The best biographies of bold women

The Books I Picked & Why

Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse

By Catherine Reef

Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse

Why this book?

I loved the way this book intertwined Florence Nightingale’s story with images of her life. It may have been written for young adults, but readers of any age will be immersed in this well-written and graphically beautiful book. Catherine Reed’s engaging story of Nightingale combating the gruesome hygienic conditions at the Crimean battlefront, going against Victorian society expectations, creating sanitary methods still used today, and earning the moniker of The Lady with the Lamp is a testament to the difference one life can make.


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Bossypants

By Tina Fey

Bossypants

Why this book?

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll laugh again and again and again. Tina Fey is wildly witty, and she’s got a stack of awards to prove it. I feel fortunate to have existed in the same lifetime as this writer/actor/producer/mom because few have risen to her level of top-notch humor that is served with a healthy side of bewilderment-that-she-got-so-far humility. Fey sums up her rise to the top with a quote worthy of a plaque hung over the mantel of my fireplace - “You are no one until someone calls you bossy.” Well said, Liz Lemon.


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Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

By Matthew Fox

Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century

Why this book?

In 2012, Pope Benedict declared Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th Century nun, to be Saint Hildegard, recognizing “her holiness of life and the originality of her teaching.” This biography of Hildegard is Matthew Fox’s third book on this once-obscure nun, who from childhood had prophetic and God-inspired visions. Hildegard documented those revelations in her art, music, and writings. At a time when the church cited Eve as an example of how women are innately evil, Hildegard argued that the divine feminine existed to balance the masculine tendency to lord power over others. Although her efforts did little to budge the gender lines within the church hierarchy, she did lead a successful charge to keep nuns away from the clutches of abusive priests by establishing separate monasteries. That alone should have earned her sainthood, in my opinion. However, her honors were earned on many fronts. Her botanical and medicinal texts are still studied by scientists and more of her liturgical chants survive from the Middle Ages than any other musician. Her art, visions, and operas continue to inspire many followers of this extraordinary woman.


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Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

By Elizabeth Keckley

Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

Why this book?

The stars had to align perfectly for this autobiography to have been written. Born into slavery in the American South, Elizabeth Keckley learned to read and write at a time when laws forbade it. Her skills as a seamstress allowed her to buy her freedom and later become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. She also became a close confidant of the First Lady, gaining an unfiltered view of life in the White House during one of the most crucial times in our nation’s history. After Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley published this autobiography and was widely criticized for relaying intimate conversations and private moments she shared with the Lincoln family. In addition, Keckley’s unflinching account of slavery was difficult for many to read. However, this book has endured as one of the best accounts of life as a slave and of the Lincolns’ time in the White House.


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The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

By Walter Isaacson

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Why this book?

You may not know Jennifer Doudna’s name, but you’ve probably heard about her shared discovery, CRISPR. This gene-editing process won Doudna a Pulitzer Prize and is poised to help end a host of genetically-defined diseases. Doudna’s discovery wasn’t a solo act, but she pushed the door wide open for rapid-fire correction of many genetic conditions and for the creation of rapid Covid testing. As the parent of a child with a genetically-transferred disease, I count the moment I heard about CRISPR as one of those stand-still moments. CRISPR may or may not be able to change my child’s condition, but I am certain it will improve the health of future generations.


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