The best books to learn about women human rights visionaries

The Books I Picked & Why

Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family

By Pauli Murray

Book cover of Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family

Why this book?

This is a must-read memoir about the childhood of one of America’s most important and least recognized human rights heroes, Pauli Murray. After the loss of her mother in 1914, Murray moved to Durham, NC to live with her aunt and grandparents. The family was Black, White, and Indigenous, giving Murray a unique perspective on what it means to be an American and grapple with what she described as both the “degradation and dignity” of her ancestors. We might now call Murray transgender since she later came to believe that she should have been born a man. I go back to this book frequently and can almost feel how this passionate advocate for human rights found her calling in her own family’s struggle and history. There is also a fabulous documentary, My Name is Pauli Murray, that delves into her human rights advocacy and gender identity.


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Iran Awakening: One Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country

By Shirin Ebadi, Azadeh Moaveni

Book cover of Iran Awakening: One Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country

Why this book?

In 2003, Ebadi was the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her pioneering advocacy for human rights, including in her native Iran. I love her voice in this memoir: perceptive, funny, and very serious when it comes to making the case that human rights can flourish within Islam. You can feel both her passion and her bravery against the crushing authoritarianism that continues to strangle this vibrant country and culture. She also makes the case that the women of Iran will be the ones who finally prevail in the struggle for human rights. 


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Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

By Judith Heumann, Kristen Joiner

Book cover of Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

Why this book?

This is a must-read for anyone who has ever needed accommodations or has used a subway escalator, ramp, or subtitles. Heumann is an often bitingly funny advocate for the rights of the disabled (including firmly putting The Daily Show host Trevor Noah in his place during a 2020 interview). Along with other disabled people, Heumann helped shape and lead a movement that has transformed life for millions of disabled people around the world. That includes many who become disabled either temporarily or permanently because of age or accident. Along with this book, watched the Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, which features a young Judy Heumann at the beginning of her human rights journey.


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Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

By Catherine Coleman Flowers

Book cover of Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

Why this book?

One of the most important new issues faced by rights advocates is climate change. Macarthur genius award-winner Catherine Coleman Flowers is on the front line of that fight, based on her own childhood as the daughter of an activist Black family in Lowndes County, Alabama. This memoir captures Flowers’ essence: someone who just can’t let an injustice slide by. And she will talk to anyone who might be able to help, including with cleaning up the raw sewage that continues to poison the homes of many poor Alabamians. Flowers clearly describes the link between local rights issues and the global campaign to deal with climate change.


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Animalkind: Remarkable Discoveries about Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion

By Ingrid Newkirk, Gene Stone

Book cover of Animalkind: Remarkable Discoveries about Animals and Revolutionary New Ways to Show Them Compassion

Why this book?

Slavery used to be the economic engine of the Americas. Only a few could clearly see that keeping other humans in bondage was a horrible crime. Ingrid Newkirk has a similar clarity of vision when it comes to animal rights. I believe that in the future, most of us look back with horror at industrial husbandry and the use of hormones to cultivate ever larger beasts for the slaughterhouse. You may not entirely agree with Newkirk, but you have to take her seriously. She’s also a genius at publicizing her cause of animal rights, helping to popularize veganism and the banning of fur and leather products as well as many kinds of animal research.


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