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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present

By Christine Stansell

The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present

Why 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.


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My Life on the Road

By Gloria Steinem

My Life on the Road

Why 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.


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Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897

By Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897

Why 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.


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

By Martha S. Jones

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

Why 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.


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

By Katherine M. Marino

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

Why 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.


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