The best books about racial politics and women’s activism in the United States

Who am I?

In Rochester, New York, where I was raised, Susan Anthony and Frederick Douglass are local heroes. But in the late 1960s, I was drawn more to grassroots movements than charismatic leaders. Despite dropping out of college—twice—I completed a B.A. in 1974 and then pursued a PhD in History. My 1981 dissertation and first book focused on three networks of mainly white female activists in nineteenth-century Rochester. Of the dozens of women I studied, Amy Post most clearly epitomized the power of interracial, mixed-sex, and cross-class movements for social justice. After years of inserting Post in articles, textbooks, and websites, I finally published Radical Friend in hopes of inspiring scholars and activists to follow her lead. 


I wrote...

Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds

By Nancy A. Hewitt,

Book cover of Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds

What is my book about?

Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Amy Post were friends and coworkers. While the first four are widely celebrated, Amy Post is largely forgotten. Yet from the 1830s to the 1880s, this Quaker mother of four was central to campaigns for abolition, racial equality, and women’s rights. An anti-racist ally, she and her husband Isaac hosted fugitive slaves, Seneca Indians, and itinerant lecturers in their home. Amy also circulated petitions and organized antislavery fairs and women’s rights conventions. Embracing a universalist vision of change, Post served as a “conductor,” orchestrating ties among issues, individuals, and movements and inspiring activists across New York State and the Midwest to join and sustain these efforts. 

The books I picked & why

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All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900

By Martha S. Jones,

Book cover of All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900

Why this book?

By 2007, I had been studying movements for women’s rights and racial justice for 4 decades. This book inspired me to rethink the chronology and trajectory of both. All Bound Up Together highlights the ways, beginning in 1830, that Black women’s rights efforts were central to the Black freedom struggle and early American feminism. It recasts both stories by putting Black women’s concerns, ideas, and organizing at the center.    

All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900

By Martha S. Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All Bound Up Together as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The place of women's rights in African American public culture has been an enduring question, one that has long engaged activists, commentators, and scholars. ""All Bound Up Together"" explores the roles black women played in their communities' social movements and the consequences of elevating women into positions of visibility and leadership. Martha Jones reveals how, through the nineteenth century, the ""woman question"" was at the core of movements against slavery and for civil rights. Unlike white women activists, who often created their own institutions separate from men, black women, Jones explains, often organized within already existing institutions - churches, political…


The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism

By Kyla Schuller,

Book cover of The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism

Why this book?

Schuller’s book critiques the elitist and racist views of well-known white feminists from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Sheryl Sandberg and highlights a counter-politics created by women of color and poor and trans women. The author explores as well white feminists who embraced the latter’s intersectional vision. Each chapter examines two contemporary feminists. I found the comparisons of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frances E. W. Harper, Pauli Murray and Betty Friedan, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Jacobs especially powerful. (The author’s discussion of Jacobs draws on letters she wrote to her friend and ally, Amy Post.) Schuller presents a powerful critique of one version of white feminism and an equally powerful vision of a racially-inclusive intersectional feminism. 

The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism

By Kyla Schuller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Trouble with White Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An incisive history of self-serving white feminists and the inspiring women who’ve continually defied them

Women including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger, and Sheryl Sandberg are commonly celebrated as leaders of feminism. Yet they have fought for the few, not the many. As award-winning scholar Kyla Schuller argues, their white feminist politics dispossess the most marginalized to liberate themselves.

In The Trouble with White Women, Schuller brings to life the two-hundred-year counter history of Black, Indigenous, Latina, poor, queer, and trans women pushing back against white feminists and uniting to dismantle systemic injustice. These feminist heroes such as Frances Harper,…


The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

By Thavolia Glymph,

Book cover of The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

Why this book?

Thavolia Glymph analyzes the many ways that women—white and Black, enslaved and free, North and South—sought to promote or constrain the radical transformations promised by the Civil War. She interweaves well-known stories of white nurses and teachers and northern white feminists who labored to expand their claims on the nation with the lesser-known efforts of free, fugitive, and self-emancipated Black women and poor and working-class white women to ensure that the war led to greater liberty. Even some plantation mistresses became more politically active in efforts to impede Union military campaigns. This powerful book expands our concept of activism, forcing us to rethink its many meanings, sites, and goals in times of crisis. 

The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

By Thavolia Glymph,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Historians of the Civil War often speak of "wars within a war--the military fight, wartime struggles on the home front, and the political and moral battle to preserve the Union and end slavery. In this broadly conceived book, Thavolia Glymph provides a comprehensive new history of women's roles and lives in the Civil War--North and South, white and black, slave and free--showing how women were essentially and fully engaged in all three arenas. Glymph focuses on the ideas and ideologies that drove women's actions, allegiances, and politics. We encounter women as they stood their ground, moved into each other's territory,…


Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement

By Cathleen D. Cahill,

Book cover of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement

Why this book?

Cathleen Cahill explodes the conventional history of women’s suffrage by tracing the stories of suffragists of color from 1890 to 1928. Analyzing the efforts of African American, Native American, Mexican, and Chinese American activists, Cahill shifts the focus away from each group’s interactions with white suffragists and explores, instead, the commonalities and differences among women of color. She interweaves compelling vignettes of individual suffragists, including Carrie Williams Clifford, Nina Otero-Warren, and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, with the larger issues addressed in their communities. In wielding dynamic analyses of these communities of color, Cahill creates a powerful new narrative of the long fight for women’s suffrage.    

Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement

By Cathleen D. Cahill,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Recasting the Vote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We think we know the story of women's suffrage in the United States: women met at Seneca Falls, marched in Washington, D.C., and demanded the vote until they won it with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the fight for women's voting rights extended far beyond these familiar scenes. From social clubs in New York's Chinatown to conferences for Native American rights, and in African American newspapers and pamphlets demanding equality for Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, a diverse cadre of extraordinary women struggled to build a movement that would truly include all women, regardless of race or national origin. In…


Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C.

By Anne M. Valk,

Book cover of Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C.

Why this book?

Radical Sisters does for the 1970s what I tried to do for the nineteenth century—to show that while Black and white women activists usually worked separately and embraced different and often opposing priorities, some women forged interracial alliances to address shared concerns. Valk also reminds us that divisions among white feminists and among Black liberationists could be as contentious as those between the two groups. By focusing on Washington, D.C., the population of which was over 70 percent Black in 1970, Valk ensures the centrality of race to every issue she analyzes. Providing in-depth case studies of anti-poverty movements, welfare rights, lesbian separatism, anti-sexual violence, and reproductive rights, Valk shows how these movements shaped each other as well as the limits of and possibilities for forging truly interracial coalitions. 

Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C.

By Anne M. Valk,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Radical Sisters is a fresh exploration of the ways that 1960s political movements shaped local, grassroots feminism in Washington, D.C. Rejecting notions of a universal sisterhood, Anne M. Valk argues that activists periodically worked to bridge differences for the sake of improving women's plight, even while maintaining distinct political bases. Washington, D.C. is a critical site for studying the dynamics of the feminist movement, not only for its strategic location vis-a-vis the federal government but because in 1970 over seventy percent of the city's population was African American. While most historiography on the subject tends to portray the feminist movement…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in suffrage movements, women in war, and women's rights?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about suffrage movements, women in war, and women's rights.

Suffrage Movements Explore 29 books about suffrage movements
Women In War Explore 13 books about women in war
Women's Rights Explore 32 books about women's rights

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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