Stories of Remarkable Women
Read these eight books for inspiration to break new ground
Memoirs and biographies have become a beloved genre of mine in recent years. They feature regularly on my annual most interesting book lists, and made up 20% of the books I read in 2021.
In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought it would be timely to share my favorite stories of women across science and politics. These books are a collection of memoirs and biographies, each with a different style reflecting the subject. What they all have in common is being awe-inspiring for the boundaries and breakthroughs these women have made and are having. Happy reading!
Jennifer Doudna, Biochemist
Everyone in the science world knows of Jennifer Doudna, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who invented the CRISPR-Cas-9 technology that has revolutionized genetics – and may have changed the future forever. In The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, Walter Isaacson does a phenomenal job telling both her story as a scientist and how her groundbreaking work relates to two dramatic world events – the current global pandemic and the application of her technology to genetically alter human embryos. She is truly a remarkable scientist and Isaacson’s biography of her is stellar. The Code Breaker is so good that it also made it onto my 2021 Most Interesting Books list.
Rosalind Franklin, Crystallographer
Rosaland Franklin has been at the center of controversy since James Watson used her data without permission to finally crack the structure of DNA back in the 1950s. Since the publication of Watson and James Crick’s famous paper detailing the double helix structure of DNA, Franklin has been cast as a wronged woman of science. And while that is true, her career should not be limited to just that single photograph. In The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix, Howard Markel tells the full story of what happened during the time of biology’s most famous discovery, but also the full story of Franklin and her expert scientific skills as a crystallographer. Though The Secret of Life is not limited to only Franklin, it tells her story beyond her most famous photograph. Read my longer review of The Secret of Life here.
Katherine Johnson, Mathematician
Katherine Johnson made history as a human computer for NASA during the space race with Russia, but in her own telling of her life story in My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir (with Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore), Johnson chooses to focus more on her personal rather than professional life. As she says throughout her memoir, after all, her incredible mathematics work was “just a job”. Her memoir reflects this sentiment as she writes at length and with great emotion about all the personal aspects of her life. She grew up as a black woman in trying times here in the United States, yet approached her life and experiences with unrelenting poise, confidence, and class. Highly recommend this book, and the audio version narrated by Robin Miles was delightful to listen to.
Meave Leakey, Paleoanthropologist
As someone endlessly fascinated with human evolution and our deep origins, Meave Leakey’s autobiography The Sediments Of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past (with daughter Samira Leakey) was an excellent book that I could not put down. This was one of those drop-everything-and-read kind of books that resulted in feelings of disappointment that there was no more left to read. Leakey’s work has contributed to revolutionary understanding of human origins through the fantastic fossil discoveries that have resulted from her decades of field work in the Turkana basin in Kenya, Africa. Her book tells the stories of her remarkable fossil discoveries that contain unbelievable adventures – and you’ll certainly learn something new about out past.
Samantha Power, Diplomat
The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir by Samantha Power is a powerful read about her journey from Ireland to America as a girl all the way to the political world stage advocating for human rights. Her memoir documents her career journey and life education beginning as a war correspondent in Bosnia in the early 1990s, which also gave me great insight to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Her work then took her to DC after catching the eye of Barak Obama where she was part of his administration, eventually making her debut globally as a US Ambassador to the United Nations during Obama’s tenure. Her story gives a fascinating glimpse into navigating a high stakes political area, one’s human rights ideals, and her personal life as a woman and mother. I loved this book, too, for the insight and perspective it gave to Obama’s presidency which complemented his later book A Promise Land.
Vera Rubin, Astronomer
The biography of astronomer Vera Rubin, Vera Rubin: A Life by Jacqueline Mitton and Simon Mitton, was a story of an astounding woman who overcame the obstacles of being a woman in science and academia during her era, and went on to conduct groundbreaking work on providing the first evidence for the existence of dark matter – a cornerstone of modern physics and astronomy. Through her meticulous observations provided impeccable data for advancing her field and she served as an advocate and role model for women in science throughout her career. Her impact on astronomy was so profound that she is the first woman to have an observatory named after her: The Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile.
Suzane Simard, Forest Ecologist
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard was an incredible story of a woman making a massive impact on our understanding of forest ecology along an unlikely journey. Growing up in British Columbia, Simard began her career working for the forest service and funding her way through graduate studies on grants. Upset due to the impact of the logging industry and curious about the unsuccessful replenishment of the forests, Simard began thinking about forest ecology in a new way. What if trees cooperated and communicated to help each other grow? What if forest health depended on diversity and dynamic communication through fungi? Through careful experimentation, Simard broke ground on our understanding of cooperation among plants and fungi. A remarkable scientific journey.
Clarissa Ward, Journalist
After reading Samantha Power’s book and being enthralled by the stories and job of being a foreign correspondent, I was thrilled to find On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist by Clarissa Ward. Telling her story of her telling others’ stories during her 15+ year career as a foreign correspondent, Ward delivers an emotional and informative memoir. Ward has spent much of her career in the post 9-11 Middle East, providing an on the ground and behind the camera look into some of the war zones that most readers could never imagine living in. I highly recommend listening to this book on audio as I did. Given Ward’s skilled verbal delivery refined from being in front of the camera for over a decade, her performance is excellent. On All Fronts is so good that it also made it onto my 2021 Most Interesting Books list.
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