Women’s History Month Group Post: Our Favorite Non-fiction Books about Women

For the last day of Women’s History Month, we’re sharing our top non-fiction reads about women. You’ll sense a common thread running through our choices.  These historic women—be they famous or obscure—were pioneers.  They stepped out of their “traditional” roles and helped pave the way for modern women.

From Jennifer McGowan

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ELIZABETH’S WOMEN Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, by Tracy Borman. This book proved to be the kind of reference text that reads like a novel, providing an “inside look” at the women who shaped the actions and policies of one of history’s greatest Queens. Especially as I was preparing to write a series of novels involving young female spies for Queen Elizabeth, I was fascinated by her relationships with women in her court. There are many great resource books on Queen Elizabeth, but this one stands holds a primary place on my keeper shelf.

From Katherine Longshore

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SOVEREIGN LADIES: The Six Reigning Queens of England by Maureen Waller is a study not so much of the history surrounding Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary II, Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth II, but of the women themselves and how being a woman affected their queenship. This book inspired me to want to know more as all good histories should.

From J. Anderson Coates

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WOMEN SAILORS AND SAILORS’ WOMEN BY David Cordingly does a great job of integrating women into eighteenth and nineteenth-century maritime history and using evidence to poke holes in the accepted narrative that women had no active role in the age of sail. He brings up famous female sailors such as Hannah Snell and Mary Ann Talbot who dressed as men and went to sea, but he also discusses teenage Mary Patten who took command of her husband’s merchant ship when he was incapacitated, as well as the numerous and unnamed wives of officers (and sometimes ordinary sailors) who brought powder and ball to gunners on warships like Nelson’s Victory and acted as nurses. Cordingly is less interested in highlighting how the presence of women was special and unique and more focused on showing how common it was, how women were always part of this world and in a variety of ways. His work is engaging, amusing in places, and a great example of how to do “women’s history” well.

From Cat Winters

 

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I first learned about women in history through a 1970s volume of books for kids called ValueTales. The books told the stories of famous historical figures from childhood through adulthood, using colorful illustrations, and in the very back pages readers could find a more serious bio of each person. My favorite book in the series was THE VALUE OF FAIRNESS: THE STORY OF NELLIE BLY, by Ann Donegan Johnson, because Bly struck me as a brave and fascinating human being who fought for the rights of her gender, especially women mistreated in prisons, AND she circumnavigated the world like a Jules Verne character! I still own the book to this day—and the protagonist of my Fall 2014 release is a big admirer of Nellie Bly, thanks to my longtime interest that stemmed from this 1970s gem.

From Susan Hill Long

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PERSONAL HISTORY by Katherine Graham is a fascinating look at the woman who became president of the Washington Post in the 1960s, when women did not hold positions of power in the media. She oversaw groundbreaking reporting during a turbulent time in American history, and said of herself, “I had very little idea of what I was supposed to be doing, so I set out to learn. What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge.” Brave person.

From Sharon Biggs Waller

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SYLVIA PANKHURST: A MAVERICK LIFE by Shirley Harrison is the inspiring biography of Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia. Sylvia was a big campaigner for women’s suffrage and supported her mother’s association: the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) through her exquisite artwork. She was also very active in the movement and was arrested and force fed many times. She worked tirelessly to help the poor in the East End of London, and later fought against fascism in Ethiopia. This is a beautiful book full of rare photos and it shows the struggles women faced during the Edwardian era. This book helped me imagine how life might have been for my protagonist, Victoria Darling, in A MAD, WICKED FOLLY. Edwardian women were not the sweet little biddable misses people often imagine, and Sylvia Pankhurst is proof of that!

Thoughts on Creating Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction

Our topic this week is how we approach writing strong female characters when history didn’t always look favorably upon strong women. This left me wondering how we define a “strong” female character, and how that definition might change throughout history.

 

The book that made me want to be a writer was GONE WITH THE WIND. In high school, I modeled all my early characters after Scarlett O’Hara. They raced horses, climbed trees, were tomboys who played with the boys and didn’t much care for other girls. They were vivacious and flirty but they weren’t interested in feminine pursuits like shopping or tea parties or painting watercolors. It was an easy way to make them stand out – “not like the other girls” – to convey a certain independent-mindedness that seemed attractive. It is also, I think, a very modern way to look at female strength. (Not to mention kind of problematic – what is that saying about the other girls?)

 

Look at the other female lead in GONE WITH THE WIND – Melanie Wilkes. Scarlett doesn’t realize how amazing Melanie is until she’s dead. Melanie is physically frail but she saves Scarlett’s life when a soldier breaks into their home. Melanie is incredibly generous and loving and loyal and forgiving. Is she as exciting as Scarlett? Would we want to read the story from her point of view? Maybe not. I don’t know that she’s the one driving the action. But she exemplifies a more traditional female strength, one that doesn’t get explored as often. Melanie is more like the other girls – full of a genteel bravery of her own, but not as brash or as assertive as Scarlett. She isn’t as obvious a heroine – but she is arguably more a product of her time, isn’t she? We tend to create the girl who isn’t like the other girls – who rebels against the mores of her time – because that’s the girl we want to read about, isn’t it? The one who changes things and has mad adventures? Certainly there have been amazing female leaders and scientists and inventors and artists throughout history, but there were (still are!) very strict societal rules about when and how girls were allowed to speak out or advocate for change or deviate from the norm – if they were allowed such freedom at all. Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t exactly end up happy.

 

How do we, as writers, balance it? How do we create girls who feel true to their times but still push the action forward? In BORN WICKED, I’d argue that Cate is a mix of Scarlett and Melanie. She was the tomboy growing up. She’s been taught that she can’t trust anyone besides her sisters, so after about age twelve, she doesn’t look to form friendships, and she judges other girls harshly. She doesn’t care for dresses and teas because she feels she has more important things to do – namely, keeping her witchery a secret and keeping her family safe. But I think a lot of Cate’s strength comes from very traditionally feminine ideals – the way she looks after her sisters and wants to keep them safe. She’s very motherly. The magic she’s best at is healing, because of how much she cares for others and wants to help them. What she wants most in the world is to keep her sisters safe and to be able to marry Finn and have a family.

 

And I think – hope? – that’s the trick of it. As historical writers, we have to keep in mind the societies that has shape our heroines. Those societies’ rules are different from ours. They expects different things of their girls, and strength may be defined in ways that modern girls take for granted, or might even see – like  Scarlett sees Melanie’s – as a weakness. But whether they’re Scarletts or Melanies or something in-between, the world our heroines have grown up in has left indelible imprints on them, and we have to stay true to that.

 


author photo JSJessica Spotswood is the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles: BORN WICKED (2012), STAR CURSED (2013), and SISTERS’ FATE (August 2014). She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Now Jess lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. She can be found drinking tea, teaching writing workshops for teens, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Some things never change.

Quick and Dirty: The Crusades

(We’d like to welcome guest poster Rima Jean, the author of the delicious YA historical fantasy KNIGHT ASSASSIN! ~ eds.)

KA11smallToday I’ll be giving you the low-down on the Crusades—namely, why they happened. Why the Crusades, you ask? Good question. My YA historical fantasy, Knight Assassin, takes place in Syria and Jerusalem between the Second and Third Crusades, and while the heroine is a Syrian Assassin, the hero is a Knight Templar. The mixing of cultures and peoples made for a complex and fascinating period in history.

Not that I would want to live back then.

As if living in Medieval Europe wasn’t enough of a pain in the butt, the armies of Western Europe went on a series of Crusades between the 11th and 14th centuries to take back the Holy Land from the Muslims. The knights and nobles of Europe were constantly fighting with each other over land, so they were thrilled when, in 1095, Pope Urban II went on tour (like a rock star) to urge those knights and nobles to turn their excessive testosterone against the Muslims. At that time, the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslims, were in the process of beating the crap out of the Byzantine Empire (in Asia Minor), which was Christian. To sweeten the deal, Pope Urban offered an indulgence to those who went to liberate Jerusalem, which was basically a way for Crusaders to have all their sins forgiven.

CrusadersIf that’s not a sweet deal, I don’t know what is.

Folks went running, let me tell you. The first band of Crusaders consisted of peasants led by a preacher named Peter the Hermit (clearly, he stopped being a hermit for the occasion) who tore through France and Germany plundering towns and killing Jews, only to arrive in Constantinople in bad shape. Needless to say, the Turks handed the Crusaders’ asses to them. This got the knights moving, and the first “official” Crusade was led by celebrity knights and nobles: Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, who was made leader of the Crusader armies; Hugh of Vermandois, the little bro of the king of France; Robert of Normandy, the son of William the Conqueror; Baldwin of Flanders and his brother Godfrey of Bouillon, the Duke of Lower Lorraine; and also Raymond of Toulouse, an experienced warrior who had fought the Muslims in Spain.

HauberkThat’s when things really started to suck for the knights: The Holy Land was friggin’ hot, way hotter than Europe, and the men wore serious layers of armor, including a gambeson, which was a thickly padded tunic, a hauberk over it, which was a chainmail coat, a metal helmet… Dudes must have been cooking under the desert sun. Of course, what was a disadvantage in the heat was an advantage in battle – when the knights would charge the lightly-clad Muslim forces, they were lethal.

After finding what the Crusaders believed to be the lance that had pierced the side of Christ during the Crucifixion (riiiiiiight), the Crusaders defeated the Turks at Antioch and trudged on to Jerusalem (finally!) in June 1099. The Crusaders pummeled the city for only a month before they were able to capture it. The capture of Jerusalem was a wholesale slaughter – Muslims, Christians and Jews were massacred, and their corpses were piled outside the city higher than the gate itself.

BaldwinOf course, the Crusaders’ problems weren’t finished yet; now they had to decide who would be the ruler of this new Christian state. Needless to say, they all wanted to be king. Go figure. They finally settled on Baldwin, who took the crown of the new Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was also called Outremer. Sadly, war did not end there. In under 50 years, Jerusalem fell again to the Muslims and the need for another crusade sprang up…

Okay, so there was a lot of killing going on in the name of religion. Still, a fascinating period of history that would trigger the imagination of any history lover, and one that provides fertile grounds for a great story.

Rima Jean received a degree in archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. After a dismal law school experience, she floundered a bit before accepting her calling: storytelling. She resides in Houston with her wonderful husband and two beautiful daughters, where she writes, edits, and dabbles in digital art. Her debut YA historical fantasy, Knight Assassin, is out now.

Website/Twitter/Goodreads

Celebrating Bad Behavior

The topic for my post today is Women Behaving Badly–Rebels and Outlaws.  I jumped on the chance to converse on the topic, because, as you know, I already have a thing for history’s bad boys.  I dug into a few history books, hoping to get some insight into the appeal of rebels.

What I found is that my topic is rather unfairly titled, and that the very notion of “bad girls” is hopelessly skewed.  As Jillian pointed out last week, “history” as we know it, is far too often about men.  And for centuries, written by men.  So we are looking at these women being badly behaved through the lens of the men who observed them at the time—and judged them accordingly.

As I read further, I realized that women’s “bad” behavior is often a simple case of women behaving like (or competing with or wanting to be treated equally as) men.  Cleopatra wanted to be a ruler in her own right.  Anne Boleyn was opinionated.  Boudicca wanted to rid her country of invaders.  Maria Montessori wanted to be a doctor.  Emmeline Pankhurst wanted a vote.  Annie Oakley knew that “anything you can do I can do better.”Annie_Oakley

However.  Even though they may have shocked and appalled their contemporaries, we can now see them as admirably, undeniably and vibrantly sexy (using the informal definition of  “exciting” or “appealing”).  These are women who changed the world and the way people look at the human race.

Anne Boleyn.  She broke up a twenty-year marriage and helped usher in the Reformation which, unfortunately, led to many years of religious conflict, political instability and the burning of heretics.  But at a time when women were viewed as little more than chattel (and sometimes treated more poorly), she challenged the status quo, expressed her opinions vigorously and didn’t tolerate fools lightly.  No wonder we love her so much (even when we hate her).

Elizabeth I.  Anne’s daughter was unlikely to grow up to be a submissive ninny.  But what surprised her contemporaries was that she was determined not to let anyone have dominance over her.  In Tudor England, a woman without a husband was nothing.  And a monarch without an heir was living on borrowed time.  Elizabeth proved that a “weak and feeble” woman could dominate not only court politics but the world political stage—a concept repeated by her (centuries later) successors Victoria and Elizabeth II.

What about the women who challenged the idea that only men could be literary giants?  Jane Austen may have led a fairly quiet life, but has left a monumental literary legacy.  George Sand led a scandalous life and provoked examination of the “ideals” of femininity and the inequality of the class system.  And what about Dorothy Parker?  One of my favorite historical figures, she held her own at the Algonquin Round Tables and frightened even the most stoic men with her biting wit.  And then there are the Bronte Sisters, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Murasaki Shikibu.  And today, we are still dodging a gender inequality in the literary world, as evidenced last year by David Gilmour’s declaration that he’s “not interested in teaching books by women.”

Dorothy Parker with Art Samuels, Charlie MacArthur, Harpo Marx, and Alexander Woollcott

Dorothy Parker with Art Samuels, Charlie MacArthur, Harpo Marx, and Alexander Woollcott

Women have challenged the art world (Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dorothea Lange), science and medicine (Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Isabella Bird, Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall), politics (Susan B. Anthony, Benazir Bhutto, the Pankhursts, Nancy Astor, and love her or hate her—Margaret Thatcher), popular culture (any Lady Gaga fans out there?), military service, journalism (my former Army officer-husband says they always knew things were getting bad when Kate Adie showed up).

Women’s history month is a time to celebrate the contribution of these badly behaved women.  These rebels and outlaws got us to where we are today.  Gave us a voice.  Put us in charge of our own lives and our own bodies.  Opened doors that wanted to stay closed.  Raised the glass ceiling.  Provided us with the foundation on which we can sit complacently and say, “Look how far we’ve come.”

But perhaps it’s also a time to look at the status quo today and decide if perhaps a little bad behavior might still be in order.

Our characters do it.  Why shouldn’t we?

Dated

Today’s topic was supposed to be a cheerful little roundup of important dates in women’s history. Seneca Falls, probably, and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I did start a list, but it was kind of obnoxious. It began with 1519 and the arrival of Cortes in the New World. It included 1807, the year it became illegal to import human cargo into the United States. And let’s not forget 1960, when The Pill was approved for contraceptive use. I could also throw in 1964, 1348, 1517, 1972, 1858, 1440, 1798—and I can justify all of them. And tons more.

But I’m not big on dates. Dates traditionally scare most people away from history. They’re nice because they mark the slow–often agonizingly slow–march of human progress. They let us know we’re on track to invent the future because the present sucks pretty hard. And that’s a reassuring thought.

But then I realized my obnoxious list is obnoxious for a reason.

The idea of “Women’s History Month” doesn’t sit right with me. It gives the misleading impression that women’s history is about women and therefore important to women, but Real History is about men* and therefore important to everyone.

All the dates on my obnoxious little list had real and meaningful impact on women, and that makes these events women’s history. The problem is–and always has been–which narratives get recorded, privileged, and shared (or imposed), and consequently develop that shiny patina of legitimacy.

The problem is–and always has been–who gets to decide what counts as history.

This is the one reason I like Women’s History Month. It’s brought up the discussion. It’s shined a nice bright light on omissions, gaps, and outright erasures. It’s made us question received narratives and demand something deeper, something more reflective of human lived experience.

Let’s keep up the good work, shall we? Let’s keep questioning what history is and what it ought to be. Let’s keep making history better.

*Usually (but not necessarily) white European and/or American men, but that’s a-whole-nother post.