5 Powerful Memoirs/Biographies that Taught Me Valuable Life Lessons

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The best female memoirs and biographies for when you’re seeking inspiration and strength.

Part 1 of the Best Books for Women Series – Best Female Memoirs and Biographies

This post may contain affiliate links. See my disclosures here.

Out of all the books I’ve read over the years, only a select few have moved me so profoundly that even years later, I continue to hear the author whispering in my ear. As I struggle with a problem, the wisdom of these books will strike me like a bolt of lightning, delivering the exact words I need to hear at a specific moment. These are the books I place on my “special book” shelf, and they’re the books I press into the hands of fellow travelers every chance I get.

Below, you’ll find five stories that transformed the way I see courage, redemption, a life of service, compassion, and perseverance. In my opinion, these are the most inspirational, the very best female memoirs or biographies – hands down. Wherever you are on your own journey, you will glean encouragement from these wise women.

1. Courage

Chanel Miller’s book, Know My Name, reminds me that courage is an attribute acquired through facing fear. Courage may not come naturally. We may desperately fight it, wanting instead to succumb to or run away from our fears.

I just finished listening to Chanel narrate her book. It struck a close nerve for me. While my situation was not a sexual assault, I do have recent experience championing a cause through the legal system. It is, at times, a lonely, hostile path to forge. Too often, women are blocked by legal agreements from telling their stories, and thus letting other women know they are not alone. We are so lucky to have Chanel’s words. Everyone should read them.

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice — until today.”

Chanel Miller

Courage did not spring from Chanel naturally. It took her years following the sexual assault to fully manifest her courage. She describes this paradox, “I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote.” On the contrary, people often equate courage with hardness, with being fierce and fearless. Wisely, Chanel teaches us otherwise. It is a reminder to preserve our ability to feel, even through pain and hurt. A reminder to develop empathy so we can hear others. A reminder to find outlets to process our experience – write, draw, create.

Chanel is the voice for women experiencing sexual violence

Chanel did not want to be the voice of rape. But she is. Her experiences, so eloquently described in her memoir, are a learning opportunity for all women and men. In the future, when faced with a choice to stand up for what’s right or do nothing, I will recall Chanel’s book, reread it and strive to be as courageous as she is.

Chanel is an ordinary woman who was handed an extraordinary challenge. Ultimately, she pulled on all of her reserves and found her courage – even when she felt the opposite. She reminds us it is not from the easy challenges in life we learn courage. Instead, we are forced to face our fears only when met with horrific, brutal experiences. Courage is forced upon us when we don’t expect or want it.

5 Powerful Memoirs/Biographies that Taught Me Valuable Life LessonsKnow My Name by Chanel Miller
Published by Penguin on September 24, 2019
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Women
Pages: 368
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"Know My Name is a blistering, beautifully written account of a courageous young woman's struggle to hold a sexual predator accountable."--Jon Krakauer

Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

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2. Redemption

“I knew hundreds and hundreds of women like me, who had traveled in and out of prison in a revolving door. They needed support and help just like I had received. And it could make a difference, just like it had made a difference in my life. I wanted to see them come back to the community and have a chance at a different life, too.”

Susan Burton

Susan Burton is a woman who, after 6 prison terms, finally found her own redemption, and has devoted all her energy, to providing opportunities to other incarcerated women.

Our opinions regarding justice and what it should mean are often made without an understanding of the criminal justice system. Becoming Mrs. Burton gives the reader a unique opportunity to hear a first-hand account of incarceration, and it is not pretty. Burton explains in detail why many women end up incarcerated and why they also end up re-incarcerated.

After reading this book, the entire meaning of the word redemption took on a new meaning for me. We need to think about changing our systems to make redemption possible. Ms. Burton inspires the reader to look for the potential in everyone.

It is no surprise this book not only made my list for best female memoirs, but also made it to the top of my overall 2019 reading list.

5 Powerful Memoirs/Biographies that Taught Me Valuable Life LessonsBecoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton, Cari Lynn
Published by The New Press on April 18, 2017
Pages: 228
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One woman’s remarkable odyssey from tragedy to prison to recovery—and recognition as a leading figure in the national justice reform movement.

Susan Burton’s world changed in an instant when her five-year-old son was killed by a van on their street in South Los Angeles. Consumed by grief and without access to professional help, Susan self-medicated, becoming addicted first to cocaine, then crack. As a resident of South L.A., an impoverished black community under siege by the War on Drugs, it was but a matter of time before Susan was arrested. She cycled in and out of prison for fifteen years; never was she offered therapy or treatment for addiction. On her own, she eventually found a private drug rehabilitation facility.

Once clean, Susan dedicated her life to supporting women facing similar struggles. She began by greeting women as they took their first steps of freedom, welcoming them into her home, providing a space of safety and community. Her organization, A New Way of Life, now operates five safe homes in Los Angeles that supply a lifeline to hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and their children—setting them on the track to education and employment rather than returns to prison. Susan is now nationally known as an advocate for restoring basic civil and human rights to those who have served time. Ms. Burton not only humanizes the deleterious impact of mass incarceration, it also points the way to the kind of structural and policy changes that will offer formerly incarcerated people the possibility of a life of meaning and dignity.

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3. Service

Monique and the Mango Rains is a memoir Kris Holloway wrote to memorialize her dear friend Monique Dembele. It was written to honor Monique and her work as a midwife – the only midwife- in a remote village in Mali. It reminds me of the uncountable numbers of women throughout the world who dedicate their lives to the service of others. Women we will never know about. Who’s stories will remain untold.

This book reminds me to choose a life of service no matter the visibility or rewards. Sometimes the most important things we do will never be known to others. And that is enough. Monique remains one of my heroes. I am, therefore, so grateful to Kris Holloway for memorializing her dear friend.

5 Powerful Memoirs/Biographies that Taught Me Valuable Life LessonsMonique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway
Published by Waveland Press on 2007
Genres: Medical, Gynecology & Obstetrics
Pages: 212
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"This tender, revelatory memoir recalls the two years Holloway spent as an impressionable Peace Corps volunteer in the remote village of Nampossela in Mali, West Africa. It centers on her close friendship with Monique, the village's overburdened midwife. When Holloway (now a nonprofit development specialist) arrived in Nampossela in 1989, she was 22; Monique was only two years her senior. Yet Monique, barely educated, working without electricity, running water, ambulances or emergency rooms, was solely responsible for all births in her village, tending to malnourished and overworked pregnant women in her makeshift birthing clinic.

With one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world, these Malian women sometimes had to work right up until and directly after giving birth, and had no means of contraception. Holloway especially noted Monique's status as an underpaid female whose male family members routinely claimed much of her pay. Monique shared her emotional life with Holloway, who in turn campaigned for her rights at work and raised funds for her struggling clinic. Holloway's moving account vividly presents the tragic consequences of inadequate prenatal and infant health care in the developing world.

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4. Compassion

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea tells the story of a Syrian refugee who survives the dangerous trans-Mediterranean boat crossing. Too often, we become immune to the plight of others. As a result, we cannot find compassion within ourselves to help those struggling because the problem either feels too enormous or too remote from our personal experiences.

This book, told in heart-wrenching detail, left me sobbing in despair. My understanding and compassion for the refugee experience grew 1000-fold after reading this book. If you are called to learn more about refugees in America and abroad after reading this book, I recommend the United Nations High Commission on Refugees’ website as a starting point.

5 Powerful Memoirs/Biographies that Taught Me Valuable Life LessonsA Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee's Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming
Published by Flatiron Books on January 24, 2017
Pages: 276
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Doaa and her family leave war-torn Syria for Egypt, where the climate is becoming politically unstable and increasingly dangerous. She meets and falls in love with Bassem, a former Free Syrian Army fighter, and together they decide to leave behind the hardship and harassment they face in Egypt to flee for Europe, joining the ranks of the thousands of refugees who make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded and run-down ships to seek asylum overseas and begin a new life.

After four days at sea, their boat is sunk by another boat filled with angry men shouting threats and insults. With no land in sight and surrounded by bloated, floating corpses, Doaa is adrift with a child’s inflatable water ring around her waist, while two little girls cling to her neck. Doaa must stay alive for them. She must not lose strength. She must not lose hope.

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5. Perseverance

“She had told her children she was going on a walk. That was no lie. She just never finished her sentence, never offered her own offspring the astonishing, impossible particulars.”

Ben Montgomery

Ah, Grandma Gatewood. I love Grandma Gatewood. At age 67, with a cloth bag and canvas Keds, she fled her abusive past behind and became the first woman to solo trek the entire Appalachian Trail. To be sure, there is no more fantastic tale of a female adventure than this one. It was while reading this book several years ago I became inspired to make sure the remaining decades of my life (I am at the end my 6th) are also full of adventure.

Even though I doubt I’ll walk the entire Appalachian Trail, I will call on Grandma Gatewood’s spirit to accompany me on my solo quests. I do plan on hiking her memorial trail when I get to Ohio. I plan to display her photo in my Glampervan to honor her influence in my life. She is the voice I keep hearing in my head, telling me: I can do it.

5 Powerful Memoirs/Biographies that Taught Me Valuable Life LessonsGrandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery
Published by Chicago Review Press on April 1, 2014
Pages: 288
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Winner of the 2014 National Outdoor Book Awards for History/Biography

Emma Gatewood told her family she was going on a walk and left her small Ohio hometown with a change of clothes and less than two hundred dollars. The next anybody heard from her, this genteel, farm-reared, 67-year-old great-grandmother had walked 800 miles along the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail. And in September 1955, having survived a rattlesnake strike, two hurricanes, and a run-in with gangsters from Harlem, she stood atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin. There she sang the first verse of “America, the Beautiful”.

Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person—man or woman—to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. Her vocal criticism of the lousy, difficult stretches led to bolstered maintenance, and very likely saved the trail from extinction.

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“I did it. I said I would do it and I’ve done it.”

Grandma Gatewood on completing her walk

Courage, redemption, service, compassion, and perseverance are qualities I strive to embody. The women profiled are hands down the best examples of these virtues I have read. Indeed, they are the books that keep speaking to me when I face a challenge. These are the women I look to emulate.

I hope you also find inspiration in these books. They are among the best books for women; the best female memoirs and biographies I have encountered.

Want more suggestions? Find more inspiration with this list of outdoor adventure books by and for women.

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