The Future Is Female: Reading Women Leaders

If there’s one silver lining of this disastrous year in U.S. politics, it’s that female leaders have really stepped to the forefront – from former Attorney General Sally Yates, who refused to endorse the proposed travel ban on people from majority-Muslim countries, to Senator Kamala Harris, the only sane voice in the Session hearings, to U.S. representative Maxine Waters, one of Trump’s most vocal critics. So one of my new hobbies is reading books by and about female politicians who have beaten all kinds of odds. Here’s a breakdown of some of my favorites, including Hillary’s new (searing) memoir.

What Happened—Hillary Rodham Clinton
She may not have (officially) won the 2016 election, but the future is still female to Hillary. In this much-anticipated, admirably candid memoir, she explores why the first female U.S. presidential nominee of a major political party was defeated by a man whom even the GOP admits has a “woman problem.” From the anti-lady sentiment still holding sway – “I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, ‘My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation’ would be cheered, not jeered. But that’s not who we are” – to her lambasting of press coverage – “[Trump’s actions] sucked up all the oxygen in the media” and Trump’s “dark energy” – Hillary never holds back, even when acknowledging her own blunders. (Yep, she regrets the “deplorables” comment as much as we do.) Brave, commanding, and ruefully honest, it’s hard to read this memoir of loss and not wish she’d won.

American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America—Michelle Obama
With all due respect to Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama may be the most rousing public speaker of all U.S. first ladies, so much so that our current first lady has a peculiar habit of swiping some of her lines. Though Michelle has already signed a deal to write her first memoir (those impatient for her biography can read Peter Slevin’s Michelle Obama: A Life in the meanwhile), American Grown, an account of the White House garden and her national health initiatives, already gives you a strong sense of Michelle’s extraordinary values and warmth.

Golda—Elinor Burkett
She may have looked like everyone’s Jewish grandmother, but Golda Meir was not only the sole woman among Israel’s founders but the first female head of state in the Western World. In this no-bullshit biography, the former prime minister does not come off as a saint – she was a rough mother and a philandering wife – so much as a true politician whose strength and hawkishness set the tone for Middle East politics today.

It’s Up to the Women–Eleanor Roosevelt (introduction by Jill Lepore)
I’ve never loved Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography, which is about as candid as a press release. But the former first lady’s first book, originally written to lift spirits during the Great Depression, is as groundbreaking as she was. In the excellent introduction, Jill Lepore, no slouch herself, details how Eleanor overcame her reluctance to live in the public eye to crusade on behalf of underdogs, especially women. A lifelong feminist before the term even really existed, Roosevelt writes rousingly about female power and American values. Even her anachronisms are fascinating rather than alienating.

Straight from the Heart—Ann Richards
Man, could our country benefit from Ann Richards just about now. The second female governor of Texas, she claimed she only ran for office because her husband would not, but she became one of our country’s most quotable and perspicacious politicians across all geographic and gender lines. As this memoir was written when Richards was still state treasurer, I also recommend Jan Reid’s biography, Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, for an overview of the late woman’s entire career, but nothing comes close to the deceased politician’s own voice.

A Fighting Chance–Elizabeth Warren
Somehow, Elizabeth Warren has found the time to write eleven books in addition to working as a prominent bankruptcy lawyer and now serving as a senior Massachusetts U.S. Senator. A fierce advocate of the declining American middle class, she writes so passionately that even such unsexy topics as bankruptcy law seem compelling. In this book and This Fight Is Our Fight – her two most recent endeavors – she gets a little more personal, detailing her modest background as well as her fervent belief that, even now, the American way of life can be salvaged. Warren is wonderful.

Madam Secretary: A Memoir—Madeleine Albright
She’s a brilliant working mom who rose from the ashes of her marriage to become the first U.S. secretary of state. She was raised Roman Catholic by Czech immigrants only to discover she is actually a Jew whose grandparents died in the concentration camps. And, oh yeah, she’s crafted one of the most engaging political memoirs of all time. From her acknowledgment of the U.S.’s failures in Rwanda and Bosnia to her nonplussed response to President Clinton’s philandering, Madeleine Albright emerges as one super-cool, super-clear customer. Consider the to-do list included in these pages: ”1) Call Senator Helms; 2) Call King Hussein; 3) Call Foreign Minister Moussa; 4) Make other Congressional calls; 5) Prepare for China meeting; 6) Buy nonfat yogurt.”

This was originally published at Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy