Our Founding Mothers: On the Women Who Changed the Modern World

I love writing about founding mothers who helped build America, but my latest book, Becoming Madam Secretary is about a founding mother of the twentieth century. She did not help build the nation, but she certainly did rebuild it as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor during the Great Depression.

Frances Perkins was not only our first woman to hold a federal cabinet position—she was also the woman behind the New Deal, a set of social programs and reforms that were nothing short of revolutionary, forging a new relationship between citizens and their government. She was, as has been observed by others, the most consequential cabinet officer since Alexander Hamilton. Because of that, I believe she was the most important woman in American history and that there should be a park or street named after her in every town in America.

So why haven’t more people heard about her? Although several excellent biographies have been written about her, she did not leave behind much of a personal record, so historians have hesitated to speculate too much about what happened behind the curtain.

Yet, personal stories are how legends are born—they illuminate character and inspire us.

Thankfully, as has been frequently observed, novelists can go where historians rightly fear to tread. It’s why I hope my novel can make readers feel something about the dauntless, funny, and wildly courageous Frances Perkins.

And it’s why I’m in love with the entire genre of biographical historical fiction: because of its power to illuminate the lives of important people in ways that give us context for our own lives. In learning about Frances Perkins, and writing about her, I became aware of many more women who changed the modern world.


Lynn Cullen, The Woman with the Cure

This is a heart-wrenching tale about the race to eradicate polio. We meet Salk, Sabine, and the countless other figures who worked together—and sometimes against one another—to save lives. We also meet mothers, wives, and other women whose sacrifices enabled progress.

But at the center of the story is Dorothy Horstmann, the brilliant but unheralded American heroine who charted her own course and made the discovery that enabled the vaccines. This timely and important novel will touch you, inspire you, and leave you with a sense of hope about what dedicated women scientists can achieve.

The First Ladies - Benedict, Marie

Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray, The First Ladies

Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, suffragist, international peace advocate, and advisor to FDR who was sometimes known as the “First Lady of Negro America” in her day. Bethune’s tireless advocacy for education, human rights and racial equality inspired Eleanor Roosevelt, the most well-known American First Lady in history.

This important novel depicts the poignant founding friendship that laid the cornerstone for the civil rights movement as these two extraordinary women helped each other through triumphs and tragedies. Ultimately, Eleanor would serve as a delegate to the United Nations, becoming the driving spirit behind the adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a thing near and dear to the hearts of both women.

Her Lost Words: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley - Thornton, Stephanie Marie

Stephanie Marie Thornton, Her Lost Words

Thornton tells a captivating story about Mary Wollstonecraft, the trailblazing feminist, and her daughter, Mary Shelley, the mother of the science-fiction genre. Both women were unconventional, with bold ideas that changed the world. Wollstonecraft opened the way for women’s rights in the Age of Enlightenment.

And in turn, her daughter, Shelley wrote Frankenstein, blazing a path in literature that still burns bright, raising questions about medical ethics and the proper place of technology in our world.

Sister Mother Warrior - Riley, Vanessa

Vanessa Riley, Sister Mother Warrior

The American Revolution was part of a larger movement away from monarchy and towards self-governance. When both the United States and France achieved independence from their kings, is it any wonder that the enslaved population of Haiti wanted freedom?

Riley’s epic saga tells the story of Abdaraya Toya and Marie-Claire Bonheur, both of whom would play key roles in the revolution that would end slavery in Haiti and win independence. Their actions ultimately spawned anti-colonialist movements and challenged the legitimacy of race-based discrimination throughout the world.

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts - Fowler, Therese Anne

Therese Anne Fowler, A Well-Behaved Woman

It might be tempting to dismiss Alva Vanderbilt as a mere social disruptor—after all, she was an ambitious socialite whose most famous battle was won by hosting a lavish costume ball in which her Gilded Age rival was forced to surrender and admit her to high society. But Fowler wisely expands the focus in this novel, exploring the way Alva used her tremendous wealth not only to re-shape social conventions, but to influence the design of iconic buildings, paving the way for female architects.

Most importantly, however, we learn that by bankrolling the suffrage movement, Alva played a vital role in securing American women the right to vote. And with it, American women have been changing the world ever since.

Rodham - Sittenfeld, Curtis

Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham

Love or hate her, it cannot be denied that Hilary Rodham Clinton has had an outsized impact on our world from championing a national health care system to her glass-ceiling shattering run as the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party. Yet this wildly creative novel by Curtis Sittenfeld is less biographical fiction than it is an alternate history where Hilary Rodham never married Bill Clinton.

It is a sometimes uncomfortable read but an outstanding novel if only for the questions it raises about women in leadership.

The Diamond Eye - Quinn, Kate

Kate Quinn, The Diamond Eye

Ukrainian born Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s three hundred and nine confirmed kills in WWII made her one of the deadliest snipers of all time. Her battlefield prowess may not have single-handedly changed the course of the war, but her goodwill tour in the United States seems to have secured precisely the aid the allies needed to hold back the Germans and keep the Nazis from winning the war.

Quinn’s fast-paced thriller brings all of these accomplishments into focus while also offering a heart-thumping finale for the woman nicknamed Lady Death.


Becoming Madam Secretary - Dray, Stephanie

Becoming Madam Secretary by Stephanie Dray is available via Berkley.

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