The best biographies of women who made a difference in modern European history

Who am I?

I’ve always been captivated by stories about powerful women. After a corporate career as one of the first female executives in the international world of Wall Street, while raising two children as a single working parent, I returned to academia. I am a magna cum laude graduate of Smith College, hold a doctorate in modern European history, with academic distinction, from New York University. I wanted to ascertain whether the mostly male writers of history were correct in attributing the success of exceptional women to the bedroom. Meticulous research yielded a different narrative, one I delight in sharing.


I wrote...

Florence Nightingale, Feminist

By Judith Lissauer Cromwell,

Book cover of Florence Nightingale, Feminist

What is my book about?

The first, full-length biography told from a post-feminist perspective. Born into Victorian Britain’s elite, a brilliant, magnetic teenager decided to devote her life to the indigent sick by becoming a nurse. Her family opposed. Catapulted into the Crimean War, Nightingale brought order to the chaos of British military hospitals, but never forgot her patients.

Despite debilitating illness, she focused on preventing another Crimean catastrophe -- the death of thousands due to avoidable causes. Hygienic army installations, sanitation for India, and the creation of modern nursing owe much to Nightingale. Victorians saw her as the ideal nurturing female. Hindsight provides a wider perspective. By conceiving a career for women that empowered them with economic independence, Florence Nightingale stands among the founders of modern feminism.

The books I picked & why

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Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig, Cedar Paul (translator), Eden Paul (translator)

Book cover of Marie Antoinette

Why this book?

A concise, compelling, and beautifully told story by one of pre-World War II Europe’s finest writers.  Largely based on correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her mother, Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, then with the love of her life, Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen, Zweig’s account clarifies the queen’s character development with grace and understanding, and paints a well-rounded, nuanced picture of Marie-Antoinette from her personal pleasures as a mother and lover, to her suffering and courage during the Revolution.  

Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig, Cedar Paul (translator), Eden Paul (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Bringing to life one of the most complex characters in European history

Stefan Zweig based his biography of Marie Antoinette, who became the Queen of France at the age of fifteen, on the correspondence between her and her mother, and her great love the Count Axel von Fersen. Zweig analyzes the chemistry of a woman's soul from her intimate pleasures to her public suffering as a Queen under the weight of misfortune and history. Zweig describes Marie Antoinette in the King's bedroom, in the enchanted and extravagant world of the Trianon, and with her children. And in his account of…


Catherine the Great: A Short History

By Isabel de Madariaga,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: A Short History

Why this book?

British historian Madariaga, an expert in the field of eighteenth-century Russia, gives the reader a balanced, up-to-date, and insightful, multi-faceted yet concise, description of the vast empire that constituted Catherine’s Russia.  The author describes how a minor German princess seized the Romanov throne, how she contrived to become an autocrat ruling over all the Russias, and, how during her thirty-four-year reign, Catherine guided her country into becoming a major player in international power politics.

Catherine the Great: A Short History

By Isabel de Madariaga,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An eminent scholar of Russian history here presents the most informative, balanced, and up-to-date short study of Catherine the Great and her reign. This edition includes a new preface dealing with recently discovered sources and revised interpretations of the period.
Praise for the earlier edition:
"A panoramic view of Russia's social, political, economic, and cultural development and of its emergence as a formidable power in the international arena during the thirty-four years of [Catherine's] reign."-Anthony Cross, New York Times Book Review
"De Madariaga's book will be the standard and an essential guide for all students and scholars of Russian and…


Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

By Lynne Olson,

Book cover of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why this book?

Fast-paced and well-researched, this riveting book tells one of the greatest, albeit little-known, true stories of the French Resistance. The only woman to lead a major Resistance network (the largest and most important) against Hitler, Fourcade blended patriotism, boldness, persistence, and bravery – including two escapes from Gestapo jails – into her personal life as a wife, mother, and lover.  When she died, Fourcade became the first female to be given a funeral at Les Invalides, the grand historic building complex dedicated to French military glory. 

Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

By Lynne Olson,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Madame Fourcade's Secret War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The little-known true story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the woman who headed the largest spy network in occupied France during World War II, from the bestselling author of Citizens of London and Last Hope Island

“Brava to Lynne Olson for a biography that should challenge any outdated assumptions about who deserves to be called a hero.”—The Washington Post

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND THE WASHINGTON POST 

In 1941 a thirty-one-year-old Frenchwoman, a young mother born to privilege and known for her beauty and glamour, became the leader of a…


Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

By Charles Moore,

Book cover of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

Why this book?

Impressively researched, elegantly written, and sprinkled with dry humor, Moore’s account is an even-handed portrait of a remarkable woman who turned her sex and her humble background from handicaps into assets, and used her outstanding political skills to become a driving force in twentieth-century British history.  The author addresses his polarizing subject’s inconsistencies, and her bizarre yet conventional personality, to present a multidimensional picture of Britain’s first female prime minister.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

By Charles Moore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Not For Turning is the first volume of Charles Moore's authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher, the longest serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century and one of the most influential political figures of the postwar era.

Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher, published after her death on 8 April 2013, immediately supersedes all earlier books written about her. At the moment when she becomes a historical figure, this book also makes her into a three dimensional one for the first time. It gives unparalleled insight into her early life and formation, especially through her extensive correspondence with her sister, which…


A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

By Frances Harris,

Book cover of A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

Why this book?

Beautiful, intelligent, ambitious, and self-confident, headstrong Sarah sought to parlay her friendship with Princess Anne into political power when Anne became queen.  But Anne disagreed with Sarah’s strident Whiggism, and resented her attempts at manipulation.  Sarah’s persistence in pestering Anne about politics, her arrogance, and her inability to admit either another opinion than her own, or take responsibility for her mistakes, combined with her uncontrollable temper to kill the friendship and with it, Sarah’s political ambitions. 

A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

By Frances Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Passion for Government as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was a woman with a `passion for government': a compulsion to wield power not only in her own family but in public affairs as well. She was the favourite of Queen Anne, the devoted wife and political associate of the Queen's most powerful subject, the passionate ally or bitter enemy of most of the leading public figures of her day, and in her widowhood the effective head of one of England's great families. Despite her stormy relationship
with the architect Vanbrugh, she played a major role in the building of Blenheim Palace, one of England's most…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, empresses, and prime ministers?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, empresses, and prime ministers.

France Explore 681 books about France
Empresses Explore 14 books about empresses
Prime Ministers Explore 9 books about prime ministers

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Train in Winter, War Brides, and Invisible Agents if you like this list.