A keen understanding of the evolution of women’s rights allows us to understand our female characters as they lived in their era. A misstep we sometimes take is viewing the past through today’s prism. We are much more enlightened than our ancestors, borne of accumulated experiences and the hard work done by the strong women who fought so we might, for instance, vote and enjoy the rights we have today.

Prior to the 19th century, laws strictly dictated a woman’s behavior, as well as their right to property. Ever gallant, men of the era protected the “delicate sensibilities” of the ladies in polite society by preventing them from the “vulgarities” of traveling in the funeral procession or attending funerals, even those for close family members. Reflecting on such a dictate makes one wonder if the women of the day balked at such a notion, especially as their closest relations passed on.  

In 1848, New York passed the Married Women’s Property Act which bolstered the rights of married women to own property. At last, women had the agency to conduct business on their own behalf, assume ownership of gifts they received, and file lawsuits. The 1860 Act Concerning the Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife acknowledged “mothers as joint guardians of their children.” This allowed married women the legal authority over their own sons and daughters. Can you imagine that such a law needed to be enacted?

Over time, other states emulated and improved upon New York’s laws, which proved a boon for women. By 1900, married women gained significant control over their property. The suffragette’s work culminated on August 18, 1920, when the right to vote gave women a voice in their own destinies. Women still needed their husband’s signature in all financial matters, until the 1970s, when they attained the right to have a credit card in their own name.

The patriarchal society of the past began to crumble as women sought their rightful place in all matters. What a shame it would be if we, as authors, forgot about the struggles of our long passed sisters, and portrayed them with 21st century attitudes and actions. As a writer of historical fiction, I feel compelled to depict my characters, male and female, as they existed in history.

Were there feisty, kick-ass women before the twentieth century? Of course. But overall, most women lived within the laws and expectations of their time. They also dealt with ideas of propriety, held dear by those elders still living. One need search no further than Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey to understand how dearly they held Victorian values. Remember, Lady Grantham is completely entrenched in the prior century. This exchange sums up this point:

Lady Mary: “I was only going to say that Sybil is entitled to her opinions.”
Lady Grantham: “No, she isn’t, until she is married. And then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”

This encapsulates the attitudes so deeply ingrained in our ancestral sisters. Though laws slowly changed, the elders reinforced the subservient stance of women. As they passed on, a more youthful view took hold, but with a painfully slow transformation. I remember a great deal of male dominance in my childhood home in the 1960s. Father ruled the roost, Mother did as my father told her. Believe me, she had no choice, defiance wasn’t an option. Like other men of his time, he denied her authority over her children. I asked permission once to attend play practice at the high school, and she gave permission, as my father wasn’t home. When I got home, he grounded me, because I hadn’t called him, at work, to ask permission. “Asking your mother is equal to asking your brother.”

I remember the days when women lived this way, though certainly not as restricted as in the 19th century, but restricted nonetheless. I use those memories to construct female characters who, like my mother, are subjected to authoritarian rules, with one big difference. My father’s attitudes toward a woman’s place wasn’t based in law, but in his own upbringing. He emulated what he lived, as did most men throughout history.

As the elders aged and died, so did their antiquated ways. The prevailing attitudes caught up with the laws, and we are better for that.

I’ve heard the unflattering phrase, “too stupid to live” assigned to female characters in historical fiction and romance, who are portrayed as subjects of their father’s, brother’s, or husband’s dictates. They don’t, in any meaningful way, fight back, but accept their place as fact. As a writer, I find this phrase disheartening. These characters behave according to the customs, laws, and mores of their times. Yes, they eventually find comfortable circumstances, but they all are aware that they are the anomaly of their time.

Should we read historical fiction or historical romance, and expect that every female character has 21st century sensibilities? I say no. We either write true to the era, or we’ve simply created a costume drama, with little to associate it with reality.

As a reader, I want reality in character portrayal. That means a female character learns to live within expectations, and if she’s clever enough, she might learn to circumvent some of them. That reality didn’t make the women of the past stupid, and it certainly doesn’t make well-crafted characters stupid either. Realistic? Yes. Full of promise, yes. After all, women have molded men to their will for centuries. I want to believe that women inspired the changes in laws, after they convinced the men the idea was theirs.

Understanding the centuries-long struggle is essential to understanding true characterizations in historical fiction and romance. I remain firmly in the ‘portray women within the restrictions of their times’ camp. Otherwise, we’re simply creating 21st century women in costume.

About Brita Addams

Prompted by her love of history, writer of historical fiction and historical romance, Brita Addams has tromped around old cemeteries and dusty town hall basements for over twenty years as a non-professional genealogist. She’s uncovered some juicy stories about her ancestors that may or may not have already found their way into her writing. For several years, she lectured on genealogy aboard cruise ships, as part of their Enrichment Programs.

Having grown up in blustery Upstate New York, Brita has lived in the sultry South for many years. She has a loving, supportive family, including her native New Orleanian husband, who makes killer gumbo and potato salad. After years in the Big Easy, she and her husband moved to the Frog Capital of the World (yes, that’s a thing,) to be closer to two of their three grown children.

She is Grammie to grandpuppy, Fiona, a maltipoo who has stolen her Grammie’s heart, as well as a treasured grandson and granddaughter. She never misses a chance to relate stories of the past to her grandchildren, as she celebrates life everyday, well aware of how fragile life is.  

On her website and blog, readers will find a complete listing of her works. http://britaaddams.net

2 Comments

  1. Brava to Brita Adams and Historical-Romance Books for writing and publishing this article! I’ve been guilty of using the term TSTL many times to describe a poorly written heroine, when instead I should be focus on that very fact: she’s poorly written.

    “Women didn’t know how to think back then, because men didn’t allow them, so instead I’m going to insert my 21st century values into this 18th/19th century character,” is an attitude that has worn me down until I decided to stop complaining. Now I am trying to write stories that display the very special kind of strength our sisters of the past had: fortitude.

    Researching the past is part of what I do and women in history weren’t stupid. They lived in a much harsher reality, where technological advancement, more than anything, hindered what could and couldn’t be done. To judge their unique experiences through our standards of measurement is not only unfair, it leads to false sense of superiority. To treat our great grandmothers and aunts as silly nincompoops who didn’t know to survive disparages them and us.

    I’ve seen the romance genre transform in many positive ways throughout the years, but the changes in the Historical genre have not all been for the better. It’s one thing to write historical fantasy and be open about it. It’s another to require authentic voices and stories from all kinds of women, but not for women who exited before we were born. Writers of historical fiction, primarily historical romance, cannot demand respect for their field, if they fail to respect the subject matter about which they write.

    Wonderful article!

    1. Jacqueline, what a pleasure to read your comment. We share the same sentiment.

      I recently heard the statement “we need to make history relevant for today’s readers.” I was gobsmacked! History is relevant as a learning tool, as a warning, as education. Modern day writers/producers/screenwriters, etc. don’t need to change it to make it appealing to the masses. History stands alone, tarnished and flawed. A chronicle of centuries of mistakes (by our way of thinking) that, hopefully, teach us and future generations how to be kinder, more aware, more thoughtful human beings.

      Women, particularly, take the hit, as you mentioned. If they are portrayed as subjects of their time, they are often labeled “too stupid to live,” as if they had myriad options to live another way. Women were subject to the males in their lives – father, brother, husband, even sons. They fought for their rights to vote, and with that, they came into their own, leaving generations before them to their own subjugation. But the struggle was long and arduous. Those who took the fore were the exception, the modern thinkers, the minority to be sure.

      Fortitude is indeed the word to describe our female ancestors. Arguably, they were stronger than we women are today, due to the conveniences that make our lives much easier. They were more prepared for the downside of life, having experienced premature deaths of their children due to any number of causes that are more easily corrected today. My husband’s grandmother was born in 1892, and she lost five children at birth, of ten total. Her husband died at the age of 42, leaving her with five young children to raise. She always spoke of him as the love of her life, and missed him for the remaining fifty years she spent on this earth. To feed her children, she served as a cook on a sugar plantation, as well as running her own small farm. She lost a son suddenly at age four, and another at 26. I knew her in her advanced years, and she was thick skinned, emotionally vacant, and carried a great deal of emotional pain that she simply tamped down, all of which, I argue, characterize women of a time when medical and social advancements hadn’t gained traction as they have today. You pulled up your boot straps and moved forward, without regard for your feelings, your exhaustion, or your need for time to process what happened. No therapy appointment for a stubbed toe. You walked it off and kept walking.

      Major pet peeve: I see portrayals of real people in historical dramas, and at times I cringe, because I know the portrayals are in answer to a seemingly growing demand for the nebulous relevancy. I’m a purest. Subtle changes are fine, but major, comment worthy “adjustments” are insulting. They scream disregard fpr truth and fact, and can’t, I repeat, can’t be clustered under the “fantasy” umbrella. Fictional characters, go for it, if you must, but when portraying real people in historical novels and dramas, fiction or otherwise, they existed as they existed. No amount of revisionist history changes that. They were who they were.

      Yes, I have strong feelings on this subject. Thanks again, Jacqueline, for your comment. Best of luck in your writing.

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