The best books on women overcoming odds and doing extraordinary things

The Books I Picked & Why

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

By Charlotte Gordon

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

Why this book?

Romantic Outlaws is the fascinating double biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, telling the story of two extraordinary women—a mother and daughter who never met—who were centuries ahead of their time, each embracing feminist ideals that in the late 18th century made them social outcasts. They dared to believe that women were equal to men, eschewing the “marriage market that sold women’s love for carriages and pin allowances.” Mary Wollstonecraft was the philosopher and revolutionary writer who first championed equal rights for women. (Also, her Letters Written From Sweden is the first travel memoir to focus on personal impressions of a place rather than just geographical facts.) And of course, her daughter Mary Shelley was part of a challenge to pen a ghost story, along with husband Percy Shelley and Lord George Byron. Mary’s Frankenstein won the contest hands-down. 


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Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family

By Miep Gies, Alison Leslie Gold

Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family

Why this book?

This riveting memoir tells the story of how Miep Gies and her husband hid Anne Frank’s family from the Nazis for over two years. Risking her life every single day—and almost getting caught several times—Miep brought food, emotional support, and news of the war to Anne’s family in their hiding space. The writing is beautiful and heartfelt. Miep claims she was only doing what any decent person would do—and there were many unsung heroes of the Holocaust—but she went far above and beyond to protect them. “It seems we are never far from Miep’s thoughts,” wrote Anne in her famous diary. I read this cover to cover while travelling in the Netherlands and was staggered by this woman’s courage.


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Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover

Educated: A Memoir

Why this book?

Born into a cult of deranged religious survivalists in the Idaho mountains, Tara Westover was never allowed to go to school and was completely isolated from society. She spent her childhood salvaging from her dad’s junkyard and stockpiling canned goods for the “End Days”.  With a mentally ill father and violent brother who beat her, nobody was watching out for this girl but somehow she knew there was more to the world than her family’s religion. She schemed to apply to university without her parents knowing, and once there, heard the word ‘Holocaust’ for the first time in her life. From there, she never stopped educating herself. This beautifully written and inspiring memoir deserves all the accolades it has received.


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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

By Jung Chang

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why this book?

This book has stayed with me for years. In this sweeping memoir that’s a window on the female experience of 20th century China, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s smashed idealism as a young Maoist; and Chang’s own experience of torment and murder during the Cultural Revolution. All her life she’d been brainwashed into believing that Mao was god-like and could do no wrong. Then one day, by chance, she finds a smuggled copy of Newsweek where Mao is criticized for causing a famine. Her world crumbles and from that moment, she bravely makes the decision to disavow everything she’d grown to believe was real. 


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Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback

By Robyn Davidson

Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback

Why this book?

I read this book in my twenties and then again in my forties and loved it just as much the second time. With her four camels and dog, Robyn Davidson trekked from Alice Springs westward across Australia’s desert all the way to the ocean. Her eight-month journey was often gruelling but just as often it was joyous and exhilarating. She endured sweltering heat, lecherous men, poisonous snakes, and more than once, her camels vanished in the night and she’d spend days searching for them. As she walks, she contemplates life while immersed in the staggering beauty of her surroundings. This is the kind of transformational odyssey that compels you to explore this planet before it’s too late.  


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