When I’m feeling unsettled, I like to dive into biographies of incredible women. I am feeling very unsettled right now, and I’m guessing you are, too. So here are six recommendations of what to read right now.
If you’re looking for ways to order these books or any other titles, check to see if your local bookstore is offering curbside pickup or delivery.
Talk about a comeback story. Juliette Gordon Low was accidentally deafened in one ear when a grain of rice thrown during her wedding got stuck in her ear. The man she married turned out to be a bit of a lout — while she was out of town, he moved his mistress into their home. After he died, she founded the Girl Scouts, which now has 1.7 million members around the world (and if you’re lucky, you’ve got some of their cookies in your stockpile right now). The organization was inspired by the Girl Guides in England, which was started by the Agnes Smyth Baden-Powell, the sister of Boy Scouts founder Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Gordon Low set up troops in London and Scotland, then came back to the United States to start the Girl Scouts here. Her constant butting of heads with Baden-Powell are some of the best parts of the book (a head butting that still continues today).
Mailhot grew up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. Her grandmother went through the residential school system, which separated indigenous families from their families. Trauma continued through her mother and to herself, including her mother’s boyfriends, who abused the children, and a father who went to jail after abducting a girl. After aging out of foster care at 17, she got married, but of course marriage doesn’t solve everything. It’s a heavy book, and it’s won a slew of recognition and awards, including the Spalding Prize for the Promotion of Peace and Justice in Literature and Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Nonfiction for a reason.
When Henrietta Lacks underwent radiation treatment for cervical cancer in 1951, a sample of her cells was sent to a lab, as many samples were. Most of those samples died quickly, but hers lived, and doubled every 20 to 24 hours. Those cells became known has the HeLa and became an important medical tool, leading to development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, to name just a few. But Lacks herself? She died of her disease, and her role in the advancement of medicine left unrecognized. When Skloot tracked down her descendants, they couldn’t afford health insurance. It’s an engrossing read (And if you’re having trouble focusing on reading right now, there’s an HBO movie of the same name).
Just about everything you know about Katherine Hepburn is probably wrong, as outlined in this exhaustive look at the star’s life.
For example, her relationship with Spenser Tracy? Not the paragon of love. Walking around in pants? It wasn’t just a fashion statement. This book was published in 2007; and most likely, the language used about her fluid sexuality and gender identification would be different if it was written today (at age 10, she lived as a boy named Jimmy and told Barbara Walters in that “I’ve lived my life as a man.”) Just something to keep in mind as you read.
Earlier this week, we saw the first official set photos from the upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” including one of Rita Moreno, who burst onto the American movie scene in the 1961 original film. There’s no better time to dive into her memoir (which is also available as an audiobook that she reads herself). Moreno was born in Puerto Rico and at age 5 moved to the Bronx, then made her Broadway debut at age 13 in “Skydrift.” Despite winning an academy award in for “West Side Story,” she still found herself being typecast in roles designated as nonwhite, a frustration she writes about alongside stories of rife sexism in Hollywood (plus her relationships with Marlon Brando and Elvis) She’s brutally honest, and funny, and it’ll make you want to watch “One Day at a Time” all over again (the first three season are on Netflix; the fourth season will debut on Pop! on March 24).
Elizabeth Smith was a Shakespeare expert who had a knack for solving puzzles. She turned that knack into a world changing effort: code breaking. First, she used her skills to bust up gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition. Then she became a code breaker for the U.S. government during World War II. Her work took down a Nazi spy rings in South America and cracked multiple versions of the famed German Enigma machine. Her husband, William Friedman took down the Japanese version of the Enigma code and received accolades for his work all his life while Elizabeth Friedman stayed in the shadows — until now, through Fagone’s deep and detailed biography, which includes diagrams of the codes themselves, and how she broke them.