With International Women鈥檚 Day recently behind us and the welcome rise in feminist activism across the country, it鈥檚 a great time to remind ourselves that women really do rule. Some do it literally, by title, and some merely rule our hearts by the way they challenge and take on the world. This week鈥檚 book club features books about and by the first female president of an African nation, the OG Renaissance queen (even pre-Elizabeth), and our favorite queen of The X-Files.


1. Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper ($27): One of the very best parts of Amy Poehler鈥檚 amazing and wonderful Parks and Recreation (seriously, once you鈥檙e finished reading these books, watch it) was that it introduced a wider swath of the word to the comedy powerhouse that is Retta. The show鈥檚 secret weapon, she ruled her every scene, and her live-Tweeting knows no bounds. It鈥檚 not surprising that Retta knows how to rule the screen, because her aunt, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, worked her way to becoming Africa鈥檚 first female president, along with the small matter of winning a Nobel Prize.

鈥淚n Liberia, a woman鈥檚 place is in the market, the church, the kitchen, or the bed. But not for one little girl.鈥 Sirleaf won the 2005 Liberian presidential election, to the shock and elation of many who thought a woman鈥檚 victory was anything but assured. Her rise to power was a fascinating one that defied convention, though when she was born, it was foretold she was 鈥渄estined for greatness.鈥 At 17, denied a finishing education by the meltdown of her family鈥檚 finances, she married a seemingly 鈥渨orldly鈥 man seven years her senior. However, four children later, she felt trapped in an abusive and sexist relationship and country. Following her husband to America for business school, she left him, found a job at the Liberian Ministry of Finance, and later moved to a job at the World Bank. This began a savvy series of networking with Western leaders with influence in African finances.

After leading positions at different large banks, she decided that her best method of influence was politics. Sirleaf was deeply upset by the brutality that ran rampant through her home country, perpetrated by its leaders and backed by American influence, and spent time in jail for opposing its military government. Her surprising win of the presidency caused both positive change and a violent backlash against women. Helene Cooper, current Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winner, tells Sirleaf鈥檚 story through a combination of interviews and data from Sirleaf鈥檚 autobiography. This balanced account celebrates Sirleaf鈥檚 highs (the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, a deal with Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, to support her goals for progress in Liberia) and lows (the Ebola epidemic, accusations of corruption, and nepotism). Above all, it captures Sirleaf鈥檚 indomitable spirit.

isabella of castile

2. Isabella of Castile: Europe鈥檚 First Great Queen by Giles Tremlett ($35): Far before there was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, before there was even a presidency, and even before Elizabeth I, there was Isabella of Castile. Isabella, born in 1451, was Europe鈥檚 first female monarch, and the 35 years she ruthlessly ruled Castile would result in major consequences for centuries to come. Some, like historian Manuel Fern谩ndez 脕lvarez, even call her the most important figure in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. At 18, she was already asserting herself, choosing her own husband, Ferdinand, from the sons of neighboring Aragon鈥檚 ruling class.

At 23, she claimed her right to rule, walking behind a defiant sword, in a demonstration that shocked onlookers. 鈥淚sabella鈥檚 father and half-brother, the two kings who had ruled fractious Castile for the previous seventy years, were not famed for their use of power. They had let others rule for them. Yet here was a woman, of all things, declaring her determination to govern them herself.鈥 Isabella鈥檚 refusal to be a 鈥減laything鈥 like her forbears was surprising, but her subjects grew to love her as she presided over her kingdom as mercilessly as any man could have. Isabella was attuned to the ideals of the early Renaissance, and used these ideas to discipline the nation, exchanging infighting for diligence and stagnation for ambition. She left no doubt that she, not Ferdinand, was in charge. Their marriage would help to unite the neighboring kingdoms and lead to the union of the entire peninsula.

War was Isabella鈥檚 game of choice, and she pioneered a sort of army that was filled with infantry and artillery rather than knights. She achieved many things via intimidation and conquest and even sanctioned Columbus鈥檚 trip to the New World. Isabella鈥檚 legacy is impressive, but also complicated, and certainly not all positive, particularly her repugnant instigation of the Spanish Inquisition. Tremlett鈥檚 book provides an equally multifaceted history of a trailblazing woman and the far-reaching legacy and impact of her decisions and policies.


3. We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel ($27): If you want to rule, and you don鈥檛 have Queen Isabella鈥檚 army, you need a guidebook to get you there. Actress and writer Gillian Anderson collaborates with journalist Jennifer Nadel to provide a self-help manual for the woman who wants to improve her prospects and lot in life (and if we鈥檝e learned anything from history, unfortunately, it鈥檚 if we don鈥檛 help ourselves, who will?). The book is part guiding principle, part conversation, and part workbook for success (though if you want to do the exercises provided, you鈥檒l need a journal). The book cautions that the process is complex and can鈥檛 be superficial, but this is reflected in the results; it鈥檚 a 鈥淩adical transformation鈥 structured around a core principle of compassion.

鈥淎t some point in our lives, most of us feel the gentle calling of our soul,鈥 Anderson and Nadel write. 鈥淪ometimes it鈥檚 so quiet we can barely hear it: a soft tapping, no louder than a leaf falling from a tree鈥 If you鈥檝e heard that call,鈥 they continue, 鈥渢his book is for you.鈥 We purports to complement a system of internal values and to close the gap between the values we want to espouse and the values we think we have to live by just to get by in the world.

Anderson and Nadel do, however, acknowledge the difficulties women face in that real, divided world but say that the only way to truly succeed is not to compete, but band together, and to be loud while doing so. It pulls for a 鈥渇emale-led鈥 revolution that doesn鈥檛 wait for consent from the powerful. If reading about President Sirleaf and Queen Isabella inspires you, perhaps you鈥檒l want to join this new revolution as well.

Do you think some books just rule? Tag us in your next powerful read @BritandCo.

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