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Ladies Lead the Way: 8 Stories of Unconventional Women Who Transformed the World

by  | August 18
Fists raised in their air

With 2020 marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, and today specifically marking its ratification, we’re celebrating by reading the stories of ladies who led the way towards great change in their worlds. This roundup is filled with stories of unconventional women (real and fictional) who defied social norms and took action. May they serve as inspiration for anyone reading looking to make trouble and make change.

Stranger in the Shogun's City

Stranger in the Shogun's City

by Amy Stanley

 The daughter of a Buddhist priest, Tsuneno was born in a rural Japanese village and was expected to live a traditional life much like her mother’s. But after three divorces—and a temperament much too strong-willed for her family’s approval—she ran away to make a life for herself in one of the largest cities in the world: Edo, a bustling metropolis at its peak. During this pivotal moment in Japanese history, Tsuneno bounces from tenement to tenement, marries a masterless samurai, and eventually enters the service of a famous city magistrate. Tsuneno’s life provides a window into 19th-century Japanese culture—and a rare view of an extraordinary woman who sacrificed her family and her reputation to make a new life for herself, in defiance of social conventions.

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Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?

Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?

by Tina Cassidy

Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? weaves together two storylines: the trajectories of Alice Paul and Woodrow Wilson, two apparent opposites. Paul’s procession of suffragists resulted in Alice being granted a face-to-face meeting with President Wilson, one that would lead to many meetings and much discussion, but little progress for women. With no equality in sight and patience wearing thin, Paul organized the first group to ever picket in front of the White House lawn—night and day, through sweltering summer mornings and frigid fall nights. From solitary confinement, hunger strikes, and the psychiatric ward to ever more determined activism, this book reveals the courageous, near-death journey it took, spearheaded in no small part by Alice Paul’s leadership, to grant women the right to vote in America.

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She Came to Slay

She Came to Slay

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Harriet Tubman is best known as one of the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad. As a leading abolitionist, her bravery and selflessness has inspired generations in the continuing struggle for civil rights. Now, National Book Award nominee Erica Armstrong Dunbar presents a fresh take on this American icon blending traditional biography, illustrations, photos, and engaging sidebars that illuminate the life of Tubman as never before.

Not only did Tubman help liberate hundreds of slaves, she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War, worked as a spy for the Union Army, was a fierce suffragist, and was an advocate for the aged. She Came to Slay reveals the many complexities and varied accomplishments of one of our nation’s true heroes and offers an accessible and modern interpretation of Tubman’s life that is both informative and engaging.

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My Notorious Life

My Notorious Life

by Kate Manning

Meet the incomparable Axie Muldoon. Axie’s story begins on the streets of 1860s New York. The impoverished child of Irish immigrants, she grows up to become one of the wealthiest and most controversial women of her day. In vivid prose, Axie recounts how she is forcibly separated from her mother and siblings, apprenticed to a doctor, and how she and her husband parlay the sale of a few bottles of “Lunar Tablets for Female Complaint” into a thriving midwifery business. Flouting convention and defying the law in the name of women’s rights, Axie rises from grim tenement rooms to the splendor of a mansion on Fifth Avenue, amassing wealth while learning over and over never to trust a man who says “trust me.”

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The Lady of Sing Sing

The Lady of Sing Sing

by Idanna Pucci

With all the passion and pathos of a classic opera, The Lady of Sing Sing chronicles the riveting first campaign against the death penalty waged in 1895 by American pioneer activist, Cora Slocomb, Countess of Brazzà, to save the life of a twenty-year-old illiterate Italian immigrant, Maria Barbella, who killed the man who had abused her. This dramatic page-turner, interwoven with twists and unexpected turns, grapples with the tragedy of immigration, capital punishment, ethnic prejudice, criminal justice, corporate greed, violence against women, and a woman’s right to reject the role of victim.

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We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders

We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders

by Linda Sarsour

From the Brooklyn bodega her father owned, where Linda learned the real meaning of intersectionality, to protests in the streets of Washington, DC, Linda’s experience as a daughter of Palestinian immigrants is a moving portrayal of what it means to find one’s voice and use it for the good of others. We follow Linda as she learns the tenets of successful community organizing, and through decades of fighting for racial, economic, gender, and social justice, as she becomes one of the most recognized activists in the nation. We also see her honoring her grandmother’s dying wish, protecting her children, building resilient friendships, and mentoring others even as she loses her first mentor in a tragic accident. Throughout, she inspires you to take action as she reaffirms that we are not here to be bystanders.

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Surpassing Certainty

Surpassing Certainty

by Janet Mock

Fueled by her dreams and an inimitable drive, Janet makes her way through New York City intent on building a career in the highly competitive world of magazine publishing—within the unique context of being trans, a woman, and a person of color. Hers is a timely glimpse about the barriers many face—and a much-needed guide on how to make a way out of no way. Long before she became one of the world’s most respected media figures and lauded leaders for equality and justice, Janet learned how to advocate for herself before becoming an advocate for others.

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Suffrage

Suffrage

by Ellen Carol DuBois

Honoring the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, this book explores the full scope of the movement to win the vote for women through portraits of its bold leaders and devoted activists. Distinguished historian Ellen Carol DuBois begins in the pre-Civil War years with foremothers Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth as she chronicles the links of the woman suffrage movement to the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War, Congress granted freed African American men the right to vote but not white and African American women, a crushing disappointment. DuBois shows how suffrage leaders persevered through the Jim Crow years into the reform era of Progressivism. She introduces new champions Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, who brought the fight to the 20th century, and she shows how African American women, led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, demanded voting rights even as white suffragists ignored them.

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