20+ Great Memoirs by Women: Books To Empower Women

Books to empower women image of Jacqueline Woodson
Nadia Colburn // December 14, 2021 // 23 Comments

20 Memoirs by Women: Books To Empower Women

People often ask me who my favorite women authors are. They also often ask me what my favorite memoirs are. So today, I thought I’d share a personal list of 20 memoirs by women writers that have changed my life and that help empower women–and all of us! It was fun but also hard to make this list. In fact, it was so hard that I ended up including ten more books at the end. Another day, I might have made a slightly different list. There are many wonderful memoirs by women I haven’t included. But these are, today, some of my favorites.

I don’t know about you, but I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and media that is around us all the time. Our computers and phones are portals into an endless stream of information. Wherever we go, we’re bombarded by information, noise, media—much, perhaps most, of which is not helpful, not true, and de-centering.

One way that we can reclaim ourselves is by choosing what we pay attention to. We can choose what voices we listen to and how we spend our time.

After all, the world we live in is shaped by the stories we tell.

So it was a pleasure to think about the time I spent immersed in these thoughtful, smart, moving, insightful, and talented voices, to think about the strong female authors who have influenced and taught me.

These writers took time to be with themselves, to listen deeply, to value and share their own voice and story, and I feel so lucky we have these books.

This list is very personal. It is not a list of the “best” memoirs by women writers (everyone’s “best” is different). Nor is it a list of the most representative memoirs by women writers. Rather, it’s a list of some of the books that have moved me, shaped me, changed me, and that I think you might like, too.

We live in a time and place in which many women have more freedom and voice than ever before. And also a time in which many–and even most–women are still limited in their freedom and voice in some way, and a time in which the freedoms that women have gained are under pressure.

I offer this list as an act of love and also an act of solidarity. We, women and men, can all continue to value and speak our truth and continue to listen deeply to one another.

If you’re a writer, remember, reading is one of the most important ingredients in your writing life. Read greedily; read actively. Read in dialogue–to learn, and also to differentiate yourself.

Thank you to all of these women writers–and to all of you–women and men–who are nurturing your own voice and telling your own, authentic story. It is by showing up in our authenticity, in our truth, sharing the experiences of our body and our mind, of our creative power that we change the conditions of oppression and make a more free, equitable world–and livable planet.

(I don’t get any affiliate kickback from these links, but I like bookshop because it supports local independently owned bookstores.)

Maxine Hong Kingston

20 great memoirs by women to empower women

The Poet X—Elizabeth Acevedo (adult and YA audience)

This moving book-length poem tells the story of a young girl as she comes to claim her own voice and differentiate herself from her more traditional family. Written for a young adult audience, it is also a fun and empowering read for adults.

Infidel—Ayaan Hirsi Ali

An autobiography by the Somali-Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel depicts the violence against women within Ali’s home growing up and the society at large in the world of East Africa. This is a brave and bold story of personal liberation, and if Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s path is extreme—she escapes her oppressive upbringing and becomes a member of the Dutch parliament, where her life is threatened because of her work advocating for women’s rights—I, nevertheless, saw many parallels between her world and my own. While I don’t agree with many of Ali’s current political positions, this is a powerful and eye-opening book.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—Maya Angelou (an adult book but also appropriate for older YA audiences)

This classic memoir tells Maya Angelou’s story. From the young girl raped by her stepfather and then electively mute for years after telling her story, Angelou grows into herself and her voice. A story about women, race, and empowerment, this is, ultimately, an uplifting read, and a book to return to.

Fun Home—Alison Bechdel (graphic memoir)

Bechdel uses the graphic novel to tell an insightful story about her eccentric family and the ways in which we come into our own identities. Growing up in a funeral home in a small town, with her bookish parents trapped in their own dreams and unrealized identities, Bechdel makes sense of her father’s untimely death, her discovery that he was gay, and her own identity as a lesbian. This is a book for book lovers and anyone interested in how we become ourselves.

A Woman’s Story, Cleaned out, A Man’s PlaceAnnie Ernaux

Born at the end of World War Two in a working-class family in Normandy, Annie Ernaux explores the personal in the context of the social and the changing world that she finds herself in as a woman and as the first person in her family with a university education. Searingly intimate and honest, these slim but powerful books reflect the complexities, challenges, and joys of a woman’s life. A Woman’s Story is about Ernaux’s mother’s life. A Man’s Place is about her father’s life. Cleaned Out is an autofiction about a back alley abortion a young woman has in the 1960s in Paris. The first Ernaux book I read was Cleaned Out, and I recommend starting here. (I read these books in French and recommend them in the original if you read French, but they are also excellent in English)

Diary of Anne Frank—Anne Frank (for young adult and adult readers)

I first read this book when I was twelve and it remains one of my favorite memoirs. No one writes more honestly than Anne, even in the version edited by her father. A young woman in very difficult circumstances—in a tiny attic apartment with her family and another family hoping to remain in hiding and escape the Nazis—Anne Frank reminds me again and again of the value of the present moment, of being a thoughtful, questioning, awake person, whatever the outcome of one’s life.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs was a woman who, with the help of her extraordinary grandmother, managed to survive sexual harassment, escape from slavery by hiding for years in a small attic, and finally make it to the north and freedom. A gripping narrative and a clarion call for solidarity among women, this book is one of the great American autobiographies, a true story that reads like a gripping novel.

The Story of My Life—Hellen Keller

Though Hellen Keller could neither see nor hear, she is one of the most articulate, thoughtful humans. This memoir tells the story of her life, a story not just of overcoming hardships, but of coming to a clear moral vision and purpose.

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France—Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

This is one of the lighter books on this list, but it’s a great, fun read, a travel journey written by both a mother and daughter— the novelist Sue Monk Kidd as she explores the transitions of midlife, and her daughter as she explores the transitions of young adulthood. The book takes place in Greece—one of my favorite places—and is a beautiful exploration of the stages of women’s lives, mother-daughter relationships, and the creative life itself.

Woman Warrior—Maxine Hong Kingston

I often teach Woman Warrior; it’s a classic memoir that explores, among other things, the complexities of what it means to tell one’s own story. A beautiful story of Kingston’s coming of age, her relationship with her powerful and often difficult mother, who immigrated from China, and a book about understanding where one comes from and forging one’s own future.

I Rigoberta Menchu: an Indian Woman in Guatemala—Rigoberta Menchu

While I had some understanding of the oppression of Indigenous people in Latin America before reading this book, this book opened my eyes in a new way not just to the history of all of the Americas, but also to the beauty of a way of life and a different perspective that has been systematically under attack for hundreds of years. A gripping story by an inspiring woman–who went on to win the Nobel Prize for her peace work.

Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam—Zainab Salbi

Salbi’s father was Saddam Hussein’s private pilot, and Salbi grew up in Hussein’s inner circles. The book provides an unusual look at life inside Iraq under Hussein and a harrowing journey to escape from his tyranny—as well as the devastation of war on the country. As Salbi grows up, she also must come to terms with the sexual subjugation that was also a large force of her family’s and country’s story. Salbi is a founder of Women for Women, an international organization that supports women in times of war against war crimes and sexual assault. As the book’s description puts it, Salbi becomes “a public figure fighting to overcome the skill that once kept her alive: silence.” A powerful book.

Persepolis 1, Persepolis 2—Marjane Satrapi (graphic memoir for adult and older young adult readers)

These beautiful, poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing graphic memoirs present Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran through the Iranian revolution and war with Iraq. Telling a riveting story of living in history as it unfolds, of family, and of coming of age, these books are hard to put down.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost—Rebecca Solnit

Of all Rebecca Solnit’s books, this is my favorite. The book is a series of meditative, personal essays about self, world, direction, and more. Solnit is a powerful voice for women’s rights, the environment, and progressive politics. She’s also a beautiful, meditative writer, and I found myself, delightfully, getting lost in this book.

 Men We ReapedJesmyn Ward

A deeply moving memoir about the young men, including her beloved brother, who died in Ward’s early adulthood. Ward chronicles her life growing up with her charismatic, playboy father and her hard working mother in rural Mississippi and the lives of the young people around her. And she interrogates why so many young black men, caught in a system that offers them little hope, die. A book full of love and grief, rage and questions, this is a powerful read that explores deep social questions through a highly personal story and voice.  

Educated—Tara Westover

A gripping read about Westover’s childhood and early adulthood; the daughter of a family of homeschooling survivalists in Idaho, Westover gradually separates herself from her family as she comes to realize not just how misguided, but also abusive they are. This is a story of re-educating one’s own mind and view of the self in the world. It’s a fast and powerful read, and it shows just how much a classic, traditional memoir form can deliver.

Refuge—Terry Tempest Williams

This is my favorite book by Terry Tempest Williams, one of America’s best environmental writers. Braiding back and forth between accounts of Williams’ mother’s diagnosis and death of cancer and Williams’ work in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, this is a lyric and beautiful account of self, family, world, and our interconnection. A moving read.

Brown Girl Dreaming—Jacqueline Wilson (memoir in verse for young adult and adult readers)

This charming memoir in verse, easy enough for young readers and rich enough for adults, tells Wilson’s story growing up in South Carolina and New York City. It’s a story about race, and about the different challenges of the north and the south, a story about family and sibling rivalry, and also a beautiful story about the development of a writer. This book is delightful for readers of any age.

Patterns of Childhood—Christa Wolf (thinly veiled memoir in the form of fiction)

Christa Wolf is an East German writer, and her novel Cassandra, which re-tells the story of Troy from Cassandra’s perspective, helped shape my understanding of women’s voices. Patterns of Childhood is Wolf’s thinly veiled memoir about her childhood and experiences as a teenager in a family that supported the Nazis. While Wolf renounces her earlier allegiance, her work is always unflinching in its view of self in society and the ways in which our narratives are framed by those around us. This is a fascinating and gripping read.

Essays and Diaries—Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas, Moments of Being are favorites)

While Woolf is best known for her novels, I actually prefer these essays. They are wonderful opportunities to enter into an astute woman’s mind and view of the world. I come back to these essays again and again.

books to empower women image of virginia woolf

Again, it was both fun and hard to make this list, and I want to emphasize that there are many more books that are wonderful that I’ve read and admired and have a special place in my heart and many books that, I’m sure, are wonderful and I haven’t happened to read. Again, this is not meant to be a representative list. Whole parts of the world and many different stories are not represented here. Please use this as a jumping-off point and share books that you love in the comments below.

Here are ten more memoirs by women writers that I find empowering:

The Best We Could Do—Thi Bui

Brother, I’m Dying—Edwidge Danticat

Without a Map—Meredith Hall

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhoodbell hooks (an adult book but also appropriate for older YA readers)

Crazy Brave—Joy Harjo

H is for Hawk—Helen MacDonald

I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This—Nadja Spiegleman

Nothing Holds Back the Night—Delphine de Vigan

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal —Jeanette Winterson

Another book by a woman writer to empower you

Though this is NOT a memoir, I can’t help adding it to this list of women’s memoirs because I love it so much and because it has such a strong female first-person voice. I should add that this is VERY unconventional of me, especially since Elena Ferrante is a pen name and Ferrante went to great lengths to keep her identity hidden. She insists that the true identity of a novelist is not important and that her books should not be read as autofiction in any way. That said, it’s fun to bend our own rules, so I’m including this series here. People either love or hate these Ferrante books. As you can tell, I loved them and could not put them down.

The Neopolitan Novels—Elena Ferrante

I hope you’ll explore these books if you haven’t already. Get them from your local bookstore or library. Curl up with a cup of tea. Get them as gifts for the women–and men–your life.

Most importantly, I hope these strong women’s voices will encourage you to listen to and express your own unique and powerful voice.

I firmly believe that everyone’s voice matters!

Let me know what you think! I’m sure some of your favorite memoirs by women aren’t on this list–what are they? And maybe you’ll find some new favorites here!

Please leave a comment below!

With love,

To read about the importance of the stories we tell, come to this post where I talk about another favorite female author who helps us all develop our own voices and trust ourselves: https://nadiacolburn.com/learning-to-listen-to-ourselves

And to write with more ease and power yourself, get my FREE 33+ page Ebook “Embrace Your Story.

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  1. I printed this out so I will not lose it nor forget it. I have read several of these already, and it nice to see my choices affirmed. My book pile is eye level now, so once I get it down a ways, I will invest in more on this list.
    Thank you

  2. Thank you for these recommendations, Nadia!
    Two of my recent favorite empowering memoirs by women have been Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford and Know My Name by Chanel Miller. If you haven’t read them yet, I’d definitely recommend them!

    1. Thanks Caroline, for your comment and for these books. The Ford is on my to-read list and yes, I agree, Miller’s book, which I did read, was powerful and empowering. Thank you for naming them here.

  3. Thank you for these recommendations Nadia!
    Two of my recent favorite empowering memoirs by women have been Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford and Know My Name by Chanel Miller. If you haven’t read them yet, I’d highly recommend them!

  4. I love this compilation of eclectic and inspirational female authors and you sharing the impact their work has had on you. I am looking forward to reading many of these!

  5. Thanks for sharing this list of books that are close to your heart, Nadia. I always love to here what other people are reading – especially a poet/teacher!
    I would recommend Harjo’s latest memoir, Poet Warrior and Kathryn May’s Wintering. 💖

    1. Hi Karen, Thanks for your comment. Harjo’s latest is on my to-read list, and I enjoyed Wintering 🙂 Thanks for sharing these books here.

  6. Thank you for this very diverse list. I, too have a pile of books to get to and have been toying with writing memoir. I’m passing this list along to my daughter, an 8th grade English teacher. Thank you for your work and commitment to so many of the things that I love.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Waltena! I hope your daughter enjoys the list, and maybe some of her students will like some of the YA books. It’s so much fun to share things we love 🙂

  7. Thank you for this wonderful list! I would like to add a memoir I am reading right now, Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad. This is the story of a woman diagnosed with leukemia at 22 years old and her subsequent journey through hell to recovery. The title is taken from a quote by Susan Sontag: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Jaouad shares with us her familiarity with both kingdoms and the painful transitions between them. Besides the excellent quality of the writing, this deeply moving book is remarkable for its tremendous empathy and utter lack of self-pity. I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

  8. Hi Kay, Thank you for your comment and suggestion! I’m ordering Jaouad’s book from the library now. I hadn’t heard of it, but it sounds great. It’s wonderful to share things we love <3, Nadia

  9. Dear Nadia,
    This is priceless and snd I’ll keep it for future. I must let you know that your free 5-day meditation and poetry class helped me write a piece that I included in my WIP novel and my editor loved it.

    I am going to do it again. Enrolled in January. Take care and have a peaceful, wonderful holiday season


  10. Great list, Nadia. I have read a few of the books listed and can now add on some more. I just completed interestingly, H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald , ( not Meridith , as listed) and it is fascinating and so well written— I started it again! Thank you for this list.

  11. Are you vegan? Sounds scary to take on some shots rest of your life “natural” or not. Unless you have a disease but for a normal healthy person + you don’t need the weight loss effect, hope you agree!

  12. Thanks for these wonderful tips, Nadia🙏 We appear to like the same books, as I've read quite a few on your list and I look forward to reading your other suggestions. I've read Jeanette Winterson and her book is actually titled "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" You wrote content instead of normal, and you probably know the title refers to what the author's mother said to her, since after all, being "normal" seemed preferable to being happy!😊

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