The best books to read to reconsider iconic American women

The Books I Picked & Why

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

By Camilla Townsend

Book cover of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

Why this book?

Disney, folklore, images of “noble” or “good” Native Americans (but with derogatory terms used), and modern-day understandings or misunderstandings of Stockholm Syndrome and brainwashing have influenced interpretations of Pocahontas. Camilla Townshend instead turns to other studies of Native American women contemporary to Pocahontas, using them to analyze the sources that document her life. Pocahontas, called that only as a little girl, emerges as a woman named Matoaka, who may have seen herself as an important mediator between cultures and nations at a tenuous moment in the history of her people.

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Betsy Ross and the Making of America

By Marla R. Miller

Book cover of Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Why this book?

Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. That’s the legend, which did not appear until her grandchildren started to capitalize on tourism to the Philadelphia Centennial celebrations in 1876. The real Betsy Ross proves far more exciting. She sewed flags, but she was also an artisan, a businesswoman, a Quaker who was too political for her Meeting, and involved in the public protests leading up to the Revolution. Miller connects family networks, the material culture of the drapery and textile industries, British trade policies, and Revolutionary politics and protest into a whole cloth. This is a visceral look at the War for Independence from one of its epicenters and the vantage of one of its most iconic women.

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Sojourner Truth's America

By Margaret Washington

Book cover of Sojourner Truth's America

Why this book?

Find a performance of Truth’s speech, “A’rn’t I a Woman,” and the actress inevitably slips into a southern accent. Margaret Washington’s book, along with Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, will tell you that Truth actually spoke with a Dutch accent and that the more famous version of that speech was a revision by a white abolitionist woman. Truth was born and raised in New York, not the south, and she slipped through the cracks of the state’s Emancipation laws, remaining a slave well into adulthood. Her life tells a national story of slavery and shows the complicated relationships of religion, abolition, women, and class.

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Mrs. Lincoln: A Life

By Catherine Clinton

Book cover of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life

Why this book?

Mary Lincoln (she did not use “Todd,” as readers will learn) was much hated by her husband’s chroniclers. They painted her as mentally unwell, frivolous, too intrusive in her husband’s business, too lavish in her spending, and a detriment to his career. Clinton looks past these assessments and, with great sympathy, shows a woman who had actually been a great asset to her unpolished spouse because she was interested in politics, bold, and attractive. She also endured great tragedy during her years in the White House. Clinton’s sensitivity will leave readers not only reassessing what they think they know about the wife of this president but also the way that the lives of many women have been written and retold by unsympathetic parties without reference to the woman’s own experience.

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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Caroline Fraser

Book cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Why this book?

Laura Ingalls Wilder maintains an avid fanbase in spite of reappraisals of her racial attitudes; and re-encountering her as an adult can be an exciting, disappointing, jarring, but fascinating experience. Caroline Fraser sorts through the semi-autobiographical sources, not least of which are their fictional writings, of Wilder and her collaborator daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, all of which they infused with their own nostalgia and libertarianism. The tortured landscape becomes almost another living figure, as well, since natural disasters set the scene for the novels and their writing. The books’ creation, their influences, and, in turn, their influence in the mythmaking of the American West, contemporary racism, and man-made climate change included, make Wilder more than just a little girl growing up in little houses. Readers might also find themselves wishing to revisit other figures from their youth.

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