The best books to read about the history of women's rights

Who am I?

I have been writing about the history of women's rights and women's suffrage for over fifty years. Suffrage: Women's Long Battle for the Vote offers a comprehensive history of the full three-quarters of a century of women's persistent suffrage activism. I began my work inspired by the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s and this most recent history appeared in conjunction with the 2020 Centennial of the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. My understanding of the campaign for full citizenship for women repeatedly intersects with the struggles for racial equality, from abolition to Jim Crow. Today, when American political democracy is under assault, the long history of woman suffrage activism is more relevant than ever.

I wrote...

Book cover of Suffrage: Women's Long Battle for the Vote

What is my book about?

Suffrage explores the full scope of the movement to win the vote for women through portraits of its bold leaders and devoted activists. DuBois explains how suffragists built a determined coalition of moderate lobbyists and radical demonstrators in forging a strategy of winning voting rights in crucial states to set the stage for securing suffrage for all American women in the Constitution. 

This is a “comprehensive history that deftly tackles intricate political complexities and conflicts and still somehow read with nail-biting suspense,” (The Guardian) and is sure to become the authoritative account of one of the great episodes in the history of American democracy.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present

Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this book because it is a beautifully written, originally argued overview of women’s rights long history. Stansell organizes her compelling history of women’s rights around the shift from mothers’ perspectives (nineteenth-century feminism) to daughters’ perspectives (twentieth century). She writes beautifully and sweeps over this long tradition without minimizing the disagreements, shifts, and changes, all the while emphasizing the consistent theme of women’s individual freedom and collective struggle.

By Christine Stansell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“A unique, elegant, learned sweep through more than two centuries of women’s efforts to overcome the most fundamental way that human beings have been wrongly divided into the leaders and the led. It’s full of surprises from the past and guiding lights for the future.”—Gloria Steinem

For more than two centuries, the ranks of feminists have included dreamy idealists and conscientious reformers, erotic rebels and angry housewives, dazzling writers,shrewd political strategists, and thwarted workingwomen. Well-known leaders are sketched from new angles by Stansell, with her bracingeye for character: Mary Wollstonecraft, the passionate English writer who in 1792 published the first…

My Life on the Road

By Gloria Steinem,

Book cover of My Life on the Road

Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this as the most personal of Steinem’s books. No list of books on the history of women’s rights would be complete without something about and by the most courageous, most consistent spokeswoman for feminism over the last half-century. Here Steinem tells the tale of her family, focused – surprisingly – on her eclectic and wandering father. The reader will be left with even great appreciation for Steinem and for the many and various routes women take to find their way to feminism and their full, true selves.

By Gloria Steinem,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Life on the Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Gloria Steinem had an itinerant childhood. Every fall, her father would pack the family into the car and they would drive across the country, in search of their next adventure. The seeds were planted: Steinem would spend much of her life on the road, as a journalist, organizer, activist, and speaker. In vivid stories that span an entire career, Steinem writes about her time on the campaign trail, from Bobby Kennedy to Hillary Clinton; her early exposure to social activism in India; organizing ground-up movements in America; the taxi drivers who…

Book cover of Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897

Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this autobiography of the great nineteenth-century feminist intellectual and activist. Eighty Years and More is one of the great autobiographies in American history, up there with that of Frederick Douglass and Henry Adams. Stanton told the account of her early years, her path to becoming a reformer, and the epic battles in which she fought for women’s rights in an engaging writing style that still speaks to women today. Readers who only know of Stanton through the controversies over her racism and elitism will be well served by learning about the many, path-breaking facets of her life and career. Postscript: go online to read Stanton’s great late-life speech, The Solitude of Self.

By Elizabeth Cady Stanton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eighty Years and More as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The autobiography of women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton-published for the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage-including an updated introduction and afterword from noted scholars of women's history Ellen Carol DuBois and Ann D. Gordon.

Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897, is one of the great American autobiographies. There is really no other American woman's autobiography in the nineteenth century that comes near it in relevance, excellence, and historical significance.

In 1848, thirty-three-year-old Stanton and four others organized the first major women's rights meeting in American history. Together with Susan B. Anthony, her partner in the cause, she led the campaign…

Book cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this exciting, new, comprehensive history of the important role of African American women in the history of women’s rights. All women of color, and most notably African American women, were omitted from original histories of women’s rights, and that omission has carried over into modern histories of the feminist tradition. The author has done a great deal to remedy this problem, telling the stories of individual black women activists and groups of African American women, from the earliest years of women’s rights activism in the 1820s up to and past formal constitutional enfranchisement, from which black women were often excluded. Vanguard balances heroic stories of activism with troubling accounts of racism in the suffrage movement. As the subtitle indicates, these were the women who realized the full extent of equal rights for all women.

By Martha S. Jones,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“An elegant and expansive history” (New YorkTimes)of African American women’s pursuit of political power—and how it transformed America  
InVanguard, acclaimed historian Martha S. Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. From the earliest days of the republic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond, Jones excavates the lives and work ofBlackwomen—Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more—who…

Book cover of Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement

Why did I love this book?

I am recommending this book as a history of women’s rights that extends out from the United States to the sister republics of Central and South America. Women’s rights has been a genuinely international movement and the author explores the links between veterans of the U.S. suffrage movement and women from Mexico to Chile, working to establish equal rights in their countries. Beginning as protégés of U.S. women, they eventually become independent leaders of their own movements, surpassing the tendency of their mentors to limit themselves to formal legal rather than expansive social and economic rights. The subtitle indicates the crucial role that these Central and South American feminists played in broader human rights struggles up to the founding of the United Nations.

By Katherine M. Marino,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Feminism for the Americas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book chronicles the dawn of the global movement for women's rights in the first decades of the twentieth century. The founding mothers of this movement were not based primarily in the United States, however, or in Europe. Instead, Katherine M. Marino introduces readers to a cast of remarkable Latin American and Caribbean women whose deep friendships and intense rivalries forged global feminism out of an era of imperialism, racism, and fascism. Six dynamic activists form the heart of this story: from Brazil, Bertha Lutz; from Cuba, Ofelia Domingez Navarro; from Uruguay, Paulina Luisi; from Panama, Clara Gonzalez; from Chile,…

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