At Intellectual Takeout, we strive to offer not only commentary on current events but also tangible advice for engaging with our increasingly chaotic world. That’s why we’re proud to present this ongoing series of literature recommendations.
This week’s entries feature extraordinary women and the history they lived through. From monarchs to scholars to pioneers, the women behind these letters, diaries, and biographies have led incredible lives.
Read the previous list here.
1. Catherine the Great. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great. 1859.
“Empress Catherine II brought Europe to Russia, and Russia to Europe, during her long and eventful reign. … She fostered the culture of the Enlightenment and greatly expanded the immense empire created by Czar Ivan the Terrible, shifting the balance of power in Europe eastward. Famous for her will to power and for her dozen lovers, Catherine was also a prolific and gifted writer.”
2. Abigail Adams and John Adams. My Dearest Friend. 1840.
“In 1762, John Adams penned a flirtatious note to “Miss Adorable,” the 17-year-old Abigail Smith. In 1801, Abigail wrote to wish her husband John a safe journey as he headed home to Quincy after serving as president of the nation he helped create. The letters that span these nearly forty years form the most significant correspondence—and reveal one of the most intriguing and inspiring partnerships—in American history.”
3. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. A Midwife’s Tale. 1990.
“Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society.”
4. Harriet Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861.
“The true story of an individual’s struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs … whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.”
5. Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria in Her Letters and Journals. 1985.
“This revealing selection from the Queen’s papers provides essential clues to her character, tracing her development from shy princess to the formidable and uncompromising grande dame of Europe. How did she feel on hearing that she had become queen? How close was she to her eldest grandchild, who became Kaiser Wilhelm II? Why was she so reluctant to yield the crown to her son and heir, the future King Edward VII?”
6. Ève Curie. Madame Curie: A Biography. 1937.
“Marie Skłodowska Curie … was the first woman scientist to win worldwide acclaim and was, indeed, one of the great scientists of the twentieth century. Written by Curie’s daughter, … this biography chronicles Curie’s legendary achievements in science, including her pioneering efforts in the study of radioactivity and her two Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. It also spotlights her remarkable life, from her childhood in Poland, to her storybook Parisian marriage to fellow scientist Pierre Curie, to her tragic death from the very radium that brought her fame.”
7. Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Letters of a Woman Homesteader. 1914.
“This classic account of American frontier living captures the rambunctious spirit of a pioneer who set out in 1909 to prove that a woman could ranch. A series of letters make for a fascinating narrative and descriptive journal of Mrs. Stewart’s life, moving from the city to a Wyoming homestead. … Stewart’s captivating missives bring to full life the beauty, isolation, and joys of working the prairie.”
8. Heda Margolius Kovály. Under a Cruel Star. 1973.
“Heda Margolius Kovály … endured both the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz and the brutality of Czechoslovakia’s postwar Stalinist government. Her husband, after surviving Dachau and Auschwitz and becoming Czechoslovakia’s deputy minister of foreign trade, was convicted of conspiracy in the infamous 1952 Slansky trial and then executed. This clear-eyed memoir of her life during those horrific days is resonant with lyricism, managing somehow to be heartening even as it helps us to understand the political tragedies of the twentieth century.”
9. Margaret Thatcher. The Downing Street Years. 1993
“This first volume of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs encompasses the whole of her time as Prime Minister – the formation of her goals in the early 1980s, the Falklands, the General Election victories of 1983 and 1987 and, eventually, the circumstances of her fall from political power. She also gives frank accounts of her dealings with foreign statesmen and her own ministers.”
10. Yeonmi Park and Maryanne Vollers. In Order to Live. 2015.
“Yeonmi Park shines a light not just into the darkest corners of life in North Korea, describing the deprivation and deception she endured … but also onto her own most painful and difficult memories. She tells with bravery and dignity for the first time the story of how she and her mother were … forced to suffer terrible psychological and physical hardship before they finally made their way to Seoul, South Korea—and to freedom. … Park’s testimony is heartbreaking and unimaginable, but never without hope. This is the human spirit at its most indomitable.”
Intellectual Takeout does not necessarily endorse any particular publisher. All credit for these descriptions goes to the original sources.
Image credit (clockwise from top left): Wikimedia Commons-Benjamin Blyth, PDM 1.0; Romanov Empire-Vigilius Eriksen, PDM 1.0; Flickr-Maryland Science Center, CC BY-ND 2.0; Wikimedia Commons-Georg Koberwein, PDM 1.0