Lessons in Chemistry was one of my favorite reads of 2022, and Elizabeth Zott is one of my new favorite fictional characters. While the cover hints at a fluffy romance novel, the story is really about a strong woman blazing her own trail and pushing for opportunities for all women. Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. She has a brilliant mind and works hard. Unfortunately, it’s the 1960s, so her male colleagues struggle to accept that she is actually a scientist. Most look at her as an attractive secretary, or notice her work only to steal it and claim it as her own.
Things change when Elizabeth meets Calvin Evans, a renowned chemist who believes in her abilities and encourages her to succeed. The two fall in love and enjoy a fulfilling relationship between quirky equals. Then the path of life twists again, and Elizabeth finds herself unwed and raising a child alone. In a moment of desperation, she accepts a job as the host of a cooking show “Supper at Six.” Her producer imagines Elizabeth wearing a cute apron and cooking in a kitchen full of kitschy décor and gadgets, but she has other ideas.
Elizabeth approaches the show as a way to help women use science to create quality meals without gimmicks or fuss. It turns out women enjoy being talked to as if they have brains and the show becomes a huge hit. Whether dealing with short-sighted television executives or condescending school officials, Elizabeth will challenge the script and write her own destiny. Read on to add more books about strong, trailblazing women to your To-Be-Read list.
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz
It would be impossible to read Lessons in Chemistry without thinking of Julia Child, a real-life example of a woman pushing back against the norms of her time from the set of an iconic cooking show. Did you know that Julia Child was 6 feet 3 inches tall, or that she was a spy in World War II? Dearie is a thorough biography of a fascinating person. Publisher’s Weekly especially praises the audiobook version, narrated by Kimberly Farr: “Her reading is lively and engaging and infuses Spitz’s work with energy and emotion. Perhaps most delightful is the voice Farr creates for Child. While not truly mimicking the famous cook, she deftly reproduces Child’s style of speaking, prolonging words, shifting emphasis-all with that famous light, bubbly delivery. Fans of Child, cooking, and history will find this audiobook a very enjoyable listen.”
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar is a darker story of the challenges women faced in the early 1950s. Esther Greenwood is a writer and editor who sees her future as a tree with many possible branches, but recognizes that choosing any one of those branches could cut off her chance to choose another. Will she be a renowned writer? A brilliant professor? A wife and mother? Esther, like Plath herself, wins a prestigious summer internship in New York City for a popular magazine. The work and social life are exhausting and stressful, and Esther realizes how hard it is for her to meet the expectations for a woman of her time, and draws closer and closer to the edge of madness as the summer goes on. Available with no holds as an ebook and audiobook on Hoopla.
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
This one made me cry more than once! We know women face many challenges in making their voices heard and achieving their goals, and that women of color are forced to fight against both sexism and racism. Memphis is the story of several generations of Black women set in a family home in Memphis, Tennessee. The author describes the book as the Black fairy tale that she always wanted to read, weaving back and forth in time to explore the legacy of brutality, racism, freedom, hurt, and healing over 70 years of family and American history. It’s a story about inter-generational challenges, and how hard the women before us fought to break down barriers so that we could all rise higher. It’s a painful, beautiful, and hopeful read.
The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz
If you’re ready for a stretch, here’s a fantastic sci-fi addition to the list that will give you some righteous vindication after reminding yourself of how unfair our society has been to women. In an alternate reality/timeline, time traveling riot girls carry on the legacy of Senator Harriet Tubman, working to ensure reproductive freedom and rights for women throughout time, and avoid a grim patriarchal future. It’s a fast-paced adventure with strong female characters, and you can practically hear the punk soundtrack. Available with no holds as an audiobook on Hoopla.
Sexual Politics by Kate Millett
Sexual Politics was a groundbreaking work when it was published in 1970, but it’s still an eye-opener worth reading today. Millett demonstrates how systemic sexism permeates all aspects of American life through examples in literature, philosophy, psychology, and politics. Her work gives us a lens and framework through which to examine the media we consume and the ideas about gender that we hold under the surface. Available with no holds on Hoopla as an ebook and audiobook.