Women in Nonfiction


Last week, Anne Boyd Rioux wrote a fantastic article over at The Millions titled Is There No Gender Equity in Nonfiction? Though it’s focused on the National Book Award, her question had me scanning my nonfiction shelves (I’m one of those people) and realizing my nonfiction titles tend to be male dominated, despite the fact that my overall reading sits around 70% women this year (I am absolutely one of those people). Even looking at the stacks of nonfiction titles I have set aside for next month’s Nonfiction November event, just three were written by women.

While I’m not under the delusion that I can have any kind of impact on voting for the National Book Award, Rioux’s article—along with her blog post on challenges to Karen Abbott’s credibility—was a bit of a wake up call. I want to make it a goal from this point forward is to focus on finding, reading and featuring books by women in my nonfiction reading. While I work on finishing up my list of fantastic sounding upcoming titles, here are a few recent favorites I think deserve a little more attention.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Flappers by Judith Mackrell

Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

For the Benefit of Those Who See by Rosemary Mahoney


Have you noticed that your nonfiction reading is gender skewed? Do you have any nonfiction recommendations from female writers? 


  • What about Laura Hillenbrand?! While fairly mainstream, Seabiscuit and Unbroken have been two of my favorite nonfiction reads over the past few years! I’ve got Careless People and Liars, Temptress, Soldier, Spy on my TBR list and I’m thinking I’ll probably get them in November for Nonfiction month. I’ve also heard great things about 5 Days at Memorial. I read that article and I’m looking forward to being able to comment after I’ve read the book.

    • Thank you for reminding me about Unbroken! I’ve been meaning to read it for forever and definitely want to get to it before the movie.

  • My favorite non-fiction writers are men, but I have two books on my shelf that I am really looking forward to reading: The Women Who Wrote the War by Nancy Caldwell Sorel and Everybody Was So Young: A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill.

  • Michele McCarthy

    These are awesome: The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson, Mao:The Unknown Story by Jung Chang, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

  • Michele McCarthy

    Join us in the Female Nonfiction Authors of 2014 Challenge at http://on.fb.me/1yEvSOs. Even if you just read one book. The challenge is based on the list from Anne Boyd Rioux’s curated list.

    • This is fantastic – I’ve already read two and have The Empathy Exams set aside to read very soon. I’ll make sure to share this, too!

      • Michele McCarthy

        Thanks so much Shannon!!

    • Kerry M

      This sounds great–thanks for sharing!

  • Amy Sachs

    Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, and Joan Didion are all great non-fiction writers, but aside from these few, I haven’t read very many non-fiction works by women either. Careless People and Liar Temptress Soldier Spy seem so interesting to me though, so I’ll have to start there!

    • Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed are two of my absolute favorite writers, but I still haven’t read anything by Joan Didion, so it sounds like I need to get to her quick!

  • Kerry M

    This is really interesting. I track my stats overall, but have never looked at one genre specifically. Of the 16 non-fiction books I’ve read so far this year, 9 are by males and 7 by females (which is actually not far off from my overall reading habits–49 males and 47 females). I’d add Mary Roach to your list (everything she’s ever written is fantastic), and Sarah Vowell is great too. Second the other commenters adding Cheryl Strayed and Doris Kearns Goodwin, too. MAN this makes me want to go read non-fiction (by a woman) right now.

    • I do the same thing, and I actually hadn’t looked at my stats when I wrote the post, I had just done an unscientific shelf scan. Apparently I own way more books by males than what I’ve read this year, because I’m actually about 50/50. Many of those are memoirs and essays, which I don’t find to be “lesser” nonfiction by any means, but I would love to be more supportive of the nonfiction by women being overlooked in other areas.

  • I recently read Naked imperfection by Gillian Deacon, which I really liked. And I have had my eye on This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.

  • My non-fiction reading is actually pretty evenly split. However, I don’t read a ton of non-fiction, and at least half of the NF books on my shelf are memoirs, most of which are written by women.

    This is a really interesting topic, though, and I can see how the genre in general would be dominated by men. Great recommendations!

    • I just checked my stats from this year (rather than just looking at my shelves) and it’s pretty evenly split but, like you said, most are memoirs. I’m definitely interested in spreading my female-penned nonfiction reading across the genre a bit if possible.

  • My reading is so overwhelmingly female, and that has translated to my non-fiction in the last couple of years, too. Very interesting post!

  • I agree with the Mary Roach suggestion. Also Sarah Vowell. There’s a significant lack of nonfiction by women in my field, I feel like… even though it’s mostly memoir, I’d like to add Stacy Horn’s Imperfect Harmony simply because there’s a hefty dose of music history in there as well. You know, it’s interesting, even authors/books I thought to mention (like Elizabeth Little’s Trip of the Tongue) seem to have a significant memoir feel to them.

    • I think I’ve read two of Mary Roach’s books, but I’d definitely like to read more (especially Gulp) and I have serious plans to pick up my Sarah Vowell books soon :)

  • Lindsey Stefan

    I’m one of those people, so I had to go back and check my non-fiction reading. While I don’t read as much nonfiction as I might like, 7 out of my past 8 nonfiction books were written by women.

    That being said, when I think of nonfiction (aside from memoir and parenting books), it seems that a lot of it is ruled by men.

    • That’s a pretty great ratio! My female nonfiction is mostly memoir, too, and I’d really like to expand that a bit.

  • I must admit to not having given it much thought but quick scan shows 50/50. The last three books I’ve read were all by woman and all about women so on a bit of a roll.

  • I think my reading in most if not all genres is gender-skewed heavily female. It totally doesn’t happen on purpose! But it does make me feel like I am an exceptionally virtuous reader. :p

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  • Savvy WorkingGal

    My reading is heavily skewed towards female authors, but I make a point to read women authors. I started this a few years ago when I participated in the women unbound challenge, plus I write for a women audience – so almost always read books for women written by women.

  • Hmmm. It’s been a while since I’ve read non-fiction (BAD TRISH) but thinking back I guess the nonfiction I tend to read by women are more memoir driven? Others that come to mind are Jeannette Walls, Laura Hillenbrand, Rebecca Skloot, Cheryl Strayed, Joan Didion, Mary Roach…but glancing over at my non-fiction shelf, most of the authors are male.

  • Beth

    I rarely read nonfiction. To challenge myself, I’m doing nonfiction November as well. The books I chose are (unintentionally) all by female authors! Not That Kind Of Girl by Lena Dunham, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, and My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. I think as a woman, I am personally just naturally drawn to female authors, or books with female protagonists. (Maybe?) But also, when it comes to non fiction, if it’s not a memoir or some kind of narrative, I just can’t hack it. So, that might also be a factor!

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