Life Stories of Remarkable Women

March is Women’s History Month. It’s also National Reading Month! If our last post put you in the mood to read more biographies of women, the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library’s shelves are bursting with possibilities. Discover the fascinating lives of a 1st-century C.E. Jewish ruler, a neo-Platonist mathematician, an 18th-century Italian physicist, a 19th-century samurai grandmother, a dozen under-appreciated British philosophers, a Mexican independence fighter, a Sufi spy in Nazi-occupied Paris, an agnostic French Jew who became a Christian mystic, a Zimbabwean painter, a Black Canadian science fiction writer, and many, many more.

Here are a few recent biographies that jumped out at me:

Book jacket image: Woman who raised the BuddhaWendy Garling, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, Publications, Inc., 2021)
  • Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the Buddha’s stepmother and maternal aunt and, according to tradition, the first woman to take Buddhist monastic vows.
Tal Ilan, Queen Berenice: A Jewish Female Icon of the First Century CE (Leiden ; Brill, 2022)
  • Daughter of King Agrippa I, sister of King Agrippa II, wife of two kings and lover of the emperor designate Flavius Titus, Berenice was an eye-witness to the emergence of Christianity and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Silvia Ronchey, Hypatia: The True Story (Berlin ; De Gruyter, 2023)
  • In-depth study of the neo-Platonist astronomer and mathematician known as a “martyr for philosophy” after she was murdered by a mob of angry Christians.
book jacket image: Laura Bassi - The World's First WOmen Professor in Natural PhilosophyL. Cifarelli and Raffaella Simili, Laura Bassi – the World’s First Woman Professor in Natural Philosophy: An Iconic Physicist in Enlightenment Italy (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2020)

Bassi was the first woman to be appointed a professor in physics at a European university (the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna).

Alison Stone, Women Philosophers in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: University Press, 2023)
  • Collective biography of Mary Shepherd, Harriet Martineau, Ada Lovelace, George Eliot, Frances Power Cobbe, Helena Blavatsky, Julia Wedgwood, Victoria Welby, Arabella Buckley, Annie Besant, Vernon Lee, and Constance Naden.

Book jacket image: Koume's World

Simon Partner, Koume’s World: The Life and Work of a Samurai Woman before and after the Meiji Restoration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2024)
  • Poet, painter, and wife, mother, and grandmother of samurai, Kawai Koume kept a diary for 50 tumultuous years of Japanese history.
Silvia Marina Arrom, La Güera Rodríguez: The Life and Legends of a Mexican Independence Heroine (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2021)
  • María Ignacia Rodríguez de Velasco de Osorio Barba y Bello Pereyra, known as “La Güera, is a controversial figure in Mexican history –a wealthy society woman who may or may not have played a role in Mexican independence, but certainly lived a fascinating life.
Ilyon Woo, Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023)
  • Ellen Craft escaped from slavery (and rescued her husband William) in 1848, by disguising herself as a wealthy disabled white man.
Arthur J. Magida, Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2020).
  • Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, daughter of the Indian Muslim spiritual teacher Inayat Khan, was a secret agent for the British in occupied France in the summer of 1943.  She was captured by the Nazis and executed at Dachau on September 13, 1944.

Image of Noor Inayat Khan (Wikimedia)

Noor Inayat Khan, image from the Imperial War Museums (Wikimedia)

Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021).
  • Historian of existentialism Zaretsky’s take on the life and thought of Simone Weil, French philosopher, social activist, and Christian mystic of Jewish origins, probably focuses more on philosophy than biography. For straightforward biography, Simone Weil: A Life by Simone Pétrement (1976) is a better introduction, according to the Oxford Bibliographies Online entry about Weil by David Levy.
Caroline Moorehead, Mussolini’s Daughter: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2022)
Nalo Hopkinson and Isiah Lavender, Conversations with Nalo Hopkinson (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2023)
  • 21 interviews with Jamaican-born Canadian contemporary science fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson.

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman, Heir to the Crescent Moon (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2021).

  • Autobiography of an African American woman and her journey back to Islam after her parents distanced themselves from the Black Muslim movement.
Portia Zvavahera (New York, New York: David Zwirner Books, 2023).
  • Primarily an exhibition catalog, but includes a substantial autobiographical interview with contemporary Zimbabwean painter Zvavahera.
Book jacket image: Sakya Jetsunmas
Elisabeth A. Benard, The Sakya Jetsunmas: The Hidden World of Tibetan Female Lamas (Boulder, Colorado: Snow Lion, 2022)
  • Collective biography of a family of Tibetan women meditation masters, Jetsunma Chime Tenpai Nyima (1756-ca. 1855), Jetsunma Tamdrin Wangmo (1836-96), Kyabgon Pema Trinlei (1874-ca. 1950), Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding (b. 1938), and Jetsunma Kunga Trinley (b. 2007).
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