“Ambitious woman.” When you hear that term, what comes to mind? It’s often used pejoratively. Seen as a negative. As if wanting to achieve things or advance in one’s field, or make a difference, are bad things. We see it time and time and time again in politics – being ambitious is a dig at a woman candidate. In academics or the workplace, ambition can sometimes be used against us. We don’t want to seem “too pushy,” “too aggressive” (although “aggressive” is used in a whole new way when it comes to people who aren’t cis men, let’s be honest), and just plain “too much.”
Let’s flip the script. Ambition is healthy, it’s a good thing, and it’s something to be proud of. It’s what changes the world. Yes, in both good and bad ways – but you can’t have progress and change without ambition, and all the push/pull that comes with it. Ambition can look different in different people, too. It can be fiery and loud, or it can be the quiet daily work done when no one’s watching. To illustrate this, here is a list of 20 must-read books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I think portray different kinds of ambition in a variety of settings.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
Adunni lives in a rural Nigerian village, and her goal is to escape poverty so she can create a life and future that she imagines. She is sold into marriage as a young teenager, and though life is far from easy, she fights against hardships and keeps pushing ahead, never losing sight of her goals. Her perseverance and personality will captivate you, and it’s a book you’ll remember for a long time.
The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer
At first glance, this may seem like an odd choice for this list, but hear me out. The novel follows a group of four high-achieving NYC friends; women who were always told they could do anything, be anything, juggle marriage and motherhood and careers. And for a little bit, they did – but eventually they decided to become stay-at-home-mothers temporarily, for a variety of different reasons. But here it is, ten years later, and they’re not sure how their lives look so different than they thought. It’s a thought-provoking book with apt social commentary, and even though it was written more than 10 years ago, still rings true today.
She Regrets Nothing by Andrea Dunlop
If you’re looking for a fun novel in the vein of Gossip Girl, look no further. When Laila is orphaned at 23, she meets wealthy cousins of hers from her father’s side – a family from which he’d estranged himself years before. Two years later, Laila moves to NYC and becomes part of her cousins’ world, intent on claiming what is hers, while becoming tangled up in family secrets and scandal, refusing to let go of her goal. Money and ambition, combined with family drama, can be a wild combination, and this novel captures that.
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Abbott is a master of suspense and thrillers, along with captivating and complex characters, and this book is no different. Kit and Diane are competitive and ambitious, and have been friends since high school – until a secret changed everything. Ten years later, Kit is at the top of her field and has finally forgotten about Diane, until she finds out that Diane is her competition for a research position that they both desperately want – and will do anything to get.
Woman on Fire: A Novel by Lisa Barr
A young, ambitious journalist looking for a painting stolen by the Nazis, a millionaire art collector/gallerist used to getting everything she wants who is also looking for the painting, and an artist who knows both women but is only helping one of them – what could possibly go wrong? That’s the set up for this fast-paced art thriller, which immerses the reader into the art world and all of the greed, secrets, and history that goes along with that.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
This fantasy novel is a retelling of the founding of the Ming dynasty. Zhu and her family are poor and starving, and when she and her brother are orphaned, her brother – who received a prophecy of greatness – dies. Determined to survive at all costs, Zhu adopts his identity to enter a monastery. When the monastery is destroyed, Zhu goes all in to live up to the prophecy her brother received, even if it means fooling Fate.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
In this book, ambition looks different than you might normally think it does. In November 1960, three sisters were found near their Jeep at the bottom of a cliff – ruled an accidental death. But it’s what the newspaper doesn’t mention that is notable. Based on the true story, this novel follows four sisters – La Mariposas, the butterflies – who rebelled against General Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez brings the sisters to life, illuminating the bravery and determination of these women.
Persist by Elizabeth Warren
Warren is someone who knows what it’s like to have the concept of ambition thrown back in your face. While ambition and plans are often held in esteem for male politicians, many people used these to mock or insult her. In this book, she focuses on six perspectives that have shaped her life and advocacy, including that of mother, teacher, fighter, and planner. This is a personal story of ambition and goals, but also a calling in of others to join her.
Lead From the Outside by Stacey Abrams
While this isn’t a book solely about Abrams, she shows us what she’s learned and shares insights with the reader that illustrate aspects of who she is and what she believes in. In this book, she speaks to anyone out of the dominant paradigm, and how you can harness that to make real change; how pushing forward is often something of necessity for many, instead of giving up and following along. It’s a practical, accessible, and hopeful book that encourages ambition and change-making.
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma
Haben’s parents grew up in Eritrea, and she would spend summers there with her family growing up. Hearing stories about their experiences during the 30-year war with Ethiopia, their refugee story inspired her in a variety of ways. She traveled around the world, having adventures and exploring what it means to belong. Instead of seeing disability as limiting, she sees it as an opportunity for innovation, and has found ways to adapt things for her life. In this book, she shares her adventures traveling, her innovations that foster inclusion, and her advocacy work.
The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris
If anyone understands ambition, it’s the first woman Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. In this memoir, she writes about her life growing up the daughter of immigrants and how it shaped her and her outlook, as well as what inspired her to run for public office. It’s a compelling look at the people, places, and events that formed her worldview, but it’s also a book about the core truths that we all hold, across differences – and how by working together for these truths, we can effect change.
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson
When Jennifer Doudna was in 6th grade, she read a book on DNA, and though her high school counselor told her girls don’t become scientists, she knew that she would. Her work eventually led to her helping to create CRISPR, a tool that can edit DNA. While this book explores the ethical, personal, social, and moral questions that go along with that, it’s also a look at Doudna and her journey in science that led to winning the Nobel Prize in 2020 with her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier.
We Go High: How 30 Women of Color Achieved Greatness Against All Odds by Nicole Ellis
This collection of stories of 30 women of color explore their life stories, their personal philosophies, how they each got to where they are today, and what they’ve accomplished in their field. Women like Nadiya Hussain, Koa Beck, Naomi Osaka, Dolores Huerta, and more are featured, illustrating a wide variety of jobs and career fields, as well as women from a diverse array of backgrounds. The portraits of each woman are stunningly done, a mix of picture and painting, and this is a great book for people of all ages to read.
The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer by Caitlin Murray
This is a fascinating book about the US Women’s National Soccer Team, from the formation of it in the 1980s through the 2019 World Cup. Murray explores the disparities between the men’s team and the women’s team, US professional soccer leagues, stories of individual players, and the challenges both on and off the field, professionally and personally. Many of these players had limited opportunities for playing, and yet they pushed ahead with their goals. Most recently, this team won equal pay for women’s soccer, so I’d love an updated version of this book chronicling that, too.
Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter’s Story by Mazie K. Hirono
Hirono’s path to the Senate is not a typical story: her early years on a rural rice farm in Japan, then going with her mother, who was fleeing an abusive marriage, to Hawaii; entering first grade not knowing how to speak or write English; and watching her mother work multiple jobs to keep things going. But those events helped shape her into who she is, and are part of her drive for advocacy. She writes about struggling with the expectations placed on women in politics and eventually, how she broke free of them. It’s an intensely personal story that will resonate.
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith
Smith combines biography, memoir, and criticism to look at Black women pop figures and their stories. She looks at Phyllis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who sang her poems, as well as Mahalia Jackson, Mariah Carey, Deniece Williams, and many more, writing not just about their lives and journeys in pop, but also how their music impacted her life as well. Their journeys and accomplishments, as well as the impact their music has made on not just the author, but the larger musical culture, is documented in this book that makes a great summer read.
Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann
If you’ve seen the documentary Crip Camp, you’re familiar with Judith Heumann – if not, this is a great introduction. Heumann is one of the most influential disability rights activists, and has been, for decades. She sued the NYC school system for denying her a teaching license because of her paralysis from polio, and then she was one of the leaders for the Section 504 Sit-In. In this memoir, she recounts her tireless work and activism, while illustrating what a truly inclusive society would look like.
Surpassing Certainty: What my Twenties Taught Me by Janet Mock
Shortly before she turned 20, Mock was still adjusting to college and dancing at a club, finally at home in her body, post-transition. Mock navigates first loves, sex, dating, vulnerability, and also her career. After moving to NYC, she pursues a career in the magazine industry, knowing that as a trans woman of color, she faces multiple barriers. She writes about how she learned to advocate for herself and others, and how she faced adversity and made her own way. It’s an honest memoir about going after what you want, learning who you are, and finding your path.
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, the Woman Behind Cosmopolitan Magazine by Jennifer Scanlon
In this biography, Scanlon writes about Helen Gurley Brown, the EIC of Cosmopolitan magazine for more than 30 years. She details Brown’s humble start in the Ozarks, her adventures in NYC, and then her work at the magazine and her “lipstick feminist” outlook. Gurley Brown embraced sex, ambition, and power, and yet is often overlooked when conversations about feminists are being had. This is a thought-provoking look at someone who changed the media landscape.
Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda R Hirshman
O’Connor and Ginsburg were very different, but were also alike in many ways. The first and second women on the Supreme Court both had to fight for their spots in their law classes and were pioneers in a male-dominated field. Hirshman writes about each woman and their lives, but also about their friendship and work together, shaping law and remaking it, and forever changing the landscape of SCOTUS. This is a blend of biography and law, professional examination and personal anecdotes, and the combination of all of this makes for an informative and compelling read.
All of these books showcase ambitious women – women who believed in something and forged ahead to achieve or make a difference. If you’re looking for more books about ambitious women, check out this post about ambitious women in SFF, and this post about leadership books for women.