Robinson’s trip around Tasmania and with other Aboriginal survivors was exiled to a Christian settlement on Flinders Island for a time. This was part of a broken agreement with surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal people removed from their homelands. Returning to Oyster Cove and dying in 1876, Truganini was not put to rest until 1976 when her ashes were scattered in D’Entrecasteaux Channel. An important Australian story.


A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal

By Babette Smith,

Book cover of A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal

Why this book?

Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the various fates of a shipload full of convict women who at the time were barely more than chattels of men. Susannah Watson was one of many women who stole in England to feed her starving children and found herself transported for 14 years (which in reality became a lifetime). These survivor women were inspiring and resilient in a pioneering time.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Australia, pilots, and criminals?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Australia, pilots, and criminals.

Australia Explore 178 books about Australia
Pilots Explore 31 books about pilots
Criminals Explore 36 books about criminals

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Dinner with the Schnabels, Flames, and The Singing Line if you like this list.