Ever since I was a little girl, movies set in the past held a certain fascination for me. Unlike a book, where my imagination filled in the blanks, a movie illustrated what people were like “back then.” The setting, the clothing, the hairstyles, the way people travelled, what they ate, and how they spoke enthralled me. I especially loved movies that explored social aspects, in particular the way girls and women were treated and how they fit into society. The movies that had female characters abandoning their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things have always made me sit up. These were the movies that I loved, and still love, because they inspired me to become someone out of the ordinary too. Modern movies are inspirational in this way, but to me historical movies have an extra edge. It was so much harder to be extraordinary in times when women had fewer options. And they did so in corsets and long skirts!
In the movies Shakespeare in Love (set in 1593 London) and Stage Beauty (set in 17th century London), Viola and Maria want to act but are forbidden to by the law of the land. Viola gets around this by assuming a man’s persona, and Maria flaunts the law by acting at a local tavern. In the film adaptation of National Velvet (set in 1935 England), Velvet Brown rides her own horse, The Pie, in the Grand National disguised as a male jockey. And yes, she wins. The Last of the Mohicans, (set in 1757 against the backdrop of the French and Indian War), takes Cora on a dangerous journey. Through incredible hardships she sheds her upper-class shell and becomes a woman who understands why a person would risk everything for freedom because she is now willing to do so herself.
If I had to pick a favorite movie that follows along this theme, it would be the 2004 HBO drama, Iron Jawed Angels, which is set in 1910 when the American women’s suffrage movement had reached a boiling point. The film features two of America’s real-life suffrage heroines: Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor). This is my favorite period of history because it’s when women began to step out of their traditional roles en masse to fight for their right to vote. In the movie we watch the frustration turn to anger as the women are turned down over and over, how the US government does everything it can to stop them, including arresting them on trumped up charges and submitting them to brutal treatment and force-feeding in prison. How much courage did it take to buck the system to gain the vote? What kind of strength did it take to stand up to (and in some cases even welcome) ridicule, hardship, police brutality, and social disapproval for something that we now take for granted? Iron Jawed Angels shows us exactly how, and it does it in full Technicolor glory. Beautiful costumes and scenery and plucky characters illustrate the women’s fight for equality perfectly.
And no surprises, my favorite theme of girls behaving out of the ordinary features heavily in my stories, particularly in my debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY. In FOLLY, Victoria Darling, an upper-class Edwardian teen, must choose between a place where she is safe but never heard and an unknown world where her opinions and individuality matter—all against the backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage. And yes, there’s a swoon-worthy guy! I forgot to mention that. I do love romance in historical movies. I mean, come on, Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in buckskins? Sigh.
Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, the story of an Edwardian teen who pursues her love of art and a handsome police constable during the women’s rights movement (Viking, winter 2014). She lived in the UK for six years, after meeting her own British police constable and marrying him. She did extensive research on the British suffragettes with the help of the curators of the Museum of London—when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace. Today, she is a full-time freelance writer in the magazine industry in the US and UK, and she has three non-fiction books published under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs: The Original Horse Bible (co-author Moira Harris, Bow Tie Press, 2011); Advanced English Riding (Bow Tie Press, 2007); In One Arena (Half Halt Press, 2001). She is a dressage rider and trainer, and she lives on a 10-acre sustainable farm in Northwest Indiana, just outside of Chicago with her husband, Mark, two horses, four dairy goats, five cats, two dogs, and 60 laying hens. You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller