Arts & Entertainment | September 17, 2018 9:00 am

The 50 Essential (and Enjoyable!) Books on American History

50 states. 50 books. 50 history lessons (give or take).

September is back-to-school season for most of the country, which means students K-through-continuing-ed will be shuffling reading lists aplenty. Good luck to them.

The rest of us are just hoping to close out Primary season with a modicum of sanity, because we’ll be scooting back to the polls quicker than you can say gubernatorial candidate.

Conveniently, in a robust effort to get everyday Americans to fall in love with reading (Again? Ever?), PBS is running their Great American Read initiative, using a voter-generated list of the country’s 100 Best-Loved Novels as its syllabus for a nationwide book club. It’s a good, genre-defying survey, and until a contender appears with the clout to oust the 49-year old broadcaster from their viewers-like-you-powered content, PBS will remain the democratically elected arbiter of such matters.

We at InsideHook are not a democracy, however, and as such took it upon ourselves to curate our own modern American canon: 50 titles, one for every state, that reckon with the nature of life in that place. The catch? Each book must address, at least in spirit, real events from history.

Inside, we tackle the real-life Missouri exorcism that would lead the world to Linda Blair, the intimate details of the Apollo Missions and the crucial role of women in the survival of some of the world’s most-loved brown spirits. All in service of better understanding and serving our country.

Now allow us to get all scholarly up in here.

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom (Doubleday)

Moment in history: Which one? As in the film, Forrest touches key moments in cultural and political history and interacts with real names along the way: Elvis, John Lennon, JFK. While serving in the Vietnam War and its attendant counterculture movement, working with NASA, meeting Nixon’s predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson and being a stuntman alongside Raquel Welch, Forrest still manages to more or less thoughtfully cultivate important relationships in his own life.

The key players: Forrest, his grade-school sweetheart, an improbable exciting life story propelled by an innate sense of goodness, the best goddamn shrimp you’ve never tasted

Coming into the Country by John McPhee (Daunt Books)

Moment in history: A wild frontier to some (see Into the Wild), but journalist John McPhee’s narrative encompasses bush pilots, prospectors, urban dwellers, politicians and more in his mid-’70s classic. Closest you’ll get to actually living there and understanding the 49th state (and why they’re paranoid about the lower 48).

The key players: The sparse dozen residents of Eagle. And, really, the land itself (“If at moments it was frightening, requiring an effort to put down the conflagrationary imagination, it also augmented the touch of life. This was not a dare with nature. This was nature.”).

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)

Moment in history: A wildly funny fictional glimpse into the nascency of American eco-activism, with the titular crew of ragtag misfits dedicated to sabotaging mankind’s industrial blight on the natural world — the monolithic Glen Canyon Dam, finished in 1966, being the greatest focus of their ire. It should be noted that real-life ecoterrorism is still something taken very seriously, and sentencing reflects this.

The key players: An eccentric Vietnam War veteran, a Jewish feminist saboteur, a lapsed Mormon renegade and a libertarian billboard torcher. Oh, and the insidious forces of Western capitalism.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Ballantine Books)

Moment in history: It was published in 1969 amid the Civil Rights movement, but the story covers the ’30s and ’40s, when the author was coming of age in Stamps, Arkansas. It’s essential reading for Americans trying to comprehend the experience of the most marginalized cross-section of society: poor black women.

The key players: The young author, the importance of family at large, the injurious nature of racism and sexism on the entire nation, personal strength

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curtis Gentry (Bantam)

Moment in history: Failed musician/cult leader/psychopath Charles Manson brings a shocking, bloody end to the halcyon hippie innocence of ‘60s America with a series of sensationalistic murders that gripped the nation.

The key players: The Manson Family, Sharon Tate, latent voyeuristic and cynical tendencies lurking just beneath the surface of the American psyche

Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve)

Moment in history: Troubled teens Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacre 12 schoolmates and one teacher before committing suicide, ushering in an era in which mass shootings and the ensuing national debate on gun control are stuck in a soul-crushing perpetual loop.

The key players: High school cliques: jocks, goths, Trenchcoat Mafias, the disturbing allure and power of Marilyn Manson and his peers, all other misconceptions that serve to cloud the true cause of tragedies like this one

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin Books)

Moment in history: We all know the treasonous story of Benedict Arnold and his 1780 defection during the American Revolutionary War, but Philbrick looks closer at the early-days growing pains of a struggling, fledgling country and asks us to look at Arnold in a slightly different, and more forgiving, light

The key players: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and their fierce, in-competition ambitions for the young country

And Never Let Her Go Thomas Capano: The Deadly Seducer by Ann Rule (Pocket Books)

Moment in history: The high-visibility mid-1990s murder of Delaware Governor Tom Carper’s secretary by another upstanding local political figurehead shook the confidence of citizens in the goings-on behind the closed doors of the local justice system.

The key players: Former deputy Attorney General Thomas Capano, Governor Tom Carper, Secretary to the Governor of Delaware Anne Marie Fahey, the “controlling, manipulative, insecure, jealous mania” of the outwardly good-natured killer (victim’s words)

A Man On the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin (Penguin Books)

Moment in history: The definitive account of those thrilling, terrifying, improbable and profound moments when mankind first left earth’s embrace and stepped on to the Moon, told in the context of a detailed, intimate look at Armstrong and Aldrin’s summer of ‘69.

The key players: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, America’s collective determination to win the race, a queen’s share of bravery

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt (Vintage)

Moment in history: A true-life Southern Gothic that focuses on real events from the 1980s, when the killing of a local male sex worker triggers a series of trials and community events.

The key players: The slain, well-loved Danny Hansford, the city of Savannah, the midnight hour, a roster of thinly disguised eccentric locals

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead Books)

Moment in history: Picking out key moments in the U.S.’s colonization of the Hawaiian Islands (the only state not located in North America), the author uses her This American Life-approved snark and charm to remark on the cause-and-effect cycles that have played out on the cultural spectrum ever since. There’s space too for the ancestral voice, both today’s and pre-its 1959 incorporation.

The key players: Pre-missionary locals, capital-r Religion, whalers, Westernization, the power of a people’s will to thrive and survive

The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons From the Sawtooth Pack by Jim Dutcher (National Geographic)

Moment in history: Our current relationship with the natural world is one of dominance and virtually unchecked expansion into other species’ habitats and ecosystems, but what are we missing out on as humanity barrels towards — or through — the tipping point? Dutcher et al. followed one pack of wolves over several years to examine our assumed role as stewards of the world from a new, but also ancient angle.

The key players: The Sawtooth Pack, patient, open-minded scientists and a willingness to concede humans stand to learn something from the natural world.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (Doubleday)

Moment in history: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident hit its stomach” is what Sinclair had to say about the Meat Inspection Act and other public health changes that came about as a result of his reporting for the 1906 novel that continues to horrify readers.

The key players: Profoundly unsafe and unsanitary practices of the meat-industry in Chicago and other cities, the immigrant experience, corruption, good old-fashioned undercover journalism

Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic {Simon & Schuster)

Moment in history: The USS Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes shortly after delivering pieces of the atomic bomb to the Pacific Islands on July 30th, 1945, bringing about half the crew undersea with her. At the time, the skipper Captain Charles McVay III was court martialed for the event. Bolstered by 10 years of original research, Vincent and Vladic completely rethink the fateful episode.

The key players: The ill-fated passengers of a boat named after Indiana’s capital, a 50-year fight for the crew to exonerate their wrongly accused leader, American presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush.

State Fair by Phil Stong (University of Iowa Press)

Moment in history: While the car crash that mangled the Roaring Twenties into the Great Depression brings to mind Gatsby-era New York, State Fair captures this pivotal moment in our country’s history for the rest of (rural) America — through a seemingly wholesome family outing. It’s so potent, it inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only true film musical.

The key players: Rural America, urban America and the Iowa State Fair

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (Signet)

Moment in history: An earth-shattering murder in small-town America that drew both Truman Capote and Harper Lee to Kansas to research the case, and arguably gave legs to the true crime genre of storytelling.

The key players: The victims, their killers, the locals, all watched over by America’s ever-burning fixation with the darker corners of the human psyche

Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey by Fred Minnick (Potomac Books)

Moment in history: As long as man has been making booze, women have been helping, even in ancient Mesopotamia. Their stories have long been overshadowed, but in a book Eater has dubbed one of the best all-time booze titles, Minnick highlights female distillers, marketers and owners.

The key players: Bushmills, Laphroaig and Maker’s Mark are three of the brands that wouldn’t exist today if not for the help of the fairer sex

A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America by Jon Kukla (Anchor)

Moment in history: A look at the people and players behind the decision that essentially doubled the size of an already huge country in the immediate aftermath of the influential if far-off French Revolution.

The key players: Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, settlers, royalty and unwittingly, America’s original party city of New Orleans, which turned 300 this year

The Cider House Rules by John Irving (Ballantine Books)

Moment in history: The coming-of-age and adulthood of Homer Wells are influenced largely by WWII, but it’s the book’s depiction of illegal abortion clinics in the pre-Roe v. Wade era — a largely untold part of American history — that takes center stage.

The key players: Wilbur Larch (an orphanage director who moonlights as an abortion doctor in mid-century America), Homer Wells (his protégé) and Wally Worthington (Homer’s best friend, who is shot down over Burma during the War)

Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

Moment in history: The ongoing plight of young black men in America, bookended by Coates’s upbringing in crack-era Baltimore and a rash of highly publicized police-violence incidents over the last decade.

The key players: The narrator (Coates), the narratee (his son) and what Coates sees as a three-pronged instrument of oppression in contemporary America: “the streets,” the justice system and public education

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger (W.W. Norton & Company)

Moment in history: The 1991 Perfect Storm, also known as the “No-Name Storm,” a Category 1 nor’easter with 75-MPH winds that decimated Massachusetts … and (spoiler alert) six members of a swordfishing boat called the Andrea Gail.

The key players: Sebastian Junger and his salty, athletic prose, the community of Gloucester, MA, the Andrea Gail, Captain Billy Tyne, Bobby Shatford, shaggy fishermen and a terrifying storm

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli (Picador)

Moment in history: Detroit’s slow, steady march from warzone ruins to playground for urban planners and agriculturists. How did it get so bad? What made Detroit a disgusted punchline, and what’s now propelling the Motor City to respectability and hope?

The key players: The city in all its dilapidated glory, police corruption, a “wagon train” of journalists, columnist John Carlisle, searing, thoughtful prose from author (and Detroit local) Mark Binelli

Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 by Duane Schultz (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Moment in history: What was the largest mass execution in this country’s history? If you can’t answer that question, pick up Duane Schultz’s unflinching account of the events that led Lincoln to order the hanging of 38 Native Americans in Mankato, Minnesota.

The key players: Little Crow, Henry Sibley and President Abraham Lincoln

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (Signet Classics)

Moment in history: The first great project in American mass transit and shipping: the roaring steamboat industry that thrived along the Mississippi River in the antebellum South.

The key players: A young riverboat pilot called Sam Clemens (Twain), Horace Bixby (his quick-tempered but avuncular mentor) and the river itself, a “lawless stream” that never met an obstacle it could “not tear down, dance over, and laugh at”

Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism by Thomas B. Allen (iUniverse)

Moment in history: The true story behind William Peter Blatty’s genre-transforming novel and subsequent film, The Exorcist, this story covers a 1940s case of a 13-year-old boy who followed an impulse to make it to Saint Louis.

The key players: Catholicism, Jesuit priests, a teenaged boy, diabolical possession and a diary of the most complete account of an exorcism since the Middle Ages

Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape by Brad Tyer (Beacon Press)

Moment in history: Absolutely rich with copper, early 19th-century Montana was a massive wealth builder. Incidentally, it was also a huge pollutant. Modern-day advocates for the land are in the throes of the cleanup, even still.

The key players: The Clark Fork River, industrial poison, a forgotten town named Opportunity

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Attallah Shabazz (Ballantine Books)

Moment in history: A co-authored 1964 book by the subject and journalist Alex Haley, derived from lengthy conversations over time, that track Malcolm’s early life, family and course towards becoming a household name in race- and class-related human-rights activism.

The key players: Omaha-born Malcolm X and his journey, the American Dream and how race affect one’s interaction with it, the fundamental oppression built into America’s infrastructure

Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West by Judith Nies (Nation Books)

Moment in history: An ongoing struggle in Black Mesa, Nevada, has everything to do with the 21 billion tons of coal it sits upon. Inherently, the land should be of Hopi and Navajo concern, but not before Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles have a say.

The key players: Water, or a lack of it, especially from Lake Mead, politics, greed, the government, Mormons

New Hampshire
Not Without Peril: 150 Years Of Misadventure On The Presidential Range Of New Hampshire by Nicholas Howe (Appalachian Mountain Club Books)

Moment in history: An in-depth 150-year tour of “the most dangerous small mountain in the world,” a 6,388-foot peak that’s the site of the highest wind velocity recorded at any weather station, at 231 mph. Find historic summits … and very ill-advised ones of equal importance.

The key players: The mountains, avalanches, seasonal changes and hikers who have triumphed or fallen in pursuit of the peak.

New Jersey
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster)

Moment in history: How did a skinny kid from the Jersey Shore end up one of the most poetic and soulful lead singers in rock-and-roll history? And how did New Jersey play a role in that ascension? Here’s the goods, from The Boss himself.  

The Key Players: Bruce Springsteen, Springsteen’s complex relationship with his pops, The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, the E Street Band and The Big Man (Rest easy, Clarence)

New Mexico
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (Vintage)

Moment in history: Taking place after the Mexican-American War, this entertaining novelization of the first Archbishop of Santa Fe and his vicar general takes on the labyrinthine topic of Catholicism’s thrust into the world of Mexican and Native American aboriginal people.

The key players: Jean-Baptiste Lamy, Joseph Projectus Machebeuf and Santa Fe’s Saint Francis Cathedral

New York
How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (

Moment in history: 1880s New York, when immigrants flocked to the city in droves, chasing the “promised land” but finding something much different: a sordid, squalid life in the city’s ever more dangerous and unsanitary tenements.

The key players: Disenfranchised immigrants, thousands of them, of every occupation and origin and ethnicity, documented exhaustively by Riis’s camera and an unwavering journalistic commitment to telling their stories

North Carolina
Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (Little, Brown and Company)

Moment in history: Wrongful convictions are easier to expose than ever thanks to public visibility, technological advancements and civic initiatives. Still, actually getting people to freedom presents its own challenge. The problem is as old as time, but this book looks at a single important story: the 1988 rape conviction of a gentle, ultimately innocent man and the 24 years it took for him to regain his freedom.

The key players: One wrongfully convicted Willie J. Grimes, the highly imperfect American criminal justice system, the Innocence Inquiry Commission

North Dakota
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial)

Moment in history: Part one of a trilogy, this novel looks at the culture of silence and secrecy  about an unsolved murder in a small town, using filters of generations and race to figure out who did it, but also why it’s so long unsolved. It’s fiction, but it’s human, and conveys real, complicated expressions of life.

The key players: The Ojibwe people and their reservation, a local judge, a local elder, a young woman who skirts both worlds, the tension between white racists and … everyone else

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper)

Moment in history: The here and now, in small, close-knit towns of Ohio and Kentucky on the borderlands of Appalachia, J.D. Vance’s memoir examines the “social rot” that has taken over these corners, the dearth of employment and drug use, long-held familial values and the role of the region in Trump’s election.

The Key Players: J.D. Vance, the Rust Belt, Vance’s grandparents, a turbulent family history, class struggle in America

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (Vintage)

Moment in history: In the 1920s, the Osage tribe of Oklahoma became the richest people per capita in the world overnight when massive oil deposits were discovered on their land. Greed, exploitation and violent crime at the hands of white interlopers followed.

The key players: A single Osage family that died off, one by one, under increasingly suspicious circumstances; and a newly minted division of the federal government that arrived keen to prove itself on one of its first assignments: the J. Edgar Hoover-led Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Rajneesh Chronicles: The True Story of the Cult that Unleashed the First Act of Bioterrorism on U.S. Soil by Win McCormack (Tin House Books)

Moment in history: Rural central Oregon in 1981 is the unlikely setting for an Indian exile and his hordes of transient, free-loving followers, especially when the group attempts a town coup a few short years later. The Rajneeshees are also remembered as having committed the first act of domestic U.S. bioterrorism.

The key players: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his followers, a culture of sexual predation, boilerplate corruption, a sh*t ton of Rolls-Royces

Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps by Michael Vitez, Tom Gralish, and Sylvester Stallone (Paul Dry Books)

Moment in history: Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists spent a year in the mid-aughts interviewing people on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, getting to know the visitors who made it a mission to run up the stairs (aka the “Rocky runners”).

The key players: Stallone, most of the Rocky film crew (who are interviewed) and the 52 people who flew from all corners of the globe to recreate an iconic film moment

Rhode Island
God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England by James A. Warren (Scribner)

Moment in history: A gripping account of conflicts between natives and early Puritans, when ideas about God were held closer than gold and were more divisive than a stick of dynamite.

The key players: A righteous (and arguably self-righteous) lot of ex-pats, the locals who did not want to surrender to the newcomers, betrayal, violence

South Carolina
Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War by Paul Starobin (PublicAffiairs)

Moment in history: The environment leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s election as President was predictably tense, to put it lightly. In Charleston, the sh*t really hit the fan, and it affected every level of society.

The key players: A charged-up, pent-up population, their steady diet of anti-Union propaganda, the institution of slavery, a large dose of secessionist mass hysteria

South Dakota
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement by Peter Matthiessen (Penguin Books)

Moment in history: The unforgettable 1975 shootout near Wounded Knee that left three dead and four indicted has resonated ever since, pointing to ugly, unaddressed incidents that mar the century’s record.

The key players: Leonard Peltier, his multiple life sentences, the FBI, history repeating itself in continually violent ways, the eight-year delay in publication as a means to further stifle the Lakota story

Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Moment in history: In 1950, former radio announcer and sound engineer Sam Philips opens the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue, unknowingly creating the hallowed space in which a murderer’s row of musical legends will morph the blues into rock ‘n’ roll and change the world.

The key players: Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, a global musical landscape that remains forever changed in the best way possible

Texas: A Novel by James Michener (Dial Press Trade Paperback)

Moment in history: More like what moments aren’t covered? This is about 450 years of Texas, baby, from conquistadors to today. In the middle, the twists and turns of the political landscape are tracked through wars and treaties, clear through to the origin of the Texas Rangers.

The key players: Many Texas archetypes appear, from the oilman to the Spanish descendant to the true Southern lady

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (Anchor)

Moment in history: The 1984 murder of a mother and daughter by her husband’s two brothers (members of an extremist religious group) serves as a catalyst for the examination of the entire history of the Mormon religion dating back to the early 1820s. Also covers the simultaneous birth of the state.

The key players: The Lafferty brothers, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, angry mobs, polygamists, the United States government, Jesus

Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays by Robert Frost (Library of America)

Moment in history: It’s hard to imagine the nation collectively rallying around a poet the way they did for Robert Frost. Hell, the writer once won a Congressional Gold Medal for his poetry. But the way he can elucidate the Northeastern landscape, where his ancestors were early settlers, both in poetry and prose (and lesser-read screenplays), enchanted generations. This collection also includes parts of his contribution to JFK’s inauguration speech.

The key players: The unprecedented breadth and scope of the writing in this collection is for true Frostheads: letters, essays and plays interlude his poems and prose

Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches by Marcia A. Zug (NYU Press)

Moment in history: The mail-order bride catalog has been in circulation since the country’s early days, so to speak. In colonial Jamestown, the currency was often tobacco, but sometimes there were more sinister elements at play. Is there a way that the mail-order system can empower, rather than endanger, women?

The key players: Lonely 1619 men of Jamestown, hopeful or simply betrothed young women, a “wild west” environment long before there even was much notion of what West was

Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross (Hachette Books)

Moment in history: The brief few years when Seattle’s underground music scene became the mainstream — particularly focusing on one brilliant, troubled outsider from the small town of Aberdeen. Author Charles R. Cross ran the definitive music zine (The Rocket) in Seattle from 1985-2000, and his other biographies on state residents Jimi Hendrix and Heart fill out a larger picture of the Pacific Northwest and its influence on rock.

The key players: Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and the unbridled but increasingly cynical indie spirit of the late ’80s, early ’90s Seattle scene

West Virginia
John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead (Anchor)

Moment in history: The tale of John Henry, a black steel driver, versus the productivity-smashing stream drill is truly an American tale, one about a man whose pride, strength and sense of self can’t be touched, though a costly challenge is undertaken, and then he dies. The folk tale at large represents, by some readings, America’s historical penchant for exploited labor. On that level its poignancy sadly prevails, as society continues to produce entire generations unable to pass on any wealth.

The key players: The real man and the legendary version of himself, as well as an even telling about the author, by the author — a journalist on a press rip to the annual John Henry Days festival

The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman (W.W. Norton & Company)

Moment in history: If you knew anything about the Badger State, it was cheese, cheese curds, cheeseheads and the “Wisconsin Idea” — a championing of public universities that led to the Midwest’s bastion of progressivism. Then Republicans won in 2010. Then Trump. Why?

The key players: Chris Taylor, Mike Wiggins, Randy “IronStache” Bryce and Governor Scott Walker’s neverending corporate money tree

The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss (Viking)

Moment in history: Only one of the most important ratifications to the Constitution, women’s suffrage. And one universal history lesson factors in: power isn’t given freely. While women were enfranchised as early as 1869 in Wyoming territory, 50 (50!) more years would pass before the country at large caught up. And even after a hard-won battle in 1920, in some states black women could not freely access their voting rights until the 1960s. You can imagine the sort of danger the frontlines of this fight face at any given time, as female autonomy is an ongoing — some might say unnecessary and invasive — conversation.

The key players: A roster of remarkable, brave women from Alice Paul, Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony, to the legion of nameless, faceless women who simply showed up to protest despite intimidation and harassment. Also: a bunch of basic Beckys who are scared to be given freedom.

Additional reporting by Danny Agnew, Alex Lauer, Kirk Miller, Tanner Garrity and Walker Loetscher