The best books on women’s history

Who am I?

I have been researching, curating, and writing women’s history for 30 years. I curated the suffragette exhibition Purple, White, and Green at the Museum of London. I wrote The Suffragettes in Pictures; Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick; Elsie and Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front; The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton, and Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. I am a public historian, devoted to sharing my research and writing with all. I am a keen podcaster, Youtuber, and guest on television and radio. You could say I’m a heroine addict. I hope you love my recommendations.

I wrote...

Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

By Diane Atkinson,

Book cover of Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

What is my book about?

The suffragettes and their actions would come to define protest movements for generations to come. From their marches on Downing Street, the selling of their paper, Votes for Women, through to the more militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the bombing of pillar-boxes, acts of arson, and the slashing of great works of art – the women who participated in the movement endured police brutality, assault, imprisonment and force-feeding, all in the relentless pursuit of one goal: the right to vote.

Rise Up, Women! tells the story of a richly diverse group that spanned the divides of class and country, women of all ages who were determined to fight for what had for so long been denied. 

The Books I Picked & Why

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Can Any Mother Help Me?

By Jenna Bailey,

Book cover of Can Any Mother Help Me?

Why this book?

This is an extraordinary story of a group of wives and mothers whose lives connected through a magazine called The Cooperative Correspondence Club. It is a brilliant read: a moving and intimate collection of personal stories and inseparable friendship covering the 1920s to the 1970s. I enjoyed every page, it was an exhilarating read, well written, and well researched. Anyone interested in twentieth-century women’s history must read this book.

The Roses of No Man’s Land

By Lyn MacDonald,

Book cover of The Roses of No Man’s Land

Why this book?

This is the very best book on nursing during the First World War. Packed with first-hand accounts of the ‘roses’ and their heroic efforts to nurse the wounded during and after that ghastly war that killed so many and destroyed the lives of many more who survived. Expertly contextualized, the author included the memories of the soldiers who were nursed and comforted by these extraordinary women who rose to the Government’s plea to ‘do their bit’. It is a profoundly moving book that should be read by anyone interested in the First World War and its painful aftermath.

Road to Divorce

By Lawrence Stone,

Book cover of Road to Divorce: England, 1530-1987

Why this book?

The leading authority on the history of divorce in England, Lawrence Stone’s brilliantly researched books are scholarly and highly readable. Road to Divorce is a frank and intimate account of the changing moral views of the past. It is utterly engrossing, full of drama, and leads readers to appreciate what a shocking prison marriage proved to be for hundreds of thousands of couples who, until 1857, needed an Act of Parliament to escape a bad marriage. Wives found it far harder than husbands to get a divorce as the legal obstacles were greater.

The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury

By Sean O’Connor,

Book cover of The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury

Why this book?

It is the best true crime book I have read in recent years. It is a gripping murder story and tragic romance, and a terrific biography of a thoroughly modern woman trapped between the freedoms earned on the one hand by women’s critical participation in two world wars, and the suffocating conservatism of the 1920s and 1920s. For challenging the status quo Alma Rattenbury paid the heaviest price. On a broader note, this book offers a fascinating slice of women’s lives in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

In Byron's Wake

By Miranda Seymour,

Book cover of In Byron's Wake

Why this book?

At last! A book that places Byron’s wife, Annabella Milbank, and mathematician daughter, Ada Lovelace, centre-stage instead of the dusty wings of all previous books about this notorious and complicated man. It is the perfect book for anyone interested in Byron and his world, and more importantly for readers keen to consider a more nuanced account of his wife and daughter.