The best books about women in wartime

The Books I Picked & Why

War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944

By Iris Origo

Book cover of War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944

Why this book?

This one has a permanent place on my nightstand because with the madness of war once again enveloping Europe, Iris Origo is the sane, witty, pragmatic voice we all need to help us navigate the times ahead. An Anglo-American married to an Italian, Iris had the foresight to keep a diary of her life in 1943-1944, as Italy was occupied by the Germans and the Allies moved north, putting her farm on the front lines. She manages to hide escaped POWs, feed partisans, and educate refugee children while Fascists and Nazis take over her house. I wish I could call her up, but this is the next best thing.


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To War with Whitaker

By Hermione Ranfurly

Book cover of To War with Whitaker

Why this book?

It’s rare to find a war diary that makes you laugh out loud, but this had me snorting tea through my nose. Lady Ranfurly broke the law by following her new husband, a British officer, to the North African front in 1940 and staying there for the duration. No pampered aristocrat, she’s a hard-charging career woman who ends up working for, and spying on, a secret war organization running covert missions, and then becomes personal assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander (nicknamed “Jumbo”). Her diary is hilarious and touching as she weathers fear, tragedy, and colossal male egos with maximum moxie. 


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Looking for Trouble: The Classic Memoir of a Trailblazing War Correspondent

By Virginia Cowles

Book cover of Looking for Trouble: The Classic Memoir of a Trailblazing War Correspondent

Why this book?

I would love to invite Virginia Cowles to dinner, but unfortunately she died in a car accident in the 1980s (Ouija board, anyone?). A socialite turned war correspondent, Virginia navigated not just Nazis and Fascists while covering the Spanish Civil War and WWII, but an entire misogynist war bureaucracy bent on keeping her from doing her job. Looking for Trouble is a smart, funny, moving, and insightful account of being on the front lines in high heels and a fox fur jacket.


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A Stricken Field

By Martha Gellhorn

Book cover of A Stricken Field

Why this book?

Most of us know Martha Gellhorn as a war correspondent and Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, but she was a brilliant novelist as well. A Stricken Field is the story of an American woman in Prague in 1938 as the Nazis move in and hunt down opponents of the regime. If you are looking for models of resistance to brutality (I am), this is your book.


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A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism

By Caroline Moorehead

Book cover of A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism

Why this book?

I could have broken the rules and just listed five books by Caroline Moorehead here. I love her writing; her highly-researched biographies are a joy to read and utterly immersive. I chose A House in the Mountains because it shows me what it’s like to survive the hardscrabble blow-by-blow of daily life under an occupying army, and how you can defeat it. The five women whose lives in the Italian Resistance during WWII she chronicles here are models of courage and creative resistance to tyranny.


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