America’s Mini War: The Spanish-American War of 1898

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Today, on Memorial Day, we honor those who fought for our country and the sacrifices they made. We think of war as a big, complex thing — that is, they go on for years and cost many lives. World War I lasted 4 years (though America didn’t get involved until the last year of the war) and World War II lasted six (though, again, America didn’t enter the war until three years after it started). The Vietnam War was even longer and more complex. It began in 1955 and ended in 1975, though American involvement lasted from 1965 to 1973. 

So it’s no wonder many do not remember the war that happened in between the Civil War (1861-1865) and World War I (1914-1918). But its implications and impact resonated for years to come and even today.

Photo Credit: Headline in the New York Journal of Congress declaring war which began the Spanish-American War, 25 April 1898, New York Public Library: Picryl/Creative Commons CC0 1.0

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 itself officially ended four months later). America was involved in this war for financial and humanitarian reasons. 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. In Senator North, a novel by Gertrude Atherton published in 1900 but 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 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 ensured 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).

There were relatively few casualties in this war (about two thousand, as compared to 116,000 during World War I, 700,000 in World War II, and 58,000 in the Vietnam War). But those who fought made this little war an important part of American foreign politics and trade.

False Fathers, the second book of my historical coming-of-age series, the Waxwood Series, takes place during the summer of 1898, so 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:


The sky grew black, and the sea calmed. The young men played and drank into the night, and Stevens showed no signs of retiring. Jake wanted to leave, but his feet felt cemented int hat room. He listened as their talk moved from college professors and sports to the war in Cuba. 
“We ought to pull out while we can,” said Mr. Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives we’ve already given for it.”
“We’re not there for fancy, boy.” Mr. Trent shot two balls in the left side pocket. “Let Spain and every other country see we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Mr. McDonaugh cocked his head. “The frontier’s all taken, so what have we left?”
“Virile man conquer virgin territory,” Roger agreed, his words sounding thick.
“We’ve almost won anyway,” said Ivan Morvell. “Not two weeks ago, the Rough Riders—”
“Those braggarts!” Roger snarled. “Posing for the papers like gladiators. And that goose with his mustache and spectacles!”
Stevens jumped up. In the shadow left by two lamp, his indignation was unavoidable. “I suggest you speak about Mr. Roosevelt with respect.”

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. 

The complete Waxwood Series will be out in one box set next month, but feel free to get a head start by grabbing Book 1, The Specter, now. The book is free on all book vendor sites and you can get all the details and links here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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The Feminine Mystique: Our Mothers’ and Our Grandmothers’ Lessons

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In 2020, I released what is probably to date the most personal book I’ve ever written. It’s not an autobiographical novel or even a partially autobiographical novel. It’s a collection of short stories set in the post-WWII era of America. The book, Lessons From My Mother’s Life became much more of a personal project than I anticipated (or even intended) it to be for several reasons.

First, it was intended to be a historical rewrite of the first book I ever published back in 2017. Those stories were set in contemporary times and were quite literary in tone and style. Reviewers liked the book overall but many complained the stories were too short and the endings seemed chopped off. I agreed with this (and did a lot of journaling as to why that was because I knew there were deeper reasons than the fact that it was my first book and I was still learning the writing craft). I firmly believe in giving readers the best I have as a writer and revising books when I know my writing has become stronger and my writing purpose clearer (I’ve done this with several books). So I had no qualms about releasing a second edition of that first book.

Except it didn’t turn out to be a second edition. It turned out to be an entirely new book. I set the stories in a historical timeframe rather than a contemporary timeframe. Most of the stories in Lessons differ from those in the original first book (which is still available in online bookstores). I took some stories out that didn’t fit with the historical background and themes I was aiming for and replaced them with other stories. 

Second, the historical era I chose turned out to be a big surprise even to me. As many of my readers know, I am a huge fan of the 19th and early 20th centuries. My preferred timeframe for my books is the Gilded Age (roughly, the last quarter of the 19th century) and the Progressive Era (roughly, the first few decades of the 20th century, up until the end of WWI), though I’m experimenting now with a new upcoming series that is set in the 1920s.

Photo Credit: Betty Friedan as photographed in her home, 1978, photo taken  by Lynn Gilbert and uploaded 6 August 2009: LynnGilbert5/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

So why did I choose to set the stories in Lessons in the 1950s and early 1960s? Because, at the time, I had rediscovered a book I read in grad school: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Friedan’s book introduced the paradox of women’s lives during the post-WWII era to the American public. The book came out of Friedan’s experiences talking with women in the 1950s, especially housewives, while working as a journalist for women’s magazines. She takes a very comprehensive look at what she calls “the feminine mystique” and the institutions that allowed this image to emerge.

The “feminine mystique” has been defined in many ways over the years, but for me, it’s the idea that a woman’s biological, psychological, social, and spiritual destiny boils down to one thing: her identity in relation to others. In post-WWII America, this was pretty much all that was expected of women. As Friedan puts it, “[For] the feminine mystique, there is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife” (p. 59).In other words, her identity and her role in life are defined as wife, mother, daughter, granddaughter, caretaker, lover, etc.

For Friedan, the problem wasn’t with these roles but with the isolation and restriction the outside world forced upon them. It wasn’t that it was bad to be a mother or a daughter or a wife or that women who wanted these things were wrong. It was that the expectation that this is all a woman was capable of being and should want to be was limiting and unfulfilling to many women. 

Now, this idea of restricted identities for women is not new. It’s an inherent part of the separate spheres, which began in the 18th century but really saw its heyday in the 19th century. But what was different about the post-WWII era was that women were starting to feel the damaging effects of it on their psyches. They were getting subtle messages from their mothers and grandmothers who had grown up with the separate spheres that this was not enough and shouldn’t be enough for many women. The epigraph for Lessons states:

“A mother might tell her daughter, spell it out, “Don’t be just a housewife like me.” But that daughter, sensing that her mother was too frustrated to savor the love of her husband and children, might feel: ‘I will succeed where my mother failed, I will fulfill myself as a woman,’ and never read the lesson of her mother’s life.” (p. 71)

Lessons From My Mother’s Life is exactly about the lessons mothers and grandmothers have to teach the younger generation. The stories are set in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the second-wave feminist movement. In each story, the main character sees the writing on the wall in terms of where her life has been or where it’s going and someone outside of her is trying to teach her the lessons of the feminine mystique. For example, in my story “Fumbling Toward Freedom,” Susan is a nineteen-year-old college student about to marry an upright young man still in medical school. When she attends an exhibition of Circe sculptures by an older woman artist, the artist’s work demonstrates the consequences of letting a marital relationship define who a woman is. The story ends with Susan taking a step back to examine what it is she really wants in life.

Is Friedan’s book and the idea of the feminine mystique still relevant to the younger “I don’t need feminism” generation today? I explore that in this blog post.

Lessons is getting a makeover with a new cover and a few revisions and will be out in its new form on March 29th.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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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Love Hurts: Vinegar Valentines

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I am a huge Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac fan (what can I tell you? I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s). One of the well-known facts about Fleetwood Mac’s bestselling album Rumours is that many of the songs were written in reaction to the multiple break-ups that were happening with the band members at the time. The most famous was between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. But the other members were also going through their own heartbreak. Christine and John McVie were getting divorced and drummer Mick Fleetwood was separated from his wife at the time. If you’re super curious, read this article for more about how souring relationships influenced this brilliant album.

But giving someone the brush-off via written verse started way before Fleetwood Mac. It dates back to the 19th century with what we now call “vinegar Valentines.”

Photo Credit: Vinegar Valentine: The Suffragette, 1919, John Hopkins University Women’s Suffrage Collection: Special Collections at John Hopkins/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0 DEED

What are vinegar Valentines? We all know Valentine’s Day cards express love and devotion, right? Vinegar Valentines were completely the opposite. These little bombs either told off a past or present suitor or discouraged a would-be suitor from pursuit.

This form of valentine became very popular in the 19th and early 20th century with the rise of the written form in the United States (which is one reason why the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries series is a stationery store owner and epistolary expert). Since there was no email or text messaging at the time, people communicated through letters, postcards, and other written forms. So Valentine’s Day cards became another form of communication. 

In general, these valentines were meant to be more comic and sassy. However, their message could range from light comedy to downright aggressive. Not surprisingly, many of these vinegar Valentines were sent anonymously so the sender would never suffer the repercussions of his or her vicious message.

Just how bad were they? You can judge for yourself by checking out the slider (about a third of the way down the page) on this page

One of the main targets of these vinegar Valentines was suffragists. Women who fought for the right to vote were, in the eyes of many Victorian men (and, sadly, some women) “unfeminine” and “unwomanly” so who could be more fitting to receive the vinegar message on the day that represents love and courtship (which puts women firmly in the separate spheres) than women who believed they and other women should transcend the barriers of love and marriage?

Thankfully, vinegar Valentines began to fall out of fashion after World War I, and today we rarely see Valentine’s Day cards that are more than mildly annoying in their sense of humor. 

If you want to read how Adele uses her epistolary expertise to help the police of Arrojo solve crimes, look no further than Book 1, The Carnation Murder. It’s free on all bookstore sites! Check out this page for more about the book and links where you can download it.

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to newsletter subscribers here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Historical Christmas Traditions

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I recently started teaching English to students from all over the world and one of the things I love to hear from them is about their holiday traditions. I was surprised to hear from a student of mine that she celebrates Christmas in mid-January and her traditions are more focused on the religious aspect of Christmas than gift-giving (although her family exchanges plenty of gifts too!)

In America, Christmas traditions haven’t changed much. Love it or hate it, Christmas in America has been big business since the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were filled with opulence, glamour, and progress. There was nothing that couldn’t be packaged and sold to the American public, and holidays were at the top of the list.

Before the late 19th century, ornaments on the Christmas tree were pretty simple. The tradition of Christmas tree decorations was brought over by German settlers in the 1830s, but Gilded Agers turned it into something much more elaborate. The word “modesty” was not in the vocabulary of the era. Gilded Agers loved sparkle and shine and they weren’t afraid to make a profit from it. They turned the decorations of simple strings of popcorn and beads of past decades into displays of lights, colored glass balls, and wax angels. Christmas tree ornaments became a big commercial enterprise during this time, replacing these homemade ornaments.

Photo Credit: Christmas card by Louis Prang, showing a group of anthropomorphized frogs parading with a banner and band. 19th century (no specific date), American Antiquarian Society. M2545/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100 

The humble Christmas card also acquired a different meaning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Louis Prang, one of the most successful printers of this era, began producing Christmas cards with a dream in mind: to create mini lessons in fine art for people on a budget. He saw his cards as artistic achievements even the working class could afford. But this idea of democratizing fine art was not one Gilded Agers were yet willing to embrace. They were, however, happy to take the idea of the Christmas card and make it more illustrative and attractive to buyers. Prang’s idea of elevating Christmas cards to art fell by the wayside but it started a trend with other illustrators producing cheaper variations. However, as this article shows, they were still quite beautiful.

The gift-giving that now dominates today’s Christmas commercials on TV and online became big business during this time as well. It was an opportunity to show one’s generosity with elaborate and expensive gifts. Wrapping presents was also a Gilded Age invention, as it fits in with the idea of garnish presentation that characterized the age. Plain white wrapping paper said something unpleasant about what the giver could afford, but elaborate wrapping paper told loved ones the gift came from the “right” places.

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

We think of Santa as a jovial and white-bearded man bestowing presents to “good” little boys and girls. But in the early 20th century, Santa had political and social implications. Santa was the glorified symbol of Capitalism with a capital “C”, an authoritative and somewhat mystical figure who held gifts aplenty — for those who deserved them, of course. The deserved ones were judged not by their goodness but by their political beliefs or their support of Capitalism.

Why not treat yourself to some fiction from the past that features women who don’t just take the confines of their era lying down? You can start with two free books! The first book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries is free on every online bookstore and so is the first book of my Waxwood Series. You can get  The Carnation Murder here and The Specter here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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Trailblazers: Lady Lawyers in the 19th Century

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Book 3 of my historical cozy mystery series the Adele Gossling Mysteries, introduces a new character into the small town of Arrojo. Rebecca Gold is a lawyer who has come to town to open her own practice after having been treated like a clerk rather than a lawyer in the big city law firms where she worked. 

How common were women lawyers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? As you might imagine, not that common. The separate spheres made it difficult for women to venture outside the private sphere of home, family, and church. The law, being one of the most public spheres out there (right alongside politics and business) was, therefore, largely off-limits. 

But there were a few who did brave the social and sometimes legal limits to study law. The first of these was Arabella Mansfield. In 1869, she became the first woman lawyer in America. Although her home state of Iowa forbade women to take the bar exam, Mansfield defied this practice and took it anyway. Her very high marks swayed Iowa legislation to relax these laws and allow women to take the bar exam. Mansfield became an apprentice at her brother’s law firm early on during her studies. However, once she passed the bar exam, she decided to forgo law for activism and education, including suffragism.

Alongside her was Ada Kepley who, in 1870, earned her law degree from Northwestern University. However, her home state of Illinois also didn’t allow women to take the bar exam and, unlike Iowa, Illinois legislation wasn’t budging on this. So Kepley was unable to actually make use of her law degree. Kepley did eventually take the bar exam in 1881 and passed but, like Arabella Mansfield, chose to use her experience and knowledge for activism, particularly temperance and — you guessed it — women’s suffrage.

Photo Credit: Drawing of Charlotte E. Ray, before 1911, unknown author: Gobonobo/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

And let us not forget Charlotte E. Ray who was the first African American woman to practice law. She received her law degree in 1872 and was admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia Supreme Court. Unlike Mansfield and Kepley, however, Ray did eventually open her own office, specializing in corporate law. Sadly, she only kept her doors open for a few years, as racial prejudice made gaining a steady clientele difficult. She took her knowledge and experience and became a teacher, focusing on education and later, women’s suffragism.

You’ll notice a pattern here: these three women either never put their law degree to use or they only practiced for a very short time. Why? I’m sure mistrust of women in so lucrative a field had something to do with it (and we know in Charlotte E. Ray’s case, there was added racial prejudice). Maybe it was also that the time and dedication needed to practice law made it difficult for these women to juggle both the public and the private spheres (since we might assume they also had the duties of the home on their shoulders whereas a male lawyer was largely exempt from that). Or maybe it was just the ideologies of the separate spheres die hard, even for progressive women. 

In my book, however, Rebecca Gold is a practicing lawyer and her first case gets her in plenty of hot water. Find out how in Death At Will, the third book of the Adele Gosslnig Mysteries. And how about Books 1 and 2? Well, you can pick up all three books in a lovely box set at a great price here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!

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