The best books about social reformers

15 authors have picked their favorite books about social reformers and why they recommend each book.

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Dangerous Jane

By Suzanne Slade, Alice Ratterree (illustrator),

Book cover of Dangerous Jane: the Life and Times of Jane Addams, Crusader for Peace

This is a marvelous picture book on Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in 1889. Hull House was a Chicago settlement house for newly-arrived European immigrants. When we first meet Jane, she is a sad, sickly child who relates to those living without hope. She promises to help them when she grows up – and she does! Through her tenacity and grit, she studies, travels, and figures out how to help struggling families. 

Called “Saint Jane” when Hull House opened, she also formed the Women’s Peace Party during WWI. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams is an inspiration. The text of Dangerous Jane is spare, clear, and poetic; illustrations are beautifully drawn and carefully designed. This book is a treasure!


Who am I?

As a picture-book writer and illustrator as well as a mother and teacher, the most important goal I can think of is fueling a child’s imagination with possibilities by providing true stories of trailblazing women. My reviews highlight remarkable women in the arts, government, sports, social work, and history. I hope you enjoy these books!


I wrote...

Steadfast: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers' Rights

By Jennifer Merz,

Book cover of Steadfast: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers' Rights

What is my book about?

When Frances Perkins witnessed New York City’s Triangle Factory fire in 1911, her desire to help the American worker transformed into a lifelong mission. Determined to fix workplace injustices at a time when women were discouraged from speaking up let alone having careers, she became the first woman in a U.S. Presidential Cabinet and the force behind the New Deal, vast programs that protect workers to this day.

In Steadfast: Frances Perkins, Champion of Workers’ Rights, writer/illustrator Jennifer J. Merz introduces readers to Frances Perkins’ extraordinary life and legacy. This book will delight children and adults alike with handcrafted art and an engaging true story. Fully annotated back matter provides a perfect opportunity to learn more. This is the inspiring story of a heroic trailblazer, the most important woman you may not have heard of—yet!

Sojourner Truth

By Nell Irvin Painter,

Book cover of Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

Nell Painter’s biography of Sojourner Truth breaks new ground in a different way. Sojourner Truth is famous, an iconic freedom fighter and advocate for Black and female suffrage. We all know her demand for recognition, “Ain’t I a woman?” Or do we? Painter’s research reveals a much more complicated woman and investigates why history has reduced a fascinating life story to that one simple question, which might never have been asked, at least in those precise words. Read this book to find out the true story of Sojourner Truth.  


Who am I?

I am the grown-up little girl who loved to read. I loved novels and children’s biographies—Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Annie Oakley. I imagined that if I could learn to write books that inspired readers and moved them to tears like my favorite books, I would have accomplished a great good. My first biography, The Peabody Sisters, took twenty years and won awards for historical writing. My second biography, Margaret Fuller, won the Pulitzer. But what matters more than all the prizes is when people tell me they cried at the end of my books. I hope you, too, will read them and weep over lives lived fully and well.    


I wrote...

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

By Megan Marshall,

Book cover of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

What is my book about?

Pulitzer Prize winner Megan Marshall recounts the trailblazing life of Margaret Fuller: Thoreau’s first editor, Emerson’s close friend, daring war correspondent, tragic heroine. After her untimely death in a shipwreck off Fire Island, the sense and passion of her life’s work were eclipsed by scandal. Marshall’s inspired narrative brings her back to indelible life.

Whether detailing her front-page New-York Tribune editorials against poor conditions in the city’s prisons and mental hospitals, or illuminating her late-in-life hunger for passionate experience—including a secret affair with a young officer in the Roman Guard—Marshall’s biography gives the most thorough and compassionate view of an extraordinary woman. No biography of Fuller has made her ideas so alive or her life so moving.

Sojourner Truth's America

By Margaret Washington,

Book cover of Sojourner Truth's America

Find a performance of Truth’s speech, “A’rn’t I a Woman,” and the actress inevitably slips into a southern accent. Margaret Washington’s book, along with Nell Irvin Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, will tell you that Truth actually spoke with a Dutch accent and that the more famous version of that speech was a revision by a white abolitionist woman. Truth was born and raised in New York, not the south, and she slipped through the cracks of the state’s Emancipation laws, remaining a slave well into adulthood. Her life tells a national story of slavery and shows the complicated relationships of religion, abolition, women, and class.


Who am I?

Little House on the Prairie, Roots, the Bicentennial, family vacations, and an early childhood in New Orleans all shaped my perception of the world as a place overlaying history. Although I could not have completely articulated this then, I specifically wanted to know what women before me had done, I wanted to know about parts of the story that seemed to be in the shadows of the places where I consumed history, and I wanted to know “the real story.” The intensity of recreating a person’s world and their experience in it made me question how historians know what we know, and how deeply myth, nostalgia, or even preconceptions guide readings of the evidence. The authors here all show an awareness that re-telling a person’s life can move it away from the evidence and they try to return to that evidence and find the “real story,” or as near to it as possible.


I wrote...

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

By Leigh Fought,

Book cover of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

What is my book about?

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass's varied relationships with white women-including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing--who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women's movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed "woman's rights man."

The Firebrand and the First Lady

By Patricia Bell-Scott,

Book cover of The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice

In this engaging read, Patricia Bell-Scott explores the close relationship shared between Black feminist activist, lawyer, and writer Pauli Murry and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This is a story of two divergent lives becoming intertwined as both women fought for self-definition and for their respective causes. One of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, Murray did not hesitate to criticize the Roosevelts. Nonetheless she was not only able to secure support from Eleanor Roosevelt for civil rights causes but also transform, in many instances, the First Lady’s thinking on racial affairs. This book takes us beyond FDR’s death and demonstrates the lasting impact that Black leaders, who emerged during the 1930s and 1940s, and Eleanor Roosevelt subsequently made on Black American lives specifically and the nation as a whole.

Who am I?

I am a Professor of History at California State University San Marcos where I teach United States Social and Cultural History, African American History, Film History, and Digital History. In addition to The Black Cabinet, I am also the author of three other books. Two of my books have been optioned for film and I have consulted on PBS documentaries. I believe that knowing history is necessary and practical, especially in these times. At this critical point, we can draw much wisdom from the lessons of Black history and the history of the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


I wrote...

The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt

By Jill Watts,

Book cover of The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt

What is my book about?

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Presidency in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, most Black Americans lived in poverty and were denied citizenship rights. As his New Deal was launched, a “Black Brain Trust” evolved within the administration and began documenting the inequalities that African Americans faced. Known as the Black Cabinet, they encountered an environment that was often hostile to change.

Black Cabinet members pushed to increase Black access to New Deal relief. Led by the dynamic educator Mary McLeod Bethune, they won several victories—the incorporation of anti-discrimination clauses into federal contracts, the creation of jobs and farming programs, and the growth of Black educational opportunities. But they also experienced defeats—FDR’s refusal to support federal anti-lynching legislation and the overall resistance to extending Black voting rights and ending segregation. The Black Cabinet never won official recognition, and with FDR’s death, it dissolved. But it had successfully laid the foundation for the later Civil Rights Movement.

Vanguard

By Martha S. Jones,

Book cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Painting a broad picture of African-American women’s political advocacy and activism, Martha S. Jones presents women fighting for a voice in our political system from the early days of the Republic through women’s suffrage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of the women and their contributions to racial and gender equality were familiar to me. Others less so, including three generations of Jones’s own foremothers who worked for democratic participation in their day. Bringing home how very personal the political is, Jones finds Black women’s politics in parties, elections, government, and beyond. In churches and community institutions, in careers as teachers and journalists, they pursued an expansive vision of human rights and dignity.

It’s an informative, inspiring history, with hard-won gains contextualized with hard truths about our impaired democracy, and reminded me that the obligation to repair it belongs to us all.


Who am I?

After growing up in California, earning a PhD in Wisconsin, and having a stint as an academic in Colorado, I now teach United States history in beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand. I write books on 20th century U.S. politics, social movements, and popular culture. Along the way, I have found important political content, interactions, and struggle in unlikely spots, from community organizing to Hollywood gossip. In all my work, I find Americans drawing upon the ideological and material resources available to them—whether radicalism, conservatism, and liberalism, or social movements and popular culture—to construct and contest the meanings of citizenship.  


I wrote...

"Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

By Jennifer Frost,

Book cover of "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

What is my book about?

"Let Us Vote!" tells the story of the multifaceted endeavor to achieve youth voting rights in the United States. Over a thirty-year period starting during World War II, Americans, old and young, Democrat and Republican, in politics and culture, built a movement for the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 1971 was the last time that the United States significantly expanded voting rights, enfranchising tens of millions of young Americans since. 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this historic achievement and comes at a time when voting rights are under threat.

By remembering how and why the 26th Amendment came about and recognizing the citizens and campaigns that led the way, I hope my book can contribute to protecting our democracy today.

Unceasing Militant

By Alison M. Parker,

Book cover of Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

Unceasing Militant is the first-ever biography of Mary Church Terrell, a prominent activist who fought for gender and racial equality. She lived a long, noteworthy life. Terrell was born enslaved in 1863 and died in 1954 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools. She was among the first Black American women to complete a BA and an MA, and she became the first president of the National Association of Colored women in 1896. Terrell was a popular speaker, and--just like some of us--she also loved to wear fashionable hats and clothes. Terrell picketed the White House with suffragists in 1917 and picketed against segregation even when she was in her 80s! Alison Parker captures her fascinating life in this essential new biography.


Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.


I wrote...

Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

By Allison Lange,

Book cover of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

What is my book about?

For as long as women have battled for equitable political representation in America, those battles have been defined by images—whether illustrations, engravings, photographs, or colorful chromolithograph posters. Some of these pictures have been flattering, many have been condescending, and others downright incendiary. They have drawn upon prevailing cultural ideas of women’s perceived roles and abilities and often have been circulated with pointedly political objectives.

Picturing Political Power offers perhaps the most comprehensive analysis yet of the connection between images, gender, and power. This book demonstrates the centrality of visual politics to American women’s campaigns throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing the power of images to change history.

Sophonisba Breckinridge

By Anya Jabour,

Book cover of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

You might be surprised to learn that some prominent suffrage leaders had intimate relationships with women, including Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams. However, some of these women destroyed their papers to make it difficult for historians to learn about their personal lives (ahem, Anthony and Addams). Scholars are in the process of recovering these stories as much as possible, and Anya Jabour’s Sophonsiba Breckenridge gives us an amazing glimpse into one woman’s experiences. Born in 1868, Breckinridge became one of the first American women to earn a PhD in Political Science. She was a prominent social worker, peace activist, and women’s rights activist until she died in 1948. Breckinridge navigated the spotlight and same-sex relationships, and Jabour tells us how she did it.


Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.


I wrote...

Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

By Allison Lange,

Book cover of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

What is my book about?

For as long as women have battled for equitable political representation in America, those battles have been defined by images—whether illustrations, engravings, photographs, or colorful chromolithograph posters. Some of these pictures have been flattering, many have been condescending, and others downright incendiary. They have drawn upon prevailing cultural ideas of women’s perceived roles and abilities and often have been circulated with pointedly political objectives.

Picturing Political Power offers perhaps the most comprehensive analysis yet of the connection between images, gender, and power. This book demonstrates the centrality of visual politics to American women’s campaigns throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing the power of images to change history.

Ida B. the Queen

By Michelle Duster,

Book cover of Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells

You’ve probably heard of icon Ida B. Wells, but how much do you really know about her life? Wells actually knew Mary Church Terrell, and Terrell’s father even provided Wells with early financial support. Wells was a journalist who led the fight against the lynching of Black people. She left the South and moved to Chicago after white supremacists destroyed her newspaper office. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to advance the political interests of local Black women and marched in the first national suffrage parade in Washington, DC. In the beautifully illustrated Ida B. The Queen, Wells’s great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster, tells Wells’s life story. Duster details Wells’s place in current popular culture and the legacy of her social justice activism that still inspires us today.


Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.


I wrote...

Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

By Allison Lange,

Book cover of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

What is my book about?

For as long as women have battled for equitable political representation in America, those battles have been defined by images—whether illustrations, engravings, photographs, or colorful chromolithograph posters. Some of these pictures have been flattering, many have been condescending, and others downright incendiary. They have drawn upon prevailing cultural ideas of women’s perceived roles and abilities and often have been circulated with pointedly political objectives.

Picturing Political Power offers perhaps the most comprehensive analysis yet of the connection between images, gender, and power. This book demonstrates the centrality of visual politics to American women’s campaigns throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing the power of images to change history.

Common Sense and a Little Fire

By Annelise Orleck,

Book cover of Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965

Common Sense and a Little Fire is a group biography of four Jewish immigrant women who became important leaders in the labor movement and the New Deal: Rose Schneiderman, Fannia Cohn, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and Pauline Newman.  Building on their shared experiences growing up in New York City’s Lower East Side, these women challenged sexism in the labor movement and classism in the suffrage movement and became leaders in “industrial feminism,” which fused labor organizing and feminist activism. Annelise Orleck skillfully weaves together a variety of sources, including interviews with the women, as well as the women’s life stories to produce a compelling new history of working women’s activism.


Who am I?

I have always been drawn to biographies. Individual stories make the past personal. Biographies also transcend the usual boundaries of time and topic, illuminating multiple issues across an individual’s entire life course. I’m especially interested in feminist biography—not just biographies of feminists, but biographies that combine the personal and the political, showing how individuals’ personal experiences and intimate relationships shaped their professional choices and political careers. I also enjoy group biographies, especially when they weave multiple stories together to illuminate many facets of shared themes. Ideally, a great biography will introduce a reader to an interesting individual (or group of people) whose story illuminates important themes in their lifetime.


I wrote...

Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

By Anya Jabour,

Book cover of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America

What is my book about?

Sophonisba Breckinridge's remarkable career stretched from the Civil War to the Cold War. She took part in virtually every reform campaign of the Progressive and New Deal eras and became a nationally and internationally renowned figure. After earning advanced degrees in politics, economics, and law, Breckinridge established the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, which became a feminist think tank that promoted public welfare policy and propelled women into leadership positions.

In 1935, Breckinridge’s unremitting efforts to provide government aid to the dispossessed culminated in her appointment as an advisor on programs for the new Social Security Act. A longtime activist in international movements for peace and justice, Breckinridge also influenced the formation of the United Nations and advanced the idea that "women’s rights are human rights." Her lifelong commitment to social justice created a lasting legacy for generations of progressive activists.

Malala's Magic Pencil

By Malala Yousafzai, Kerascoët (illustrator),

Book cover of Malala's Magic Pencil

In Malala’s own kid’s eye view of the world, she tells how she yearned for a magic pencil, like the boy in a TV show she watched, so she could magically make the world a better place. One of the fortunate girls in Afghanistan who was sent to school because her parents believed strongly in education for women, she eventually realized she had that magic pencil already. Her words, her voice, could bring change. This is an empowering book for kids to see that they can make a difference in their world from one of the heroes of their time.


Who am I?

Technically, I’m a lawyer and pharmacy technician but I spend my time writing, mostly for kids. I'm inspired by a childhood in different countries as well as what’s currently occurring in our world. I delight in stories for all ages, believing that even adults can enjoy and learn from picture book biographies. At the very least, they provide jumping-off points for further research, and at best they inspire us to achieve the seemingly impossible.


I wrote...

Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song

By Kathryn Erskine, Charly Palmer (illustrator),

Book cover of Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song

What is my book about?

Miriam Makeba, a Grammy Award–winning South African singer, rose to fame in the hearts of her people at the pinnacle of apartheid―a brutal system of segregation similar to American Jim Crow laws. Mama Africa, as they called her, raised her voice to help combat these injustices at jazz clubs in Johannesburg; in exile, at a rally beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and before the United Nations.

Set defiantly in the present tense, this biography offers readers an intimate view of Makeba’s fight for equality. Kathryn Erskine’s call-and-response style text and Charly Palmer’s bold illustrations come together in a raw, riveting duet of protest song and praise poem. A testament to how a single voice helped to shake up the world―and can continue to do so.

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