March is Women’s History Month, when we celebrate the contributions women have made in all areas of society. My own observation of this month always includes finding an inspiring biography of a woman to read. Making an intentional choice to spend time with these stories is a way for me to honor these remarkable women, as well as all those whose stories continue to go untold. In no particular order, here are a few favorites to get you started in finding your own Women’s History Month read.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
This book became an instant classic, its deserved fame bolstered by the excellent 2016 film of the same name. It tells the story of a number of Black female mathematicians whose largely behind-the-scenes work fueled the success of NASA in the latter half of the 20th century. These women struggled against both racism and sexism in a field dominated by white men, and their work enabled incredible achievements in the field of aerospace engineering and broke down seemingly insurmountable barriers.
Even if you’ve read this one, this might be a good time for a re-read. The year 2020 saw both the death of NASA computer engineer Katherine Johnson and the launch of the Mars rover Perseverance; reading her story again might just give us a deeper appreciation for how we got here.
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) lived in a time when emerging scientific methods were calling into question the very worldview of Christian Europe. Merian received artistic training from her stepfather and developed a keen interest in the transformations undergone by caterpillars. She lived out her fascination with diligence, systematically raising every kind of caterpillar she could find and recording her observations in watercolor. She eventually traveled to Surinam, which was then a Dutch colony, to study and record the abundantly diverse insects there.
This book traces not only the life of Merian, but also the bounds made in scientific thought within her lifetime. It is a fascinating story of a woman who pushed the boundaries enforced by her time.
The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling
Mary Anning lived from 1799 to 1847 in Lyme Regis, England, where the soft rock of the cliffsides was revealing fossils that would again force the scientific community to drastically reconsider its understanding of the world. Like Merian, Anning was a woman working outside the male-dominated scientific establishment, engaging in field work at a time when such work was considered secondary to the discussions “real” scientists had in university settings.
Anning’s lifetime is not terribly well-documented, so at times this book engages in speculation about her emotional reactions to the events we do know about. She persisted through her discoveries being credited to better-known men (and discredited by some of them), and ultimately ended up with several fossil species named after her.
Dorothy Day; The World Will Be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother by Kate Hennessy
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a journalist and activist who converted to Catholicism as an adult and is best remembered for co-founding the Catholic Worker movement, which invites people into communities dedicated to hospitality for the poor. She is on the Catholic church’s path to sainthood, and there are numerous biographies of her (including an autobiography that you should add to this list, or catch the recent documentary about her life).
But this biography is unique. Written by her granddaughter, it gives primary importance to Day’s role as a mother, tracing her relationship with her daughter Tamar with all its joys and complications. The book certainly details the contours of Day’s public life and work but also gives an up-close look from within the family at the real woman behind the legendary work. It is a lovely reminder that heroic virtue and holiness takes shape within real human lives, with relationships at their heart.
Thea’s Song: The Life of Thea Bowman by Charlene Smith and John Feister
Thea Bowman was another 20th century woman who is now on the path to sainthood. Born in Mississippi in 1937, Bowman sadly died from breast cancer at the age of 52. Her too-short life saw a world rocked by social changes, and Bowman made choices to become a force of joy and healing within that world. She boldly claimed her identity as a Black Catholic woman even as she navigated life within a religious order that was primarily white.
Her life’s work included teaching and preaching and bringing the American Black community into conversation with the Catholic Church. One of the authors of this book knew Bowman personally and gives a captivating look at the life of this inspiring woman.
Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to dive into the ways that women have contributed to your chosen field of interest. Women have often worked quietly and in supporting roles, but they have always been present throughout history, full of unique dreams and capabilities. These are only five books to spark your interest, but there are countless others out there. What would you add to this list?