10 Perspective-Shifting Biographies to Read This Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements, contributions, and strength of women across the ages. As an all-women team, we view Women’s History Month as an opportunity to draw inspiration from those who paved the way for this generation of women leaders.

But we weren’t always taught about our female forerunners in school. Studies have found that women are severely underrepresented in textbooks and educational materials. Perhaps that’s why exploring the story of an influential woman feels like the ideal activity to celebrate Women’s History Month. 

If you seek a riveting read, check out these 10 biographies that delve into the lives of women who’ve influenced areas as diverse as science, philosophy, literature, and art.

1. I, Tina – Tina Turner, with Kurt Loder

Tina Turner is legendary for her high-voltage dancing and growling vocals. The fact that she attained international rock superstardom in her late 40s is incredible in and of itself. However, once you learn her backstory — filled with neglect, abuse, and pain — you will find her perseverance and strength all the more remarkable.

In this autobiography, originally published in 1987, Turner takes control of her narrative for the first time. And while she has since released other books and participated in an excellent documentary film, this autobiography remains canon for Tina Turner fans everywhere.

2. American Eve – Paula Uruburu

Model, actress, and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit’s coming of age in the early 1900s coincided with the birth of tabloid culture in the United States. Her press coverage and modeling career were seemingly working in her favor until her jealous millionaire husband murdered her lover, and she became a caricature at the heart of the “Crime of the Century.”

Evelyn Nesbit in 1901. Photo by Otto Sarony.

Paula Uruburu’s book tells Nesbit’s story and explores how it set the stage for our culture’s continuing obsession with celebrity, sex, and scandal. Readers will surely see clear lines from Nesbit’s experience to modern women like Monica Lewinsky and Kim Kardashian.

3. Becoming Beauvoir: A Life – Kate Kirkpatrick

Today, Simone de Beauvoir is perhaps best known as the author of the feminist tome The Second Sex. But in her own day, her personal life often overshadowed her professional one. 

Beauvoir was the long-time partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom she maintained an open relationship. Their unconventional partnership subjected her to significant judgment from her peers and the public. Beauvoir was often dismissed as a mere parrot for Sartre’s ideas rather than being regarded as an intellectual in her own right.

Kate Kirkpatrick’s thorough biography seeks to give Beauvoir her proper due and tell the story of her life and work.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, a Black tobacco farmer who’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer went to an appointment at Johns Hopkins where, unbeknownst to her, the doctor scraped some cells from her tumor. 

The cells were placed in a dish and cultured, and they continued to grow. They went on to become the first “immortal” cell culture and are still in circulation today — helping to power medical research around the globe. They’ve been used to develop breakthroughs that include numerous chemotherapy drugs and in-vitro fertilization.

The woman who unwittingly donated her cells was named Henrietta Lacks, and despite the fact that 50 million metric tons of her cells have been cultured, sold, and used by scientists for decades, she was not compensated.

This statue of Henrietta Lacks features an inscription by her feet, “To all the unrecognized Black Women who have contributed to humanity, you will never be forgotten.” Image credit: 14GTR, via Wikimedia Commons.

Journalist Rebecca Skloot finally puts Lacks and her surviving family at the center of the story, highlighting her scientific and personal legacy in this remarkable book.

5. The Lady from the Black Lagoon – Mallory O’Meara

Milicent Patrick was a rare woman working in 1950s Hollywood when she created the villain at the heart of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But her pivotal role in the film went unheralded for decades until author Mallory O’Meara began digging and discovered a jealous male colleague had claimed credit for Patrick’s work.

This discovery led O’Meara on a quest to uncover what had happened to Patrick, who seemed to fade into obscurity after Black Lagoon. The findings of her journey are chronicled here.

6. Geisha: A Life – Mineko Iwasaki, with Rande Brown

You may not recognize the name Mineko Iwasaki, but if you read Memoirs of a Geisha or watched the blockbuster movie it inspired, you’re familiar with her story.

Iwasaki was interviewed by its author, Arthur Golden, and after his book was released she was shocked to see how closely the fictional narrative mirrored her life. 

This autobiography is her bid to reclaim her story and set the record straight about common misconceptions that persist about the geisha life and traditions.

7. Ninth Street Women – Mary Gabriel

When you think of post-war American art, which artists do you envision? As with most other periods throughout history, a parade of men’s names likely spring to mind — perhaps you think of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, or Mark Rothko.

Mary Gabriel focused her attention on the women who contributed to the Abstract Expressionist movement in the late 1940s and 1950s in New York. To do so, she followed the stories of five painters: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler (three of whom were married to famous male artists of the time).

Elaine de Kooning in 1974. Image source: Rochester Institute of Technology, via Wikimedia Commons.

Her book delves into the personal lives and artistic legacies of these pivotal female figures who shaped the American art scene.

8. West with the Night – Beryl Markham

If you prefer stories with high-stakes adventure and beautiful prose, Beryl Markham’s autobiography is just what you seek.

Markham was born in England at the turn of the 20th century, but when her family moved to Kenya when she was a child, it altered the course of her life forever. 

She became an adventurer who undertook jobs like training racehorses and scouting elephants from a plane. She also became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west.

Beryl Markham in an undated photo.

More than a daring career woman, Markham was also a beautiful writer. Upon reading her book, contemporary Earnest Hemingway wrote to his editor, “[She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book.”

9. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy – Karen Abbott

A spate of television dramas and historical novels have covered the topic of women spies during World War II. Karen Abbott explores women in spycraft during a much earlier era. 

Her Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy follows the adventures of four women secret agents operating during the American Civil War.

Each woman had her motives and methods. One dressed as a boy to serve as an army nurse and spy for the Union; another was a Confederate supporter living in DC and seducing well-connected men to gather intelligence for the South.

Their stories illustrate the political agency women ferreted out for themselves long before they were given the right to vote.

10. Mary Shelley – Miranda Seymour

Mary Shelley is perhaps best known as the author of Frankenstein, the Gothic novel that remains one of the most famous examples of the genre.

But Shelley’s own life was no less dramatic than the stories she penned. Shelley’s parents were intellectuals and radicals, and she was raised by her father after her mother died 11 days after giving birth to her.

Portrait of Mary Shelley. Image credit: Richard Rothwell, via Wikimedia Commons.

When her father remarried, Shelley clashed with her stepmother and left home as a teenager to run off with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hardship followed her abroad; by age 25, she was a widower who’d lost three of her four children. But she remained a prolific writer into her later years while also dedicating herself to publishing her late husband’s work and raising her surviving son.

Miranda Seymour’s biography offers a detailed exploration of Shelley’s story of survival and grit.