Biographies for Women’s History Month

Mar 30, 2022

For Women’s History Month, our editorial staff shares some biography recommendations.


Book: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Subjects: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan
Why it’s recommended: The book describes the accomplishments of three Black women who helped NASA solve mathematical equations during the 1960s space race. It explores the obstacles they faced regarding both race and gender. The 2016 film Hidden Figures was directed by Theodore Melfi.


Film: Frida
Director: Julie Taymor
Subject: Frida Kahlo
Why it’s recommended: This 2002 film explores the life of surrealist Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. In addition to showcasing Kahlo’s artistic talent, it shows what one person can accomplish, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. It’s based on a 1983 biography, Frida, by Hayden Herrera.


Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Subject: Henrietta Lacks
Why it’s recommended: Henrietta Lacks went to the doctor for what turned out to be cervical cancer. The cells that were biopsied turned out to be the first immortalized human cell line, which is still used in medical research today. However, the family was unaware that these cells were being used, raising serious issues of medical ethics and racism in medicine. The 2017 film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was directed by George C. Wolfe.


Film: A Call to Spy
Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher, screenplay by Sarah Megan Thomas
Subject: Noor Inayat Khan, pseudonym Nora Baker
Why it’s recommended: A Call to Spy follows the life and death of Noor Inayat Khan, a British Resistance agent in France in World War II who worked in espionage and reconnaissance in countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Noor was the first British female wireless operator to work from occupied France to aid the French Resistance during the war. One of her stated goals was to build a bridge between British and Indian people (India was still colonized at the time) during the war. The character is played by Radhika Apte, an Indian actress who works in Bollywood and other cinema. A Call to Spy also features the lives and work of Virginia Hall and Vera Atkins. Hall was regarded by the gestapo as one of the most dangerous spies for the Allied forces. Vera Atkins worked to mobilize assets across occupied areas, was an intelligence officer, and was pivotal in recruiting and training Inayat Khan and Hall. It was a sad but important film. The efforts of women go unspoken in historical accounts of resistance to undemocratic powers: the work of women of color even more so. Noor had the privilege of being an English-speaking woman of color who lived in the West, but she was subjected to racist aggression on an everyday basis. Her presence and efforts were diminished even more than her white peers. It was inspiring to see a movie that showcases her work and helps us imagine what it was like to know and be someone like her.


Book: Without Lying Down: Screenwriter Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood
Author: Cari Beauchamp
Subject: Frances Marion
Why it’s recommended: Frances Marion was one of the highest paid and most influential writers in early Hollywood. She was under contract at MGM and won Oscars for her writing in 1930 and 1931. The book is well written and endlessly entertaining, as Marion was a powerful, well-connected, smart woman who worked with or was otherwise connected to a lot of luminaries, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Louis B. Mayer, Hedda Hopper, Joan Blondell, Greta Garbo, William Randolph Hearst, Clark Gable, Lillian Gish, Samuel Goldwyn, Jean Harlow, and Gloria Swanson. You can name a big star from early Hollywood, and Marion was a part of their life.


Book: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Author: Karen Abbott
Subjects: Four different women who were spies during the Civil War
Why it’s recommended: These women helped drive the course of the Civil War, but they are largely hidden from history. The book is written in a very accessible, compelling manner designed to draw the reader into the world of spies.


Book: The Personal Librarian
Authors: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Subject: Belle da Costa Greene
Why it’s recommended: Belle is born a Black woman in the late 19th century; her father was the first Black graduate of Harvard. However, her complexion is light enough to pass as a white woman. By passing as white, she becomes J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, traveling the world and moving through New York society—but she has to hide her family and her past to protect her secret.

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