From memoirs to biographies: the best books about real women you need to read now

Posted by for Books

Lose yourself in these autobiographies, biographies and memoirs which tell the stories of some of the world’s most inspirational, fascinating and flawed women. 

Sometimes when you’re stuck in a reading rut, a really good palate cleanser is some non-fiction, and that is especially true when it’s cold and stormy outside and the urge to hibernate is strong.

Thanks to a gamut of brilliant biographies and memoirs by and about some amazing women, we’ve definitely got some titles to get you excited about reading.

From political powerhouses (Michelle Obama, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Soong Sisters) to iconic women (Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Maya Angelou) to stories of survival and resilience (Yeonmi Park, Tara Westover and Viv Albertine), these are books that present women in all of their glory: flawed, fearless, powerful, talented and ground-breaking. Enjoy… 

  • Marilyn by Donald Spoto

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: Marilyn the Biography by Donald Spoto

    There have been hundreds of books written about Marilyn Monroe – former boyfriends, photographers, so-called friends and all of them purport to have the inside scoop on the actor who was both immensely talented and had the odds stacked against her. Spoto’s biography is possibly the best: capturing the horrific origins of her early life, her ambition and the squalid, exploitative Hollywood she was forced to navigate while battling chronic endometriosis and psychological scars. 

    As always, you read it hoping for a different ending for a woman who deserved personal happiness and professional recognition but never found it. 

    (£12.99, Cornerstone)

  • All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: All Gods Children by Maya Angelou

    The fifth book in Angelou’s seven-book autobiography is a fascinating insight into the civil rights and the black experience of the early 60s. 

    Having navigated a childhood of racism and trauma, experienced life as a sex worker, tackled lone motherhood and been at the epicentre of Martin Luther King’s political movement only to become disillusioned, Maya Angelou travels to Accra in order to understand her antecedents and identity – a double-edged experience crystallised by a meeting with Malcolm X. 

    (£9.99, Virago)

  • The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

    Two acclaimed authors; a friend of Hitler who accidentally lobotomised herself during a suicide attempt; the wife of British Fascist, Oswald Mosley, and a Communist who went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. You can say one thing about the Mitford sisters, they didn’t do things by half. 

    This insightful and entertaining biography is a must-read from Mary S Lovell whose other works on The Riviera Set and even The Churchills are brilliant and fascinating. 

    (£12.99, Little, Brown)

  • We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

    Beautifully written and insightful, Habib’s memoir is about what it means to find your own identity in a world that’s written and designed by other people. 

    As a queer Muslim woman, she explores her childhood in Toronto which was marred by Islamophobia and bullying (her family fled Pakistan due to persecution by extremists) and her attempts to break free from social and religious expectations to trust in her own inner self. It’ll reduce you to tears but also uplift and comfort you. 

    (£7.98, Quercus)

  • The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown

    Written by the inimitable former editor of Vanity Fair, Tina Brown, this is the final word in Diana, Princess of Wales books. 

    Filled with insider anecdotes and gleeful accounts of the Royal family’s dysfunction (spending every August in the freezing outpost of Balmoral for a start), it’s also the desperately sad tale of a young woman who wanted family love and support only to be left disillusioned and isolated but (thankfully) found great solace in her children. Ultimately, the tragedy lies in the matchmaking behind Diana and Charles’ marriage as both parties were wedged into a partnership that was the exact opposite of what both of them needed. 

    (£8.33, Arrow)

  • Educated by Tara Westover

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: Educated by Tara Westover

    Read this book and you’ll become evangelical about it – forcing it upon anyone who expresses an interest in the printed word (and, especially, those who don’t). Heck, even Barack can’t stop recommending it. 

    Tara Westover started out life as part of a survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho that meant no schools, no hospitals and no intervention when her brother became violent. Lacking any formal upbringing, Westover began to teach herself – a journey that would lead her to Cambridge and Harvard. Jaw-dropping and so inspiring, everyone should read this book (see what we mean?).  

    (£7, Cornerstone)

  • In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

    If you need any insight into what’s happening in North Korea, Park’s brave and devastating book is the place to start. 

    Detailing her life under a regime which leaves its citizens starving, dying from disease and forced into labour camps, Park’s memoir is deeply both enlightening and horrifying. Aged 15, Park and her mother escaped to China (her older sister has already fled while they were forced to leave behind her father who later died from colon cancer) only to fall into the hands of human traffickers who raped both women and sold Park’s mother as they attempted to pursue their own freedom. 

    Park is now a student and human rights activist and her story needs to be read by as many people as possible. 

     (£8, Penguin)

  • To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine

    In her debut memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Albertine lifted the lid on her life as one of The Slits – punk’s subversive and brilliant all-women band. Rewinding past this time, To Throw Away Unopened is about her upbringing in a dysfunctional, working class family in 60s London – her absent, abusive father, a mother who instilled a sense of ferocity and the violent breakdown in her relationship with her sister.

    It’s also about the impact this has had on her own life, her daughter and the female rage we all need to acknowledge. 

    (£6.99, Faber)

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: Becoming by Michelle Obama

    From the South Side of Chicago to the White House, this clear-sighted biography has become a must-read for the 21st century. 

    While Obama née Robinson recounts a happy childhood of a close family who worked hard, she doesn’t shy away from what it means to grow up black in America (a “white flight” from her neighbourhood and her brother, Craig, falling foul of the local police) and the veiled (if not outright) racism that met Barack’s presidential campaign. 

    Tackling miscarriage, IVF, self-belief and Trump, this honest memoir is proof that when it comes to taking the high road, no one does it better. 

    (£19.99, Penguin)

  • Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

    Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang
    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

    Due out in October, this is a sweeping journey to the very centre of Communist China in the 20th century by the author of the equally ambitious, Wild Swans. The three Soong sisters from Shanghai all enjoyed privilege and influence but were caught up in a tumult of politics, danger and intrigue (even against each other despite remaining close). Due to be one of this autumn’s biggest reads, it’s an astounding story told with verve and insight.

    (£25, Jonathan Cape) 

  • Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

    Best biographies, autobiographies and memoirs of inspiring women: Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

    English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the woman behind A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman and Frankenstein author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter but tragically never knew each other as Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth (Shelley was her second daughter). Yet, both were united by pioneering and fierce spirits which saw them give birth out of wedlock and blaze a trail in the worlds of literature and politics. Read and be seriously inspired. 

    (£9.99, Cornerstone)

Sign up for our essential edit of what to buy, see, read and do, and also receive a free guide to the 101 Female Authors Everyone Should Have On Their Bookshelf.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Images: Supplied by publishers 

Share this article

Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown

Recommended by Francesca Brown