March is the annual declared month to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. It’s a broad remit, which is why there are so many options of books to read for Women’s History Month. From world leaders and household names to quiet achievers and relative unknowns, so much of our world and culture has been shaped by the contributions of women – check them out.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama made history as the first ever black First Lady of the United States of America (related, obviously, to her husband Barack becoming the first black President). In Becoming, she describes her life up to and including her time in the White House. Now, of course, the market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated, but there’s something special about this autobiography. It sold 725,000 copies on the first day of release, and 1.4 million in its first week. And people didn’t stop clambering for this story, even after the initial buzz died down. If you haven’t already, this is one of the imperative books to read for Women’s History Month. Read my full review of Becoming here.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
For a while there, the name Brock Turner featured in every headline around the world. The woman he assaulted was simply known as “Jane Doe” or “his victim” (or, worse, barely mentioned at all). Chanel Miller changed the game when she published Know My Name, her account of the crime Turner perpetrated against her, and the trauma she experienced in reporting and prosecuting it. It occurred to me as I read her memoir that this was the first time I’d ever encountered such a detailed explanation of what actually happens when a victim-survivor reports sexual violence. If you’re looking for #MeToo-era books to read for Women’s History Month, this is an excellent choice. Read my full review of Know My Name here.
Bonus recommendation: you must read She Said for an account of the investigative journalists that brought Harvey Weinstein’s crimes to light. Read my full review of She Said here.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Putting a man on the moon was one of the defining events of 20th century history – but, until Margot Lee Shetterly wrote Hidden Figures, very little was known (if anything at all) about the (mostly black) women who made it happen. This book explains the role that these “human computers” played in the space race and getting Apollo 11 to launch. This is a phenomenal true story that speaks to broader issues of segregation, racism, and the changing roles of women after WWII. Read my full review of Hidden Figures here.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
If you’re rolling your eyes at the idea that Little Women is one of THE books to read for Women’s History Month, stop right now! For too long, Louisa May Alcott’s best-known work has been roundly dismissed as sentimental guff, “moral stories for girls”. The fact is, it’s a masterpiece of subversion written by a true feminist before her time. Alcott was backed into a corner, writing whatever would sell to support her family (including her layabout father). She wasn’t one to go down to the patriarchy without a fight, however, and so she found ways to sneak her feminist agenda into her story about the March sisters. Get yourself a copy with a well-rounded and informative introduction to properly contextualise this classic before you write it off. Read my full review of Little Women here.
The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Anne Frank was thirteen years old, cloistered in a tiny attic hiding from the Gestapo with her family, when she began keeping a diary. She detailed her day-to-day life, her thoughts and dreams for the future, with no idea that it would one day – long after her family’s location was betrayed and she was sent to a concentration camp, where she later died – be read by millions around the world. It’s now considered one of the definitive Holocaust texts, as well as a heart-wrenching and eye-opening read. With the resurgence of fascist ideologies of late, The Diary Of A Young Girl is sadly one of the timeliest books to read for Women’s History Month.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Jack The Ripper is one of the most famous – and infamous – unidentified serial killers in history. In the autumn of 1888, he terrorised the streets of Whitechapel, and over a century later we’re still obsessed by his crimes (see: the new book released every few years that claims to have definitively identified the man behind the moniker). His victims have been variously described as servants, charwomen, “prostitutes”, alcoholics, and beggars. Alarmingly few true crime hobbyists even know the names of these women, let alone the true stories of their lives before they met the man who killed them. Hallie Rubenhold set out to fill this awful gap in the archive in The Five. This is undoubtedly one of most important true crime books to read for Women’s History Month.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Honestly, it’s hard to believe that science fiction became such a male-dominated genre for so long, when the first ever sci-fi book was written by a woman who was bored at Lord Byron’s party. Yep, that’s right, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein – the book that began it all – when rain dampened the party’s spirits, and Byron challenged everyone to write the scariest story they could imagine. It’s all the more impressive when you delve into Shelley’s history: a teenager swept away by an older man, devastated by loss, and constantly under threat of debt and illness. She poured all of that trauma into this story of a monster made by man, who simply wants what we all want – love and respect (and revenge on our enemies). Read my full review of Frankenstein here.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks is one of those names that really everyone should know – but almost no one does. Or, at least, no one did, prior to the 2010 publication of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. Until then, she was mostly known as “HeLa”, the name given to her cancer cells which were used to used to create the first ever “immortal” human tissue grown in culture. That means the title of this book isn’t metaphorical: Henrietta’s cells are still alive, trillions of them and growing, in laboratories all around the world. The poor, black, Southern tobacco farmer from whom they were unethically sourced should be a household name, which is why this is one of the books you should read for Women’s History Month. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
If you’re looking for history-making books to read for Women’s History Month, you should try Girl, Woman, Other. In 2019, this book made Bernardine Evaristo the first-ever Black woman to win the Booker Prize (though, it unfortunately must be said, that win was marred by controversy being shared, contrary to Booker Prize rules, with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments). Even aside from its history-making aspect, though, it’s a cracking read about twelve characters (“mostly women, mostly black”) who are interconnected by various relationships and connections. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.
Bonus recommendation: With Milkman, Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish writer to win the Booker Prize in 2018. Read my full review of Milkman here.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
What if Hillary had never married Bill? That’s the tantalising question at the heart of Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s alternative history of one of America’s most recognisable and politically powerful couples. The story begins the way it did in real life, with Hillary an activist and ‘promising young woman’ attending Yale Law School. But instead of relenting to Bill’s barrage of proposals, Sittenfeld’s fictional Hillary rejects his offers of marriage and leaves him, forging a public (and private) life of her own. If you’re still flummoxed by the result of the 2016 Presidential election, this is one of the books you must read for Women’s History Month.
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
I know the Netflix adaptation has been controversial (to say the least), but Blonde is still definitely worth reading – in fact, it’s one of my top books to read for Women’s History Month. There was definitely a lot lost in translation to the screen, namely Oates’s careful scrutiny of the causes of Marilyn Monroe’s trauma and the way we exploit and objectify women in the public eye. The book has far less sexy sensationalism, and more putting the onus on the reader to interrogate their role and perspective. This is a powerful portrait of an extraordinary and heart-breaking reality – be sure to check the trigger warnings before you dive in.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Okay, it’s probably a bit redundant to include I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in a list of books to read for Women’s History Month – I mean, isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t everyone know about this book? Just in case there’s one or two hold-outs out there: this is Maya Angelou’s iconic 1969 autobiography, describing her youth and upbringing. It depicts a radical transformation, from a nervous young girl subjected to racism and abuse to a self-possessed young woman with hope and determination. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
If you’re looking for more true crime books to read for Women’s History Month (or, at least, books based on real crimes), Alias Grace is worth checking out. In this 1996 novel, Atwood offers her interpretation of the real life and crimes of Grace Marks. She and another servant in the same household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Was she actually guilty, or was she wrongfully imprisoned? Atwood has her own theories… Read my full review of Alias Grace here.
Victoria by Julia Baird
For better or worse, Queen Victoria is one of the most significant female figures in political history – which surely makes Victoria, Julia Baird’s fascinating and meticulously-researched biography of Britain’s revolutionary monarch, one of the most important books to read for Women’s History Month. Even though royal biographies are a dime a dozen, this one is something special. Baird accessed previously unpublished papers and spent years researching every minute detail to bring this vivid portrait of the politically powerful Queen to life. It’s particularly impressive the parallels she finds in Queen V’s life to women’s struggles today: balancing work and family, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, and finding an identity.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Pride And Prejudice is undoubtedly a classic of English literature, one of the most important novels written by a writer of any gender. But, if you’re anything like me, reading it (and contemporaneous books) leaves you wondering: what about all the hidden figures in the story, the unnamed servants and household staff who wash the sheets our heroines sleep in, clean the clothes they wear, and cook the food they eat? These domestic supports were usually women, after all, and they surely had stories that deserve just as much time in the spotlight. That’s the philosophy underlying Longbourn, Jo Baker’s re-telling of Austen’s classic romance, redirecting the reader to what happens behind the scene.
Bonus recommendation: of course, the experience of reading Longbourn is enhanced if you’re familiar with the original text. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
It wouldn’t be a list of books to read for Women’s History Month if we didn’t have at least one or two of the foundational texts of second-wave feminism. Yes, many of them have been totally superseded, but how can we get where we’re going if we don’t know where we’re coming from? Simone de Beauvoir was an early 20th century existentialist who advanced feminist philosophy through her fiction and non-fiction. The Second Sex was her truly groundbreaking book, though, one that informed and inspired a generation on the path to gender equality. You know it must be good because it was banned by the Vatican(!).
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
When it comes to books to read for Women’s History Month, you can’t skip the world’s best-selling woman! Agatha Christie sold over 300 million books during her lifetime, and at the time of her passing she was the best-selling novelist in history – but that was only the beginning! According to no lesser authority than the Guinness Book Of World Records, Christie is still the best-selling fiction writer of all time, with over two billion books sold in more than 100 languages. I highly recommend And Then There Were None for first-timers, a locked-room mystery with ten strangers stranded on a remote island, murdered one-by-one. Read my full review of And Then There Were None here.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Most of us think of the ’60s as a time of free love and hippie head garlands, but they were also a time of major social upheaval. Gender roles were evolving rapidly, but men still dominated in many areas. In The Girls, Emma Cline reimagines that world and that time, with a focus on the ways in which women’s relationships with each other – as opposed to their relationships with men – informed the way they moved in the world. Drawing on the crimes of the Manson family as her inspiration, this story is like a modern-day fable with startling psychological and sociological insight.
She Speaks by Yvette Cooper (ed.)
She Speaks is a collection of forty women’s speeches that changed the course of history. UK Labour MP Yvette Cooper curated this selection, and in her blurb she wrote: “Looking at lists of the greatest speeches of all time, you might think that powerful oratory is the preserve of men. But the truth is very different – countless brave and bold women have used their voices to inspire change, transform lives, and radically alter history.” My favourites include speeches by Sojourner Truth, Marie Colvin, Julia Gillard, Kavita Krishnan, Michelle Obama, and Jacinda Ardern. Read my full review of She Speaks here.
Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
And finally, here’s one of the books to read for Women’s History Month at any age: Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls. This children’s book offers 100 beautifully illustrated stories about extraordinary women who changed the world. Each biography is told fairytale-style, but with fewer Prince Charmings and more The Princess Rescued Her Own Damn Self. The diverse contents list includes Amelia Earhart (aviator), Frida Kahlo (painter), Malala Yousafzai (activist), Julia Child (chef), Marie Curie (scientist), Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Supreme Court Justice), and more. Parents and caregivers will get just as much out of this amazing collection as the kids!