The best books about formidable Black women, whose lives mattered

Why am I passionate about this?

As an academic, activist, author, and a student of American women’s history, I’m passionate about recognizing the contributions of diverse American women. I graduated from Wellesley College, on the cusp of the 1970s women’s movement. My doctoral dissertation, a biography of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in Her Own Right, hailed by both Oprah and the Wall Street Journal, was the basis of Ken Burns’ documentary, Not for Ourselves Alone. My career centered on women: working to advance women’s rights, writing and teaching women’s history, and leading a girls’ school. As a cisgender white woman, I’m a member of the Society of American Historians and Veteran Feminists of America. 

I wrote...

Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020

By Elisabeth Griffith,

Book cover of Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020

What is my book about?

Formidable opens with certification of the Nineteenth Amendment and ends with confirmation of Justice Barrett, which suggests that the arc of justice for women has always been jagged. It tracks how women struggled for decades to use the vote and accrue political power and covers every topic relating to women and American politics today, including voting rights, racial justice, reproductive rights, and Supreme Court decisions. It acknowledges generations of Black women leaders, as well as the work of a diverse cast of other women, including opponents—feminists, firsts, flappers, fighters, fashionistas, foes, and fictional characters like Betty Crocker, Nancy Drew, Wonder Woman, Nyota Uhura, Nurse Julia, and Barbie dolls, who have run for president more often than female politicians.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America

Elisabeth Griffith Why did I love this book?

I have a PhD in American history but I’m still learning about Black history that was not taught in my schools. This groundbreaking work is a prime resource and an introduction, especially for white readers like me, to Black women in American history. They include Ida B. Wells, who risked her life to launch an anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s; Mary Church Terrell, who marched in the 1913 suffrage parade and picketed the White House in 1917 and segregated restaurants in the 1950s; Mary McLeod Bethune, the highest ranking African American in the New Deal and Eleanor Roosevelt’s ally, who led her husband’s “Black Brain Trust;” and unheralded leaders, like Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Septima Clark, and Diane Nash, who were the backbone and conscience of the civil rights movement. The common characteristic of Giddings’ subjects is unfailing courage.

By Paula J. Giddings,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked When and Where I Enter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“History at its best―clear, intelligent, moving. Paula Giddings has written a book as priceless as its subject”―Toni Morrison

Acclaimed by writers Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter is not only an eloquent testament to the unsung contributions of individual women to our nation, but to the collective activism which elevated the race and women’s movements that define our times. From Ida B. Wells to the first black Presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm; from the anti-lynching movement to the struggle for suffrage and equal protection under the law; Giddings tells the stories of black women who…

Book cover of The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family

Elisabeth Griffith Why did I love this book?

Almost every book I’m highlighting was written by a Black woman, which reminds us how much experience and perspective resonate among historians, in the topics we choose and the questions we ask. Greenidge re-examines the lives of the Grimke family, best known for its daughters, Angelina and Sarah, who left their wealthy, slave-owning, Charleston, SC, family in the 1830s, to become celebrity abolitionists and suffragists. Digging deeper, Greenidge challenges their moral credibility  The sisters benefitted from the privileges of plantation profits. Their father was a notably cruel master and their brother had three sons with his enslaved concubine. The author follows their white aunts’ relationship with their nephews, whose educations they underwrote after Emancipation. The story continues into the Wilson administration and the Harlem Renaissance, tracking the harsh legacy of white supremacy on both white and Black family members and all Americans. Even reformers and allies could be more complicated and flawed than their reputations allowed.

By Kerri K. Greenidge,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Grimkes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah and Angelina Grimke-the Grimke sisters-are revered figures in American history, famous for rejecting their privileged lives on a plantation in South Carolina to become firebrand activists in the North. Their antislavery pamphlets, among the most influential of the antebellum era, are still read today. Yet retellings of their epic story have long obscured their Black relatives. In The Grimkes, award-winning historian Kerri Greenidge presents a parallel narrative, indeed a long-overdue corrective, shifting the focus from the white abolitionist sisters to the Black Grimkes and deepening our understanding of the long struggle for racial and gender equality.

That the Grimke…

Book cover of Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

Elisabeth Griffith Why did I love this book?

This pathbreaking work is the first in-depth biography of Terrell (1863-1954). It challenges common stereotypes about Black women and identifies common ground among women who struggle to balance work and family. Mary Church, born during the Civil War, had two white grandfathers, who impregnated enslaved women and then allowed their offspring to marry. After Emancipation, Molly’s father became a wealthy Memphis land developer, which allowed her to attend Oberlin, earn a master’s degree, and travel in Europe. She married a graduate of Harvard and Howard Law, whom Theodore Roosevelt named the first Black justice of the peace in Washington, DC. She did not allow her distrust of Susan B. Anthony to derail her fight for Black voting rights, before and after the Nineteenth Amendment passed. A founder and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, Terrell used her lace and pearls and Republican connections to fight for her whole community.  

By Alison M. Parker,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Unceasing Militant is the first full-length biography of Terrell, bringing her vibrant voice and personality to life. Though most accounts of Terrell focus almost exclusively on her…

Book cover of Princess of the Hither Isles: A Black Suffragist’s Story from the Jim Crow South

Elisabeth Griffith Why did I love this book?

This is the biography of the author’s grandmother, Adella Hunt Logan (1863-1915), a teacher at Tuskegee.  W.E.B. DuBois, who challenged Booker T. Washington’s vocational vision for Black Americans, gave her the title princess. Like Terrell, Logan could “pass” for white, but rarely did: to travel safely north and to have kidney surgery in a white hospital. Unlike Terrell, she was the product of her mother’s and grandmother’s longstanding, consensual relationships with slaveholders. Logan’s life was confined by racism, sexism, marriage, and motherhood, yet she urged reluctant Black women to pursue suffrage, lobbied for equal pay, and espoused reproductive rights, before her tragic death. She was the only Black lifetime member of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the only member enrolled from Alabama. The author incorporates public records, family archives, stories handed down, and African myths to choreograph this compelling tour de force.    

By Adele Logan Alexander,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A compelling reconstruction of the life of a black suffragist, Adella Hunt Logan, blending family lore, historical research, and literary imagination

"Both a definitive rendering of a life and a remarkable study of the interplay of race and gender in an America whose shadows still haunt us today."-Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"If you combine the pleasures of a seductive novel, discovering a real American heroine, and learning the multiracial history of this country that wasn't in our textbooks, you will have an idea of the great gift that Adele Logan Alexander has given us."-Gloria Steinem

Born during the Civil War…

Book cover of The Personal Librarian

Elisabeth Griffith Why did I love this book?

This work of historical fiction appealed to me on many levels. Read the Author’s Note first, written by its white and Black co-authors. Their book explores the double life of Belle de Costa Greene (1879-1950), whom J.P. Morgan hired in 1905 as his archivist and agent, assuming she’s white. In segregated America, the engaging Belle cannot risk exposure.

“Passing,” the dangerous attempt by Black Americans to hide their identities to survive, remains controversial. Lighter complexions were usually the result of rape by white owners of enslaved women. It allowed offspring greater access to education and employment. In 1929, Nella Larsen published Passing, recently made into a movie. It ends with its “passing” protagonist leaping to her death. Larsen had worked at Tuskegee with Adella Logan, who died in a similar manner. This page-turner confronts the legacy of racism and the “one drop” rule in defining identity.

By Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Personal Librarian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Instant New York Times Bestseller! A Good Morning America* Book Club Pick!

Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR! Named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post!

“Historical fiction at its best!”*
A remarkable novel about J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white in order to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation, from New York Times bestselling authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.

In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by…

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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…

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