A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

Women have had a lot to fight for since women’s suffragism came to the forefront in the 19th century, and we’re still fighting. But what are those issues, particularly during the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”?

In the 19th century, organized suffragism was born of a group of brave women whose names are branded in history like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, suffragists focused first on getting society to recognize women were equals to men (with limitations dictated by the separate spheres, of course — no use rocking the boat too much). But later, their focus shifted to one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. Why was this so important? Suffragists were smart enough to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to implement changes into public policy that would carry through to future generations. 

When progressive movements took center stage at the turn of the 20th century, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Women achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. The Progressive Era increased awareness for many women that equality wasn’t just about the right to vote. It was also about psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th-century femininity limiting what women could and could not do and be. In that light, the New Woman was born: active, athletic, and freer in body and spirit than her mother and grandmother had been.

After the fight for suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post-World War” II generation brought back a more modern version of the angel. Betty Friedan labeled her “the feminine mystique”. Magazines, advertisements, and doctors advocated for a woman’s place in the home and her identity became tied to her relationships with others rather than her identity in and of itself. Friedan found these women in American suburbs living a life that fulfilled this destiny, but they were not happy because they suffered from The Problem That Has No Name. These women felt discontented and frustrated as if something was missing from their lives but they couldn’t define what it was.

Friedan’s book inspired others to speak out about their frustration and disillusionment, eventually leading to second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further into the political sphere than their 19th and early 20th century sisters. They zoomed in on social and personal oppressions, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

Friedan’s book and others that identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th-century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppression of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Until then, I had very little knowledge of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. My well-meaning family followed a very patriarchal model, as my parents came of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded in the characters’ psychological reality. For example, in Pathfinding Women, the third book of my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Vivian Alderdice begins to question the conventional path of a wealthy young woman followed by her mother and grandmother when she befriends Nettie Grace, a working-class women, and suffragist. Similarly, the five stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique.

If you’d like to know more about my Waxwood Series, you can check out this page. The first book of the series, The Specter, is at 99¢. And you can find out more about the issues of post-war suburban housewives in America and how some fought back in my short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Why I Love (And Write) Women’s Fiction

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***This blog post was written in honor of Women’s Fiction Day, designated as June 8 by the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.***

If you would ask me what is the genre of the Waxwood Series, I would unhesitatingly say “women’s fiction”. This is in spite of the fact that False Fathers, Book 2 of the series, is actually about a young man’s coming-of-age. The series itself focuses on the journey of one young woman to emotional and intellectual maturity in the last decade of the 19th century. Women’s fiction is always about journeys and all of my fiction, regardless of genre, even my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, the Paper Chase Mysteries, is about women’s journeys.

But is women’s fiction only about the gender of the author?

Different authors define women’s fiction (whether they write it or not) differently. My definition of women’s fiction is fiction where a woman goes through some kind of emotional and psychological journey and transformation, usually the main character or one of the main characters. That transformation doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive one, but one in which she learns something about herself and the world around her. And the book doesn’t have to be written by a woman either. I consider books like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary women’s fiction, because the woman protagonist of each book goes through her own journey and transformation (however tragic), and we learn something about human nature and women’s lives in the nineteenth century. 

This last element is really why I love reading women’s fiction. The genre not just about women written for women and only relevant to women. It’s relevant to all our lives, male or female, or however you identify your gender. They also teach us about how women behave and are treated, and this reflects on the way human nature works in our patriarchal society, then and now. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t read many contemporary books but a few months ago, I picked up a book firmly placed in the contemporary women’s fiction category by K. L. Montgomery titled Fat Girl. Montgomery is a body-positive advocate and her protagonist is a plus-size woman whose trials and tribulations with romance, divorce, and raising a teenage boy speaks to our time with the struggles of single parents and body shaming in our weight-conscious society.

In the Waxwood Series, Vivian’s transformation continues throughout the Waxwood Series and will be completed in Book 4. Her revelations about family, women and social expectations will hopefully speak not only of the paradoxes of the Gilded Age but also our time.

In honor of Women’s Fiction Day, I’m giving away an ebook copy of The Specter! To enter the giveaway, please comment on this blog post and tell me why you love women’s fiction (historical or otherwise). The giveaway will end on Sunday, June 13.

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A History of Mother’s Day in the United States

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Photo Credit: Flowers for Mother, from Pictures and Prattle for the Nursery children’s book by Harrison Weir, published in 1880: Fae/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. Where did this holiday come from? It began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis, editor and Progressive Era activist, decided to pay tribute to her mother in Philadelphia. She also, incidentally, started the tradition of giving flowers on the day by sending five hundred white carnations to the church in her hometown as part of the tribute.

Although Jarvis is credited as the godmother of Mother’s Day in the United States, she was not the first to come up with the idea. That honor goes to Jarvis’ own mother Ann Maria Jarvis. From all accounts, Ann Maria was the prototype Victorian woman, devoted to her children and her church. At the same time, she was also an activist but, unlike the suffragists, she kept to her side of the separate spheres. Her work was confined to areas acceptable for women (church and home). Her activist work was nonetheless important, as she formed Mothers’ Day Club events where the goal was to educate mothers on proper hygiene to prevent the massive infant death rates prevalent in the nineteenth century. 

It’s interesting to note Ann Maria conceived of Mother’s Day quite differently than her daughter. To Ann Maria, maternal responsibility was very much linked to community service, and her idea was to celebrate the role of motherhood in society and family. Her daughter, on the other hand, wanted to make the day a national holiday where both men and women honored their individual mothers — hence, we call it Mother’s Day and not Mothers’ Day. So Jarvis took Mother’s Day to a very personal level.

The fight to get Mother’s Day declared a national holiday came during the first decade of the twentieth century when many women were advocating taking their lives outside the private sphere and fighting in social and political arenas for their rights and identities as individuals. It might seem a little odd that Jarvis would, at this time in history, lead a movement honoring women’s most traditional role inside the home. In addition, Jarvis was one of these New Women who held a career as an advertising editor and earned a college degree. But suffragism was also about making women visible and respected for their own merits and contributions to society. Mothers fit right into this category (since you have to be a woman to be a mother, right?)

Photo Credit: Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in America. Probably taken around the turn of the century, judging by the hairstyle and clothes, but no additional information about the image. Uploaded 4 May 2017 by Jonas Duyvejonck: jonasduyvejonck/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In May of 1914 (only a few months before the outbreak of World War I), President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation to make Mother’s Day a national holiday. By the 1920’s, Mother’s Day, like most American holidays, had become a target for consumerism, specifically florists and candy makers. Jarvis was disillusioned by this toward the end of her life and spent much of her later years trying to gain the recognition she deserved. One of the beautiful things about history is that, while innovators may not be appreciated during their own lifetime, we can look back and give them the kudos they deserve decades, even centuries, later. 

Mothers play a huge role in my fiction. Some of them are martyrs (like Mary’s mother in the short story “Mother of Mischief,” which is part of my collection of post-war stories, Lessons From My Mother’s Life), while others are hard-bitten and manipulative (like Joan’s mother in the story “Soul Destinations,” also part of that collection). In my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Larissa, the Alderdice family matriarch, is a complex mother whose attitude toward life and toward her children changes over time.

You can find out more about Larissa and the rest of the characters of the Waxwood Series on this page. Check out both Larissa and Penelope Alderdice (Larissa’s mother) in Book 1 of the series, The Specter, recently revised and updated and now at 99¢. All my books feature interesting mothers, and you can find out more about them here.    

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Complex Woman and Man in The Misfits (1961)

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Photo Credit: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits, May 1961, from Radio-TV Mirror, McFadden Publications: Encyclopedias/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review a book about classic Hollywood film director Robert Wise (you can find that blog post here). Reading this book reminded me of how much I used to love blogging about classic films. I haven’t done that in the last few years because I wanted to focus more on history related to my fiction, but the Wise book got my juices flowing again, so I’m putting classic film blogging back on my agenda.

Since this is Women’s History Month, and I’m celebrating the accomplishments of women in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought it would be fitting to blog about one of the most iconic movie stars of the mid-20th century who still haunts us today — the beautiful, talented and troubled Marilyn Monroe.

Monroe is best known for comedies in the 1950s such as Gentlemen Prefer Blonds (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). But she also did a fair amount of dramas and excelled in them. In 1961, when she was married to Arthur Miller, she starred in The Misfits and gave what I consider the finest performance of her career. The film is a magnificent classic written by one of America’s premier playwrights (Arthur Miller) and stars, along with Monroe, some of Hollywood’s greatest actors (Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and Thelma Ritter). What fascinates me the most about this film is the way both Monroe and Clark Gable edge out of the kind of roles they had been used to playing for much of their careers.

I don’t think anyone would deny that, when it comes to the feminine prototype, Marilyn Monroe’s film persona is it. From her voluptuous figure to her child-like voice to her sensual gazes, Monroe embodied a fantasy for 1950s men that differed widely from the woman of the Occupation: “Housewife” era. The sensual babydoll was no weakling, though. She was in command of the men who admired and lusted after her, aware of what she had to offer as a woman and making the most of it. Similarly, Gable was the definition of masculinity in the 1930s and 1940s. His elegant pencil mustache and gruff manner and his readiness to throw a punch at any given moment defined what it was to be a “man’s man” not only in the pre-World War II era but in the years following the war.

In “The Misfits”, Monroe is something of the innocent but voluptuous baby doll while Gable is the gruff cowboy capable of bringing women to their knees even in his 60’s. But the characters they play are much more complex and move well beyond these stereotypes. Monroe shows us the darker side of the sexy babydoll that so captured the delight of 1950s viewers in films such as those mentioned above. Miller wrote the character of Roslyn Taber with Monroe’s own past in mind, and some of the more troubling aspects of Monroe’s life emerge in that character. One is Monroe’s paradoxical relationship with her mentally ill mother. In a scene following Taber’s divorce settlement, she becomes tearful thinking about her mother. One can imagine that, during this difficult time, Taber has a sudden wish for the maternal comfort she never got, and one wonders whether Monroe herself didn’t sometimes have the same wish for her mother, who was largely absent from her life, in and out of mental institutions.

As for Gable, the character of Gay Langland is much less pugnacious than some of the characters Gable played in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in one scene, he assures Taber she might someday think of him as something more than a friend in such a good-natured way that it’s clear Langland isn’t a man who expects every woman to fall for him, and that his ego doesn’t depend on this. The man of iron also shows himself as vulnerable as the film progresses. In one scene, his drunken devastation at being unable to find his estranged grown children at a rodeo gives us a glimpse into some of his past regrets.

The 1960s, when The Misfits was made, was a time when the rigid definitions of the post-war gender roles were beginning to break down, which, I think, partly accounts for the way Taber and Langland are portrayed in this film. If you’re interested in reading about more characters whose ideas of gender already showed signs of changing in the 1950s, check out my short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life

And just for fun, here’s the trailer for The Misfits. 

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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A Gilded Age Christmas

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Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with banner and band. Note the card has the makings of a work of art (see below for more details about Prang and his philosophy of Christmas cards). 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know I love seeking out historical traditions of our beloved holidays so that you know how the Alderdices in my Waxwood Series would have spent their holidays. I’ve done this post on Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age, and I’ve also written this post about New Year’s Day traditions in the 19th century. So it’s fitting that we take a look at Christmas traditions as well.

Many of us in the 21st century grumble about the way Christmas has become so commercialized (Christmas in July, anyone?) Many of these commercial ideas about Christmas were planted in the Gilded Age. For example, the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree was brought over from Germany, but the Gilded Age added its own philosophy of splendor and excess. As you might recall, modesty was not exactly the order of the day for Gilded Agers. They liked lavishness and glitz, and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads into a display of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels, creating a commercial enterprise of Christmas tree ornaments.

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the Gilded Age. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of the Gilded Age, began producing Christmas cards less for profit than for an opportunity to give a lesson in fine art on a budget. He saw his cards as mini artistic achievements that even the working and middle classes could afford. This idea of democratizing fine art, an exclusive domain of those who could afford it, was not one Gilded Agers were willing to embrace. So predictably, Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards fell by the wayside when other manufacturers decided to cash in on the trend and produced cheap variations. It was then that Christmas cards became big business.

Also big business was the gift-giving that now dominates Christmas in our modern world. Today we might find it appropriate to give a family member or friend an Amazon gift card and let them choose what they want, but in the Gilded Age, such gifts just weren’t to be had. Presents had to be individualized and carefully thought out and chosen. It was also an opportunity to show one’s generosity by the expensiveness of the gifts one was giving others.

Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fit in with the idea of elaborate presentation that characterized the age. Here also, people like the Alderdices could flaunt their wealth. Plain white wrapping paper was more about the gift than what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones that one bought the gift at the “right” place.

Photo Credit: Merry Old Santa Claus, Thomas Nast, 1 January 1881, Harper’s Weekly: Soerfm/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 100)

We think of Santa as a jovial, generous white-bearded, somewhat heavy-set man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. In the Gilded Age, Santa also had political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course.

Here’s where you can find out all about the Waxwood Series, my Gilded Age family saga. 

Want to explore the nooks & crannies of history, the stuff that isn’t in the history books?Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and polls? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

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