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.
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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.
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.
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.
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 Reaped—Jesmyn 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.
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.
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 Girlhood—bell 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!
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.“