The best historical novels about badass 19th century American women

Who am I?

I don’t write about well-behaved women. I prefer rebels and outcasts, women who, by choice or circumstance, live outside of social norms. 19th-century American history is full of such women—if you know where to look. Hint: not in most public-school textbooks. They’re found, instead, in archives and libraries, in old newspapers and journals, in family letters and autobiographies. The characters in my most recent novel, Reliance, Illinois, were inspired by badass 19th-century women, such as Victoria Woodhull, Mary Livermore, and Olympia Brown. Each of the novels in the list below were inspired by or based on audacious women. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!  

I wrote...

Reliance, Illinois

By Mary Volmer,

Book cover of Reliance, Illinois

What is my book about?

Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. Her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there.

When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragist and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. At first, Madelyn simply wants to feel beautiful and loved. But, when a series of troubling events threaten the small town, Madelyn must make a life-changing choice. 

The books I picked & why

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The Jump-Off Creek

By Molly Gloss,

Book cover of The Jump-Off Creek

Why this book?

An immersive and atmospheric novel, The Jump-Off Creek follows a taciturn widow named Lydia into the Oregon wilderness where she hopes to homestead. Resourceful, fiercely independent (and determined to stay that way) she nonetheless finds herself drawn into a bedraggled community of homesteaders and frontiersmen. Yes, there’s a love interest, but that is a subplot, not the story. The story is one of survival and grit set in a landscape as beautiful and unforgiving as the weather.

Molly Gloss is a master storyteller. I find each of her books quite different but equally compelling. The Jump-Off Creek might be my favorite only because it was my first taste of her work. And, of course, I remain in awe of the indomitable Lydia.

I Shall Be Near to You

By Erin Lindsay McCabe,

Book cover of I Shall Be Near to You

Why this book?

You’ve just been married when civil war breaks out and your husband goes off to fight. What do you do? Remain at home, waiting? Rosette cuts her hair, dons men’s clothing, and goes off to fight alongside her husband. If this sounds far-fetched, you’ll be intrigued to discover that the novel is based on a firsthand account, which the author discovered on the shelves of a university library while in search of something else entirely.

I’d come across a handful of true accounts of women dressed as men while researching my own gold rush novel. I didn’t know, until I read McCabe’s novel, that hundreds of women had fought as men during the American Civil War. If that’s not badass, then I don’t know what is.

Sister Noon

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Book cover of Sister Noon

Why this book?

This crazy quilt of a novel, set in San Francisco, chronicles the liberation of Lizzie, a forty-year-old spinster who is swept into the intrigues of the mysterious Mrs. Pleasant. Mrs. Pleasant, who works as a housekeeper, is rumored to be as rich as a railroad magnate, an angel of charity, a practitioner of voodoo, among other tantalizing (and some substantiated) possibilities.

As enthralled as Lizzie becomes with Mrs. Pleasant, what Lizzie discovers in this story is her own independence and authority. Several real historical figures, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, appear in the book. I love the way Fowler weaves fact with fiction, and how she places badass women at the center of the story.

Woman of Ill Fame

By Erika Mailman,

Book cover of Woman of Ill Fame

Why this book?

The forthright honesty and the audacity of Nora Simms, narrator of Erika Mailman’s Woman of Ill Fame, is stunning and nearly as compelling as the murder mystery at the center of the novel. Set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, the novel takes us into the city’s bordellos, which, like the rest of the state, have been infected by a get rich quick at any cost ethos. The cost for many of Nora’s colleagues is high. Women of ill-fame are being killed, one by one, and only Nora is capable and willing to wade through layers of deception to discover the identity of the killer and to save her own life. 

Nora is not your typical damsel in distress and that might be why I love this book so much. She’s not a “good” woman, by society's standards, but she is one of the most surprising and endearing characters I’ve ever read.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

By Lois Leveen,

Book cover of The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Why this book?

Lois Leveen uses a mixture of fact and well-researched speculation to bring Mary Bowser, a largely unknown Civil War hero, to the page. Free and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to slavery to spy on the Confederacy in the household of Jefferson Davis. This much, at least, is known about the woman. Leveen imagines Bowser’s early life, braids in national history, and leaves us breathless with wonder at the courage and audacity required to complete the assignment Bowser accepted.

I love novels that pick up where the historical record ends, especially novels that do so lovingly and with such tender respect for the real woman lost in history.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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