The Separate Sphere Advantage: Lizzie Borden

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I love historical true crime and I love family crimes. That’s one of the reasons why Book 3 of my series uses one of the staples of mystery fiction: The family gathering at the family mansion for the holidays (though usually, the mansion is haunted, which isn’t the case in my book). So it’s no surprise that I, along with many other people, have always been fascinated by Lizzie Borden and the Borden family murder. 

There have been countless films, TV shows, and mini-series devoted to unraveling the Lizzie Borden case. I dug up an older movie recently, a made-for-TV film dating back to the 1970s. The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) stars Elizabeth Montgomery (aka, Samantha in the 1960s Bewitched series) and follows the events of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden (Lizzie’s father and stepmother) and trial and acquittal pretty much as many sources report them. The film adds another element, though — it gives a theory (that has been accepted by many) of how the crimes were committed.

Photo Credit: (Elizabeth Montgomery (as Lizzie) and Katherine Helmond (as Emma, Lizzie’s older sister) from a scene from The Legend of Lizzie Borden, where women are picketing in front of the courthouse in support of Lizzie. 10 Feb 1975, Paramount Television: 995577823Xyn/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The film also takes a definite stance as to whether Lizzie was guilty or not. Keep in mind that, technically, the case is still unsolved. There’s also a lot of controversy over whether the evidence really shows Lizzie’s guilt. This film takes the stance that Lizzie was guilty because she had all the necessary requirements that point toward guilt: means, motive, and opportunity.

But this film brings in also another element to the motive piece I found especially interesting. It didn’t really surprise me, considering the film was made at the height of the second-wave women’s movement in the 1970s. Part of the movement’s purpose was to bring awareness to women’s oppression in the past. We already know the 19th century was not exactly a time of freedom for most women. They were dominated by the ideology of the separate spheres which kept them confined to certain areas of life (home, family, children, church), and venturing outside of that was considered transgressive. 

For a young woman of Lizzie’s social standing (small town high society), those confines were present and oppressive. She and her older sister often complained to their father about not being able to go where they liked or do what they liked and of being chained to the house. Both unmarried, they lived with their strict father and stepmother with little or no money of their own and were expected to fulfill household duties assigned to them. The film doesn’t fail to bring this out in some scenes between the family and also in one interesting scene between the prosecuting attorney (who is dead-set on convicting Lizzie) and his own wife (who, much to his chagrin, shows sympathy for Lizzie’s situation).

But could it be the separate spheres actually worked in Lizzie’s favor during the trial? This is a theory many sources put forth and the one the film supports. Since Lizzie was a well-respected, well-to-do young woman, active in her church and high society, and, of course, a woman, she couldn’t possibly have committed such horrendous crimes as to chop up her father and stepmother. Many believe Lizzie was acquitted not based on the evidence but based on who and what she was and the jury’s refusal to believe such a woman could commit murder.

If you want to know the ins and outs of the Lizzie Borden case and weigh in on your opinion on whether she did or did not commit the crimes, I invite you to join my mailing list. In honor of the release of Book 3 of my series, Death At Will, I’ll be talking all next month about the Borden case, bringing forth the details like the crime itself, the victims, the perpetrator, and the trial. But you only get access to those emails if you’re on my list.

Oh, and did I mention you also get a free book if you sign up? If you don’t want to miss out, you can join here

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The Wage Gap: Is This Still a Thing?

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Today is Labor Day in America, which means it’s a celebration of the working woman and man. Women indeed have a lot to celebrate on this day. Working conditions for women have improved dramatically since the early 20th century sweatshops and job opportunities have opened. Many workplaces recognize women-specific situations and accommodate them (such as maternity leave and daycare). And sexual harassment in the workplace has largely been addressed.

But one thing we can’t celebrate is the wage gap. That is, women are still not being paid equally to men on average for the same or similar jobs. 

Photo Credit: Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, Washington D.C. Kennedy Center, taken 21 August 2019: Edithian/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.0

One of my favorite parts in the classic comedy 9 to 5 is the closing (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film). As the three office workers (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) are going around with the head of the company, showing him all the positive changes they’ve made (like flex time and daycare), the head guy tells their boss (Dabney Coleman) that the one change he disapproves of is paying women in the company the same as the men. As the credits close and the women are toasting their success, they recognize the wage gap is still an issue. I love this scene because even though by 1980, the second wave women’s movement had lost a lot of its earlier steam, partly because many women believed they had won the fight, it’s a reminder that the fight was just beginning.

The wage gap has existed for centuries. In the Victorian era, when fewer women were in the workforce and few had careers, women were often paid half or less of what men were paid. The reasons for this were, according to employers, practical, such as the idea that, according to the separate spheres, men were the breadwinners expected to support their families. Hence, they needed more money (a point Coleman makes to Tomlin in 9 to 5 when he tries to justify his reasons for giving a promotion she’s been wanting to a less capable male colleague). Women were at that time not expected to work for long, since their true calling (per the separate spheres) was marriage and motherhood, so employers didn’t want to pay full wages to workers whom they viewed as temporary (even if they weren’t). In addition, women’s work was undervalued because they were seen as “the weaker sex”. The jobs they performed were limited to what employers thought they could do for the most part (read: boring, repetitive tasks, such as in the factories) and therefore, valued less than men’s.

World War I was one period in American history where women earned more or less the same as men. It’s interesting to think employers and government are fine with paying women less for their own (illogical) reasons when they feel they don’t need women in the workforce, but when they do, they suddenly believe in equal pay. During the first World War, when men were scarce and workers were needed for the war effort, government officials agreed to pay women the same as men to entice them into the offices and factories. Sadly, this didn’t stick, not even during World War II when the same situation occurred (women got paid about forty percent less than men during the Second World War).

Just like the ladies of 9 to 5, we’re still fighting the wage gap in the 21st century. As mentioned, mid-20th century women were receiving a little more than half the wages of men on average and that number remained pretty steady after the war. It’s only slightly increased to about eighty-three percent, according to a study done in 2020. So we’re getting closer but we’re not there yet.

I believe in the working woman, which is why there are a lot of them in my Adele Gossling Mysteries series. There are a number of women entrepreneurs (including Adele herself), but there are also women working for employers (such as the young ladies rooming at Mrs. Taylor’s boarding house, whom readers meet in Book 2). The idea of the career woman also takes an interesting turn in my upcoming book. While Book 3, Death At Will isn’t out until October 29, you can grab a copy of it on preorder now.

And as for Labor Day in the early 20th century, you can experience what that was like when Book 4 of the series comes out next year!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The Birth of an Art Form: The Kodak Camera

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This Sunday will mark one hundred and thirty-four years since the birth of the Kodak camera. While it’s an interesting fact for us history buffs, I wouldn’t have thought much about its significance except that several years ago, my brother got interested in street photography (as a hobby). Living in San Francisco gave him plenty of subjects, and some of his photographs are pretty amazing. You can view some of them here

So many of us in the 21st century don’t think of photography as an art form and for good reason. Most of us now have access to a camera at our fingertips, from our phones to our computers to other devices we might not even think of (like my iPad mini). It’s so easy for us to just point and shoot that we do it without thinking. It’s not for nothing the word “selfie” was invented some twenty years ago even though the concept of taking a photograph of yourself existed long before that.

In many ways, George Eastman (the inventor of the Kodak camera) is responsible for many of us overlooking the potential of photography as art. In 1888, he did what Ford would do twenty years later with cars: He made cameras affordable and accessible to the general public.

Photo Credit: The original Kodak camera, 1888, Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, National Museum of American History, National Treasures Exhibit: National Museum of American History/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Before then, having your photograph taken (which didn’t really become a thing until the 19th century) was an ordeal. It required a professional photographer to set up the photograph and people had to stay still for a long time to get the picture. If you’ve ever wondered why people look so serious in 19th-century photographs, part of the reason is that it’s hard to keep smiling for that long while you’re waiting for someone to set up the camera and the picture.

But Eastman’s Kodak changed all that. When people could get their hands on a Brownie camera in the early 20th century, for example (which cost only one dollar then – don’t we wish that were true now!) photography became all the rage. People could take pictures quickly and efficiently (so there was a lot more smiling and spontaneity going on). Of course, they had to wait to get the pictures developed, since photo processing labs in places like drugstores didn’t exist until later. People had to send the camera with the film to the Kodak company for development and were sent back the camera with a new roll of empty film along with the developed pictures. 

This was when photography began to get more attention. Photographers like Alfred Stiegler and Walter Evans set the standard in the early 20th century for documentary-style photographic art that captured life in America as people lived it. One of the more famous examples of this was photographer Dorothea Lange, whose documentation of the realities of the Great Depression left its mark in its brutal depiction of life during economic hardship (and makes us shudder when we look at them today, given the more recent post-pandemic economic downturn). 

New inventions characterized the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (as I mentioned in this blog post about the invention of the automobile) and people viewed them with more excitement than we do now. When Missy Grace, the editor and reporter of Arrojo’s only newspaper in my Adele Gossling Mysteries, shows up with her camera, people are all abuzz. She manages to even tame a group of schoolgirls in Book 1 with her camera!

You can read about that in Book 1 here. And don’t forget that Book 2 is also available and Book 3 is now up for preorder!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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A Survey of Women’s Issues: Revisited

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Today is Women’s Equality Day, so there’s no better time to ask the question: Do we still need feminism?

It seems some of the younger generations would answer a firm “no” to this question. A while back, photos began appearing in my Facebook feed of young women holding up signs reading “I don’t need feminism.” These young women claimed to admit we still need feminism creates a victim mentality and demonizes all men, encouraging man-hating among women. As someone from an older generation who writes about women’s oppression, this was disturbing, to say the least!

Women have had a lot to fight for: in the 19th century and 20th and (dare I say it?) even the 21st. It’s not the fight that has changed but the nature of the issues.

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. 

This meme is from Tumblr site called “Confused Cats Against Feminism” and is meant as a tongue-in-cheek attack against the anti-feminist movement of the 21st century. You can read more about it here

Photo Credit: Meme from the Confused Cats Against Feminism, taken 27 July 2014 by Jym Dyer: Jym Dyer/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

But the question still remains: Do we need feminism in the 21st century? My answer would be as firm as the “I don’t need feminism” movement: YES!

Why? Because many of the issues 20th-century feminists were fighting we are still fighting today. To give one example, 20th-century women fought for women’s reproductive rights, including a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby or not. Earlier this year, the supreme court overturned the law (Roe vs. Wade) that legalized abortion. Whether you’re on the side for or against it, there is a deeper issue here of taking away women’s right to choose what they do with their bodies. That freedom is one women have been fighting for for years and will continue to fight as a basic human right.

Find out what Adele Gossling and her friends are fighting for in my Adele Gossling Mysteries! Both Book 1 and Book 2 are out now and Book 3 is coming in October.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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The New Woman and Her New Education

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In the second book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the theme is education. Millie Gibb, the murder victim, is a teacher for an all-girls school in Arrojo (which readers of Book 1 will know well). She’s a good teacher but she has higher aspirations. She wants to be an etymologist (a word expert) and she even intends to study the subject under a prominent (fictional) professor in the field. Millie is, like many New Women of her time, college-educated. In fact, a fellow occupant at the boarding house where she lives remarks her college education makes her stand-offish to the rest of the boarders.

I’ve always been interested in women’s education but I was reminded of it recently when I found the 1988 mini-series The Murder of Mary Phagan (if you love historical mini-series, you can catch the entire thing, commercials included, on YouTube here) The mini-series is based on a true story of a 14-year-old factory girl in Atlanta who was found murdered in 1913 and the trial that took place. In the film, the prosecuting attorney discredits a character witness from Columbia University who attests the defendant (a young man) treated people with kindness and respect by pointing out that, since Columbia University was not co-ed, the man had no chance of observing how the defendant treated women (which is an important part of the case against him).

Photo Credit: Postcard of Columbia University campus 1903 (a good 80 years before the college became co-ed), New York Public Library: NYPL’s Public Domain Archive/CC0 1.0

It wasn’t only Columbia University that barred women from its ranks (it didn’t become co-ed until 1983) but many other universities in the country. While public schools had been co-ed for a while, colleges in America were much slower in embracing women amongst their ranks. A lot of this had to do with the idea of the separate spheres (remember, a woman’s destiny was home, family, and church – not higher education). It also had to do with the perception that women were “too delicate” for the rigors of college study. It was generally thought if a woman had too much knowledge, she would be less appealing to men in the marriage market. We can write these off as utter nonsense (or whatever colorful word you want to use) today, but back then, it was taken very seriously.

We have only to look at the statistics to see how true this is. In 1900, about 19% of students in colleges across the United States were women. And note that in the 19th century especially, many women might enter college but they weren’t allowed to graduate or earn a degree. They could take classes only. Thankfully, as the New Woman began to advocate for a more well-rounded vision of femininity (one that included education) and women fought for their rights, increased opportunities for education became part of the agenda and that number increased. By 1920, 39% of college students were women. And this year, a whopping 74% of enrollees were women! From 19% to 75% is pretty impressive.

See how women’s education plays out in A Wordless Death, which you can get here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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