The best books that will blow your mind about US women’s history

Lori D. Ginzberg Author Of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life
By Lori D. Ginzberg

Who am I?

When I started college in 1974 as a young radical feminist I had zero interest in history—it was all wars and men. But in a course about the Russian Revolution I learned the most thrilling thing: historians don’t simply relay facts, they argue with one another. I fell in love, and I never looked back. I am especially fascinated by what societies label “unthinkable,” and how that shapes, contains, and controls radical ideas. I've always been intrigued by what is "out of the question" and then poke at it, see what lies underneath, and try to figure out why things remain, or are kept, invisible.

I wrote...

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

By Lori D. Ginzberg,

Book cover of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

What is my book about?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the founding philosopher of the American movement for woman's rights. A brilliant activist-intellectual, she was driven by her commitment to rouse herself, and everyone else, to rethink and remake women's status in politics, law, religion, and marriage. At the same time, Stanton made comments so racist that they can leave us speechless. My biography argues that Stanton's racism and elitism were not merely warts, but reflected a thread in her thinking that shapedand limitedher conception of justice and social change. Both critical and admiring, I offer a portrait of a woman whose absolutism was both thrilling and exasperating, who could be both an excellent ally and a bothersome menace, and whose ambiguous legacy continues to haunt American feminism.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic

Why did I love this book?

On one level, this is a book about housework in the pre-Civil War northern United States. Much more profoundly, it shatters ideas about unpaid labor in early industrial capitalism. It completely changed myand many readers’ideas of what constitutes “work,” what it means to contribute to a household economy, and how ideas about wages (and, especially, work done by men outside the home) obscured early capitalists’ dependence on women’s unwaged work. After reading this, you’ll never refer to “women who worked” and “women who didn’t” again.  It should be essential reading not only for women’s historians, but for anyone interested in ideologies of labor, capitalism, and the history of work.

[Full disclosure: I met Jeanne Boydston on my second day of graduate school and we collaborated closely on our dissertations (later books). She was my best friend and best teacher until her much-too-early death in 2008.]

By Jeanne Boydston,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Over the course of a two hundred year period, women's domestic labor gradually lost its footing as a recognized aspect of economic life in America. The image of the colonial "goodwife," valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of a "dependent" and a "non-producer." This book is a history of housework in the United States prior to the Civil War. More particularly, it is a history of women's unpaid domestic labor in the context of the emergence of an industrialized society in the northern United States. Boydston argues that just as a capitalist economic…

Book cover of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

Why did I love this book?

I think it is impossible to step away from this book without seriously reconsidering the historyand very definitionof reproductive rights. In this now-classic work, sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts exposes the systematic degradation of Black women’s reproduction. From the era of enslavement (in which enslaved women, and only enslaved women, could through their reproduction increase an enslaver’s wealth) to the eugenics movement to early birth control advocacy to forced sterilization to the panic about “crack babies,” she redefines the very nature of reproductive justice.

By Dorothy Roberts,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Killing the Black Body remains a rallying cry for education, awareness, and action on extending reproductive justice to all women. It is as crucial as ever, even two decades after its original publication.
"A must-read for all those who claim to care about racial and gender justice in America." —Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
In 1997, this groundbreaking book made a powerful entrance into the national conversation on race. In a media landscape dominated by racially biased images of welfare queens and crack babies, Killing the Black Body exposed America’s systemic abuse of Black women’s bodies. From…

Book cover of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898

Why did I love this book?

How we shape historical memory is central to how we understand history, and breaking down myths about the past is a crucial step. This book takes on the standard account of the movement for women’s rights—where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony play all the leading roles—and shows how they explicitly went about shaping that legacy. In editing (with Matilda Joslyn Gage) the multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage, they offered access to thousands of documents about that movement, but also, and explicitly, consolidated their own leadership in ways that diminished the work of grassroots activists and movement rivals. This book (like the McGuire, next on my list) is critical for anyone who thinks about, or works in, grassroots movements for social justice.

By Lisa Tetrault,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Myth of Seneca Falls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of how the women's rights movement began at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 is a cherished American myth. The standard account credits founders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott with defining and then leading the campaign for women's suffrage. In her provocative new history, Lisa Tetrault demonstrates that Stanton, Anthony, and their peers gradually created and popularized this origins story during the second half of the nineteenth century in response to internal movement dynamics as well as the racial politics of memory after the Civil War. The founding mythology that coalesced in…

Book cover of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

Why did I love this book?

When I ask a well-read, nonhistorian about a book that changed their view of U.S. history, they often mention At the Dark End of the Street. This book addresses a deeply-embedded movement myth: the idea that Rosa Parks came to activism and fame when she refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus. As McGuire shows, a long history of challenging the sexual assault of Black women by white men shaped Parks’s—and many other women’s—activism in the Black freedom struggle of the mid-20th century. That they were largely erased from the movement’s story of its leaders—and that the frequency of sexual assault remained largely obscured—makes this dramatic story all the more essential.

By Danielle L. McGuire,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked At the Dark End of the Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here is the courageous, groundbreaking story of Rosa Parks and Recy Taylor—a story that reinterprets the history of America's civil rights movement in terms of the sexual violence committed against Black women by white men.

"An important step to finally facing the terrible legacies of race and gender in this country.” —The Washington Post

Rosa Parks was often described as a sweet and reticent elderly woman whose tired feet caused her to defy segregation on Montgomery’s city buses, and whose supposedly solitary, spontaneous act sparked the 1955 bus boycott that gave birth to the civil rights movement. The truth of…

Book cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Why did I love this book?

When I first read this book, I thought “This is the book I’ve been waiting for!” Focused on New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th century, it explores the intimate lives of Black women who have been largely invisible in Black women’s history: girls and women who did not fit the definitions of Black “respectability.” Using sources in ways creative and thrilling, it explores how those women imagined a “free life” within a world shaped by racism, sexual abuse, single motherhood, and economic insecurity. Sometimes their new forms of intimacy involved “ordinary refusals”to follow the law, to do menial labor, to submitwhile at other times their challenges to Victorian beliefs and practices involved song, luxury, and sex. Hartman’s book is a gorgeous read.

By Saidiya V. Hartman,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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