The best books to learn about women human rights visionaries

Who am I?

I’ve been a rights advocate since I was a middle schooler planning how to help save the whales. In college, I volunteered in anti-apartheid campaigns, then became a journalist covering the rise of the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru. I wanted my research and words to make change. I spent 12 years covering Peru and Colombia for Human Rights Watch. Now, I try to inspire other young people to learn about and advocate for human rights as a professor and the co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. I also write fiction for kids that explores human rights themes and just completed The Bond Trilogy, an epic fantasy.

I wrote...

Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World

By Robin Kirk,

Book cover of Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World

What is my book about?

Most people aren’t aware that determined individuals thought up and fought for the human rights we now take for granted. Righting Wrongs introduces you to 20 fascinating people who envisioned women’s rights, the rights of children and the disabled, indigenous and LGBTQ rights, and protections against torture and land mines, among other things. These stories of hope and hard work show how people working together can dramatically change the world for the better.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Paul Murray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Proud Shoes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1956, Proud Shoes is the remarkable true story of slavery, survival, and miscegenation in the South from the pre-Civil War era through the Reconstruction. Written by Pauli Murray the legendary civil rights activist and one of the founders of NOW, Proud Shoes chronicles the lives of Murray's maternal grandparents. From the birth of her grandmother, Cornelia Smith, daughter of a slave whose beauty incited the master's sons to near murder to the story of her grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, whose free black father married a white woman in 1840, Proud Shoes offers a revealing glimpse of our nation's…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Shirin Ebadi, Azadeh Moaveni,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Iran Awakening as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this remarkable book, Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights lawyer and activist, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, tells her extraordinary life story.

Dr Ebadi is a tireless voice for reform in her native Iran, where she argues for a new interpretation of Sharia law in harmony with vital human rights such as democracy, equality before the law, religious freedom and freedom of speech. She is known for defending dissident figures, and for the establishment of a number of non-profit grassroots organisations dedicated to human rights. In 2003 she became the first Muslim woman, and the first Iranian, to be awarded…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Judith Heumann, Kristen Joiner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Being Heumann as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year for Nonfiction

" essential and engaging look at recent disability history."— Buzzfeed

One of the most influential disability rights activists in US history tells her personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job, and just be human.

A story of fighting to belong in a world that wasn’t built for all of us and of one woman’s activism—from the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco to inside the halls of Washington—Being Heumann recounts Judy Heumann’s lifelong battle to achieve respect, acceptance, and inclusion in society.


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

Why did I love 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.

By Catherine Coleman Flowers,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The MacArthur grant-winning environmental justice activist's riveting memoir of a life fighting for a cleaner future for America's most vulnerable

A Smithsonian Magazine Top Ten Best Science Book of 2020

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a 2020 MacArthur "genius," grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that's been called "Bloody Lowndes" because of its violent, racist history. Once the epicenter of the voting rights struggle, today it's Ground Zero for a new movement that is also Flowers's life's work-a fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. Too many people, especially the rural poor,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Ingrid Newkirk, Gene Stone,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The founder and president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, and bestselling author Gene Stone explore the wonders of animal life with "admiration and empathy" (The New York Times Book Review) and offer tools for living more kindly toward them.

In the last few decades, a wealth of new information has emerged about who animals are: astounding beings with intelligence, emotions, intricate communications networks, and myriad abilities. In Animalkind, Ingrid Newkirk and Gene Stone present these findings in a concise and awe-inspiring way, detailing a range of surprising discoveries, like that geese fall in love and stay with a partner for life,…

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