Mother’s Day reminds us that women are pretty great, but it’s important to remember that women are also remarkable in the absence of children. We can act, we can write, we can rule and we can use any or all of these qualities to change the world. Some of the most interesting and inspirational women out there have done it all through the harshest adversity, whether it be societal prejudice, lack of outside support or our own internal insecurities. This week’s book club picks are all based on the lives of fascinating women who may not have kids, but have great stories: Elizabeth I, England’s badass OG queen, the writer George Eliot and actress and immigration reform crusader Diane Guerrero. By the time you’re finished with their stories, you might be inspired to tell your own.
1. Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy ($21): “Even as she took her very first breath, the future Queen Elizabeth I was considered to be second best,” writes author John Guy, who won the Whitbread Award in 2004 for his biography on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. We may talk a lot about the current Queen Elizabeth II and her family, but well before Liz’s record-breaking reign, her ancestor and name’s progenitor was breaking some serious barriers of her own. Rising to power at 25, Queen Elizabeth I had to stave off suitors, advisors and general busybodies for another 25 years before everyone gave up on the idea of putting a ring on it. This independent woman and single lady was able to run the world after starting life in ridicule and illegitimacy.
Guy makes use of archival records, letters and court gossip to give us a well-rounded picture of this nearly mythical figure; ably dealing with war, revolution and economic fallout, Elizabeth was also vulnerable and anxiety-ridden, wondering whether to indulge her passion (for a much younger man) or focus on her career (something that’s probably familiar to any #girlboss out there). The book doesn’t shy away from Elizabeth’s achievements or her faults, her brilliance or her “vanity and temper tantrums.”
The other unique aspect of the book is that it focuses on the latter half of her impressive 44-year reign. “With so many years to cover, Elizabeth’s biographers have tended to flag once she passed the age of fifty,” writes Guy, but he maintains that, for this queen, there’s a lot of truth to the saying “life begins at fifty.”
2. The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith ($17): If life can begin at 50, can it begin at 60? The writer George Eliot found herself widowed at 60, after her lover of 26 years, George Henry Lewes, died. Dealing with thoughts of aging and decline, Eliot married a man 20 years her younger, John Walter Cross (Queen Elizabeth wasn’t the only older woman with a discerning eye). This novel is a fictionalized portrayal of Eliot’s 1880 honeymoon in Venice.
Originally Mary Ann Evans, Eliot took on a man’s name to avoid prejudice in the literary world. She was largely self-educated and convinced that knowledge was the best way to secure her future. Eliot wrote seven novels, most famously Middlemarch, which has been called the greatest novel in the English language. She was editor of the literary magazine the Westminster Review, a very unusual role for a woman at the time, and turned heads with her lengthy relationship with the already-married Lewes, whose wife also had a lover. In this novel, Smith uses historical fact and an imagining of Eliot’s emotions to create a tale about finding love in unlikely partnerships.
3. In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero with Michelle Burford ($18): You know by now that immigration is a hot-button issue (unless you’re living under a rock, legally or not). Whether you’re a wall-builder or a staunch believer that “no one is illegal,” there’s always a danger of forgetting the real human stories under the tide of rhetoric. What happens when you were born in the United States, but your parents are undocumented?
When Diane Guerrero was a mere 14 years old, the actress known for Jane the Virgin and Orange is the New Black came home from school to find her parents had been deported to their native Colombia, after spending years and thousands of dollars trying to rectify their status. She was allowed to remain in the country, but her family was gone. Guerrero had to rely on networks of family friends to get through school and beyond.
Guerrero’s confessional and compelling tale of the toll the separation had on her family’s relationships and on her mental health is hard hitting. Guerrero, who is an Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization for the White House, shares her story, in part, with at least 11 million other people who hope to change their citizenship status and fear becoming collateral damage in the immigration war.
What books make you feel like a boss? Tag us in your next world-changing read @BritandCo.