Professor and author in the Department of History shares best books to read while practicing distancing in honor of Women’s History Month

During this past month it has been hard to think about anything besides the coronavirus pandemic — and justifiably so. But in hopes that you have started to reach some level of routine during these unprecedented times, here are a few suggestions on how to commemorate the monumental ways women have shaped history, and the immense challenges they have faced, considering our thoughts were likely elsewhere during Women’s History Month this March. 

Ann Little, a professor in the Department of History, offered up her recommendations for the best books to read in honor of Women’s History Month. For those with time to start a new book while distancing themselves at home, the accounts of these women’s formidable circumstances and bravery might come at a good time, even if Women’s History Month is at its end.  

In addition to being an award-winning author for works including The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, Little is a professor in the Department of History at Colorado State University with research specializing in the history of women, gender and sexuality. When it comes to women’s history, Little has come across no shortage of impressive literature in the area. 

Professor in the Department of History at Colorado State University, Ann Little.
Professor in the Department of History, Ann Little

“My field has seen a blizzard of fascinating biographies of early American women and their times. These are all page-turners guaranteed to enchant, trouble, and satisfy curiosities readers don’t even know they have yet,” Little said.  

Take a look below at Little’s personal list with commentary on what makes each of these works unique.

Book cover showing a woman in a fancy gown.

Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk:  Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016)

Not a traditional biography of a woman, although this book includes several, it’s a biography of the woman’s portrait and the gown she wears in it, from the silk worms that spun the fiber, to designer and the Spitalfields weavers who made the silk threads into a heavy damask fabric, to the woman who wore the dress (Anne Shippen Willing), and the man who painted it. This book brings the eighteenth-century material and commercial worlds to life.

Book cover featuring the face of George Washington and the apron of a maid.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught:  The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (37 Ink, 2017)

She refuses to return to Virginia upon the end of his presidency, and escapes to New Hampshire–a free state–while the Washingtons pursue her and attempt to re-enslave her. This is a story from the earliest days of the United States about the true meaning of liberty, and our nation’s halting relationship with its own ideals when it comes to the lives of working women, especially those of African descent. (Bonus:  Dunbar published a children’s version of her book, also called Never Caught!)

Book cover featuring three women dressed in colorful gowns.

Catherine Kerrison, Jefferson’s Daughters:  Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America (Ballantine Books, 2019)

This book is a glimpse into the troubled and sometimes tragic lives of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters, his two acknowledged free daughters of his wife Martha, and his daughter with Sally Hemings. Like Jefferson’s own legacy regarding slavery and freedom, both the free and the enslaved daughters’ lives are difficult to discern beyond the idealized fantasies and smokescreens he constructed around them and around the patriarchal and race-based deprivations they endured. Even if you know how it all turned out, Kerrison writes with grace, informed speculation, and a telling eye for detail.

Book cover featuring a nun in a black and white uniform.

And, if you will indulge me:

Ann M. Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, 2016)

My prize-winning biography of Esther Wheelwright (1696-1780) describes a life lived in all three major cultures in the colonial northeast and in so doing tells the story of empire and colonialism through girls’ and women’s lives. Esther was born to a puritan family in what’s now Maine, became an adopted Wabanaki daughter, and a French Canadian student in Quebec before becoming an Ursuline nun and assuming leadership as mother superior in the wake of the British Conquest in 1759. After a childhood disrupted by warfare and starvation, Esther Wheelwright was successful in religious life but still had to endure accusations that she was a “foreigner” within the convent and even suspicions in Boston that she was a French spy. Pretty exciting for a cloistered nun! 

Although Women’s History Month is over, discovery and learning about this topic is always well worth exploring. The titles recommended by Little are just a glimpse into the fascinating genre of women’s historical literature.

And while the world rallies to fight transmission of the coronavirus, the nonprofit Internet Archive has responded with a National Emergency Library with access to over 1 million free books to explore while distancing yourself at your home. If reading proves cathartic, fun or inspirational during this time, a shortage of books won’t be a problem with access to this expansive online library. 

Blog written by Ty Betts, Digital Media Specialist 

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