The best books by women about women, beyond romance, motherhood, or emulating men

Eugenia Cheng Author Of X + Y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender
By Eugenia Cheng

Who am I?

I have been thinking a lot about what feminism means for me. In this interview, I said, "I wish more authors would write about strong women, beyond the strength and importance of motherhood, but not just emulating traditional male behavior." I feel that this is the kind of strong woman I am, as a woman forging a non-traditional path in mathematics. I have been on something of a mission to find books like this, and particularly ones written by women. I find such books frustratingly rare, so I wanted to recommend a few that I have found. There is more to being a woman than falling in love and having children.

I wrote...

X + Y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender

By Eugenia Cheng,

Book cover of X + Y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender

What is my book about?

A brilliant mathematician examines the complexity of gender and society and forges a path out of inequality. Why are men in charge? After years in the male-dominated field of mathematics and in the female-dominated field of art, Eugenia Cheng has heard the question many times. In X + Y, Cheng argues that her mathematical specialty -- category theory -- reveals why.

Category theory deals more with context, relationships, and nuanced versions of equality than with intrinsic characteristics. Category theory also emphasizes dimensionality: much as a cube can cast a square or diamond shadow, depending on your perspective, so too do gender politics appear to change with how we examine them. Because society often rewards traits that it associates with males, such as competitiveness, we treat the problems those traits can create as male. But putting competitive women in charge will leave many unjust relationships in place. If we want real change, we need to transform the contexts in which we all exist, and not simply who we think we are.

The books I picked & why

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The Tiger's Wife

By Téa Obreht,

Book cover of The Tiger's Wife

Why this book?

This is a gorgeous, poetic, magical book, with a strong female character with a mission that is not about falling in love and having children. Although there are love stories in the book, they are unusual ones (as shown by the title) and that is not the main narrative arc of the central protagonist. I long for books where women do something other than fall in love, have children, or emulate men.

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng,

Book cover of Everything I Never Told You

Why this book?

This book has one of the most spectacular first sentences I've ever encountered in a book and continued to be spectacular throughout. I felt it was crafted almost like a mathematical proof, where you start from the end and work backward towards first principles, seeking to understand every detail of the intricate combination of factors leading to the result. I have been seeking more books by Asian people as I've read so few books that in any way reflect my own experience of growing up Asian surrounded by white people. I love the fact that this book sets an Asian's experience of racism next to a white woman's experience of sexism, and has a strong woman who does not conform to social expectations. And moreover, that this isn't just incidental, but fundamentally drives the plot.

The Last Flight

By Julie Clark,

Book cover of The Last Flight

Why this book?

Motherhood is not a universal woman's experience: some women don't want to be mothers and some women are unable to be mothers. But being disrespected, overlooked, and exploited is a universal woman's experience. I found this to be a gripping book about women trying to break free from those experiences, in tightly intertwined tales.

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

By Emily Culliton,

Book cover of The Misfortune of Marion Palm

Why this book?

I love the concept of the main character, Marion Palm. She's a sort of anti-hero, exactly the sort of woman society expects us not to celebrate: she commits crimes, and then abandons her family when she's been found out. She goes on the run, like the characters in The Last Flight but for different reasons. And yet I found myself rooting for her. Her crime is almost victimless (or rather, the victims are mostly stuck-up rich people we are not exactly encouraged to sympathize with), and her motives are not selfish. In the end, I took this as a book about a woman unapologetically seeing her own worth and looking for people who will appreciate her for it, albeit in bracingly unconventional ways.

Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

By Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman,

Book cover of Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

Why this book?

This is my only non-fiction pick, but it reads a little like a gripping work of fiction except that I had to keep pinching myself to remember it really happened. The author is writing about her experience as a professional violinist in a "fake" orchestra. It is a wonderfully nuanced look at the gray area between "fake" and "real", which is devastatingly pertinent to our times. It challenges us to consider if we can actually always tell the difference and if the difference is really clear-cut at all. The reason I'm including it in the list is that the main protagonist, the author, is a strong woman who is determined to make her own way. And there is one section I found particularly satisfying, in which (and I don't think this will give too much away) she refuses to include any romance in the book. She declines to write of being rescued from her predicament by finding "Mr. Right", mainly because it's untrue. But she is urged to make something up, because it is "expected" in books about women, and she refuses, instead deciding to include the conversation about it in the book instead. I love that small but important (to me) resistance. Women don't need to be rescued by men, and more to the point, in reality, as opposed to fiction, women do build their own lives and their own successes, in their own way.

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