The New Woman of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries in America

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The drawing above is the prototypical Gibson Girl — young, wearing a shirtwaist (button-down white shirt), sensible and athletic skirt and jacket and hat. Interestingly, her features are very delicate and feminine and her expression is flirtatious so as to emphasize the idea that she was there to serve men, not threaten them.

Photo Credit: Gibson Girl, Charles Dana Gibson, 1901, pen and ink drawing, published in The Social Ladder (1902) by Charles Dana Gibson: MCAD Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Last week, I wrote about American women’s suffragism in the 19th century, in honor of the 99th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment in America which allowed women in all states to vote. This week is Women’s Equality Day, the day that celebrates when the amendment actually went into effect. So, continuing the discussion of women’s rights, which is so prevalent in my fiction, I’m talking this week about the sort of women who epitomized the new type of woman that was emerging in the 20th century.   

Suffragism, the right to vote, might seem to be just about politics, but it really isn’t. It’s almost as much about the psychological realities of the group which it affects as it is about their political and social rights. In the case of women, the past offered them many years locked in the cage of the separate sphere ideology. The separate spheres placed boundaries on women that permeated not only their physical lives but their emotional and spiritual lives as well. When women’s suffragism came to the forefront and, with it, awareness that women needed to break free of the limitations put upon their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, it was only natural that a new kind of woman should emerge at the turn of the century. 

The New Woman was the name given to young women who came of age in the latter part of the Gilded Age and in the Progressive Era. In the wake of so many changes happening during these times — the shift from rural to urban living for many Americans, the rise of big business, the awareness of the need for political reforms — women wanted and needed to be more active in public life. This made it impossible for the “angel in the house” ideal so prevalent in Victorian women to survive. In fact, the New Woman pitted herself against this ideal hanging over the head of her female ancestors, rejecting the ideals of complacency, docility, and submissiveness that characterized Victorian true womanhood for much of the 19th century.

The New Woman was anything but these things.  Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson first created her in the 1890’s in women’s magazines such as Ladies Home Journal as young and single, pursuing fun and leisure with as much right and vigor as her male companions. The physical image of the Gibson Girl (pictured above) was also a psychological one. Gone were the layers of petticoats, the bustles, the tight bone corsets of the Victorian woman that made her look demure but limited her mobility considerably (a physical constraints that mirrored the psychological one). In her place was a woman whose skirt was narrower and freer, who wore less layers, dressed in a button-down shirt rather than a tight bodice blouse, and wore a much lighter corset that didn’t limit her mobility as much as the corsets worn by her mother and grandmother.

Her freedom extended well beyond her dress. She used her liberty to establish her own identity separate of any man’s, and prove her strength not only emotionally but physically as well. It’s no surprise that, although the bicycle was invented in the early 19th century, bicycling was not an acceptable activity for women until the 1890’s, because the fussy dress in which they were expected to present themselves as True Women didn’t allow for a comfortable ride. That changed with the Gibson Girl, who was often depicted as a bicycle enthusiast. In addition, the New Woman was not only willing to take on sports but male-dominated careers as well. For example, in Gertrude Atherton’s novel Mrs. Belfame (1916), the New Woman appears in the form of women reporters who cheer Mrs. Balfame on when she is on trial for the murder of her husband. They are willing to stoop to the type of “yellow journalism” popular among their male contemporaries at the time.

However, while the New Woman represented a fresh, contemporary approach to womanhood, she wasn’t necessarily a rebel. That is, she gave women a new image to look up to but not one that would threaten the male order. In fact, she offered an alternative femininity to their mothers and grandmothers that would benefit their male counterparts, not take away from them. Gibson, for example, frequently pictured his ladies engaged in the art of flirtation and romance, establishing that despite her “masculinized” appearance and manners (for that time, that is), she was still “just a woman,” out for love and marriage.

As I’ve mentioned before, women’s suffragism and women’s rights play only a small role in my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series. One of my characters, Marvina Moore, is a suffragist and helps Vivian discover her own dedication to women’s rights in the series. But neither women are New Women, though one could predict that Vivian won’t be far off at the end of the series when the Progressive Era comes around.    

However, in my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, the series protagonist, Adele Gossling, is this type of New Woman. She is the Gibson Girl image in her manner and dress and also in her life. The opening of the first book has Adele arriving to the small town of Arrojo, California, a town still caught inside the net of Victorian ideals as many small towns were at the turn of the 20th century, in a Model A Ford. A woman owning an automobile in 1903 would have been a rare thing! She soon establishes herself in town as an independent woman who owns her own home and runs her own stationary shop and prefers to help her deputy brother and the town sheriff solve crimes than participate in the type of social events of women of her class that were meant for one purpose and one purpose only — to allow young women to meet young men and eventually marry.

To find out more about my upcoming historical mystery series, you can check out this page. If you’d like to know more about Vivian and Marvina, you can read The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. You’ll find information and buy links here.

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The Struggle for The Vote: Women’s Suffragism in America

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Photo Credit: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the godmothers of the women’s suffragist movement, in the Gilded Age, 1891, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: Taterian/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Last week, on August 18, to be exact, was the 99th anniversary of the day that the 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) was ratified in America. I have written many times in my blog posts about the fact that women’s social and psychological position in history is of paramount interest to me and plays a role often in my fiction. This is true of The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. I talk more about that in my blog post about why I write women’s fiction.

So in honor of the day, I thought I’d look into women’s suffragism in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the amendment was ratified, which was in 1920. First, we must distinguish between women’s suffragism and women’s rights, because they are actually not the same thing. The former refers only to the political right for women to vote. The latter, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses more specific political, social, economical, and psychological aspects of women’s freedom to act and be. Once women got the right to vote, women’s suffragism was no longer necessary, but the fight for other rights for women was and still is.

Why were women so concerned about getting the right to vote in the 19th century? Actually, they weren’t — no at the beginning, that is. By the “beginning”, I mean the 1840’s when the idea of women’s suffrage was first formed. The Seneca Falls Convention is generally considered the birth of the women’s suffragist movement and for good reason. It was the first time women organized to discuss their rights and make decisions as to what they wanted to accomplish in their efforts to ensure women were seen and treated as free and equal beings. The convention participants made eleven resolutions to this effect, all of which you can read fully here. What is interesting to me is that these resolutions keep within the framework of the separate spheres. Women were expected to remain in the private sphere, that is in the home and church, perceived as “angels in the house” — virtuous, morally superior to men, and too fragile to handle the dog-eat-dog world of the public sphere. The majority of resolutions don’t challenge this perception and in fact ask for equal and respectful treatment of women in their own sphere. There is one exception — Resolution #9, which declares the right of women to vote. Not surprisingly, this was the only resolution to stirred up controversy and was not voted unanimously by the participants. It may have been that the idea of women having a voice in the public sphere was too revolutionary to consider at that time.

However, in the Gilded Age, the idea of women having the vote started to become feasible in the minds of many women suffragists. Women’s political organizations began to form in the 1870’s specifically geared toward pushing government to pass an amendment allowing women to vote. Several women, including Susan B. Anthony, one of the godmothers of the Seneca Falls Convention, boldly went to the polls to vote and were turned away. Anthony succeeded in voting and was arrested for doing so. Women filed lawsuits but the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 to reject women’s suffragism as a right, claiming that the constitution does not grant suffragism to any group, including women. 

Women suffragism had many detractors, both male and female, and caricatures abounded in the papers. Here’s one where the supposed horrific consequences of giving women the vote is depicted, with women lining up to vote for the “Celebrated Man Tamer” while the harassed-looking man at the end of the line has a baby thrust in his arms to allow his wife to vote.

Photo Credit: The age of brass. Or the triumphs of women’s rights, Currier & Ives, 1869, lithograph, New York: Churchh/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

After this failure, women suffragist groups took a different tactic, one that is distinctly American. They figured that if they could lobby individual state legislators so that laws were passed granting women the vote in individual states, the federal government would soon follow. They were right, though it took about forty years. But by 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified, according to the U.S map here, about three-quarters of the states had either granted full voting rights to women or partial voting rights. 

Many of us have heard of the guerrilla tactics used by women suffragists in Great Britain which were dramatized in the 2015 film Suffragette. Interestingly, American suffragists used less militant tactics to reach their goal. They mainly lobbied, petitioned, and picketed. This is not to say some didn’t experience their fair share of violence, though. One infamous example is the 1917 Night of Terror, where women’s picketing the White House led to torture and violence when they were jailed. However, a year later, the courts ruled that jailing suffragists was unconstitutional, and, two years later, women in all states in the nation gained full voting rights.

Women suffragism doesn’t play a big role in terms of the political stage in the Waxwood Series, though there are certainly stirrings of it. A minor character in the series, a wealthy widow named Marvina Moore, befriends Vivian and becomes a supporter of suffragism, educating Vivian as the series progresses. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, women’s suffragism plays a more active role in Adele’s character, especially her views on the more militant aspects of the movement. 

To learn more about The Specter and order a copy, go here. To learn more about the Waxwood Series, you can take a look at this page on my website. If you like mysteries and are interested in finding out more about The Paper Chase Mysteries, you can do so here.   

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Immigration, Riots, and Murder: A Look at America in 1892

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This is the original immigration station on Ellis Island that was built in 1892. It was destroyed by fire in 1897 so a new one was built in its place.

Photo Credit: First Ellis Island immigration station, 1896, personal image of old stereo photograph, author unknown: Charvex/Wikimedia Commons/PD Mark 1.0

The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series, takes place in the year of 1892. I’ve already discussed my fascination for the last quarter of the 19th century in two blog posts about the Gilded Age, which you can read here and here. But I thought it would be fun to look at some of what was going on in the year 1892 from a social, political, and psychological standpoint. In The Specter, much of this is not touched upon because I chose to focus on a more generalized sense of what it was like to live in 1892 in relation to how it affected the Alderdice family. But there was also a lot going on externally in the United States at this time.

America went through some milestones in 1892 as a nation. For example, the now infamous immigration station, Ellis Island, first opened its doors in January of that year. While there were other immigration stations in the United States (not the least of which was Angel Island in San Francisco), Ellis Island was the first and largest and the most significant. Many of us will probably remember the scene in The Godfather II that recreates the Ellis Island experience, showing us the crowds and the mustiness of the building in which immigrants were received right off the boat, the indifference of the officials receiving them, and the fear, apprehension, humiliation, and anger it invoked for those arriving in the United States during this time. You can read more about Ellis Island and its history here.

But just as American was welcoming some immigrants in 1892, it was also taking pains to shut out others. In this year, the Geary Act was proposed and passed as legislation, preventing new Chinese immigrants from entering the country and requiring those already in the country to carry identification papers to be produced at any time upon request. The act was an extension of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and did not go without protest from the Chinese communities in the United States (and rightly so) for causing strife and humiliation to Chinese citizens of the United States. You can read a little about that and see images of these certificates of residency here.

I talk in my blog post on the Progressive Era about reforms that were to fall into place in the first few decades of the 20th century. But much of the groundwork was already laid out in the last few decades of the 19th century, at least as far as labor relations were concerned. Nothing epitomizes this more than The Homestead Massacre in 1892. A bloody battle broke out between skilled labor union workers and security guards in the Homestead Steel Works. When the union could not reach an agreement with management regarding contract terms, management locked these workers out of the mill and a strike ensued that was followed by a violent outbreak between the workers and the Pinkerton Detective agents who had been sent to protect non-union workers who were coming in to replace them. Although the strikers lost in the end and the union disbanded, the mill management (especially financial giant Andrew Carnegie) were not shown in a very good light, and this kind of criticism of business management would have effects in the turn of the century with more awareness of worker’s rights and the easing of some of the rigid rules of big business, such as long work hours and inhuman conditions. If you’d like to find out more about the Homestead Strike, you can do so here.   

Photo Credit: Portrait of Lizzie Borden, 1892 author unknown: Wikilug/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

One of my future projects is a historical mystery series called The Paper Chase Mysteries. I love classic mystery stories and I also love classic true crimes, especially those involving women. Probably one of the most famous happened in 1892 with the discovery of the dead bodies of Lizzie Borden’s parents in their home in Massachusetts and their daughter, Lizzie becoming the prime (and only) suspect. I deal a lot with family dynamics and dysfunction in my fiction, so a murder case from the past that involves family always catches my attention. Lots of information on the Borden case focuses on the trial and the fact that Borden was acquitted, but I’m more interested in the “why” of the murders and the family dynamics that might have driven Borden to commit this heinous crime. Money has been suggested as the motivator (Borden’s father was well off but a cheapskate) and also the fact that Borden was controlled by him and wanted autonomy. You can read about that here.

And speaking of crime, here’s an interesting tidbit. Also in 1892, one of the most infamous world’s fairs was supposed to take place, the Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair). I say infamous because America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, emerged as the first serial killer in the American during the fair. But the exhibition date got delayed because of a battle between Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla over electricity (which was to be one of the main displays of innovation and technology at the fair). Thus, the exhibition was moved to 1893.

To find out more about how the Alderdice family lived and their world in 1892, you can go here. To find out about the series itself, I have a page for that here

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American Reform and Progress at the Turn of the 20th Century

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Although this cartoon refers specifically to only one of the reforms during the Progressive Era (women’s suffragism), it is visually a great example of what was going on with all reforms during this time.

Photo Credit: Political cartoon about suffrage in the United States. Four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks “opposition”. Illustration in Judge, v. 72, 1917 March 17, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Unsubtlety/ Wikimedia Commons/PD 1923

I’ve talked a lot about The Gilded Age here and here because much of the Waxwood Series takes place during this time but also because the excess, glitz, and innovation of that age fascinates me. The Gilded Age led into the turn of the 20th century which proved to be as significant, if not more so, for American society, politics, and culture, than the era before it. If, according to humorists Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, the last quarter of the nineteenth century in America were gilded, the start of the new century tarnished that image somewhat. We might even venture to say that the progressive reforms of the turn of the 20th century came as a sort of backlash to the decades preceding it.

Life was good in America after the financial shock wore off from Panic of 1873. America was making a name for itself on the world stage, and there was promise and hope for a better life for most people with new inventions and attitudes. But the era also had a dark side. Excess was the name of the game, especially for those who became millionaires for the first time in their lives and had no qualms about flaunting their new wealth and social standing. Social and economic divides were becoming more prevalent and consumerism and commercialism more important to American life. Wheeling and dealing in politics and business ran rampant, and things were out of control. 

Enter the Progressive Era. There had always been civic-minded reformers, largely white and middle-class, who vocalized their concern as to the consequences of Gilded Age extravagance but at the turn of the 20th century, there began more aggressive push for the government to pass laws and make reforms. While much of this was positive, these reform had hidden agendas, kinks in the road, and unanticipated consequences.

Political reforms spring to mind when we talk about the Progressive Era, of course, like government clean-ups and the fight for the vote for women. But, as my fiction involves more social and psychological history, I prefer to focus on these issues in light of turn-of-the-century reforms. 

The settlement house movement was one of the best known reforms of the era. Settlement houses conjure visions of white, middle-class women whose privileged lives and separate sphere ideals left them with little space in which to exercise their energies. One of the few outlets for nineteenth century women to show their creativity, learning, and efficiency was in aiding those in need. But settlement houses were about more than this. They set out to educate the working-class with the goal of giving them skills they needed to get better jobs and build better lives for themselves. This included not only practical subjects such as reading and writing but also more culture-oriented topics like art appreciation and music. These well-meaning women, though, were not without their hidden agenda, which was to “Americanize” the largely immigrant population which they served. Many of their teachings was firmly grounded in white middle-class values and beliefs that these women held to be true and right. There was not the awareness of or respect for other cultures that we have today. In other words, the settlement houses offered help and education in exchange for acceptance of a narrow view of American life and values that was based on a privileged population.

One of these white, middle-class beliefs was that a pretty environment bred pretty thoughts and manners. Since urbanization grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, these reformers abhorred the filth and neglect of city streets and slums, and lobbied for better sanitation and housing conditions. They also started the City Beautiful movement. It’s no coincidence many city parks we have today were established in the late-19th century. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, was conceived in the 1860’s, but construction began to fall into place from the 1880’s when this movement was in its infancy. Of course, there were detractors of the movement who argued that these reforms were meant more for the eyes of the middle-class and did nothing to address some of the real issues many Americans living in the cities were facing, like shameful house conditions and lack of sanitation. 

Photo Credit: Photo of Modernist author Djuna Barnes (working as a reporter) being force fed, like so many of the suffragists of the Progressive Era with the headline for her article, “How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed”. World Magazine, 6 September 1914: Celithemis~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Many of my protagonists are women, so it’s no surprise women’s suffragism plays a big role in my fiction just as it did in the Progressive Era. Suffragism started to gain ground in the late 19th century after a hiatus of sorts from mid-century reformers and, indeed, this movement plays a role in several books of the Waxwood Series. At the turn of the twentieth century, women across the country were protesting the social and psychological limitations placed on them. Many of their guerrilla tactics are now more familiar to us since the film Suffragette was released in 2015. One of the most revealed articles that gave people a glimpse of what the suffragists went through was written in 1914 by Djuna Barnes who later became an icon of Modernist literature. The article describes in detail what it was like for these women reformers, who often went on hunger strikes to protest their treatment by government authorities and police, to be force-fed, one of the hallmarks of the more radical tenants of suffragism.

While the Waxwood Series is set somewhat earlier than the height of the Progressive Era, my upcoming historical mystery series puts Adele Gossling, its main protagonist, right in the center of these reforms. As a young, outspoken woman of this era, she embraces suffragism and other reforms and, in fact, earns the stigma of being a “radical” from some of the more Victorian-minded people living in Arrojo, a small town where she resides after her father’s death. She helps the police solve crimes, many of which are form fitted to the era and expose some of its rising tensions.

To find out more about this upcoming series, you can check out this page.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here. The first book of the series can be found here.

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Historical Research: A Chicken and Egg Paradox

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Photo Credit: The Bookworm, Carl Spitzweg, 1850, oil on canvas, Museum Georg Schafer, Bavaria, Germany: Iryna Harpy/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD Old 70)

I’ve been working on Book 2 of the Waxwood Series this entire month very intensively with the help of Camp NaNoWriMo. This book goes into some unfamiliar territory for me in many ways. The story takes Jake (the Alderdice family son and new patriarch) through his coming-of-age and, in the process, he has to come to terms with who he will become in the shadow of family lies and half truths, as a person and as a man. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading and research on women in the 19th century because of my interest in women’s fiction and women’s history. Gender roles and gender politics in the past (and present) have always interested me. But until I began writing this book, I hadn’t really delved into the psychological realities of men or masculinity in the Gilded Age.

Many writers do some kind of research for their books. Even contemporary authors often need to research experiences in life of which they have no first-hand knowledge. This could be anything from what a five-year-old will and will not eat (if you’re like me, with no kids and not much exposure to young kids) to the ins and outs of a career as a registered nurse. Historical authors have the added burden of researching the past, and this isn’t always in the form of its main events (like the Civil War or the signing of the Declaration of Independence). Historical research could be as minor as how people stored meat in the 17th century (if they did at all) or as obscure as whether French women were involved in the suffragist movement in France in the 1890’s (yes, I had to research this). And research isn’t needed for just a major plot twist or main character, either. My search for women’s suffragism in France was for a comment made by a minor character about a French opera singer she had just met.

There is no hard-and-fast rule about researching for authors, and every author finds his or her own comfort zone. Some authors prefer researching everything down to the last detail before they begin that first draft. Others prefer to get the story down without worrying about historically accurate details until they finish the book, and then they go back and “fill in the blanks”. And many others do a combination of both. 

I research certain aspects of a book before I begin the first draft, usually once I have my outline down, and I know where the story and characters are going. Some details I already know from previous books I’ve written. For example, death and mourning play a small role in Tales of Actaeon (Waxwood Series, Book 2). I researched rather extensively these very specific and elaborate practices in the 19th century when I wrote Book 1, The Specter. So there was much I knew already before I started Tales. Other details I know little or nothing about but make a great impact on the book, so I prefer to research them before I start. A group of college-aged young men appear in Tales, and I knew very little about college life in the Gilded Age, so I did some research before I started the first draft.

But even with an outline, my first drafts often take on a life of their own. It’s not uncommon for me to be working on the draft and then realize the direction in which I’ve been going isn’t giving me what I want for the book. I’ll mull over this and at some point, a better vision of where the book needs to go will appear to me (usually at about 3 o’clock in the morning…), and I’ll find myself making new chapter notes and sometimes rewriting previous key chapters or scenes I need in order to continue with the story. 

In this way, research will take an unpredictable path. There are many small details I find myself needing to know as I write the story because they come up unexpectedly in the creative process. The French suffragist was one of these in Tales. Another one was burlesque houses. As I was writing, an idea for a scene with the college-aged boys I mention above taking Jake to a burlesque house in another town. I had no idea what sort of atmosphere there would be there, what the shows would be like, what the performance schedule would be like, and what sort of costumes or dress the performers would have. I found myself taking all day to research these things for the chapter I had to write so I could feel confident in writing with the emotions of the scene and relate it to Jake’s overall quest, the main focus of the book.

So doing research can be like the old paradox of the chicken and the egg — do you research first and then write or can you only research once you start writing because you don’t know what you’ll be researching until you write? For me, it’s a combination of both. 

To read more about Tales of Actaeon, check out this page.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of Book 1 of the Waxwood Series, The Specter, you can do that here.

And for more about the Waxwood series, I have a page on my website here.    

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Women and Men in the 19th Century: The Separate Spheres

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Photo Credit: OpenClipartVectors/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

I’m not ashamed to say I’m a feminist. I became a feminist in college when I began studying literature and women’s fiction. I came from a very patriarchal house where my parents supported the idea that men ruled, and women’s purpose in life was to serve everyone around them — parents, husband, children, community. I don’t blame them, as they grew up in an age that still believed in these antiquated ideas about gender roles. Thankfully, much has changed.

In my guest blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud, I talked about Vivian and her destiny as a Gilded Age debutante and the expectations put upon her. But where did these expectations come from? Partly, from the upper class society in which she lives but also from an idea that emerged in the 18th century and carried through well in the 19th — the separate spheres. 

I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. One of the signature academic texts on the subject is Barbara Welter’s “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” written in 1966 (not coincidentally, not long before the second wave feminist movement began making its appearance on the political stage). The article made a huge impression on me, especially the discussion of the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . In the late 1960’s, writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at gender roles, stereotypes, and gender ideologies from the past, and they were exploring their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.

To put it as simply as I can, the term “separate spheres” embraces the idea that men and women each have a very specific “place” in the world. I use the word “place” here a bit ironically, because confinement in the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense has been one of the greatest battles women have had to fight against socially, politically and psychologically. In the 19th century, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born for the public sphere (which included politics, business, and law) and women for the private sphere (home, family, and community). In other words, men’s purpose in life was to go out and make money, make laws, and run the country, and women’s purpose was to take care of the home, have and raise the children, and participate in community events. This is a very simplified vision, of course, but it gives you an idea of how the spaces which men and women could occupy according to this ideology were limited.

What’s interesting when we look at the separate spheres more closely is not only do they define what women (and men) could do but what they couldn’t. Women were expected to stay out of medicine, for example, because they “did not belong there”. Similarly, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was inconceivable in this ideology since the home was the domain of women. Of course, each was allowed to reap the rewards of the other sphere. For women, this meant financial support, for men, it meant a comfortable home and loving family.

What is most relevant about the separate spheres when it comes to my fiction is not so much the physical spaces it represents but the psychological ones. In the mid-19th century, the world of business, politics, and industry were developing at a rapid pace. Because of this, jobs were opening up in the cities and people flocked to them, leaving behind the slower, simpler life they had had in the country. At the same time, in the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring people, especially the young, into greed and sin, soiling their minds, souls, and bodies. 

In this atmosphere of dirty business and dirty politics, the home became an idealized symbol of purity, comfort and refuge (which is one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed). And who better to take care of it than pure, unsoiled women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent their days cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. This ideal of the angel in the house had always existed, but it took on a more important role in the minds and hearts of people living in the nineteenth century. Many saw the divide of the spheres so distinctly they couldn’t fathom allowing women into the arena of politics, business, and law, all notoriously corrupt and dirty at that time. Women had to be protected and, even more, they were the protectors of the morals and values of men. Is it any wonder that author Virginia Woolf once wrote that for a woman to get any significant work done, she had to kill the angel in the house?

The ideal of the angel in the house actually derived from a poem written in 1854 by poet Coventry Patmore and the model for this ideal was Patmore’s wife, pictured above.

Photo Credit: Portrait of Mrs. Coventry Patmore, John Everett Millais, 1851, oil on panel, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: PKM/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)

The description above might sound like a gross stereotype, but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be. In Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, the image Patmore’s angel in the house becomes the defining characteristic of the public persona of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. It is, in fact, such a domineering archetype that her gravestone is carved with a verse from Patmore’s poem. In the book, part of Vivian’s journey leads her to pick apart this persona to reach a deeper understanding of who her grandmother really was and, in doing so, understand her own future. 

The problem with the angel in the house and the separate spheres was that they created a model of womanhood most women found impossible to live up to, not to mention greatly unsatisfying (think: 19th century version of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem With No Name”). A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms: 

“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949). 

However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:

“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949). 

It was not uncommon for women to become ill because their temperaments did not fit into the sphere to which they were confined. A famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here. Welter refers to the cult of true womanhood, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. Ideologies take on the proportions of myths because these narratives cannot be realized as anything but legends.

Thankfully, the idea of the separate spheres was beginning to crumble by the end of the nineteenth century when women began to enter the public sphere through politically progressive movements like suffragism and worker’s rights (which is a topic for another blog post). The images of the New Woman and the Gibson Girl (also topics for future blog posts) emerged during this time. Both overshadowed the image of the Angel in the House that had kept so many women chained in previous decades.

One of my passions is to give a picture of characters who were both products of their time and rebels of it. So it’s not surprising that many of my characters (the women especially, but also some of the men) refuse to stay in their sphere and venture outside of it. In my Waxwood series. I talked earlier about Vivian Alderdice, whose journey takes her away from the confined space of the separate spheres. Similarly, In Book 3, goes through her own journey when the darker consequences of this ideology present themselves in her mentally unstable Aunt Helen. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, Adele Gossling rubs the people of the small town of Arrojo the wrong way precisely because she is a one of these New Women mentioned above and not ashamed to proclaim it.

Both the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be, but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all, and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.

To find out more about my book, The Specter, and purchase a copy, go here.

You can read more about the Waxwood Series here.

And if you like mysteries, you can read up on my upcoming Progressive Era historical mystery series here.

Works Cited

Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2012. Kindle digital file.

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A Prequel Short Story: The Rose Debutante

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Photo Credit: Painting of a pink rose with purple background, uploaded 8 August 2017: G4889166/Pixabay/Pixabay license

A few months ago, I announced to my readers group and author page that I would be updating the free gift I was offering for my newsletter subscribers (present and future). I would be giving a short story related to my Waxwood Series. The story gives some insights into the Alderdice family and, in particular, the character of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series.

I call the story a prequel, which it is on one level. Dictionary.com defines the word prequel as “a literary, dramatic, or filmic work that prefigures a later work, as by portraying the same characters at a younger age” (“Prequel”, 2010). I’m not entirely satisfied with this definition, as it leaves out what I think is one of the most important elements of prequels — story (or series) importance. Authors and filmmakers create prequels for a reason. A prequel usually contains some keys to a richer understanding of the story or the characters, a sort of “this is how they got here” element in a separate work. This, then, gives readers a reason to read the story outside of the fact that they (hopefully) loved the characters enough to want to know about their lives before the story/series began.

This is why I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”. As I was writing The Specter, Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, I realized one of the keys to understanding both Vivian and her grandmother Penelope Alderdice (whose role in the story and series I wrote about here) was to understand their position as 19th century debutantes. I could have chosen to discuss the debutante in a factual blog post (and probably will do so sometime in the future), but I started getting more intrigued by the psychological aspects of this role thrust upon Vivian a little before the start of Book 1. I wanted specifically to explore what that role meant for her in light of Gilded Age thinking about women, money, and marriage.

In Book 1, there is reference to one of the most salient events in a 19th century wealthy young woman’s life — her debutante “coming out” ball. Researching this, I was fascinated by the undercurrents of this seemingly gay event, when a girl stopped being a girl in the eyes of society and became a woman. I wanted to explore the question, “What did that really mean for  her, beyond the obvious (putting a young woman into the marriage market?)” I wanted to examine Vivian’s psychological reality as it related to this one very important event in her life that becomes the pinnacle of her thoughts and actions in the evolution of the Waxwood Series.

So it was natural for me to write a story about Vivian’s coming out ball. The story isn’t only a glimpse inside the excitement and lavishness of this event in wealthy Gilded Age society, but it’s also about the apprehensions, the expectations, and the fears encountered by a young woman who, with her hair up and in her first pair of high heels, is no longer seen as a girl but as a young woman with a role to play in her very structured and class-conscious society. For Vivian, perhaps, more than for many young women who took their coming out ball as a matter of course, the event brings the epiphany that her days of psychological liberty are over and now begins the straight and narrow path of womanhood as experienced by so many 19th century women of all classes. The story also gives readers a foundation on which Vivian’s later epiphanies, explorations of the past, and discoveries of the future are based in the series.

This is the first time I’ve written any kind of prequel to any of my stories, and I discovered in the process not only a way to let readers know about Vivian with more psychological depth but the beauty of making connections. In this story there appears several characters who later make a more standing appearance in Book 2 of my series, Tales of Actaeon.

To receive a copy of the short story The Rose Debutante, you must either already be signed up for my newsletter or you can sign up for it here.

To find out more about The Specter, the first book in the series, and get your copy, check out the links on this page.

And you can find out more about the Waxwood Series here.  

Works Cited

Prequel, 2010. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/

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The Specter (Waxwood Series: Book 1): Release Day Blitz

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The Specter Front Cover Photo Credit: Portrait of Sonya Knips, Gustav Klimt, 1898, oil on canvas, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria: Aavindraa/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Title: The Specter

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 1

Author: Tam May

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction

Release Date: June 28, 2019

To what lengths will one go to exorcise a specter?

One rainy morning in 1892, people gather to mourn the death of San Francisco socialite Penelope Alderdice. Among them is a strange little woman named Bertha Ross, who claims to have known “Grace” in the 1850’s in the small town of Waxwood. But Penelope’s granddaughter, Vivian, has never heard of Grace or Waxwood.

Bertha reveals surprising details about Grace’s life in Waxwood, including a love affair with Evan, an artist and member of Brandywine, Waxwood’s art colony.Vivian’s mother, Larissa, insists Bertha is an imposter who has come not to mourn a woman she knew in her youth but to stir up trouble. 

Vivian, however, suspects the key to her grandmother’s life and her own lies in Waxwood. She journeys to Brandywine where she meets Verina Jones, Evan’s niece, and discovers a packet of letters her grandmother wrote forty years ago about her time in Waxwood.

As Vivian confronts the specter that holds the truth to secrets buried in the family consciousness, she examines her grandmother’s life as a mid-19th century debutante and her own as a Gilded Age belle. Will she find her way out into the world as an autonomous being, or will she be haunted by the specter of her grandmother’s unhappiness all her life?

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

B&N

Apple iBooks (iTunes)

Kobo

Excerpt

Larissa patted her head. “You’ve done all I asked of you thus far, Vivian. But lately, you’ve forgotten your position.”

“My position?”

“You’re the granddaughter of Malcolm Alderdice,” her mother said in a firm voice. “That means something in San Francisco.”

“I was the granddaughter of Penelope Alderdice too,” Vivian said. “Doesn’t that mean something?”

“In so far as she was Mrs. Malcolm Alderdice, dear.” Her mother sighed.

“A door has opened,” Vivian said. “Mrs. Ross opened it, whether we wanted her to or not.”

Her mother gave her a rueful look. “One need not walk through every open door, especially if a madwoman holds the key.”

“Mrs. Ross wasn’t mad,” Jake murmured. “Confused, but not mad.”

His mother gave him a look. Then, in a more congenial voice, she said to her daughter, “Not every door is the door to heaven, dear.”

“Let it be the door to hell, then,” Vivian declared.

Advanced praise for The Specter

“An absolutely fascinating story” — Jackie, Goodreads reviewer

“Could not put this down, read from cover to cover in one sitting.” — Melanie, Goodreads Reviewer

“May’s historical fiction picks apart the delicate façade of American gentility in upper class, well-heeled families on the wild West Coast at the end of the nineteenth century.” — Lisa Lickel, author and blogger, Living Our Faith Out Loud blog.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes fiction about characters who must find their future by exploring their personal past and the collective past (the time in which they live).

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Social Media Links

Website

Blog

Facebook

Facebook Readers Group

Twitter

Pinterest

Goodreads Author Page

Amazon Author Page 

BookBub Author Page

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Ghost From the Past: Penelope Alderdice in The Specter

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Photo Credit: Aquamarine, Blue sapphire and diamond necklace and earrings, cropped, designed by Ernesto Moreira, Houston, TX, 2006, Wikipedia Loves Art Photo Pool: File Upload Bot (Kaldari)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 2.5

A lot went into my upcoming historical family saga, the Waxwood Series. Here I talk about the way it evolved from a novel into a 4-book series. A similar evolution occurred with Penelope Alderdice, one of the main characters of the first book, The Specter. She basically went from being a persona non grata to a specter.

I never intended for Penelope to be more than a background character. The original novel focused on the immediate family, and my thinking for the series was that it should do the same (with additional characters making an appearance). But Penelope’s voice was so strong, so insistent on being heard, I couldn’t ignore it.

Penelope’s story, which takes up about half of The Specter, had its roots in an incident from an old draft of the original book, which I then expanded into a short story. I wrote the story and offered it as an earlier gift to my newsletter subscribers. At the time, the first book was about Jake Alderdice, the brother of the series’ unofficial main character, Vivian (you can read more about Vivian in a blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud blog later this month – watch this blog for the link). I wrote a story “After The Funeral” about the wake of Vivian and Jake’s grandmother, Penelope. Since Penelope was influential in Jake’s childhood, I thought knowing a little about her would help readers understand Jake better.

In the story, an old friend of Penelope’s crashes the funeral reception and starts to reveal elements of Penelope’s early life that Vivian and Jake were never told. Later, after the reception is over, Vivian confronts her mother about the lies they were told about who Penelope really was. It becomes an important moment between mother and daughter. 

When I wrote the story, I realized Penelope was a much more complex character than I had first envisioned her and I wanted to know more about her and, more importantly, let readers know more about her. I felt, in fact, that there were incidents in her life that were the driving force behind what was to happen to the family later on in the series. And I knew there was a connection between Vivian and Penelope that couldn’t be denied.

So I began to dig deeper into who Penelope was. I saw her as a woman whose seemed the perfect image of the pre-Gilded Age era, the sort of woman you would expect to see as a character in one of Gertrude Atherton’s books about San Francisco’s high society in its infancy in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Her angelic demeanor, her charming socialite countenance, and her performance in the role of the wife of a successful San Francisco businessman hid a more complex woman who had, in her youth, fought the expectations put upon her as a wealthy debutante. Her passion for art, at one time, exceeded her desire to please her parents and the society around her, and there was one moment, one rebellious moment in her life. Her own insight and intelligence couldn’t fight the strength of the conventions and social position into which she was born, so this one moment had a bittersweet ending.

That, then, is part of what The Specter is about. We hear Penelope’s own voice in letters she wrote to her mother from Waxwood in the 1850’s, when it was a quiet, quaint coastal town a stone’s throw away from San Francisco. And her strong voice and rebellious streak, squelched by the expectations put upon women of her time, follow Vivian throughout the book. She is, in fact, the specter of the title, at least for her granddaughter.

To find out more about The Specter and pick up your copy, go here.

Want to know more about the Waxwood Series? I’ve got you covered right here.   

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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.***

I recently popped on to Amazon to take a look at the book page for my upcoming release, The Specter, since it’s now up for preorder and, scrolling down, I glanced at the categories. Authors get to choose two categories for their books but often times, Amazon will either recategorize them or add their own categories (and sometimes, Amazon logic is a little fuzzy, like when Amazon UK decided my first book, a collection of psychological literary short stories called Gnarled Bones and Other Stories belonged in the Mystery, Suspense, Thriller/Series category!). For The Specter, in addition to the categories I had chosen for the book, Amazon decided my book belonged in the Women’s Domestic Life Fiction category.

I was thrilled at this, because I do consider women’s fiction one of my genres, though not my primary genre. Since college, I’ve been drawn to classic works of fiction written by women. 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 speak to our time with the struggles of single parents and body shaming in our weight-conscious society.

Although not primarily, The Specter is in the women’s fiction genre because the book traces the revelations, both emotionally and psychologically, of two women — Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the Waxwood Series, and Penelope Alderdice, her grandmother. These two women, like many of my characters, were products of their time (in this case, the 19th century) and rebels of it as far as they could be. 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.

To find out more about The Specter and order your copy at a special preorder price, you can go here.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here.      

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