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Womens Narratives of Success


These are books that have informed our work on the Women’s Narratives Project, and other relevant books that we have read or want to read. They are from both academic and trade publishers, on topics ranging from creativity to creating a life, from navigating the years after college to balancing work and motherhood. The list is expansive rather than exhaustive in any one category, and we will continue adding to it, so it is also a work-in-progress.


Acocella, J.  (2007). Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays. New York: Pantheon. A cultural critic and staff writer for The New Yorker limns the creative lives and drives of twenty-eight influential artists and two saints, detailing what she sees as the “courage, perseverance, and, sometimes, dumb luck” that making art requires. 

Armstrong, K. (2004).  The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. New York: Knopf. Armstrong became a nun at age seventeen, was miserable, and left to pursue English Literature at Oxford.  Still unhappy and now struggling with a mysterious illness, she began a search for meaning which she chronicles in this bestselling memoir.

Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties.  New York: Oxford University Press. A Clark University psychologist argues that the period from the late teens to mid-twenties is not a transition from adolescence to adulthood, but is instead a stage in itself.  He defines “emerging adulthood” as a time when hopes flourish, but also as a time of identity exploration and instability, of self-focus and feeling in-between.

Barnett, R.C. & Rivers, C. (2004). Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs. New York: Basic Books. A psychologist and a media critic maintain that qualities long-associated with gender, including empathy and aggression, instinct and logic, are actually associated with power and can be developed or discarded.

Bateson, M. C. (1989). Composing a Life. New York: Grove Press. Bateson uses the lives of five women to frame a discussion of life itself as a creative process rather than a linear path.

Bender, K.E. & de Gramont, N., Eds. (2007). Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage. The authors of these twenty-four essays write about their personal experiences, giving us a window through which we can see the array of choices available to women when it comes to having children.

Bennetts, L. (2007). The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?  New York: Hyperion Voice. A contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the first woman ever to cover a presidential campaign for The New York Times argues that combining work and family is the best choice - and a doable choice – for women.

Cary, Lorene.  (1991.)  Black Ice.  New York: Knopf. Cary writes about her experience as a middle-class African-American student at the elite Saint Paul’s School in New Hampshire.  When Black Ice was published, the New York Times Book Review called it “a stunning memoir.”

Codell, E.R.  (2001). Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year.  Chapel Hill: Algonquin. In this funny and moving memoir of her first year teaching public school, Codell gives refreshingly honest account of a new teacher’s steep learning curve.

Crittendon, A. (2001). The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. An economic journalist argues that there is a disparity between the value created by child-rearing and the societal rewards for doing it.

Cusk, R. (2001). A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. New York: Picador.The English novelist writes about her quest to reclaim her life after having a child.

Daniell, E. (2006). Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies From Successful Women Scientists. New Haven: Yale University Press. For twenty five years, Ellen Daniell, a molecular biologist, was part of a problem-solving group in which professional women provided practical and emotional support for each other in a competitive world.  Her book is about the experiences of seven women in the group, and about how women (and men) can start their own groups.

de Marneffe, D. (2004) Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company. A clinical psychologist and mother of three draws on clinical studies, classical literature and her own experience to write about the pleasures and rewards of motherhood.  She asks the reader to reconsider the perception and status of motherhood in our society.

Ellison, K. (2005). The Mommy Brain. New York: Basic Books. After becoming a mother, this Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter felt more socially engaged and mentally alert than ever.  Through interviews with scientists and mothers, she argues that motherhood confers mental advantages in perception, efficiency, resilience, motivation and emotional intelligence.

Fels, Anna. (2004). Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.  New York: Anchor Books. The author, a psychiatrist, draws on research and clinical experience to argue that women’s ambition is essential to their well-being, but is undermined by cultural and family messages.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Knopf. A Harvard psychology professor and influential researcher in “happiness studies” maintains that human beings have a hard time predicting what will make them happy. 

Gordon, M. (1996). The Shadow Man. New York: Vintage. Gordon’s father died when she was seven. In this memoir, she unravels stories and memories to figure out who he really was and what he means to her.

Gordon, M. (2000).  Seeing Through Places.  New York: Touchstone.  In a series of personal essays, novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon explores the connection between identity and place.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books. A psychology professor at the University of Virginia uses Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to support or critique current findings in neurology and cognitive psychology, shedding light on the unconscious mind and the causes of happiness.

Hanauer, C. (Ed). (2002). The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. New York: HarperCollins. These are provocative essays by women contemplating the lives they’ve made for themselves. The editor is a novelist who lives in Northampton, MA.

Hewlett, S.A. (2002). Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. New York: Hyperion. Hewlett, head of the Gender and Public Policy Program at Columbia and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, cites U.S. Census statistics saying that nearly half of all professional women do not have children by the age of forty.  She combines portraits of women’s lives with her own research, arguing that our social climate and corporate culture make it difficult for professional women to also be mothers.  

Hewlett, S. A. & Luce, C. B. (2005). Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. Harvard Business Review. (March). This article is a condensed version of a larger study.  Hewlett and Luce found that while almost half of highly-skilled women leave their careers at some point, returning to those careers can be a challenge.  This is a loss for companies and for the economy, the authors maintain, as well as for the women themselves.

Hirshman, L.R. (2006). Get to Work. New York:Viking. The author, a former lawyer and Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis, argues that women shouldn’t abandon their careers for their children.  The reason they do, she says, is that men still don’t do enough at home.

Homes, A.M. (2007). The Mistress’s Daughter: A Memoir. Homes, adopted at birth and raised in an upper-middle class suburb, became a successful writer as an adult.  After her birth parents contact her, she grapples with the puzzle of her relationship to them, and attempts to understand who they were when they gave her up.

Hubbel, S. (1983). A Country Year: Living the Questions.  New York: Random House. After the end of a thirty-year marriage, the author wrote this contemplative book in which she weaves thoughts on navigating a new life with observations of the natural world on her small farm.

Layard, R. (2005). Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. New York: Penguin. People are often wrong, this British economist says, when it comes to predicting what will make them happy.  He integrates research from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, sociology and applied economics to explain what causes happiness.

Lee, E. E. (2000). Nurturing Success: Successful Women of Color and Their Daughters. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.This Hunter College professor interviewed seventeen successful women of color and nineteen of their daughters in order to provide insight into the positive aspects of mother-daughter relationships across different ethnic groups in the United States. 

 Maniero, L. A. & Sullivan, S. E. (2006).  The Opt-Out Revolt: Why People Are Leaving Companies to Create Kaleidoscope Careers. California: Davies-Black Publishing. Dr. Maniero is a Smith alumna and a professor of management at the Charles F. Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT.  She writes about “how the universal need for authenticity, balance and challenge are driving career and life decisions,” and includes personal stories from men and women who have built unique corporate and non-corporate careers. 

 McAdams, D.P. (1993). The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self. New York: William Morrow. A developmental psychologist at Northwestern University, McAdams theorizes that we define ourselves through the often unconscious stories that we develop about ourselves.  His book draws on eleven years of research, including an extensive collection of personal stories from everyday people.

 McAdams, D.P., Josselson, R., & Lieblich, A. (Eds.). (2006). Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. In this fourth volume of the APA Study of Lives series, the editors have compiled articles from international and interdisciplinary researchers who are looking at the way that story contributes to identity.

 McGrayne, S.B. (2002).  Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press. There have been five hundred recipients of the Nobel Prize in the sciences, but only ten have been women.  A former newspaper reporter investigates the reasons for the disparity, and explores the lives of 15 women who won a Nobel Prize or who contributed to Nobel Prize-winning work.

Millner, Caille.  (2007). The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification. New York: The Penguin Press. Millner is a Harvard graduate who has written for Newsweek, Essence, The Washington Post and The Fader.  Her coming-of-age memoir explores race relations, class, and the tension between her family’s upward mobility and her own evolving identity.

Moses, Barbara.  (2006). Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. The author, president of BBM Human Resource Consultants and a columnist for the Women’s Post and the Globe and Mail, shares information gleaned from interviews with mid-life women who share desires, regrets and advice.  

Murphy, A.P. (2004). The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind. New York: Random House. The former editor of Parents Magazine draws on interviews and on her own experience to map out the stages and dimensions of motherhood.

O’Reilley, M.R. (2006).  The Love of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology.  Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions. An English professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, O’Reilley explores both her middle-class Irish upbringing and her every-day adult life.  The book is a sort of spiritual memoir, in which her purpose is “less to recount . . . [than] to find the vocabulary for a different kind of story, in which the narrative of daily life opens to admit the holy and its corollary, the comic.”

O’Toole, J. (2005). Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness. New York: Rodale. A research professor in the Center for Effective Organizations at UCLA uses classical philosophy to discuss how people can figure out what’s next in life and in work.

Parker, L.O. (2005). I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work. New York: HarperCollins. A Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter for the Washington Post combines memoir and reportage to examine how black women meet the challenges of marriage, motherhood and career. 

Robbins, A. (2006). The Overachievers.  New York: Hyperion. Robbins returns to her own high school during the year of her tenth reunion to interview students about their experience.  She writes about the competitiveness and stress that pervade an educational environment where so much is riding on statistics and test scores.

Robbins, A. (2004).  Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived. New York: Penguin. The author believes that twentysomethings need mentoring, and she attempts to provide it through interviews with people who struggled with and resolved life dilemmas in their twenties.

Robbins, A & Wilner, A. (2001). Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties.  New York: Pengin Putnam, Inc.. These young authors, a public policy analyst and a New Yorker staff-member, interview people in their twenties in order to document what they believe is a particularly challenging period of life.  They also offer guidance for twenty-somethings who feel overwhelmed by new responsibilities and life choices.

Schein, E.H. (1978). Career Dynamics: Matching Individual and Organizational Needs. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. The author is the Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus at M.I.T., and this is one of his earlier books.  It studies career development from both an organizational and an individual perspective.

Schneider, B. & Waite, L. J. (Eds). (2005). Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance.  New York: Cambridge University Press.  The editors direct the Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago, which studied 500 families and compiled a detailed picture of what life is like when both parents work.

Shekerjian, D. (1990). Uncommon Genius - How Great Ideas Are Born: Tracing the Creative Impulse with Forty Winners of the MacArthur Award. New York: Penguin. The author interviews diverse winners of the so-called “genius award” in order to examine creativity and discuss how readers can harness it in their own lives.

Simpson, H. Getting a Life: Stories. (2000). New York: Vintage Books. This collection, set in contemporary London, explores the lives of working women, stay-at-home mothers, and a high school girl who vows never to become like the adults around her.

Steiner, L. M. (Ed.). (2006). Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families. New York: Random House. These essays by women from ages twenty-five to seventy two reflect a range of life choices. The editor is a mother of three and an executive at The Washington Post.

Walker, R. (2001). Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. New York: Riverhead.  Rebecca Walker, daughter of the writer Alice Walker and Mel Leventhal, a lawyer, writes about forging her own identity within a family and culture that made her uncertain of where she fit in.

Walls, J.  (2005). The Glass Castle. New York: Scribner.Walls, a journalist, recounts growing up with a father who was brilliant but alcoholic and a mother who was a self-declared “free spirit,” and learning to take care of herself.

Warner, J. (2005). Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  New York: Penguin. When the author returned from Paris, where she had been a special correspondent for Newsweek, she observed that American mothers–unlike Parisian mothers–were anxious and overwhelmed.  Her book combines memoir, interviews and academic research to make the case that American mothers are struggling, and that there’s a dire need for social structures to support middle-class families.  

 Williams, J. (2000). Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It. New York: Oxford University Press. The author, co-director of the Gender, Work and Family Project at American University Law School, says that work-family conflict is gender discrimination, and proposes policies and legal initiatives to reorganize work in and out of the home.




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