The best books about women fighting for bodily and political autonomy

Kimberly A. Hamlin Author Of Free Thinker: The Extraordinary Life of the Fallen Woman Who Won the Vote
By Kimberly A. Hamlin

Who am I?

I was born in 1974 and grew up in a time when, at least on paper, women had equal rights. I also grew up not far from Harriet Tubman’s home, not far from Seneca Falls, not far from Susan B. Anthony’s house. I became a historian of women’s rights and, I sometimes joke, a secular evangelical for women’s history. Writing Free Thinker was, professionally, the most fun I have ever had. I can think of no better time than right now to study the histories of women who understood that bodily autonomy and political autonomy are two sides of the same coin and who dedicated their lives to securing both. 


I wrote...

Free Thinker: The Extraordinary Life of the Fallen Woman Who Won the Vote

By Kimberly A. Hamlin,

Book cover of Free Thinker: The Extraordinary Life of the Fallen Woman Who Won the Vote

What is my book about?

Free Thinker tells the remarkable story of the “fallen woman” who, rather than slink away in shame, reinvented herself and died as the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government. When Ohio newspapers published the story of Alice Chenoweth’s premarital affair, she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, and devoted her life to championing women’s rights and decrying the sexist double standard. Gardener eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where she became "the most potent factor" in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Free Thinker is the first biography of Gardener. This biography exposes the racism that underpinned the women’s suffrage movement and the contradictions of Gardener’s politics. Free Thinker is the story of a woman whose struggles resound in today’s fight for bodily and political autonomy.

The books I picked & why

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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

By Danielle L. McGuire,

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 this book?

Rosa Parks is one of a handful of American women whose names make it into our textbooks and social studies curriculum. However, the textbook version of Parks tends to sanitize her activism and skim the surface of her remarkable life. As one of my students observed, Parks’ powerful story has been reinterpreted “to make white people feel good about themselves,” as if somehow all the problems exposed by the Civil Rights movement were fixed after Parks refused to give up her seat. Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street restores the fullness of Parks’ life and work, and places Black women and their fight against sexual violence at the center of the ongoing Civil Rights movement. This book transforms how we understand ourselves as a nation and as people. 


Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation

By Estelle B. Freedman,

Book cover of Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation

Why this book?

In my classes on women, sex, and gender, students almost always ask, “why have we never learned this before?” This is particularly true when it comes to the role of sexual violence in our nation’s history. Estelle Freedman’s pathbreaking book Redefining Rape documents how central sexual violence has been to U.S. history and law, and how women—particularly women of color—have fought against rape. Not only has sexual violence played a formative role in our history, a defining feature of U.S. jurisprudence is the racialization of rape—meaning the false idea that only Black men rape and only white women can be raped—when, in fact, as Freedman powerfully demonstrates, sexual violence has long been a tool of white supremacy. 


Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray

By Rosalind Rosenberg,

Book cover of Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray

Why this book?

People often ask me who is the most important yet least known woman in U.S. history. Of course I am partial to Helen Hamilton Gardener, the woman whose biography I wrote, but overall I think the woman we all need to know about is Pauli Murray. We love to love RBG, but RBG credited Pauli Murray with some of her most effective legal strategies. In fact, Murry was the legal mastermind behind landmark civil rights and sex discrimination cases, including Brown v. Board of Education. And she bravely lived her life on her own terms (as what today we would likely understand as a trans man). Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, I think we could use a refresher on the 14th Amendment and how Americans, none more so than Pauli Murray, have used it to champion equality for all. 


The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service

By Laura Kaplan,

Book cover of The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service

Why this book?

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, I think it is imperative to remember what life was like before Roe v. Wade and what women did to survive and to live their lives on their own terms. Kaplan’s book tells the story of the Jane Collective in the words of the women who made Jane work, which makes for powerful reading. And, I think it is important to ask ourselves what about today’s post-Roe era is “like before” and what is very different. For example, pre-Roe, most state restrictions on abortion contained exceptions for rape and incest. Post-Roe, nearly all state abortion bans contain no exceptions for rape or incest. The Story of Jane also chronicles, in some ways, a freer time in which one’s every query and movement was not tracked by one’s phone. 


Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger

By Rebecca Traister,

Book cover of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger

Why this book?

I have started joking that I want to title my next book In Praise of Old Hags and Battle Axes because I think it is so vital that we challenge stereotypes about older women and about women who get mad. We women have a lot to be mad about right now, and many of us are thinking about how to channel our anger for good. Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad puts our complicated feelings about angry women in historical perspective and reminds us of the political and cultural power of angry women. Plus, Traister is one of my very favorite writers.


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