The best books on barrier breaking women

Who am I?

I have loved writing since I was in grade school and after graduating university with a degree in International Affairs I became a journalist. I’ve written six non-fiction books and also teach Journalism at SUNY Purchase.  I’ve always been fascinated about the way one person’s life or one seemingly small episode in history allows us a way to examine the larger picture: whether it was how Fanny Bullock Workman showed what it meant to be a woman in a predominantly male world of mountain climbing or how the deliberate sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the closing days of WWII showed that war is never black and white, that there are layers to people and stories and events that we should always try to consider.

I wrote...

Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman

By Cathryn J. Prince,

Book cover of Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman

What is my book about?

Fanny Bullock Workman was a complicated and restless woman who defied the rigid Victorian morals she found as restrictive as a corset. With her frizzy brown hair tucked under a topee, Workman was a force on the mountain and off. Instrumental in breaking the British stranglehold on Himalayan mountain climbing, this American woman climbed more peaks than any of her peers and became the first woman to map the far reaches of the Himalayas.

Author and journalist Cathryn J. Prince brings Fanny Bullock Workman to life and deftly shows how she negotiated the male-dominated world of alpine clubs and adventure societies as nimbly as she negotiated the deep crevasses and icy granite walls of the Himalayas. It's the story of the role one woman played in science and exploration, in breaking boundaries and frontiers for women everywhere.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

Why did I love this book?

When Emma Gatewood, a farm-reared 67-year-old, left her Ohio home with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars, no one, especially not her family, realized she aimed to walk 800 miles of the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. As the first person—to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone—Gatewood used the resulting media attention to stop the trail from falling into complete disrepair.

By Ben Montgomery,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Grandma Gatewood's Walk as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

2014 National Outdoor Book Award Winner in History / Biography

Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, sixty-seven-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. By September 1955 she stood atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin, sang “America, the Beautiful,” and proclaimed, “I said I’ll do it, and I’ve done it.”

Driven by a painful marriage, Grandma Gatewood not only hiked the trail alone, she was the first person—man…

Book cover of Nancy Wake: World War Two's Most Rebellious Spy

Why did I love this book?

Nancy Wake was one of the Gestapo’s “most wanted.” While this is not a biography of a woman in mountain climbing, I was struck by the way she showed the same trailblazing characteristic of Fanny Bullock Workman. When Wake left her posh life in the South of France and began working with the French Resistance she showed that someone determined to succeed can do so regardless of societal barriers and expectations.

By Russell Braddon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Nancy Wake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Of all the variously talented women SOE sent to France, Nancy Wake was perhaps the most formidable' -Sebastian Faulks

This is the incredible true story of the greatest spy you've never heard of-as told to the author by the woman herself.

At the outbreak of World War Two, Nancy Wake's glamorous life in the South of France seemed far removed from the fighting. But when her husband was called up for military service, Nancy felt she had just as much of a duty to fight for freedom. By 1943, her fearless undercover work even in the face of personal tragedy…

Book cover of Annapurna: A Woman's Place

Why did I love this book?

It illustrates how one woman’s courage to forge ahead in a male-dominated world produced scientific work that challenged gender stereotypes and led to all-male clubs breaking their male-only rules.

By Arlene Blum,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In August 1978, thirteen women left San Francisco for the Nepal Himalaya to make history as the first Americans—and the first women—to scale the treacherous slopes of Annapurna I, the world’s tenth highest peak. Expedition leader Arlene Blum here tells their dramatic story: the logistical problems, storms, and hazardous ice climbing; the conflicts and reconciliations within the team; the terror of avalanches that threatened to sweep away camps and climbers.

On October 15, two women and two Sherpas at last stood on the summit—but the celebration was cut short, for two days later, the two women of the second summit…

Book cover of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

Why did I love this book?

Eighty Days takes readers behind the scenes of the lives of Bly and Bisland, two successful women who made a name for themselves during the late 1800s. It reveals the private women behind the public personas during an era when women were expected to mind house and home.

By Matthew Goodman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives…

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Why did I love this book?

Purnell’s book introduces readers to Virginia Hall, who served in Britain’s Special Operations Executive during World War Two. She was the first Allied woman to go behind enemy lines and in so doing helped establish spy networks throughout occupied France. Purnell tells how Hall shed her Baltimore socialite lifestyle to answer a higher purpose.

By Sonia Purnell,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked A Woman of No Importance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London

Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

"Excellent...This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down." -- The New York Times Book Review

"A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people -- and a little resistance." - NPR


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Interested in France, circumnavigation, and mountaineering?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, circumnavigation, and mountaineering.

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