The best books illuminating innovative women whose stories overcame silencing

Linda Lawrence Hunt Author Of Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America
By Linda Lawrence Hunt

The Books I Picked & Why


By Tillie Olsen

Book cover of Silences

Why this book?

Olsen’s landmark book (1994) sheds light on how the writings and creativity of marginalized women and working-class people are often disenfranchised and the circumstances and forces that seek to silence them. I discovered her seminal ideas while in the midst of writing my Ph.D. dissertation at Gonzaga University on Helga Estby that emerged later as Bold Spirit. I was trying to figure out why her family burned hundreds of the pages Helga secretly wrote of her audacious journey across America. This evolved into my closing chapter in Bold Spirit on “the silencing of family stories,” which prompts readers to consider their own family silences. She raises important questions, especially for writers, on what nurtures creativity. 

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Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen

By Matthew Fox

Book cover of Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen

Why this book?

This introduces readings to the life, teachings, and art of one of the world’s greatest female artists and intellectuals of the western mystical traditions. A 12th-century abbess of a large and influential Benedictine abbey, she defied convention for women in the Middle Ages and became a prominent preacher, healer, scientist, artist, composer, and theologian. Virtually unknown for almost 800 years, it is a credit to the women’s movement in restoring her lost legacy. 

Publications of her writings, performances of her musical compositions, her ecological insights, and sense of earth “as a region of delight” are no longer silenced and contribute to vibrant understanding and discussions in the contemporary world. The art in Illuminations emerges from her mystical visions.

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The Signature of All Things

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Book cover of The Signature of All Things

Why this book?

Although not a huge fan of Gilbert’s bestselling book Eat, Pray and Love, I found myself mesmerized by her stunning historical novel, The Signature of All Things. Although fiction, Gilbert immerses the reader into the 18th and 19th century transformational time around scientific discoveries, through the Whittakers, a prominent Philadelphia family of botanists. Her portrayal of Alma, the brilliant daughter who inherits both her father’s money and brains, and becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself illustrates the challenges facing women scientists in the era. Old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class and how this impacts women are all addressed in this sweeping novel.   

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Dust Tracks on a Road: A Memoir

By Zora Neale Hurston

Book cover of Dust Tracks on a Road: A Memoir

Why this book?

Hurston, a prominent novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist during the Harlem Renaissance time, she finds her greatest recognition in her fictional book Their Eyes Were Watching God. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in America.  A graduate of Barnard College, she attended graduate classes at Columbia University and receives several honors for her ethnographic research as a pioneer writer of “folk fiction’ about the black South.

Although she gained considerable fame for a brief time, she dies in near obscurity and poverty although a resurgence of her writings influenced a new group of black women writers. I especially valued reading Dust Tracks on the Road, her poignant autobiographical memoir first published in 1942 after reading Alice Walker’s essay of her search to find Hurston’s unmarked grave. 

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Something Worth Doing: A Novel of an Early Suffragist

By Jane Kirkpatrick

Book cover of Something Worth Doing: A Novel of an Early Suffragist

Why this book?

Jane Kirkpatrick, a New York Times bestselling writer of over 35 books, specializes in fictionalizing true stories of prominent women in history who are often unknown to today’s readers. Something Worth Doing, a historical novel, brings to life the story of Abigail Scott Duniway, an early suffragist and pioneer in the 19th century Pacific Northwest. As a married woman and mother of eight living children, Kirkpatrick weaves together Dunn's challenges as a newspaper publisher, primary breadwinner, and national speaker fighting for the rights of women and the vote. 

Kirkpatrick, a psychologist, illustrates the universal pulls between career and family in a male-dominated sphere. One of my favorite genres is historical fiction and Kirkpatrick backs her novels with significant historical research.  

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