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THE B-LIST: Well-behaved women seldom make history

5 books that give forgotten ladies their due

Animator/writer Jason Porath has drawn dozens of historical ladies in "the Disney style" while sparing none of the gritty details of their extraordinary lives in his "Rejected Princesses" series of books and blog posts.
Animator/writer Jason Porath has drawn dozens of historical ladies in "the Disney style" while sparing none of the gritty details of their extraordinary lives in his "Rejected Princesses" series of books and blog posts.

They say the history books are written by the victors.

Given society's often poor treatment of women — reduced to second-class citizens or outright property by numerous countries over hundreds of years — it's not surprising that history often glazes over their accomplishments. Or erases them completely.

For every well-known lady like Jeanne d'Arc, Florence Nightingale or Harriet Tubman there are hundreds of others whose names and work have tragically been lost to time (or incorrectly attributed to men; see: Rosalind Franklin's discovery of DNA's double helix winning James Watson and Francis Crick the Nobel Prize — ugh).

If, like me, you're tired of reading book after book about great men achieving great things, and have wondered where the heck all of the ladies were, I've got some perfect palate cleansers for you.

The following nonfiction books are not only extremely well-researched, they're also great fun to read and shine a much-needed light on women who also deserve to be lauded and lionized.

5. "THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE MONGOL QUEENS: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire" by Jack Weatherford. Everyone knows who Genghis Khan was — one of the most successful warlords in history — but few know his empire grew into the largest contiguous domain in the world thanks to the efforts of his daughters and granddaughters.

The Khan's sons and direct heirs all proved to be disastrous politicians and poor soldiers, forcing the women of the family to step up and seize the (frequently literal) reins. Weatherford, an anthropologist and perhaps the world's foremost expert on Genghis and his family, gives these talented ladies their due in a rousing collection of their exploits, once obscured by jealous rivals/later rulers.

4. "WONDER WOMEN: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History" by Sam Maggs. I'll bet you $20 that at least 20 of the names covered in this "little but fierce" volume from the snarky and fun Maggs will be brand new to you.

From a Chinese astronomer to an American aviatrix (no, not that one), "Wonder Women" is a perfect read for when you have just a few minutes to spare. The entries are short but powerful, accompanied by lovely illustrations from Sophia Foster-Dimino.

3. "MRS. SHERLOCK HOLMES" by Brad Ricca. Grace Humiston lead a life worthy of a Hollywood movie: the first female U.S. district attorney and first female consulting detective to the New York Police Department, she came from wealth yet lived by the credo "justice for those of limited means," successfully locating missing girls and defending innocent men on death row. She went up against the infamous Black Hand and a misogynistic legal system with equal fervor, a celebrity in her own time.

Ricca's book reads like action-packed fiction, structured as a mystery novel with unexpected twists and reveals — I won't spoil the ending here. If you're in need of something compelling and atmospheric to read on these longer, colder nights, look no further.

2. "PIRATE WOMEN: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas" by Laura Sook Duncombe. Piracy was an equal opportunity career; men and women of all ages and races flourished swords and crossbone flags to various degrees of success.

Duncombe's slim book — the first to focus on the history of female buccaneers — covers well-known names like Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Grace O'Malley as well as the less famous, like Sayyida al-Hurra of the Barbary corsairs, and Cheng I Sao (often sylized as Ching Shih), the most successful pirate of all time.

Just for a bit of perspective: the ex-prostitute Cheng I Sao was such a powerful pirate, the Chinese government actually paid her to let their ships sail unscathed. She literally made China — CHINA — pay a tax to her. Then she retired to run a gambling house. What a lady.

1. "REJECTED PRINCESSES: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions & Heretics" by Jason Porath. It started as a lunchtime conversation at DreamWorks Animation — "Who is the least likely candidate for an animated princess movie?" — and became a wildly popular blog spotlighting unapologetic ladies like Julie d'Aubigny, Nzinga Mbande and Phoolan Devi. They're the ones whose stories are too wild, too violent or too risqué for the Disney treatment.

Frustrated that the "approved" list of women covered in classrooms was too censored and short, Porath collected his sharply-written essays and deeply intentional artwork, setting out to make sure today's generation could reconnect with the oft-forgotten rebels who paved the way. Each entry has guide markers denoting maturity levels and trigger warnings, in case you want to prepare any younger readers (or yourself), and there's a comprehensive bibliography in the back for further reading.

"This is a book for any girl who ever felt she didn't fit in," Porath says in the introduction. "You are not alone. You come from a long line of bold, strong, fearless women. Glory in that. And this is a book for anyone who ever underestimated a girl, too."

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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