The best books about rule-breaking, risk-taking, bad a$# women

Why am I passionate about this?

When I covered the White House as a young reporter I was always more interested in understanding what was happening in the upstairs residence than in what briefings we were getting from the president’s advisers in the Roosevelt Room. I was raised with the understanding that in the end everyone is equal and that no one, no matter how powerful they are, gets out of the human experience. I think that’s what makes me interested in iconic women, from Elizabeth Taylor to Betty Ford. There’s nothing I like better than reading their letters and trying to understand what made them tick, and how they navigated their complicated and very public lives.


I wrote...

Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon

By Kate Andersen Brower,

Book cover of Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon

What is my book about?

My books The Residence and First Women tell American history through the eyes of the people who are not the main characters of the story. But in Elizabeth Taylor, I look at history from the perspective of someone who was always centerstage. Elizabeth embodied each era in which she lived. In many ways her life story is also our American story, from the golden age of Hollywood to the AIDS epidemic. In the 1980s she redefined the power of celebrity when she took on her most important role as an HIV/AIDS activist. This is the first-ever authorized biography – featuring never-before-seen diary entries and letters – of the most famous movie star of the twentieth century. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Kate Andersen Brower Why did I love this book?

Sonia Purnell vividly captures a pivotal place and time in world history.

She tells the story of Virginia Hall, a woman who became one of the most wanted Allied spies working behind enemy lines during World War II. Even with her prosthetic leg Hall was able to go undercover in Nazi-occupied France. (Before becoming a spy she accidentally shot herself in the foot and her left leg had to be amputated below the knee.)

During the war she had a network of more than a thousand people and helped the Allies reclaim France. President Truman wanted to honor her with a public ceremony – but she declined because she wanted to remain undercover.  That kind of grit and modesty is one of the many reasons why this book, which reads like a spy thriller, is impossible to put down.

All the more so because Hall was not perfect, and she was not fearless. She was remarkably brave and it’s thrilling to read her story.

By Sonia Purnell,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked A Woman of No Importance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London

Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography

"Excellent...This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down." -- The New York Times Book Review

"A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people -- and a little resistance." - NPR

"A…


Book cover of Jackie after Jack: Portrait of the Lady

Kate Andersen Brower Why did I love this book?

This book is written by my dad, Christopher Andersen, who introduced me to the sheer fun of storytelling.

We know so much about Jackie as a first lady, and in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. But his book gets at the heart of who she was and how she was able to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and reinvent herself. She made mistakes along the way, and they only make her more likable and more relatable.

The book celebrates her intelligence in a way I hadn’t considered before. Her life was shaped by tragedy, but it wasn’t the only thing that defined her.

By Christopher Andersen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jackie after Jack as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A best-selling biographer traces how Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became a cultural icon after her husband's assassination, explaining how she gracefully dealt with remarriage, money, romance, children, stepchildren, illness, aging, and at last her own mortality. Tour.


Book cover of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

Kate Andersen Brower Why did I love this book?

My friend Denise Kiernan shines a light on the thousands of women who worked on the Manhattan Project.

If you’ve seen Oppenheimer and you’re interested in the story behind the development of the atomic bomb, then this book will help you understand the hidden figures behind its creation. What I love the most about Denise’s writing is the way that she brings the mysterious origins of Oak Ridge, a Tennessee town created to house the people working on the bomb, to life. 

At a time when the stakes couldn’t have been higher, women were at the center of the story.

By Denise Kiernan,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Girls of Atomic City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” —Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not…


Book cover of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Kate Andersen Brower Why did I love this book?

Maya Angelou is a celebrated and brilliant writer. In her memoir she writes about identity and racism and what it was like being a Black girl growing up in the 1930s and 1940s South. And it’s pure poetry.

I read it back when I was about thirteen and it has stuck with me ever since. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and read a few pages of and feel more connected with humanity. I have never read anything as unflinchingly honest before.

By Maya Angelou,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Maya Angelou's seven volumes of autobiography are a testament to the talents and resilience of this extraordinary writer. Loving the world, she also knows its cruelty. As a Black woman she has known discrimination and extreme poverty, but also hope, joy,achievement and celebration. In this first volume of her six books of autobiography, Maya Angelou beautifully evokes her childhood with her grandmother in the American south of the 1930s. She learns the power of the white folks at the other end of town and suffers the terrible trauma of rape by her mother's lover.


Book cover of Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage

Kate Andersen Brower Why did I love this book?

The New York Times writer Gail Collins once wrote, “One of the tricks to being a great historical figure is to leave behind as much information as possible.”

Unfortunately, that means many voices have gone quiet as generations pass. Nathalia uncovers some of their untold stories in this book about the women who helped create the CIA. As she makes clear in her book, these stories were doubly difficult to tell because the women she’s writing about had made their careers out of being able to keep secrets.

But she does a remarkable job at getting to the heart of it, using archival research and interviews with current and former agents. The sacrifices these women made are nothing short of jaw-dropping.

By Nathalia Holt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

** TO BE READ ON BBC RADIO 4 BOOK OF THE WEEK FROM 30 JAN 2023 **

'As much le Carre as it is Hidden Figures.' AMARYLLIS FOX, author of Life Undercover

'A sweeping epic of a book [which] rescues five remarkable women from obscurity and finally gives them their rightful place in world history ... A book you won't regret reading. Five women you won't forget.' KATE MOORE, author of The Radium Girls

'As entertaining as it is instructive.' GENERAL STANLEY MCCRYSTAL

The never-before-told story of a small cadre of influential female spies in the precarious early days of…


You might also like...

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

This book is a deep dive into jazz's history, impact, and future. It discusses jazz's social, cultural, and political influence and reveals areas where jazz has had an impact we may not even realize.Its influences on hip hop, the connection to…

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
Critics comment:
"This new book by Sammy Stein is a highly individual take on…


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