The theme of Women’s History Month 2011 is “Our History is Our Strength.” These new books present biographies full of intellect, tenacity, courage and creativity.

Actress and blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon puts readers smack in the middle of some incredible female lives with her blog, Scandalous Women. Her mini-biographies are now compiled in Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women. Mahon, a self-proclaimed “history geek,” reclaims history “one woman at a time” in short, lighthearted accounts of the lives of rich and famous—and ordinary—women who caused wars, created drama, “defied the rules and brought men to their knees.” Each chapter features five women who created whole genres of scandal, from Warrior Queens (Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine), Wayward Wives (Jane Digby, Zelda Fitzgerald), Scintillating Seductresses (Emma Hamilton, Mata Hari), Crusading Ladies (Ida B. Wells, Anne Hutchinson), Wild Women of the West (Calamity Jane, Unsinkable Molly Brown), Amorous Artists (Camille Claudel, Billie Holiday) and Amazing Adventuresses (Anna Leonowens, Amelia Earhart). While many of the facts surrounding these lives are familiar, Mahon weaves page-turner narratives from her passion and affection for these spectacular but often misrepresented women.

The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, was a controversial and groundbreaking book that turned the myth of the “content and fulfilled” housewife and mother on its head. The best-selling and radical book by Betty Friedan—often read undercover—inspired a generation of women to buck societal pressures and the prevailing belief that “women’s independence was bad for husbands, children, and the community at large” and seek change in their lives. In A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, award-winning social historian Stephanie Coontz conducts interviews with nearly 200 women (and men) who were affected by Friedan’s book and traces its societal impact, including its influence on issues of gender equality today. Coontz examines the eras of relative freedom for women that predated the book, from getting the vote and the bobs and short dresses of the 1920s to hard-working Rosie the Riveters of the 1940s, and the erosion of those freedoms in postwar America. Friedan, “just another unhappy housewife” and writer for women’s magazines, conceived her book in the Mad Men era, when men had total legal control over the lives of their families and women couldn’t get credit in their own names. While other books of the time tackled similar problems, Friedan—a former activist—made readers feel passionate and validated in their frustration with their gilded cages. Packed with fascinating statistics and research on 20th-century American social history, including the effect of “liberation” on middle-class, working-class and African-American women, Coontz shines new light on a landmark work.

Elizabeth I ruled England with history-making style. But Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, were equally powerful, ambitious women who thrived in a cutthroat world well before her reign. Award-winning British historian Helen Castor (Blood and Roses) tells their extraordinary stories in She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. “Man was the head of woman, and the king was the head of all,” Castor writes. “How, then, could royal power lie in female hands?” Castor answers that suspenseful question in dense, historically rich accounts that set out every detail of the complex social mores, political machinations, familial manipulations and feuds that formed their paths to power and influence. Women who claimed their earned power—even their birthright—outright during the 12th-15th centuries were seen as fanged, bloodthirsty “she-wolves.” “Freedom to act,” Castor writes, “did not mean freedom from censure and condemnation.” Their stories—like young French bride Isabella’s fight for her royal rights in England at the age of 12—featured subtle negotiations, covert confrontations, manipulations and sharp analysis worthy of any male ruler during such tumultuous, war-ravaged times, and She-Wolves makes for exceptional, even inspirational reading.

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