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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A Survey of Women’s Issues: Revisited

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Women’s Equality Day is this month (on August 26). Women’s equality is central to so many of my books, including the Waxwood Series and the Adele Gossling Mysteries. A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her Facebook page from a well-known author who claimed that every book is a political act. I don’t necessarily agree with this, but for myself, while I don’t see each book of mine as a political act, I do incorporate in my books the things I’m most passionate about. And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, subscribe to my newsletter, and/or read my books, you know I am passionate about women’s equality and women’s rights. 

Why? There are several reasons. I was born in 1970 just as the second-wave feminist movement was beginning to pick up steam. I came of age in the 1980s when third-wave feminism was picking up. 

But even more so, I sadly did not grow up in a household that valued women’s equality. My parents were born in the mid-20th century and my mom grew up with June Cleaver values (though she was not raised in America). Our house was very patriarchal. My father went to work and earned and took care of the money. My mom, though she had several careers in her lifetime, took care of my dad, my siblings, and me above all else, sometimes to the detriment of her own identity. Even the careers she had were of a more “traditional” vein (nurse, electrologist). I don’t begrudge this, though, as it was what led me to want more as a woman and to discover feminism in college.

In light of my recent blog post about disassociative feminism, there is perhaps no better time to ask the question: Do we still need feminism?

It seems some of the younger generation 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 admitting 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 deeply 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 made many women more aware 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 that limited 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.

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 a 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 we’re still fighting many of the issues 20th-century feminists were fighting. To give one example, 20th-century women fought for women’s reproductive rights, including a woman’s right to choose whether to have children or not. In 2022, 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.

If you want to read about women fighting for equality, go to my Adele Gossling Mysteries! Book 1, The Carnation Murder, is free on all bookstore sites. And Book 6 is coming out soon, so pick up a copy at a special preorder 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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Disassociative Feminism: Present and Past

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Recently, a very talented writer friend of mine wrote an article about disassociative feminism that really gave me food for thought. You can read the article here.

Disassociative feminism, according not just to my friend’s article but several others, is a phenomenon that has taken over the younger generation of women, especially in post-COVID times. Disassociation is a psychological term that refers to the emotional distancing many people experience as one way of coping with past trauma. It’s like your body and mind are numb so you can soldier on through life without being destroyed by the pain and turmoil of past traumatic experiences.

As I understand it, disassociative feminism is about numbing emotionally to the struggles women are still facing and succumbing to the spirit of the “ideal feminine”. It’s essentially about younger women rejecting the fight for women’s rights in favor of a more recognizable image of women’s roles as dictated by the separate spheres

There’s some truth in this. I recently posted some new covers my designer created for my post-WWII short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which I’m rebranding next year, and in the comments, someone mentioned there is now a movement among some women of the younger generation to embrace the homemaking ideals of the Occupation: Housewife era (which, I might add, second-wave feminists worked very hard to break down).

There’s no denying articles like my friend’s are very important to help us sound the alarm regarding the ennui many younger women have fallen into when it comes to feminism. But I also see the times we’re living in as a reflection of the past, which might shed a different light on what’s happening in the 21st century.

We need to keep in mind that this kind of exhaustion and numbness regarding feminism has occurred throughout history. Feminist gains have come in waves ever since the first suffragists in the mid-19th century (which is one reason why we refer to them as first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave feminism). Back then, women were fighting for a much more basic right: the right to vote. In America, women achieved this in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment. And then what happened?

Not surprisingly the younger generation in the 1920s were in a similar position of disassociativeness that women in the 21st century are today. I’ve been reading up on the 1920s flapper in preparation for a new series I’ll be working on next year, and I was surprised to learn the harshest critics against the flappers were these late 19th and early 20th century feminists who had just won women the vote. They didn’t consider flappers as practicing what they were preaching. In fact, with the flappers’ man-crazy attitudes and their sexually liberating behaviors, they saw them as digressing back to an earlier time before the suffragists’ fight for women to be accepted as equals.

The 1930s continued this wave of feminist ennui. There was the Great Depression in America to contend with where most people, women and men, were just trying to survive, and not many had the strength to take up a political cause. Then World War II hit and although women weren’t out marching in the streets, they gained some momentum back when many took up working outside the home and helping the war effort.

The post-World War II era brought, as mentioned above, the Occupation: Housewife era which Betty Friedan talks a lot about in her book The Feminine Mystique. Women were basically encouraged (if you want to call it that) by the media and medical establishment to retreat back to the home and fulfill their “destiny” as wives and mothers. I’ve mentioned in several blog posts (like this one which I wrote on my old blog in 2017) how the 1950s and early 1960s produced the idea that a woman could have either a family or a career but not both. Many women bought into this and shied away from making use of their higher education in favor of marriage and children, not considering they could balance both. So again, we had a step back into the past.

As many of us know, though, the wave went up in the late 1960s when the second-wave feminists took up the fight again in the wake of the disillusionment many women were feeling from the Occupation: Housewife era. The early 80s saw a lull with the feminist cause but the early 90s brought third-wave feminism which took into account a much broader spectrum of women’s rights by embracing global feminism.

Perhaps the best evidence that feminism isn’t lost in the 21st century. A group of young women posing with a banner proclaiming “Fourth Wave,” hinting that we might be seeing the fourth wave feminists starting to take up the fight for women’s rights.

Photo Credit: Young women posing with a banner on International Women’s Day in London in 2017. Taken by Gary Knight on 8 March 2017: Davey2010/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0 

Although many consider the fight for women’s rights in danger in the 21st century, I look at it differently. Consider that COVID-19 had a global impact on all of us, and we’re still feeling the post-traumatic effects of it. In the wake of this global pandemic, it’s perhaps no surprise we’re seeing this disassociative feminism rise up in many younger women. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up the fight. I see many younger women practicing what older feminists preached decades, even centuries ago. I was recently talking to a friend of mine whose daughter (of the younger generation) protested against the attitudes men showed toward women in her community. Her objections touched on the kind of protests against sexual objectification and harassment that second-wave feminists fought for sixty years ago. I’m not here to offer solutions, but I do think the point Jacqueline Delibas makes in her article about opening up the conversation about feminism and women’s rights and making sure we are including all communities (such as the transgendered community) is a step in the right direction.

If this blog post interests you, you might want to not only check out Jacqueline’s article linked above but also my post-WWII short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life which you can find here. And if you’re looking for a series that does feature a young woman who is all about the spirit of suffragism, you can’t do better than my Adele Gossling Mysteries. Book 1 is free on all booksellers and Book 6 is coming out in August!

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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Walking the Tightrope: Women Circus Performers and Suffragism

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We’re about at the end of Women’s History Month. Because Murder Under a Twilight Roof, Book 5 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, comes out next month and is set at the circus, last week I looked at some gutsy circus gals here. Women’s history wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of women’s suffrage, which was such a huge issue in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So the question comes to mind: How did circus women feel about women’s suffrage?

This might seem like a stupid question since it’s hard to imagine any woman wouldn’t be all for women having the vote so they could have a say in public policies, employment issues, and treatment of women in all areas. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were many women opposed to women gaining their rights in the political arena (if you’ve been reading my Adele Gossling Mysteries, the character of Mrs. Faderman is one of these).

But circus women were working women and were all for women’s equality. Working women were a major audience for the suffragist movement, coupled with the labor movement where many women were beginning to stand up for themselves in terms of working conditions (which I talk about in my blog post about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy) and equal pay (which I talk about here). Circus women could identify with this.

The women of Barnum & Bailey were so serious about their devotion to the suffragist movement that it was rumored when this baby giraffe was born, they christened her “Miss Suffrage”. Actually, the giraffe’s name was Baby Bumbeno.

Photo Credit: “The Barnum & Bailey, greatest show on earth: Baby Bumbeno, the only American Born giraffe”, circus poster, 1910, lithograph, Richard Dale McMullen Collection, Boston Public Library: Boston Public Library/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Suffragism was so important to them, in fact, that in 1912, women performers from the Barnum & Bailey circus gathered to make an announcement of their wholehearted support of the women’s movement, including forming the first circus suffrage society. Now, you would think the leaders of the suffragist movement at the time would embrace support from all different sectors of women’s experience. But, sadly, this wasn’t exactly the case.

Why? One thing we have to keep in mind is the first-wave feminist movement (which I talk about more in detail here) was made up mainly of white, upper-class, and upper-middle-class women. These women had ideas about morality and virtue that were pretty rigid We also want to keep in mind that at this time, circuses had a reputation for being not-so-virtuous places. Some even participated in criminal activities such as graft and pickpocketing. So women who worked for the circus were seen as questionable when it came to their moral standing, whether it was true or not (and in many cases, it wasn’t, as large circuses like Barnum & Bailey and the Ringing Brothers kept stringent rules for all their performers regarding their conduct – so much so that the Ringing Brothers’ circus was known as the Sunday School Circus). For these early suffragists who worked hard to portray the movement as one based upon virtue and morality, they feared including circus women in their fight would tarnish their reputation.

There was also another problem. Circus women were in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, they didn’t really experience as much of the kind of inequalities their sisters were fighting for. Circus women were usually treated as equals to men in the circus and as for their salaries, it was well known that circus stars like Lillian Leitzel were paid more than their male counterparts. On the other hand, circus managers and promoters were well aware of the stigma of circus women as “unfeminine” because they were working women and because many of them had the physical strength of men (think about it: You can’t be a fainting Victorian lady grabbing the smelling salts at the least physical exertion if you’re performing on a trapeze or a tightrope). Because of this, they often portrayed these women performers as just as “feminine” as any other woman, eager to get out of the ring to tend to their cleaning and cooking and dress in the confining clothes of the day the moment they were out of leotards.

The feminist movement eventually capitulated and accepted the circus women into their movement mainly because they realized how sincere these women were in their beliefs in women’s rights. 

If you want to read about more circus women who believed in women’s rights, pick up a copy of Murder Under a Twilight Roof, on preorder now at a special price, 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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Women in History: Inspirational Quotes

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Happy International Women’s Day! How about a couple of inspirational quotes from some of the women who made history throughout the years? Enjoy!

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

— Mary Wollstonecraft

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again.” 

— Sojourner Truth

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

— Audre Lorde

“Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.”

— Gloria Steinem

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!

Works Cited

Elle.com. “81 Gloria Steinem Quotes to Celebrate Her 81st Birthday.” Elle. 25 March 2015. Web. 26 February 2020.

Kelly, Erin. “33 Inspirational Quotes for Women That Can Make Anyone Feel Empowered.” ATI. 26 April 2018. Web. 26 February 2020.

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