It’s Women’s History Month, and though it’s never a bad time to learn about a new-to-you woman of history, March is certainly a perfect moment to do so. And as someone who has learned too much about mediocre and sometimes evil men against my will, I’ve developed a special interest in learning about non-men throughout history.
There are some mighty fine titles in nonfiction that collect stories of multiple notable women through history (such as the graphic nonfiction Brazen, a few collections by Rachel Ignotovsky, and Little Ladies by Vashti Harrison) as well as some other incredible nonfiction titles to check out (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Twice as Hard: The Stories of Black Women Who Fought to Become Physicians, from the Civil War to the 21st Century, and Hidden Figures). However, this list is going to focus on fiction that serves as a narrative introduction to some names you may not yet know.
By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley
Historical Figure: Ann Lowe (1898-1981), Fashion Designer
Ann dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but after an elopement with an abusive older man at the age of 12, her goals are moved farther into the future. It is through a wealthy socialite that Ann gets her chance to escape, and she leaves Alabama with her young son for Florida and a new life.
By the 1950s, Ann Lowe has made a name for herself, fighting for her place in the fashion world as a Black designer, and is chosen to design the dress for Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding to John F. Kennedy. But when a pipe bursts at the shop, ruining the dress, she and her team have less than a week to recreate the wedding gown.
The Woman with the Cure by Lynn Cullen
Historical Figure: Dorothy Horstmann (1911-2011), Epidemiologist
As polio was devastating America in the 40s and 50s, the search for a vaccine was on. Though many of the greatest male minds throughout the world were trying to be the first to succeed, it was a woman, Dorothy Horstmann, who would make a crucial discovery.
Dorothy, the daughter of immigrants and many times the only woman in a room full of men, finds an answer in the blood, but it brings a male colleague to the forefront of the conversation. And it’s up to her to either speak out against him or help prove his vaccine is going to save the world.
Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York’s Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright
Historical Figure: Ann Trow Lohman (1812-1878), Abortion Provider
In pre-Gilded Age New York, Madame Restell ran a “boarding house”, which in practice was a provider of things like birth control and abortions. Though often a target in the worlds of lawsuits and media, especially the more her name became known, Restell made services available to thousands of women of all classes.
Unfortunately, this time was also host to a drive to remove women’s independence, which included things like healthcare. This drive also flamed a new way of looking at abortion by the powerful–as something that was sinful–in hopes of driving women out of medicine. But despite everything against her, she made it through numerous arrests relatively unscathed.
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Historical Figure: Las Mariposas/The Mirabal Sisters, (Patria (1924-1960), Minerva (1926-1960), María Teresa (1935-1960), Opponents to the Trujillo Dictatorship and Dedé (1925-2014), Their Sister Who Preserved Their Legacy
Las Mariposas, three sisters who lived during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, take center stage in this novel, alongside their sister Dedé. After Minerva and María Teresa went to visit their imprisoned husbands in 1960, with Patria along for the ride, the three sisters were assassinated, with their car driven off a cliff.
Though their deaths were reported as an accident, their murders and the months following eventually led to the assassination of Trujillo himself. And Dedé, the only surviving sister, remains to make sure their stories are kept alive.
One Last Shot by Kip Wilson
Historical Figure: Gerda Pohorylle [Taro] (1910-1937), War Photographer
After being arrested for distributing anti-Nazi information, Gerda Pohorylle, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, leaves Germany with her family. Eventually, she finds a kindred spirit in André Friedman, a Hungarian photographer she meets in Paris who helps spark a love for photography.
Adopting the pseudonyms Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, the pair begin to take photographs of war, which eventually brings Gerda right to the door of the Spanish Civil War. Eventually, Gerda is recognized as being the first female photojournalist to die while covering a war front.
Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig
Historical Figure: Shek Yeung/ Zheng Yi Sao(1775-1844), Pirate
Shek Yeung was married to a fearsome pirate until the day his life was taken by a Portuguese sailor. To best preserve her own life, and keep power, she remarries the second-in-command and begins a fight for control.
As her plans grow more and more merciless, she comes face to face with the looming threats of both the Chinese Emperor working to rid the South China Seas of pirates and Europeans hoping to stop losing their ships to Shek Yeung’s crew.
Rachel Strolle is a teen librarian and the communications director for YALLFest and YALLWEST. Her book roundups have been featured in Buzzfeed, Reader’s Digest, and Bitch Magazine.