Laura Barkema, MLIS, Collection Development Librarian
It’s no secret that there has been a trend in publishing books starring women behind the scenes of history. There are so many coming out that this history-loving nonfiction librarian has a never-ending TBR list. It is exciting to see women finally being acknowledged for parts they play in world history and get the recognition they deserve for their accomplishments. How did this trend come to be and why does it have such staying power?
It began around 2012-2014, with the publishing of fictional stories about “the women behind famous men.” Many of these books included “wife” in the title, which coincidentally started a whole separate trend that librarians are still trying to escape to this day. (“Hi, I’m looking for a book. I think it has “wife” in the title?” Cue librarian face palm). But I digress.
Some of the biggest bestsellers or book club picks fit this category of giving the reader insight into a famous man in history, while also describing the struggles of their real-life female companions. Most notable of these early novels were The Paris Wife by Paula McClain and The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin, detailing the lives of the wives of Ernest Hemingway and Charles Lindbergh, respectively. For a list of historical novels about the wives/mistresses/lovers of famous men, take a look at our ipage list Lives of the Wives: Historical Novels.
Since women are the primary readers of novels such as these, it makes sense that women would be drawn to stories of real-life women whose feelings, despite their fame and fortune, mirror their own. Readers don’t need to have connection to a famous man to want to read fictional stories of a real-life women whose voices have never been heard before. Though there were certainly a handful of these books already published (great examples are Alison Weir’s novels of British queens or In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez), the boom of historical novels featuring previously unknown women in history really hit its stride in 2014-2016.
Memorable novels from this time include Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, detailing the last person executed by hanging in Iceland; The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, giving us the story of the feminist, suffragist, and abolitionist Sarah Grimke; and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, where the three narrators are real women whose lives collided at Ravensbrück, Hitler’s concentration camp for women. Fortunately, this trend is not slowing down, as you can see with our ipage list, Untold: Real Women in Historical Novels, with titles being published every year since, even into 2021.
It is only natural that this trend would eventually make its way into nonfiction. Readers love imagining these women’s lives, but they also want factual stories. There are a number of nonfiction books to mention, one that really propelled the current demand for more true stories of unsung women, and whose title perfectly explains this entire trend, is Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. It book, and its excellent film adaptation, give voices to “hidden” women in history and shared their “untold” stories. Once the film was released, everyone wanted to read Shetterly’s book and find more just like it. Suddenly we saw more titles about women in science (The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel); about adventurous women who push limits of society (Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien); or about the secret damage done to women (The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore).
But no corner of history than WWII has been more “rewritten” with stories of women’s contributions. Among these, a couple of standouts are The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan and Code Name Madeleine: A Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Arthur J. Magida. There are so many more nonfiction titles—WWII related or not—on our ipage list Untold: Women's Stories: Throughout History.
With the centennial of the 19th amendment and the advent of #metoo, women’s stories are even more powerful than they have been in the past. But we don't yet hear ALL women’s stories. Despite there being a surge in popularity and availability of books about previously unknown women, most of them are centered on white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian women. We need to more books published about hidden women of all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender, and abilities.
Readers and librarians are always searching for more diverse books, and though the “untold stories” trend is hot, it has further to go. Because we now see books pre-publication well into 2021, we can assure you that this trend doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon. We fervently hope that it expands to include a more diverse array of “untold” stories.