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