Biographies and memoirs that taught me valuable life skills.
"Lives of great women remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
And departing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time."
- (Adapted from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
This is a poem I have memorized since childhood.
My mother who often tutored me taught me this. Back in the 2000s, schools in India had a habit of asking children to write essays about famous personalities.
Whether it’s a hero of the Indian freedom struggle, or a scientist who invented something useful, all essays sounded better if they began with the above lines.
That’s what my mother taught me, and because of how many times I’ve repeated the same lines for multiple essays, I have them ingrained in my brain now.
That’s why when I thought to write an article about inspiring and life-changing memoirs by women, these lines had to make an appearance. I know Longfellow, the original poet had written “men,” but I changed it to women to suit the context better.
These women’s lives are not just stories; they are teachings on leadership, determination, empathy, ambition, and wisdom. Read on, and who knows, you might find your next favorite book among the list.
1. Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson
Known for her touching poetry and troubled personal life, Sylvia Plath’s biography sheds light on the influences that shaped her as a person. The memoir explores her academic achievements, struggles with mental health, and her aspirations as a young woman trying to establish herself as a poet.
Mad Girl’s Love Song reminisces Sylvia’s college romance with Richard Sassoon and her encounters with other men in her youth. The stories in the book focus on Plath’s life before her marriage to the British poet Ted Hughes. Their marriage marked a turning point in her life and career.
I’ve read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Journals of Sylvia Plath
and The Bell Jar. Her writing has always captivated me. It breaks my heart to think how a person could hold so much pain within them, and yet produce such exquisite art.
Her life story always made me wonder if art grows from pain, or does pain only befriend the artistic?
This memoir shows Sylvia’s how family dynamics and relationships played a significant role in creating her identity. She was determined to pursue her passion for writing despite struggling with mental health issues throughout her life. Her story gives meaningful insights into the complexities of romantic partnerships and the need for open communication, empathy, and mutual support in maintaining a healthy relationship.
My favorite quotes from Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson
“Writing, she said was not only her favorite hobby, it was also a way in which she could escape into another world — the world of fantasy.”
What did she want? Everything.
2. Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White
Born and brought up in rural Georgia, Alice Walker became an inspiration for many women due to her dedication to social justice and fighting against racism. Alice Walker: A Life offers a comprehensive look at Walker’s life, from her early years to her rise as a prominent writer, poet, and activist.
Despite coming from extreme poverty and suffering racial discrimination, Walker’s passion for literature and writing emerged during her childhood. She attended Spelman College and later Sarah Lawrence College, where she was exposed to the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s.
Her career took off with her poetry and short stories, but she gained widespread recognition and acclaim for her novel The Color Purple. Published in 1982, the book won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
I hold The Color Purple dear to me for it’s bold, yet sensitive exploration of themes like race, gender, and identity in the context of African-American life in the South. Curious about this feminist icon’s life I picked up her biography.
Alice Walker: A Life is a book that filled me with the inspiration to bring a positive impact on the world. Throughout her life, Alice Walker was not only a prolific writer but also a dedicated activist. She was involved in various social justice movements, including civil rights and feminism, and her work often reflected her commitment to these causes. She also traveled extensively and connected with oppressed communities worldwide. She recognized the issues of race, class, social norms, and gender very deeply. The success of her book The Color Purple demonstrates the power of storytelling in bringing change.
My favorite quotes from Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White
“It is love that makes me look at what I can’t stand. When you love deeply, you can stand to see a lot more.”
“People are chicken-hearted everywhere.”
3. Becoming By Michelle Obama
Let’s talk about the most iconic and inspiring woman whose life story taught me the journey to self-discovery and excellence. She is no other than the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
Becoming by Michelle Obama is a powerful memoir talking about her journey from childhood in the Southside of Chicago to the White House. Divided into three parts: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” and “Becoming More”, she talks about each phase of her life.
- Becoming Me is a journey of self-discovery and her drive to excel academically. Michelle shares her struggle as an African American student on the Princeton University campus where she decided to bring a change.
- Her life changed when she met Barack Obama at Harvard and the journey of Becoming Us started. It’s inspiring how they built a solid relationship and raised two brilliant daughters, Malia and Shasha.
- The third part, Becoming More, reflects on Michelle’s role as First Lady and the impact she brought through initiatives like “Let’s Move!” to fight against increasing childhood obesity cases and “Reach Higher” to promote education.
Through Michelle Obama’s story, I learned the significance of family, love, and support in achieving one’s goals. I learned that being optimistic and believing that I can make a difference can magically transform your life. Her journey inspires me to partner with someone and change the world as a team.
My favorite quotes from Becoming By Michelle Obama
“If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”
“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.”
“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?”
4. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Reading about the history of Egypt and other ancient civilizations has always fascinated me. My curiosity about one of the most powerful female leaders in history led me to this book Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. This woman left a lasting mark on the history of Egypt through her wisdom and diplomacy.
Cleopatra: A Life is a detailed exploration of the wise queen’s rise to power, her relationships with influential figures of her time, and her ultimate downfall. Cleopatra was a charismatic and intelligent lady with multilingual skills on her way to become a powerful ascendant to the throne. Her rise led to a power struggle within her family but she handled it all wisely. Her relationship with Julius Caesar and then with Mark Antony led to a massive upheaval in the Roman empire. The book concludes with the battle of Actium and her mysterious demise.
Cleopatra: A Life is a tale of a queen who paved her way to the throne with her intelligence and changed the history of the Egyptian and Roman empires. Her story illustrates the challenges women in power faced in the ancient world and throughout history.
Cleopatra’s life and death still remain subject of debate by many historians. This is one of the most engaging books about female leaders I have read.
My favorite quotes from Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
“As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman.”
“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.”
“When a woman teams up with a snake a moral storm threatens somewhere.”
5. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
The Story of My Life details Helen Keller’s remarkable journey from a young, deaf-blind child to a highly educated and influential woman. A 19-month-old girl who suffered a severe illness that left her deaf and blind later became the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College. Her story is a testament to the power of determination, resilience, and the human spirit’s capacity to overcome any obstacle life throws.
The story also highlights the importance of educating young girls. As Helen Keller learned to communicate, her world expands. She became hungry for knowledge and advocated for the rights of people with disabilities.
It’s also the story of a dedicated teacher Anne Sullivan who transformed Helen Keller’s life by breaking through her isolation and teaching her to communicate through tactile sign language.
This is a beautiful book to read, especially when you feel hopeless and stuck. Helen Keller’s journey taught me the power of resilience and determination. Despite facing profound challenges, Hellen never gave up on her quest for learning and self-improvement.
I also understood that education is the only way out of the darkness and inaction. The relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan showcases the power of empathy, patience, and compassion in guiding and nurturing individuals with disabilities. Reading about Helen Keller’s achievements fills me with inspiration and hope.
My favorite quotes from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
“Knowledge is love and light and vision.”
“One painful duty fulfilled makes the next plainer and easier.”
“I wonder what becomes of lost opportunities? Perhaps our guardian angel gathers them up as we drop them, and will give them back to us in the beautiful sometime when we have grown wiser, and learned how to use them rightly.”
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