3 Great Biographies About Iconic Women in History

Hello, everyone! It’s been a month since I’ve written a post and I apologize, but I’m back with some new reading suggestions. Instead of doing a My Month in Books post, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite genres: biographies centering around iconic women in history. Most often, the conversation around “important” historical figures revolves around men. We glory in the revels of great kings, but learn nothing about their equally influential consorts. We study the essential histories of  several famous queens, such as Elizabeth I and Victoria, but when it comes to painting their intricate personal lives, few historians attempt to separate who they are from the inflammatory and often misogynistic commentary written about them from their contemporaries. Kings are praised for being flawed, complex, and  ruthless, while queens are written off as being hysterical, crazy, or downright evil. Henry VIII, a king who legitimately beheaded  two of his wives, is remembered primarily in a positive light, with his murders remaining a quirky footnote in his biography. Compare that to his murdered wife Anne Boleyn, a woman whose vibrant life and historical legacy is forever overshadowed by her horrible reputation as the world’s most famous six-fingered whore.

Even though biographies are rooted in fact, all historical works contain bias, and such bias is never more apparent than when reading about important historical women. Take for example, David Starkey’s book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. I tried to read this book, got about 30 pages in, and gave up in disgust when I realized that this so called biography about Henry’s wives was really a poorly disguised glorification of the murderous man himself. Here’s the whimsical summary:

No one in history had a more eventful career in matrimony than Henry VIII. His marriages were daring and tumultuous, and made instant legends of six very different women. What could make him marry six times? In this remarkable new study, David Starkey argues that the king was not a depraved philanderer, but someone seeking happiness — and a son. Knowingly or not, he empowered a group of women to extraordinary heights and changed the way a nation was governed.

Describing Henry’s spree of murderous marriages as an “eventful career” is retconning at its finest. Can you imagine describing Ted Bundy’s serial murders as an “eventful career?” Or that he “empowered a group of women?” He empowered them into the grave!

My point is that it’s difficult to find truthful histories about female rulers without wading through some misogynist tripe. But never fear! I’ve trudged through the bullshit to deliver some of my favorite histories about some of the world’s most iconic female leaders.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie


My take: Massie is a master historian and Catherine is perhaps his greatest work. As one of Russia’s most influential leaders who reigned for more than 30 years, she expanded the empire, embraced the Enlightenment, and oversaw decades of cultural and economic prosperity. She was also, however, a passionate women with a tumultuous romantic history, and her love life usually outshines her political accomplishments. Massie deftly balances both Catherine’s intricate personal life with her  political achievements. His greatest asset is Catherine herself: he bases the first half of the book off of her personal letters and journals and her own autobiography, and by letting her speak in her own words, he prevents the commentary of her contemporaries from overshadowing her own voice. While the book mostly paints Catherine in a positive light, Massie doesn’t shy away from exploring some of her most difficult struggles, including her involvement in her own husband’s murder, the violent putdown of the Pugachev rebellion, and her failure to liberate the serfs. What makes Catherine such an astonishing work is that it refuses to label Catherine as a good ruler or a bad one. Massie’s primary goal is to show the reader that under her crown, Catherine was just a person, and that any mistakes she made throughout her reign were due to human error, rather than the maliciousness often attributed to her.

Additionally, if you’re looking for more fantastic Russian histories, I highly recommend Massie’s other works Peter the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, the latter an essential perspective on a couple whose complicated reputation has been horribly maligned by the Russian government. Massie devoted his life to writing about Russian history, and he manages to humanize historical figures that other historians prefer to demonize. Sadly, he passed away earlier this month. Massie is the type of historian that the world needs and he’ll be sorely missed.

The Last Queen by C.W Gortner

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My take: Most history lovers have heard of Isabella and Ferdinand and their daughter Caterina, who later went on to be Catherine of Aragon, but fewer people know of their other famous children, including Juana, or as she’s popularly known, Juana La Loca. Having heard very little about Juana except that she was crazy, I was immediately drawn into Gortner’s intimate portrait of a cultured, intelligent woman who was anything but loca. The historical novel follows Juana from her childhood in Spain to her marriage to  Philip the Fair, to her struggle to wrest her rightful throne from the hands of vicious courtiers, her scheming husband, and her own father. While no one can  prove whether Juana was actually mentally ill, Gortner at least gives her the benefit of the doubt by showing his audience how easy it would have been for her political rivals to spin a tale of madness to steal her throne. By comparing her fate to that of her grandmother, another Spanish queen deemed “mad” and imprisoned by her successor, the reader quickly makes the connection between political ambition and convenient mental illness. The novel is historical fiction, which means that Gortner embellishes some details and takes liberties here and there, but the basis of the work is rooted in fact. It’s a gripping story that does justice to Juana’s tragic fate and lifts her out of her silent prison.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

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My take: When talking about famous historical women with a bad reputation, Marie Antoinette immediately comes to mind. Dismissed as spoiled and naive, the very symbol of excess that incited the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette has become history’s parable of the “bad queen.” But Antonia Fraser isn’t interested in this skewed perception of Marie; instead her extensive biography delves deep into Marie’s personal life, from her difficult childhood in Austria, to her uncomfortable marriage to Louis XVI, to her struggles to be accepted as queen of a deeply xenophobic country. Fraser emphasizes how much of Marie’s reputation stems from propaganda written by her political enemies, and that her faults were not deserving of the abuse she’s received from historians. Like Fraser’s other works, Marie Antoinette is meticulously researched and beautifully written. Most importantly, it gives readers a chance to look beneath Marie’s extravagant appearance and into her soul, which is far more human that her detractors give her credit for.

All of these books are fantastic and would make a great way to spend the weekend. Winter is always the best time for catching up on history. Something about the cold and the snow makes you feel absolutely immersed in a different time. Happy reading!

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