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Three compelling biographies of remarkable women

Spanning 500 years in history, these bios profile women who made their marks in the fields of art, astronomy, and philanthropy. 

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Renaissance Woman
By Ramie Targoff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
352 pp.

The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel
By Emily Winterburn
The History Press
288 pp.

Eunice
By Eileen McNamara
Simon & Schuster
416 pp.

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Three of the season's outstanding biographies relate the lives of three very different women at three very different periods in history, each separated by centuries.

English professor Ramie Targoff's Renaissance Woman tells the story of Vittoria Colonna, the noble-born 15th-century Italian Renaissance patroness and confidante of Michelangelo.

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Veteran science lecturer Dr. Emily Winterburn's The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel is the latest volume to lay out the fascinating story of the sister of famed English astronomer William Herschel. The book dramatizes a stunning roster of her accomplishments – all achieved  while she toiled in her brother's shadow.

And Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe journalist Eileen McNamara's Eunice is the first full-length book about the life of the sister of John and Robert Kennedy. 

All three books make engrossing reading, as much for the differences between these women as for their similarities.

Despite their differences – and a span of about 500 years – Vittoria Colonna and Eunice Kennedy shared a world and a personal reality.

Both came from wealthy, influential political families. Colonna's father was a high official in the kingdom of Naples, and her mother was the daughter of the Duke of Urbino, while Eunice Kennedy was the daughter of movie mogul multimillionaire (and disgraced diplomat) Joseph Kennedy. Each was well-educated, Kennedy at Stanford University and Colonna by instructors steeped in the era's burgeoning humanist movement. Both spent their lives employing their considerable wealth to promote worthy causes.

Vittoria Colonna was born in 1490 and Eunice Kennedy in 1921, but their lives side-by-side show a self-evident truth that would have been known as long ago as Periclean Athens: Ample money has often been able to lend freedom to women.

How very different was the world of Caroline Herschel! Born in the German town of Hanover in 1750 as the eighth child of a regimental bandmaster, she grew up as little more than a servant in her own family, at the beck and call of both her parents and her brothers. Her mother was largely opposed to even the spotty and rudimentary education her father sometimes gave her, and she herself later wrote that she was essentially a well-trained puppy trailing after her brother William in all of his major pursuits, first music and then later astronomy.

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She had no private funds at her disposal, no inner causes or ideological passions like those that fired the imaginations of Vittoria Colonna and Eunice Kennedy, and she only belatedly stumbled into what would be her life's calling, learning the craft of astronomy at first mainly as a means of helping her brother's career as court astronomer to England's King George III.

And yet there's an indomitability to all three women that in some ways almost makes these biographies feel like separate but connected chapters of a single immensely complicated story. Partly this is due to the sheer storytelling skills of the authors.

Winterburn does a strong, economical job of underscoring the odd brilliance that led Caroline Herschel to discover several comets and eventually become the first woman to be awarded the Gold Medal of Britain's Royal Astronomical Society. Targoff evocatively conveys the colorful, dramatic Renaissance world of Vittoria Colonna, in large part by quoting from Colonna herself (“Certainly I could not ever explain how subtly and wonderfully it is made,” she writes to Michelangelo, thanking him for a small drawing of the Crucifixion he'd sent her, then adding the charmingly personal detail: “I have looked at it well in the light, and with a magnifying glass and a mirror, and I never saw anything more perfectly done”).

McNamara's groundbreakingly researched life of Eunice Kennedy ranks as a standout performance for the entire season of biography. The book succeeds in throwing a clear spotlight on this tremendously important pillar of the powerful Kennedy family. The book's pugnacious subtitle, “the Kennedy who changed the world,” takes issue squarely with the common conception that Eunice Kennedy's achievements necessarily exist in the shadow of her brothers. The long life of this woman who Pearl Buck called an “honest soul” is traced from her passionate advocacy on behalf of children with mental disabilities to her backstage involvement in all the great political and civil rights struggles of her time to her final days “in the bright light of a last Cape Cod summer.” It's a superb job of biography.

As are all three of these books. Taken together, they create a multifaceted picture of some of the ways women have moved the levers of history – in this case: shepherding art, championing children, and exploring the solar system.