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

March is National Women’s History Month, where we look at all the accomplishments of women past generations. And we certainly have had a lot we’ve had to accomplish! 

I thought I’d do a survey of some of the important women’s issues throughout the years, particularly focusing on some of the eras that I’ve written about like the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. There is so much we can say about women’s struggles throughout history, but there are issues that have always interested me and that have affected women’s psychological and social presence and progress more than others.

In the mid-19th century, the first dregs of organized suffragism emerged with names now branded in history such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I introduced the struggles of women’s suffragism during this time in this blog post . During the 19th century, much of the effort was focused on one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. The fact that women were fighting for this one fundamental but critical aim says a lot about how women were seen in the 19th century, and I talk here about the psychological and social ideology behind how women were treated during this era. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, when progressive movements were taking center stage, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. They continued to fight for the vote for women and achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. But the Progressive Era also brought awareness to many women that it wasn’t just about the right to vote and have a voice in the public sphere. It was also about a psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th century rigid definitions of femininity that limited what women could and could not do and be. Thus emerged a new image of the New Woman who was active, athletic, and could move her mind and body more freely than her mothers and grandmothers.

If we jump to the mid-20th century, we find that things aren’t so empowering. After the fight for women’s suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post World War II generation brought it back. During this time, there emerged what Betty Friedan labeled the feminine mystique. Magazines, advertisements, the media, and the medical establishment all pushed forward the idea that women’s place was in the home and their identities tied up in their roles as mothers, wives, daughters, caretakers — in short, in their relationships to others rather than in and of themselves. Friedan found that these women in American suburbs who were living a life that fulfilled this destiny were not happy and suffered from what she labeled The Problem That Has No Name. This was a problem of discontentment, as many of these women felt that something missing from their lives that they couldn’t define.

Friedan’s book and others which 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 oppressions 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. Up until then, I had very little sense of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. This wasn’t because I grew up in a very liberated household. On the contrary, my well-meaning parents followed a very patriarchal model, both having come 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) and since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded with the characters’ psychological reality, even when the story was about something entirely different. For example, in False Fathers, the second book of my Gilded Age family drama, the Waxwood Series, the novel focuses on a male character, but the story also contains mentions of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series, whose awareness of women’s oppression is beginning to infiltrate her consciousness. This is a theme I will explore much more in the third and last books of the series coming out later this year. Similarly, my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, the five stories were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique and the idea of The Problem That Has No Name.

You can order Lessons at a special preorder price now on this page. You can also find out more about the Waxwood Series here=. And I’ll be launching a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth in the future, which you can find out more about here.     

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100 Years of Identity Crisis

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This flier, published in the early 20th century, takes the argument of the separate spheres and the post World War II generation (that women belong in the home) and uses it as an argument as to why women belong outside of the home as well.

Photo Credit: Women in the Home flier, created by the Woman Suffrage Party of the city of New York, 1897-1911, Library of Congress: Picryl/Public Domain Certification

“[A]s the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.” (Friedan, p. 77)

I’ve been talking a lot in the last month or so about two historical concepts related to women and gender that were the inspiration for many of the stories and themes in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life. They both come from Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The first is what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name,” an unidentifiable something that was wrong with the 1950s housewife whose life was supposed to be so fulfilling and so perfect. I wrote about that here. The other was the idea of the feminine mystique, an idealization of women in which their only destiny was as wives and mothers, which I discuss here

While I was reading Friedan’s book, I had a sense of déjà vu, like “um, haven’t I seen this stuff before?” In writing the stories in Lessons, it hit me why the characters were so familiar to me. It’s because the idea of the feminine mystique reminded me of the idea of the separate spheres I discussed a while back in this blog post. You might recall this concept (which originated in the 18th century but gained ground in the 19th century) was about women and men belonging in separate areas of life: men in the public sphere (politics, finance, law, etc) and women in the private sphere (home, church). The idea was that each gender fulfilled his/her destiny within that limited sphere and any man or woman venturing into the other’s sphere was considered improper at best, an abnormality at worst (like the New Woman caricatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where women were pictured in bloomers, smoking cigarettes, and standing over their poor, overworked husbands while the men washed the dishes wearing aprons). 

Similarly, women of the 1950s, especially American suburban housewives were told by everyone and everything around them that their one identity in life was as an ultra-feminine wife and mother and their place was in the home. But, like their Victorian sisters, they felt uneasy about this and that something was wrong with this picture. Friedan, who compares the  the 1950s housewife and the feminine mystique to the Victorian woman and sex, notes: 

“The image of a good woman by which Victorian ladies lived simply left out sex. Does the image by which modern American women live also leave something out, the proud and public image of the high-school girl going steady, the college girl in love, the suburban housewife with an up-and-coming husband and a station wagon full of children?” (Friedan, p. 24)

It is, in fact, what the ideal left out that encouraged the women’s suffragist movement to gain more support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually leading to legislative changes, specifically, the ratification of the 19th amendment in America in 1920. It was also partly Friedan’s ideas about the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name that led to the second-wave women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, sparked by slogan “the personal is political” which completely overturned the concept of the separate spheres by insisting there were in fact no separate spheres. Both were equal in weight for both genders.

Some of the women in the stories from Lessons have to contend with not only the feminine mystique and The Problem That Has No Name, but also with the antiquated idea of the separate spheres. For example, in “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan’s husband-to-be, a medical student, teases her about her desire to see “something cultural” during a weekend visit to San Francisco. Culture was considered the public sphere in the 19th century and Susan’s attempts to enter it earn her well-meaning fiancé’s doubt and mockery nearly one hundred years later. 

To read more about Susan and the other women in the stories, you can buy Lessons From My Mother’s Life at a special preorder price here. If you’d like to read more about another character, Leanne, you can read this blog post.        

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Personal and The Political: “Two Sides of Life”

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Photo Credit:  xavigm99/Depositphotos.com       

One of the popular slogans of the second wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s was “the personal is political”. The main idea behind this slogan fits in with the idea of the feminist consciousness-raising groups of the time, where women opened up about their personal experiences in order to gain insights into the larger picture of women’s social, psychological, and political oppression. It’s true when women address issues that affect them (even today, when our issues are different from those of our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers), things tend to get personal.

One of the stories in my upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, integrates both the personal and the political. It’s one of the few semi-biographical pieces I’ve written. It includes both physical and psychological elements that come from my life, but, on the more political side, it touches upon two themes Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, discussed which sparked the women’s movement.

The story didn’t begin as this complex tapestry of public and private. In fact, it was one of those writerly moments where an interesting anecdote my mother related to me became the germ of a story. Years ago, I was chatting with my mom on the phone, and she told me an interesting incident that happened for her recent birthday dinner which, living on the other side of the world, I couldn’t attend. My dad took her to a nice restaurant, as he usually does on her birthday, and when the check arrived, the server informed them the bill had been paid. It turned out my father, who was working as a quality control consultant at the time, befriended one of his assistants whom had recommended an elegant restaurant for him to take my mom on her birthday. The young man, who met my mom and been impressed with her warmth and vivacity (as many people usually are), then surprised my parents by paying the restaurant bill.

I wrote the story as a contemporary work of fiction and posted it for a while as a freebie on my website. When I made the shift last year from contemporary to historical fiction, I took the story down, meaning to revise it. Toward the end of last year, when I began examining my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, in preparation for this upcoming second edition, I removed the title story (as it didn’t fit in with the themes I had planned for the new edition) and went searching for another story to take its place. I realized the story I had written about my mother’s birthday dinner (then, titled “A Birthday Gift”) would fit in nicely with the new collection.

I kept the incident of the birthday dinner and the paid bill, but when I reworked the story, these moved to the background while the story became more about the relationship between the protagonist Leanne and her husband of twenty years, Calvin. Leanne, like many suburban housewives of the mid-20th century, had been indoctrinated into the feminine mystique and, like many of these women, had become frustrated by what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name”. The story opens on the day of her forty-second birthday. Her husband Calvin (an intelligent but emotionally distant professor — somewhat modeled after my father) “suggests” she head on over to one of their neighbors (Paul, a young man who is Calvin’s lab assistant) and offer to help with Paul’s six-year-old son’s birthday party. Leanne agrees, though reluctantly. The party proves to be a turning point for her, as she bonds unexpectedly with Paul’s wife, Arlene, who represents a familiar sort of young woman we see today, but who was a anomaly in the 1960s: The woman who was making a name for herself in her chosen field while juggling the role of wife and mother. Leanne, like many women brought up on the feminine mystique, judges Arlene at first, but comes to realize her judgement is misplaced:

“Arlene says women today can have a career and a family too, if they just make sacrifices and balance everything correctly,” he said. “It’s what she’s trying to do, and so are most of the girls who graduated with her at Mills College.” He looked at her again. “Do you think a woman who has a job can’t be a good wife and mother too?”

She felt the breeze around her turn into waves, returning the strange chill she had felt that morning. The noise of happy children dimmed, replaced by the loud caw of birds. She realized they were standing under a nest where baby birds chirped out their starvation. She saw the head of the mother, its grim beak set and its gorging eyes searching the ground. She recognized the basic instinct of a mother on her children.

“I think any woman could do anything, if she sets her mind to it,” she said softly. “And I can see Arlene has her mind set on it. I’ve no right to judge her, and I’m sorry I did.”

“Oh, I don’t blame you,” he said. “I do the same thing myself, when I’ve seen her going into the den and locking the door, and Arnold looking after her like a lost puppy.”

“She has no choice.” The veil of hostility that had been weighing over Leanne’s eyes lifting, along with the chattering of baby birds. “She wants to be more than what women of my generation were.”

Later, Leanne sees how she and Arlene are both trapped in the same cage of feminine expectations, though their lives are very different. They are, in fact, the two sides of life for women in the mid-20th century.

The story takes place prior to the women’s movement era, but there are sparks of what would drive women to fight for their place in the world beyond home and family in this story and in others in the collection. For my mother, there was no Arlene, but after my siblings and I left home and built our own lives, she found her own interests and activities. However, my mom had the benefit of the times on her side. I don’t think anyone can dispute the late 20th century was kinder and more progressive toward women than the years forty or fifty years prior to it.

If you want to read more of “Two Sides of Life”, you can do so when Lessons of My Mother’s Life comes out in March 2020. More about the book can be found here.

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The Problem That Has No Name

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Photo Credit: Silhouette of woman’s face in a question mark, uploaded 9 February 2019 by Mohamad Hassan: mohammad hassan/Pxhere/CC0 1.0

This month, I’ve been talking a lot about Betty Friedan and her book, The Feminine Mystique, because the ideas in that book were an inspiration for the stories in the new edition of my first book Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. How that came to be, I go into in the Forward of that book.     

I was first exposed to Friedan and her ideas in graduate school. I took several courses in feminist theory and feminist literature, and one of our textbooks gave a snippet from Friedan’s book. The passage was one that appears in a lot of college materials on feminist theory: The Problem That Has No Name. 

This might seem like a convoluted and abstract idea but, in fact, Fridan breaks it down into an entire chapter in her book. Writing articles for women’s magazines in the 1950s, Friedan had an opportunity to visit with many suburban housewives, and her talks with them revealed how these women, who were supposed to be living the American Woman’s Dream had, in fact, a problem — a big problem. Their lives weren’t such a dream. In fact, each woman felt “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that … [she] struggled with … alone” (Friedan, p. 1). In other words, many of the suburban housewives Friedan met expressed the same uncertain feeling that something wasn’t quite right with their lives, that, though they were living in comfort and ease, something was missing, and that missing something caused them to be unhappy, dissatisfied, and unfulfilled.

That snippet during my graduate studies made an impression on me, and I have since read Friedan’s book. I’ve been impressed by how comprehensively she looks at the way in which so many American institutions (including magazines, schools, advertisers, and the medical establishment) had created such a powerful ideology about what women should be and their road to happiness in mid-20th century America.

The key to Friedan’s feminine mystique was that it wasn’t just about the stereotype of the 1950’s happy housewife embodied in 1950’s television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It wasn’t just about an ideal of what all women, young and old, should strive for. It was about the mind play, the idea that a woman’s destiny to serve others (husband, children, community) should be her purpose in life, and if she did achieve this goal, she would find contentment. 

But as Friedan discovered, many of these women who, for intents and purposes, should have been happy, weren’t. And they felt guilty about it. They felt they let their families down, and they felt there was something wrong with them. They tried to blot out the problem by immersing themselves in more housework or more committees or by taking sedatives. They shifted the blame sometimes to their husbands or their children or some other outside source. Worst of all, many tried to ignore it. In short, they did everything but deal with it. 

This is, in fact, a part of how the second wave feminist movement began. It started with the feminist “consciousness raising” groups. The idea was to encourage women to discuss problems and issues related to women by connecting them to their own lives, so that they felt not only that they weren’t alone, but that they could also seek guidance together. There is a great consciousness-raising scene in the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, a dark comedy about the suburban housewife. Despite its tongue-in-cheek reference to this idea of women getting together to discuss their problems, the scene contains a lot of truth, especially in the way it depicts the suburban housewife’s narrow world. I talk a lot about this in my blog post about the 1950s housewife as well.

The women in Lessons From My Mother’s Life live in the 1950s and early 1960s and are subject to this same kind of snow job about how their lives should make them happy and fulfilled. But they each come to realize they suffer from The Problem That Has No Name. They come to see their lives, for all the glossy veneer, isn’t what the women’s magazines, advertisers, doctors, and psychiatrists tell them it ought to be. They don’t wait for the women’s movement to raise their awareness and give them options. They examine their own psychological reality and make their own options.

If you’d like to know more about Lessons From My Mother’s Life, coming out in March 2020, then you can click on this link.     

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Era of “Occupation: Housewife”

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Photo Credit: 1950s happy housewife in the kitchen cooking, uploaded 24 May 2011 by Ethan: SportSuburban/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In an interview she did in 1977, author and godmother of the second wave feminist movement, Betty Friedan, mentions, a little tongue-in-cheek, the idea of writing in the census blank “Occupation: Housewife” when she was a young woman in the 1950s. In her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan defines this decade as the era of “Occupation: Housewife.” Many women who had gone into the work force due to the shortage of men in the 1940s had, in the post-war era, retreated back to the home. As I explain in my blog post about the feminine mystique, women in mid-20th century America were sold a bill of goods about their identities and their purpose in life as wives and mothers. “Occupation: Housewife” was an extension of that.

In the 1950s, the role of housewife was taken very seriously, so seriously it seemed as if outside forces were working together to convince women the only road to happiness was as a housewife. Icons like Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver, Father Knows Best’s Margaret Anderson, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Harriet Nelson became the epitome of how women should be and act. Women’s magazines like Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping not only carried advice for housewives, but included fiction focused on the housewife heroine. Guides like the one mentioned in this article told women how they should treat their husbands like gods and take care of their children so that no one could blame them if their kids turned out less than perfect (a very popular thing, thanks to Freud). Lest women realize (as many did, according to Friedan) they were more than just a cleaning machine and a servant to their husband and kids, advertisers glorified housework to the point where women would believe the world would fall apart if they didn’t retreat into their homes and bake a cake every day.

Putting this in historical context, it’s easy to see where the obsession with selling women on the idea that their only worth was in their housewifery skills came from. As I mentioned above, women were going out into the work force, some for the very first time, during World War II when workers were needed, and male labor was scarcer. After the war ended, the expectation was that women would retreat from the work force to make room for men returning from the front. In addition, the psychological atmosphere of post-war America was one of a  return to a life of stability, conformity, and traditional roles. All of these gel with the idea of women taking care of the home and making their life’s work “Occupation: Housewife.”    

Being a housewife, in and of itself, is something to be proud of, since it takes a lot of thought, skill, organization, prioritizing, and patience. In our modern sensibility, we know many women would be proud to write on the census blank “Occupation: Housewife.” But the difference between housewives today and housewives seventy years ago is that today’s housewives, for the most part, are not being told their worth lies in how sparkling they can wax their kitchen floor, or how many of their kids’ soccer games they attend.

And therein lies the problem: The 1950’s housewife was made to feel as if this was all she ever would accomplish. Even if she had other aspirations and dreams, they were only trivial compared to her “real work” as a housewife. Friedan points out, “[N]o matter how elaborate, ‘Occupation: housewife’ is not an adequate substitute for truly challenging work, important enough to society to be paid for in its coin…” (p. 294). 

My upcoming book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, features many 1950s and early 1960s housewives who would put “Occupation: Housewife” on the census bureau questionnaire. Some would do it gladly (such as the young bride-to-be in the story “Fumbling Toward Freedom”), and some more reluctantly (such as the heroine of “Mother of Mischief”). But all the protagonists, whether current or future housewives, recognize their worth lies in something more than cleaning, washing, and picking up the kids from school. They feel, like many of the subjects Friedan spoke with who were the inspiration for her book, that something isn’t quite right, that the picture-perfect images of housewives that glare out at them on their TV screens, glossy women’s magazines, and billboards are incongruent with who they are. This moment of epiphany is what drives many of them in the stories.

Get more information on Lessons, coming in March 2020, here.

Works Cited

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique (50th Anniversary Edition). W. W. Norton & Company, 2013 (original publication date: 196). Kindle digital file.

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The Order of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Marble bust of Actaeon with animal skin on his head, Hadrianic Period (AD 117-138), Museo delle Navi, Nemi: Following Hadrian/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

As many of you know, if you’ve read my blog post about the title evolution of False Fathers, the idea of Actaeon, the hunter who earned the goddess Diana’s displeasure and paid the consequences, plays a role as a metaphor for Gilded Age masculinity in the book. 

One of the ways that Actaeon (whose story you can find here) figures into False Fathers is in a male fraternity called The Order of Actaeon (or, as they refer to themselves, the “Actaeons”). I talked about the importance of male secret societies and fraternities in the 19th century here. Many men belonged to such societies in the Gilded Age, because it was a way for them to cement their identity as men in the chaotic twists and turns of the last decades of the 19th century, when the definition of masculinity was changing just like the definition of femininity. Women had the suffragists and the New Woman  to help them cope with these changes, and men had their societies and fraternities.

The Order of Actaeon (which, by the way, is entirely fictional) operates on the principle that there is, in the Gilded Age, a “disturbing inclination of modern young men toward falling into the twin traps of profit-seeking and vicious competition characteristic of civilized life and thus losing their manly strength and virtue.” It began, in fact, so that older men (known as “Patriarchs”) could guide younger men (known as “Youths”) and help them live a purer, more decent life with beliefs and virtues that were honorable and admirable. Each Youth enters the order on the recommendation of a Patriarch who then becomes his mentor throughout his life (or the duration of his involvement with the Order).

The Order’s activities evolve mainly around masculine pursuits, such as carpentry, fishing, and hunting. In fact, the hunt is an important metaphor for the Actaeons and the reason why they named their fraternity after the Greek mortal. The Order believes that hunting develops skills of “strength, aggression, instincts, pride, and self-control.” To this end, the Order organizes weekend hunts, where each youth is expected to participate and submit to guidance by his Patriarch.

Another important aspect of the order is secrecy. They don’t even allow men to know one another’s real names. Each member that enters the order choses a name for himself by which he is known in the order (Jake chooses the name “Carlton,” his beloved grandmother’s maiden name). Neither are the men allowed to know about one another’s life outside of the order. This secrecy is so important that, as one of the men explains to Jake, one of their founding members was asked to leave after he revealed some of their activities to his wife.

The quotes I use above are from a document that appears in False Fathers, where the Order of Actaeon principles and philosophies are outlined in writing. Harland Stevens, the main father figure in Jake’s life, is the one who creates it, brought into the order as a Youth by the man who was asked to leave it and, now, one of the leading Patriarchs. Stevens’ vision of the orders’ philosophies are very clear and precise:

That emotional attachments may drain a man of his intelligence and virility, and he is to maintain some distance between himself and his loved ones beyond keeping the secrecy of the Order.

That modern man is forced to separate his pure life from his civilized life to cultivate his development and well-being.

That each man shall agree to the virtues of hunting not only as a means of athletic skill and success, but also as a way of developing his strength, aggression, cunning, and wile. He shall seek to make himself a skilled hunter and help others do the same.     

The order and especially its vow of secrecy plays a major role in Jake’s journey at the end of the novel. 

If you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers involving the Actaeons, you can do so by joining my readers group. For more about the book, go here. And don’t forget to check out the series page to find out more about the entire Waxwood series.

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Teddy Roosevelt in the Gilded Age

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Roosevelt was known to pose for many photos that showed of his user-masculine persona. In this one, he’s posing in his hunting clothes, complete with rifle and hunting knife (which, according to the notes on the photo, came straight from Tiffany’s!)

Photo Credit: Theodore Roosevelt as the Badlands hunter by George Grantham Baine, 1885, New York City: w:en:Beao/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

There have been a lot of caricatures and stereotypes of Theodore Roosevelt. For example, there is the impression given of a small man with a big voice in the popular 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace, where actor John Alexander puts a screwball comedy twist on Roosevelt by portraying him as a loud, aggressive, “take charge” kind of guy as in this scene. Then there is the Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs appears in a fake handlebar mustache and spectacles, waving a “big stick” around.

But Roosevelt was a complex man who had many talents and passions, and his Gilded Age persona (before he became president in 1901) gives us a glimpse at the extraordinary person he was. He was the ultimate Gilded Age hero who met with adversary using strength and eloquence. He threw himself into any endeavor and that included politics, ranching, writing, and war in the last quarter of the 19th century, all before he entered the White House

Roosevelt, though, was not one of these presidents that came from humble beginnings. In fact, he was born into a family much like the Alderdices, my wealthy San Francisco family in the Waxwood Series. He was born of privilege and ease and, in fact inherited a large sum of money as a young man upon his father’s death that allowed him to live in the lap of luxury the rest of his life. But, like many Gilded Agers, he pursued several careers to prove his worth as a man. Even as a child, he never let the “big boys” bully him. The infamous story of his passion for boxing came about when he was beat up by two older boys on a camping trip. Determined never to allow such a thing to happen again, he took up the “strenuous life,” involving himself in boxing, rowing, and hunting (among other athletic activities) and advocated for boys and men to take up vigorous exercise and competitive sports as a way of developing not only the muscles but the mind as well.

Roosevent’s pre-presidential career was shadowed by political aspirations but his interests were also taken up by other (decidedly masculine) pursuits. He was passionate about naval history and published several books on the subject (including a book on the role of the navy in the war of 1812). This knowledge served him well in 1896, when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position that helped usher him into the famous role he played in America winning the Spanish-American War. He wrote other books on hunting (one of which is referenced in False Fathers, the second of the Waxwood Series), conservation, and ranching, many of which were published before he became president. He wrote about these things from experience, as in between his years as a rising political figure in the Gilded Age, he retired to a ranch in the Dakota Territory and lived the life of a cowboy. He also spent a time as police commissioner of New York, cleaning up the rather haphazard ways of law enforcement at that time.

I find it interesting that Roosevelt sought to make a name for himself in the very spheres which the Victorians deemed appropriate for the manly man (I talk about the concept of the separate spheres for men and women in the 19th century here). From politics to ranching to sports, he went full force into the areas that, at that time, were the true test of manhood. The emerging ideal of masculinity that was abut aggression, success, control, and cunning were largely created by him, both before and during his presidency.

In False Fathers, those same masculine ideals are what drive Jake in his journey toward figuring out who he is after his grandfather dies and he is left, at twenty-one, to shoulder the burden of not only his own coming-of-age, but of his responsibilities as the new family patriarch. The main father figure who guides him in the book, Harland Stevens, is a staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt and his manly way of life and quotes him often in the book.

You can find out more information about False Fathers here You can also read more about the series here

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The Spanish-American War of 1898

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This is a very touching image showing that, while the Spanish-American War may have only lasted 4 months, Americans took it very seriously.

Photo Credit: Farewell Arch in South Framingham, Massachusetts, where Massachusetts troops departed for the Spanish–American War in 1898, from Reminiscences of Company F, Second Regt. Massachusetts Infantry, U.S.V., First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Army Corps, Of Gardner in the War With Spain, With Historical Data, 1906, author unknown: Kges1901/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0

When talking about historical fiction, time matters. Even specific years matter because history has shown that what can happen from one year to the next can rapidly change the world. This was my thinking behind setting the Waxwood Series in the last decade of the 19th century. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, takes place in 1892, and Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, takes place six years later, in 1898.

Authors always have to consider what events occurred outside of the text in the time period in which the book is set and whether to incorporate those events or ignore them (as Jane Austin largely ignores the Napoleonic Wars in much of her fiction). My approach is primarily to focus on the psychological reality of the characters as they live within their time, so outside events may or may not play a role. I am not a fan of historical fiction that includes copious amounts of information dumps about historical events and people in order to create an atmosphere of the past for readers. I believe the specific details of life, especially social and psychological, makes the historical context more real than any detailed description of a historical event that may not be relevant to the characters’ conflicts and journeys.

However, this doesn’t mean that historical events don’t have a place in my fiction. In fact, in False Fathers, the Spanish-American War plays an important role in the story, not so much the events of the war itself as its meaning to Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of the book, and other male characters in the book.

The Spanish-American War stands out in the annals of American history for several reasons. First, it was a very short war. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898 and the fighting ended on August 13, 1898 (though the war officially ended four months later). America involved itself in this war for both financial and humanitarian reasons. And the consequences of the war for the United States helped to push the nation toward one of the greatest changes that occurred during the Gilded Age — it hurled the country onto the world stage.

The war involved fighting in Cuba, a colony of Spain at the time. Spanish rule was oppressive to Cuban insurgents, and they had been fighting three years prior. The brutal treatment of the Cubans by the Spanish gained a lot of sympathy in the United States, thanks to the yellow journalism popular at the time. It was very much on the minds of Americans. Author Gertrude Atherton, in her novel Senator North, published in 1900 and set a bit earlier, shows Washington society discussing the war constantly at their dinner parties and picnics, and outlines some of the great debates going on in the Senate about whether America should or should not enter the war. The thing that pushed America to declare war on Spain was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which newspapers played up as having been caused by either mines or torpedoes fired by the Spanish army (though it was never established whether this was really true, or whether it was some kind of technical error having nothing to do with the Spanish). 

A major player in the war was Teddy Roosevelt, who left his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to join in the fighting with a group of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This short war made Roosevelt a hero and cemented his emerging political career at the turn of the 20th century. The nation insured independence for Cuba (which helped with political and financial trade) and gained control over the Pacific, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The war also allowed the United States to declare Hawaii its territory (though Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959).

In False Fathers, which takes place during the summer of 1898, the war is very much on the minds of Waxwood’s resort guests. In one scene, Jake and Stevens, a father figure who guides Jake throughout the book on his journey to manhood, are watching Stevens’ cousin Roger and his friends play billiards, and the subject of the Spanish-American War comes up:

They were, Jake realized, not completely ignorant of all but their tight little world of games and touching the edge of vice. They discussed with some seriousness the war in Cuba, bringing forth different opinions peppered by the usual boyish attitude of having taken words out of the mouths of their fathers or uncles.

“— Says we ought to pull out while the getting’s good,” said Norris Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives already given for it.”

“And let Spain take over?” Andrew Trent scoffed as he spilled two balls in the pocket. “We’re not there for fancy, boy. We’re there so all can see we are a power.”

For these young men who are coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, the war symbolizes the potential for bigger and better things, not only on a national level, but on a psychological level for them as young men going out into the world. The idea of power expands both in the public and private spheres. 

You can find out more about False Fathers here and more about the series here.     

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New Year’s in the 19th century

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Photo Credit: Fanciful sketch of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Marguerite Martyn, 1914, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 January 1914, Editorial Section: BeenAroundAWhile/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Since this is the holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on the holidays in history, particularly in the 19th century. I wrote about Thanksgiving and, in an older blog, Christmas in the Gilded Age. No historical holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

We have a lot of New Year’s traditions, and it’s fascinating to see where they came from and why. For example, New Year’s has always been a social holiday, more so than Thanksgiving and Christmas, which have been (and still are) mainly family holidays. But the nature of that socialness has changed over time. In the mid-19th century, it was not uncommon to have a “watch night” on New Year’s Eve, where people (especially in rural areas) would watch and wait for the clock to strike midnight so they could leave their old sins behind and begin the new year fresh.

The ones who turned New Year’s into a party holiday was, not surprisingly, the Gilded Agers, and for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a lavish extravaganza of dining out. They wanted to show off, to let all their wealthy and success glitter and glow, basking in their social and financial glory. So they began to throw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls, providing eight-course dinners, and generally making a lot of noise and spectacle. Many of the Gilded Age wealthy who had lavish summer homes in places like Newport started throwing extravagant parties for the new year in those homes that were the envy of may of their contemporaries and of the non-wealthy.

There were other traditions that became staples of what we accept as New Year’s celebrations that came in the 19th century. One of them is the singing of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that signals the sentimental farewell to old friends and experiences. The song was actually an 18th century ballad composed by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the tradition of singing it at midnight on New Year’s Day began in the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until later in the 1920s that it became a permanent staple of our New Year’s celebrations.

And the famous New Year’s Eve ball, that gigantic globe of light that drops at midnight every year in Times Square? That originated in 1904 and was first dropped for on New Year’s Day in 1905. The original ball was seven hundred pounds of iron and wood and populated with a hundred light bulbs. The ball has been updated several times, the last time in 2008, so that it now weighs over twelve hundred pounds and, rather than be lowered by hand with ropes, now uses a laser atomic clock located in Colorado.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for the midnight hour to strike so that we can let go of the old year and enter the new. In fact, the reason why New Year’s Day is January 1 has to do with just that idea. Julius Cesar was the one who implemented the new calendar year to begin on that day, naming the first month of each new year January after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. Janus has two faces — one face facing front and the another face in the back of his head. Why? So that he can look back to the past and look forward to the present and future. For anyone who has read my fiction, this is exactly what my characters do. So, in essence, if I had to chose a holiday that belonged to the Waxwood Series, it would be New Year’s.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please visit this link. The first book of the series, The Specter can be found here and the second book here. The third book will be out in the summer of 2020 and the fourth and last book will be out at the end of 2020 (just in time to celebrate the coming of another new year 🙂 ).    

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The Odd Duck: The Character of Jake Alderdice

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[Jake Teaser]

Photo Credit: Father and son (Thomas Hopewell and his son Timothy), Frank Buchser, 1861, oil on canvas, Galerie Koller: Botaurus/Wikimedia Commons/PD art (PD old 100)

In an earlier version of False Fathers, my second book in the Waxwood Series, Jake Alderdice tells his mother how people have always thought of him as an “odd duck.” To me, this summarized Jake’s character not only in the story but in the canon of my own writing.

I won’t lie. Writing about Jake was a struggle for me for many reasons. On the one hand, since the Waxwood Series is about the deterioration (physically, mentally, and emotionally) of the Alderdice family, Jake’s story had to be told since he’s Vivian Alderdice’s younger brother. But I was nervous about writing the story of a male main character, even though Jake’s psychological reality was familiar to me.

The story I conceived of Jake in the original 3-part novel about the Alderdice family (which I talk about here) included Jake’s story. In fact, his story is the only one that remains more or less true to my original conception of it from that novel, in the sense that Jake comes of age amidst psychological circumtances many young men usually don’t have to deal with. But I realized when I started rewriting the story that I didn’t really know Jake at all. My own uneasiness about writing male characters (especially central ones) kept me from really digging deep into his character. I knew some things about him — that he was an artist, taught by his grandmother, that his mother had a particular loathing for him she didn’t have for his sister, and that his identity as a man (and the only surviving male of the family) was instrumental to his evolution. I liked him, but he felt remote to me, much more so than his sister Vivian or Gena Payne, the main character in Book 3 of the series.

What gave shape to the character of Jake was the historical time frame. When I wrote the book as contemporary fiction, Jake didn’t seem all that much different from other young men. He didn’t go for “sowing his wild oats,” but so do a lot of young men these days. He was an artist, but so are many others. His mother treated him as if he were a mistake, but so do a lot of other mothers (unfortunately).

So why did the historical context change this? Simply, I started to see Jake’s character against the backdrop of the Gilded Age. The psychology of gender has always interested me, not only regarding women but men as well. When I started researching masculinity in the Gilded Age (some of which I talk about here and here), I realized how complex the idea of what it meant to be a man back then was, almost more complex than what it was to be a woman (since women had some support with the suffragist movement and the New Woman ideal). As I wrote the drafts for this book, I got to know Jake better and understood his struggle to figure out who he was, not only in the shadow of the family half-truths, lies, and myths, but with his own personality and quirks that did not suit the growing ideals of masculinity at the end of the 19th century. 

So he became a character I appreciated and thought I could make readers appreciate as someone looking for what he wanted to be in a chaotic world with contradicting messages and conventions (not unlike young people in our world today). I could see not only his struggles, but also what he learns about his family, those around him who profess to help him, and, most importantly, himself. 

To learn more about Jake, you can check out the series page here. To order your copy of False Fathers, which is now at a special preorder price, go here. Plus, you can read a bonus excerpt from the book if you join my readers group here.       

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