stack of books on an adirondack chair
Top books about inspirational women updated with new entries: July 16, 2020

Top books to read about inspiring women

I read once that everything is a gift – the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s difficult to remember in the moment especially during these days where we’re exploring how to navigate through a new way of life. So if you’re looking for some inspiration, here are my top-rated books to read about inspirational women as they navigated through their own new way of life – or rather, in many cases, created their own new way of life on their terms. Or shone their light even while enduring dire circumstances.

I’ve been an avid reader since my childhood thanks to my father and grandmother (also an inspirational woman and role model) who instilled the love of reading in me. I spent my allowance on books (typically the Trixie Belden mystery book series). Reading was also my first mode of travel to faraway exotic places, people, culture and times. Today, reading is my favorite way to rest, reflect and recharge – whether it’s on the beaches of Maui or Mexico (I take a beach, book, beer vacation every year), on a plane or car or train or even in my own backyard, on the sofa or in front of the fireplace.

Girl reading book with grandmother
Here I am back in the day doing two of my favorite things: Reading and hanging out with my grandmother.

The first biography I remember reading was about Clara Barton, the pioneering and self-taught nurse who founded the American Red Cross. I think I was in third or fourth grade when I read about this woman’s life and was so inspired by her passion, independence and drive to create something bigger than herself. 

While my favorite book genres lean toward historical fiction and psychological thrillers these days, I’m also drawn to reading biographies, autobiographies and memoirs – especially books about inspirational women.

International Women’s Day books about inspirational women

I initially wrote this post in honor of International Women’s Day; however, for me, every day to read about inspirational people is a good day to read. You can read all my book reviews and/or book ratings as well as summaries of the best books about inspirational women on my Goodreads profile and in my Book Reviews section for all my book reviews and reading challenges. Here’s a brief list of the best books about inspirational women.

This post contains recommended links to products and services. While you will not accrue any additional costs to support my blog,, I may receive compensation if you purchase these products and services. All images are taken by kmf (except where noted) and available for digital download. 

5* Bookshelf – top books about inspirational women

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is one of my all-time favorite books, which was also named Goodreads Choice 2017 winner. It’s a true story of tragedy and triumph, heartbreaking yet inspiring. Definitely at the top of my best books to read about inspirational women.

Spoiler alert: Hundreds of young women were exposed to radium in the early 1920s painting luminous dials. They would dip paintbrushes into the radium and then into their mouths to create a fine tip for painting – a practice which continued even after companies learned it was toxic and life-threatening. Most developed diseases and deformities, with many dying from the exposure.  

Despite the corruption and high odds against them, several stood up for their rights and the rights of other women. Their courage helped shape and pave the way for something we take for granted today in the U.S. – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Their strength in this fight resulted in the first time an employer was held accountable for the health of its company’s employees.

Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

I first read Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl in middle school (overachiever as I read it in one day); and then again as an adult right before I visited the Anne Frank House and Museum in Amsterdam – very moving experience.  A young Jewish girl and her family are hidden during the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her two-year diary shares her worries as well as her hope. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I applaud the author for not giving up because The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a story that the world needed to hear (more than a decade of research). Millions of people owe their lives and health to the research done on Henrietta Lacks’ cells – all performed without her consent and her family’s knowledge for decades. Medical and scientific discoveries include the polio vaccine, viruses, atom bomb effects and advances with in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping. It’s truly one of my favorite books about inspirational women.

I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb  

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” 
This inspirational book, I am Malala, read like it took place in the dark ages. And for this girl, they were her dark ages even though much of her story was only a few years ago. I came away with much gratitude. It’s a beautiful world where we teach and encourage our children to express themselves and challenge things that don’t seem right…a world where we can sing and dance freely…and, yes, even a world where we embrace the right to complain about our leaders without retribution. But that isn’t everyone’s world. Fortunately, Malala had a father who didn’t suppress her just because she was a female…and because of his support and encouragement, she could share her story.

The Hiding Place: The Triumph and True Story of Corrie Ten Boom by Corrie Ten Boom, John Sherrill and Elizabeth Sherrill:

Loved this inspirational story of courage and selfless love for others. The Hiding Place: The Triumph and True Story of Corrie Ten Boom is a slice of history from the point of view of a Christian family during the Holocaust. They leaned into faith and saw and appreciated God’s gifts in everything no matter the conditions…even in the flea-infested concentration camp barracks. Good reminder to all of us to be servants of the heart. “Give thanks in all circumstances.”

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (#1): 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

I initially purchased Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a crowdfunding bedtime storybook, for a friend who had a baby girl. And then kept it for myself.  

I have purchased several copies since for my nieces and great nieces as it captures the spirit of some pretty incredible women from A to Z – Ava Lovelace (mathematician from the 1800s who wrote the first computer program in history) to Zaha Hadid (architect known as the Queen of the Curve and first woman to receive the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal). This book also features illustrations from 60 female artists from all over the world. They also published a second volume showcasing 100 additional women, past and present.  

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown is a little outside the biographies / autobiographies genre, but it’s one I highly recommend (in fact, I think I’m going to reread this soon). I’ve found that women (including myself) tend to be our own worst critics. This New York Times bestseller is more than a self-help guide; more of a permission slip to recognize and appreciate that we are not perfect and we are enough.

The 10 guideposts provide lessons on self-reflection to live our best lives or what she calls whole-hearted living. I read it when I was making a life-changing career decision and it was full of gems that reinforced I was doing the right thing. And now a year later, I think it’s time I reread this book and others written by this inspirational woman.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I originally rated Becoming by Michelle Obama as 4*; however, after recently reading over my notes and highlighted sections in this book, I upgraded my review to 5*.

Michelle Obama – from just a girl from the south side of Chicago to becoming the First Lady of the United States. She shares genuine and authentic stories of where she came from and about her highs and lows at the White House. “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”

I particularly loved this book because she shared her vulnerability – of sometimes not feeling she had done enough or was enough. I admire her strength and positivity in the face of being marginalized for her race and gender – and standing up and speaking for those who had lost or had not yet discovered their voices. “When they go low, we go high.”

But Becoming is more than just political soundbites. I came away from this book encouraged and inspired.

One of my favorite and relatable passages: “At fifty-four, I am still in progress, and I hope I always will be. For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

I’m currently writing one-word movie reviews; if I did that for this book, my takeaway word would be “Pivot.”

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Technically, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is considered an autobiographical novel – loosely based on her life growing up with her three sisters. I’m including it because it was my favorite childhood book and found Jo especially inspiring. I later learned that Little Women was also my grandmother’s favorite book as a child.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is one of my top historical fiction books of all time. Set during WWII, it’s an inspiring story of two women, their sacrifices, their love and their passion. I could read The Nightingale over and over.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It’s difficult to choose your favorite book ever, but To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is my go-to when I’m asked. To Kill a Mockingbird is fiction, but find the young girl narrator (Scout) especially influential. This masterpiece was inspired by the author’s hometown, family, friends and events related to racial and social injustice.

4* Bookshelf – best books about inspirational women

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou 

I still find it unbelievable that one of the world’s most powerful and inspirational authors was also one of the most banned authors in the U.S. And this inspirational book is still challenged today.  

“Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait.”
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Educated by Tara Westover

An inspirational coming-of-age story, Educated by Tara Westover, reaffirms that we do not need to become victims of our circumstances and our environment. Tara Westover grew up in a family isolated from society – including clinics, hospitals, and schools. Her life changed when her brother broke away to attend college, which, in turn, encouraged her to teach herself in basic subjects so that she could take the ACT exam. She was admitted to Brigham Young University and later earned a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge.  

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I probably would not have read Bossypants by Tina Fey if it had not been a book club selection. I didn’t realize Tina Fey and I had so much in common. Although she’s funny, and me, well, not so much. But I think I can hold my own when it comes to being a bossypants. Very quick read (read it in a day and one hour or so)…and very funny and very real.

My Goodreads review includes several insights I identify with on a daily basis (e.g., It’s a burden, being able to control situations with my hyper-vigilance, but it’s my lot in life; remembrances of being very very skinny and remembrances of being a little bit fat, etc.). 

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I almost didn’t read What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton, but am grateful I did. If you put politics aside and read with an open mind, you’ll gain perspective and empathy of what many women face every day in a male-dominated world. And from a historical standpoint, it’s a great opportunity to learn more and follow the journey of the woman who came this close to becoming the first female president of the United States.   

The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson

In the spirt of alliteration, I would add sassy, spunky, scintillating and shocking to describe the two sisters, Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin. They were definitely ahead of their time as they disrupted the 19th century norms when it came to a woman’s place in the world – everything from women’s equal rights to running for president (before women even had the right to vote) to the first females to open a brokerage firm, and more. Gave The Scarlet Sisters a 4* rating for the content as I struggled a little with the writing style.  

Lost and Found in Spain: Tales of an ambassador’s wife by Susan Lewis Solomont

Initially, Lost and Found in Spain by Susan Lewis Solomont spoke to me because I was heading to Madrid, Spain for my first week-long solo trip. I thought it would provide some great travel tips and insight for an American to experience Spain through the eyes of another.

Actually didn’t get a chance to read it until I returned from Spain. And it was perfect timing for me to immerse myself into Susan Lewis Solomon’s world – it was exactly what I needed to nourish my soul.

While this book was set in Spain and is part travelogue, it is really more about a woman’s journey of losing her comfortable sense of self and discovering and embracing a new self among incredible change and things beyond her control. “Take the risk, even if it feels scary or uncomfortable.”

I invite you to read my full book review of Lost and Found in Spain in another post – on of my top books about inspirational women. Special thanks to Susan Lewis Solomont and Book Savvy PR for a complimentary book in exchange for an honest review. 

3* Bookshelf  

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

While I was not a fan of the writing style (think I was expecting more storytelling to better connect with specific women…more like Hidden Figures), Code Girls is definitely a story worthy to be told and heard. Either unknown or forgotten, this is a part of history that everyone should learn about. Grateful the author gave these women the recognition they so well-deserved.  

Want-to-read bookshelf books about inspirational women 

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I find Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fascinating – even just her initials, RBG, evokes inspiration. I’ll never tire hearing her speak in her own words. I’ve read reviews that My Own Words is not a memoir or biography, but rather a collection of her speeches and writings and thoughts. I’m still intrigued to read it.

Fly Girls: How five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history by Keith O’Brien

My son gave Fly Girls to me as a Christmas gift so am looking forward to reading this book about some inspiring women who forged their way through the male-dominated aviation industry.

Joan of Arc by Kathyrn Harrison

My husband is fascinated with Joan of Arc. I don’t know much about her so definitely need to learn more.   

What are your favorite books about inspirational women?

Would love to hear about your top books about inspirational women that I can add to my to-be-read stack. Please leave your recommendations on your favorites in the comments.

Pin it for later – best books about inspirational women

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Best books about inspirational women
Best books about inspirational women
Best books about inspirational women

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Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller


  1. What a great list of books and what a great idea to read about inspirational women. We need this right now!

    1. Thank you! I try to remind myself when things seem so overwhelming or chaotic that there are some defining moments going on that hopefully we can all look back on in a positive light.

  2. I love your selection of books here. First, I have to say I dressed up as Clara Barton for my 6th-grade biography project. I love Little Women and I’m trying to get Evelyn to read it. She’s so into graphic novels that’s all she seems to read these days. I love all things roaring 20s so great pick there. Anne Frank, I went to Amsterdam specifically to go and see her house. Every book on your list is awesome. I really enjoy reading too.

    1. That’s so awesome about dressing up as Clara Barton. I love the roaring 20s also. And the Anne Frank home was such a meaningful visit.

  3. As an avid reader myself, I always enjoy hearing about the books you are currently reading. I loved Michelle Obama’s book. I liked her enough as First Lady, but I loved her after reading her book. I also read the book by the Bush sisters. It was a great insight into their relationship, then and now. I also learned more about the two formers presidents and their wives.

    1. Thank you so much. I loved Michelle Obama’s book as well. I haven’t read the book about the Bush sisters yet so will add to my list, but did read The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House. I found it fascinating to read from the perspective of those that worked with the presidents and their families every day.

  4. This is a great list of books about inspirational women. I’ve read a few on here, with The Gifts of Imperfection and The Diary of Anne Frank being two of my favorites. I’m still thinking of a reading list theme for 2021, so maybe this would be a great option!

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