The best biographies of American women

Ann Little Author Of The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright
By Ann Little

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by American women’s lives my whole life, reading and writing women’s biographies from high school through graduate school and into my career as a professional historian. I was raised in the Great Lakes region of the United States, and was educated at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania. I teach early American history, women’s history, and the history of sexuality at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, and am at work on a book about women’s lives in the generation after the American Revolution.

I wrote...

The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright

By Ann Little,

Book cover of The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright

What is my book about?

Born and raised in a New England garrison town, Esther Wheelwright (1696–1780) was captured by Wabanaki Indians at age seven. Among them, she became a Catholic and lived like any other young girl in the tribe. At age twelve, she was enrolled at a French-Canadian Ursuline convent, where she would spend the rest of her life, eventually becoming the order’s only foreign-born mother superior. Among these three major cultures of colonial North America, Wheelwright’s life was exceptional: border-crossing, multilingual, and multicultural.

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The books I picked & why

Zelda: A Biography

By Nancy Milford,

Book cover of Zelda: A Biography

Why did I love this book?

This is the book that introduced me to astonishing research and the art of life writing when I was in high school. Milford’s vivid and deeply researched biography of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is unsurpassed; she found letters presumed lost and assembled her own archive. Milford’s feminist reading of Zelda’s life is subtle and convincing, suggesting that some of Zelda’s madness may have been induced by her frustration at never becoming a creative artist in her own right. Also possibly a contributing factor: Scott’s theft of many details of her life and letters to fuel his own writing!

By Nancy Milford,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Profound, overwhelmingly moving . . . a richly complex love story.” — New York Times

Acclaimed biographer Nancy Milford brings to life the tormented, elusive personality of Zelda Sayre and clarifies as never before Zelda’s relationship with her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald—tracing the inner disintegration of a gifted, despairing woman, torn by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent.

Zelda Sayre’s stormy life spanned from notoriety as a spirited Southern beauty to success as a gifted novelist and international celebrity at the side of her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda and Fitzgerald were one of the most…

Anne Sexton: A Biography

By Diane Wood Middlebrook,

Book cover of Anne Sexton: A Biography

Why did I love this book?

Middlebrook’s Anne Sexton is a model literary biography because of her thorough evocation of life at midcentury for middle-class women, and their everyday frustrations and humiliations because of their sex. Sexton was at once privileged because of her striking beauty, creativity, and connections to the beating heart of American poetry after World War II (through Robert Lowell), and hobbled by her self-destructive mental illness. Taken together with Milford’s book, these biographies are shocking documents of the barbarism of mental health care for women in the twentieth century.

By Diane Wood Middlebrook,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

At the time of her suicide in October 1974, Anne Sexton, 45, occupied a central position on the American poetry scene. Today, her reputation is tangled up with that of Sylvia Plath, whom she knew, and tainted with images of monster or victim. This biography, written with the full co-operation of Sexton's family and her principal psychiatrist who released three years of audiotaped therapy sessions, reveals and pivots around the creative relationship Anne Sexton struck with an incurable illness. Suffering from a mental disorder that eluded diagnosis, Anne Sexton underwent intensive psychotherapy and repeated bouts in mental institutions for nearly…

Book cover of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

Why did I love this book?

Not a biography in the strict sense, this book is an investigation into “an American controversy” by a legal scholar that demonstrates the value of historical research and analysis by showing how Jefferson’s grandchildren, and white scholars and biographers following their lead, effectively conspired to hide the truth of Jefferson’s 30+ relationship with a woman he owned. And Gordon-Reed published this book a full year before the DNA-based analysis showed that Jefferson was overwhelmingly likely to have been the only father to Hemings’s four children.

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Annette Gordon-Reed's groundbreaking study was first published, rumors of Thomas Jefferson's sexual involvement with his slave Sally Hemings had circulated for two centuries. Among all aspects of Jefferson's renowned life, it was perhaps the most hotly contested topic. The publication of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings intensified this debate by identifying glaring inconsistencies in many noted scholars' evaluations of the existing evidence. In this study, Gordon-Reed assembles a fascinating and convincing argument: not that the alleged thirty-eight-year liaison necessarily took place but rather that the evidence for its taking place has been denied a fair hearing.

Friends of Jefferson…

Book cover of Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America

Why did I love this book?

Kerrison’s triple biography of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters is a brilliant evocation of life in post-Revolutionary America—its exciting possibilities as well as the limitations that still bound most women, free as well as enslaved. The three women here stand for the lives of millions of women in early America as mothers, mortal beings, and mysterious absences in the historical record: Maria (Polly), like her mother Martha Wayles Jefferson, was doomed by fragile health to an early death; Martha (Patsy), who strongly resembled her father physically and temperamentally, had a large family as the matriarch of Monticello, but endured a vexatious marriage to a troublesome man; and Harriet, Sally Hemings’s only daughter, vanished into white society and remains largely a mystery. Kerrison’s account of her attempts to find Harriet is a gripping adventure tale itself!

By Catherine Kerrison,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Jefferson's Daughters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The remarkable untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters—two white and free, one black and enslaved—and the divergent paths they forged in a newly independent America
FINALIST FOR THE GEORGE WASHINGTON PRIZE • “Beautifully written . . . To a nuanced study of Jefferson’s two white daughters, Martha and Maria, [Kerrison] innovatively adds a discussion of his only enslaved daughter, Harriet Hemings.”—The New York Times Book Review

Thomas Jefferson had three daughters: Martha and Maria by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by his slave Sally Hemings. Although the three women shared a father, the similarities end there. Martha…

Book cover of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Why did I love this book?

Dunbar’s story of a young woman escaping slavery from the President’s House in Philadelphia is a classic American story like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. ​It follows Ona Judge from captivity to a daring escape before George Washington left office, and through a life of precarious freedom in New Hampshire, dodging Washington’s agents in hot pursuit.

By Erica Strong Dunbar,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Never Caught as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A startling and eye-opening look into America's First Family, Never Caught is the powerful story about a daring woman of "extraordinary grit" (The Philadelphia Inquirer).

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he brought along nine slaves, including Ona Judge. As the President grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't abide: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to…

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