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.

The books I picked & why

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Zelda: A Biography

By Nancy Milford,

Book cover of Zelda: A Biography

Why 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!

Anne Sexton: A Biography

By Diane Wood Middlebrook,

Book cover of Anne Sexton: A Biography

Why 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.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

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

Why 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.

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

By Catherine Kerrison,

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

Why 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!

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

By Erica Strong Dunbar,

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

Why 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.


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Interested in 20th century, Sally Hemings, and Philadelphia?

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