When I had three kids ages 3 and under, we spent a lot of time at the park. We lived in a small apartment with no backyard and not much space for three energetic boys, so the park was a lifesaver for me: the kids could run around to their heart’s content and I could snatch a few minutes to read. In the midst of endless diapers and laundry, half an hour with a book was a treasure, a sweet little escape that helped me be a better mom to my kids the rest of the day. And so every afternoon you’d see me standing at the swings, holding a book in one hand and pushing a child with the other. It wasn’t so bad when I was only pushing one kid, but when I was pushing two at a time it got really tricky, and when I was pushing all three I had to give up on my book altogether.
These days I’ve gotten smart; I listen to audiobooks when I’m at the park with my kids. Listening to an audiobook makes it much easier for me to enjoy my book and keep an eye on my little ones at the same time! I listen to books while I run errands and fold laundry, too.
In honor of all the times reading has helped me as a mom, and the fact that this month is Women’s History Month, today I’m sharing 7 books that tell the stories of amazing real life women. Now, for those of you who, like me, are a wee bit skeptical of non-fiction (I just want a good story!), let me assure you that every one of these books held my interest from start to finish. Here are 7 books about incredible, real life women:
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
If you’re anything like me, you saw this incredible movie a few months ago and have been wanting to know more about the black women who helped the United States with the space race ever since. I’ve been listening to this audiobook this week and I’ve loved hearing a whole lot more of the story. One of my main questions as I watched the movie was how did so many black women come to have such influence in the biggest scientific undertaking in the country’s history in the state of Virginia, one of the most prejudiced areas of the country? I mean, some public schools in Virginia remained closed for five years after the federal mandate to integrate because whites would prefer their own children to have no education at all rather than go to school with black students. And at the very same time, black mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were not only working at NASA, they were instrumental in helping to break the sound barrier and send a man into orbit around the earth. Their contribution, especially considering the social challenges they faced, is astounding.
I have loved listening to this one! The stories are fascinating, the history is enlightening, and the narration by Robin Miles is top notch. If you’d like to listen to this book (or another one) for free, head over to Audible and sign up for a 30-day trial. You’ll be able to download your first audiobook absolutely free!
Below Stairs by Margaret Powell
If you’ve ever watched the depiction of servants’ life in shows like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs and wondered how accurate it is, this book is for you. This is the memoir of a real-life kitchen maid that was said to have inspired both of those shows, and it’s a hoot! Margaret tells us about her early life, growing up with almost nothing but a loving family and lots of green grass to run around in. She describes the hardships of her life so matter of factly that at the same time you realize just how difficult life was for many of the “lower” classes at the turn of the century, you also realize people can be happy with very little in the way of money or possessions. She describes her jobs as a kitchen maid and cook with many different families, revealing much about how the “upper class” functioned at the time. While the account isn’t as polished as most books I read (Margaret left school at 13 to start earning her own way), it’s honest, lively, hilarious, and poignant at the same time. For example this is her explanation of why poor people had so many children in those days:
You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It costs nothing – at least at the time when you were actually making the children. The fact that it would cost you something later on, well, the working-class people never looked ahead in those days. They didn’t dare. It was enough to live for the present.
After the success of her first book, Margaret Powell wrote three or four more, and now they are all on my to-read list!
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
I’m ashamed to admit I often don’t follow the news, meaning I’m not nearly as informed about things happening in the world as I ought to be. I knew about the Taliban occupation of Afghanistan, but I didn’t really know what that meant. This book tells the true story of Kamila Sidiqi, and Afghan woman whose life changes dramatically when the Taliban seized control. Instead of working as a teacher, Kamila is confined to her home, along with the other women in the country. Overnight, they are no longer allowed to leave their homes without a male relative and are subject to violence and brutality if they show any skin in public. Additionally, her parents and older brother are forced to flee, leaving Kamila with her five sisters and 13 year old brother. Desperate for a way to break the monotony of her life and figure out how to support her family, Kamila starts a dressmaking business despite the risks involved. Her business blossoms and she eventually starts a school to help other women learn the skills needed to support themselves. Her story is both eye-opening and inspiring.
Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth
I have watched all five seasons of this show on PBS, but have just finally gotten around to reading the memoirs that inspired them. Amazing women abound in these stories, from the midwives that are such a part of the community to the women of the East End who work so hard to care for their families, often with so little. I simply can’t believe that these stories were real life just sixty years ago. Jennifer Worth does an amazing job mixing memorable stories of real women in with just enough history to give you an idea of just how important the midwives were to the community their served. The midwives worked in the poorest areas, helping those who had little access to medical care, and saved thousands of mothers and babies (before the midwives were organized, almost 40% of mothers and 60% of babies in the poorest areas of Britain died!). NOTE: some difficult to read subject matter.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
In 1951 a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks visits Johns Hopkins hospital, where she is diagnosed with cervical cancer. At this time, doctors were trying, and failing, to create a line of human cells that would regenerate eternally. They knew an immortal cell line would be of invaluable worth to their research and have an incredible impact on medicine in general, but they just couldn’t seem to make it work. Until Henrietta arrived at their hospital, that is. A sample of Henrietta’s cervical tissue begins to grow at an extraordinary rate. While Henrietta gets sicker and sicker, and eventually dies (perhaps as a result of subpar care given to her because she was black) the doctors working with her tissue are making the most extraordinary and impactful discovery in recent medical history, all without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent.
Thirty years later Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa, had been vital in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. HeLa cells are being bought and sold across the world, changing the face of medicine and earning huge amounts of money for the scientists that have developed them. All the while Henrietta’s posterity lives in poverty, unable to afford health insurance, while Henrietta’s name has been forgotten. This book is the record of what happens when Rebecca Skloot decides Henrietta’s story needs to be told.
These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner
This book, which is one of my absolute favorites, is actually a work of fiction; however, the story and main character is based on the real-life adventures of the author’s great grandmother. We first meet our heroine, Sarah Agnes Prine, when she’s a 17 year old traveling with her family through the Arizona Territories. Over the course of the book we see her fight to defend her family from Indians, struggle through the hardships of living on the frontier, teach herself to read, fall in love, and become an incredible, tenacious mother. I wonder sometimes when I read books like this if I’d ever be able to make if through the challenges these amazing frontier women faced. The book is absolutely riveting, not to mention one of the best love stories I’ve ever read, so don’t pick it up unless you can clear your schedule. And yes, it’s going to make you cry, but it’s entirely worth it!
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
I read this entire book before realizing it’s based on a true story! Mary Bowser was a real person, a freed slave who returns to Virginia at the outset of the Civil War to spy for the North at great personal risk. We meet Mary Bowser as a young slave who has to hide her ability to read from her Master. When he dies and his progressive daughter inherits the estate, she frees Mary and sends her up North to be educated, where Mary begins to build a life she never expected. But when war breaks out, Mary is willing to risk her freedom and everything else to return to Richmond to see what she can do to help the Union’s cause. She poses as a slave and ends up working in Robert E. Lee’s household, where her ability to read and near photographic memory mean she’s doing much more than just cleaning the general’s office. This is an incredible story about a woman who helped the Union win the Civil War.
I’d love to hear what you’re reading or listening to right now, so leave me a comment! I am always looking for new books. And don’t forget to visit Audible to sign up for your free 30-day trial and receive your first audiobook for FREE. My family loves Audible! I listen to books while I’m at the park with my kids, driving around town, or cleaning my house (sometimes the only way I can convince myself to scrub my shower is to put a great audiobook on). It’s a really wonderful way to keep up with all the great new books I want to read but don’t have time for. Happy listening!
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Audible. The opinions and text are all mine.