It’s difficult for anyone to avoid the world’s expectations. We’re indoctrinated with so many of them and from such an early age, like that pallette of pink and blue with which society paints itself. So, what happens when we decide we’d like to circumvent these expectations? Try painting with a different color? With an array of new options at our feet, we may discover the thing that truly makes us tick, but odds are that pursuit won’t be easy.

We’ve gathered together a list of historical fiction novels featuring women who challenge long-held ideas about gender roles. Venturing outside their bubbles and meeting other women, they enter new realms of possibility. They’ll pursue interests for which society has deemed them unfit and band together with their fellow women to fight for change in a myriad of ways. They struggle, but they persevere, sometimes taking great risks to live the lives they want most.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue
by Fiona Davis

For Laura Lyons, life seems to be grand. She’s married to the superintendent of the New York Public Library, a job that comes with a hidden apartment within the building, and she has two beautiful children. In 1913, what more could a respectable woman want? Well, Laura has other ambitions. After getting accepted to the Columbia Journalism School, her entire world opens up, and her studies introduce her to a group of women very different from herself who make her question her traditional role as a wife and mother. Her shifting priorities take a backseat, however, when valuable books go missing from the library and jeopardize her family’s position along with the very institution she loves. 80 years later, in 1993, Laura’s granddaughter Sadie is struggling with her position as curator at the NYPL. An investigation into missing books from a recent exhibit unearths shocking and heartbreaking truths about her own family. (Read our review here.)

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The Henna Artist
by Alka Joshi

After escaping an abusive, arranged marriage, Lakshmi Sastri is determined to live as an independent woman with her own means of support in 1950s Jaipur, India. She works as an herbalist, trading contraceptive teas with courtesans for room and board. She’s also a henna artist, decorating the hands and feet of wealthy women in intricate designs. Lakshmi establishes herself as one of the best artists in the trade, and as she works, the women talk to her and she becomes their confidante, trusted with many secrets of the upper class. Her sage advice has become as sought-after as her original henna designs, but Lakshmi’s position is a delicate one. She has secrets of her own, and she knows that one unkind word could ruin her reputation and cost her the life she’s worked so hard to build. Yet, Lakshmi is determined to help the women she encounters, including a lost sister, even if it means risking everything. (Read our review here.)

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The Wrong Kind of Woman
by Sarah McCraw Crow

The lives of Virginia Desmarais and her daughter, Rebecca, are shaken when Virginia’s husband, Oliver, drops dead while stringing Christmas lights outside their home. It’s late 1970, and Virginia has dedicated her life to the roles of mother and wife, raising a child and supporting Oliver’s career as a professor at Clarendon College, an elite men’s school. In alignment with executing the latter role, Virginia had always shared her late husband’s prejudices against The Gang of Four, a group of outspoken, never-married women faculty members at Clarendon. In his absence and needing to support her family, however, she finds herself leaning on these women, realizing she has a lot to learn about being a woman. With the threat of violent protests looming on the horizon, tensions rise between the college and those demanding social change, and Virginia will have to decide what she’s willing to risk for this cause.

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The Gods of Tango
by Carolina de Robertis

Married by proxy to her cousin Dante, 17-year-old Leda leaves her Italian village in 1913 to join her new husband in Argentina. When she arrives, she learns that Dante has been killed in a brawl and she is entirely alone in this unfamiliar country with nothing save for the gift she was to present her husband — her father’s violin. Yet, instead of writing to her family about this misfortune to obtain aid, Leda finds work in a sewing circle. It is here, in the streets of Buenos Aries, that she hears the enthralling melody of the tango. Completely taken by this new music, Leda teaches herself to play the violin. Women are forbidden to perform in public, but Leda decides to pass herself off as her late husband and dive into the intoxicating world of tango, joining a group of musicians determined to bring the low-class, immigrant songs into the salons of high society. This new life will reveal parts of Leda she has suppressed, throwing her career and life into jeopardy.

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We Came Here to Shine
by Susie Orman Schnall

Two young women — one a blossoming actress and the other an aspiring journalist — are determined to find success in their respective careers. Vivi Holden is about to snag her first leading role and Maxine Roth, a student at NYU, has her sights set on a highly competitive summer internship with the New York Times. When neither woman gets what they want, they both end up at the 1939 World’s Fair in jobs beneath their talents — Vivi performing in the water ballet with the fair’s Aquacade and Max managing the schedule of a male journalist covering the fair. They’ve both worked too hard to be slumming it in these menial positions. Their worlds collide after attending a talk about women’s rights, and the friendship that follows will empower both Vivi and Max to pursue their dreams no matter what the world throws their way — because, let’s face it, no one is going to just hand it to them.

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