The Myth of the Feisty Woman #wwwblogs #womensfiction #histfic

boxing woman

My recent post about the portrayal of women of a certain age in fiction certainly seemed to strike a chord with many of you. So I thought I’d have another bit of a rant – this time about the way women are portrayed in historical fiction.

Now, I’m not talking about historical romance here, because to be honest it’s not a genre I read. In the historical fiction that I enjoy, there will be strong, likeable, intelligent female characters. These characters will often be inspiring and admirable. There are enough real historical women who have acted bravely and out of the bounds of convention after all. But, without exception, all of these women would have found it tough, and would have met resistance and hostility and often real danger.

So what really gets on my nerves in historical fiction is women who act rashly, or who are rebellious, or adventurous and who do these things without any consequences whatsoever. Women of upper class families who go out on their own, for example, without permission. And this is acceptable because after all, she’s a feisty one (god how I hate that word) and it’s all just a bit of a giggle.

And women who show no fear. Who stand up to adversity and discrimination and their fear, their anger, their frustration isn’t portrayed. I’m willing to bet everything I have that every single woman who stood on the gallows, accused of witchcraft was utterly, completely terrified. That every single woman who fell under suspicion and was arrested and tortured felt helpless. That every single woman who wanted more for herself than to be a wife or a mother felt totally frustrated and angry.

When I wrote ‘The Black Hours’ I wanted to show that what happened to these women accused of witchcraft was terrifying. In too many books and films these women stand up for themselves and are defiant. Would they really have been? Or would they have crumbled, and cried and begged for mercy? And wouldn’t you? I think we do a disservice to these women when we write their feelings out of our fiction. What I was trying to get across with Alice, and with Maggie, was that they were completely, utterly helpless. Alice had no agency at all. No one, absolutely no one, was going to help her. It would have done no good for her to be feisty. She just had to bear it and she just had to suffer.

I began reading a book the other week that was a best-seller. The author is well-respected and very, very successful. I’ll admit I had my reservations before I began. The book is set in France, during the occupation. In the opening scenes, a local woman, very young, very clever, very outspoken, is put into a situation that could end with her being killed. But she’s fine, because she’s strong, and brave and clever and beautiful and feisty. She stands up to the nasty Gestapo officer. And all is fine.

How utterly insulting to all the women who tried to deal with the occupation and keep their children safe in whatever way they could, but failed. What a judgement on those who weren’t feisty enough or pretty enough or brave enough. I wouldn’t be brave in that situation. I doubt that I’d even stand up for myself.

I know fiction is make-believe. I know that people can act differently in fictional worlds to how they act in the real one. But I also feel strongly that we owe it to the millions and millions of women that have suffered, that have been tortured and murdered and abused and vilified and subjugated, throughout history, to portray them honestly. A woman that confessed under torture to things she hadn’t done; a woman that betrayed someone because she was scared for her children; a woman that didn’t do all the things she was capable of because she couldn’t. Because not everyone was bloody Florence Nightingale (although she certainly had her share of the struggle). These women are part of female history too. So, if you’re writing historical fiction, please be authentic to these women; to how they would have been and what they would have done. And please, do remember: there weren’t many happy endings.



  1. Great post – obviously most applicable to historical fiction, since, I completely agree, it is insulting, not just to the individuals, but to our understanding of historical culture, to have women behave in such a way and have that behaviour rewarded, when in reality they would have had to cope with things differently.

    It’s so irritating in any genre of book with traditional gender roles, when a woman is held up on pedestals as being braver than those around her, when that is not the case. They’re not braver than anyone else, just the cultural rules don’t come into play when they are concerned. You regularly see Authors breaking their own world rules to have characters like this get away with their behaviour.

    On top of being annoying, that’s just not fun. How am I supposed to enjoy reading about a woman who I’m supposed to be able to admire, when she’s not admirable? Because she’s not using her quick wits or her own skills, she doesn’t play by the rules and find some new angle – no – the rules just don’t affect her. That’s not something to be admired, that’s just nonsense.

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  2. Thank you!! As a history teacher and reader, this is something that continually frustrates me. Thank you for expressing the problem so well. Historical women were real people with real emotions, limitations, and constraints. To ignore that is to do a disservice to their struggle and to make a mockery of those who faced hardship and sacrifice so that we can now enjoy freedom and equality with men.

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  3. it’s unfortunately that so many strong characters are shown to be without flaw, without fear. It is the fact that they faced those fears, that they moved on in spite of those fears, that showed how strong they truly were!

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  4. A very thoughtful post, Alison. I’m currently writing a historical novel about a Pilgrim woman, and I need to remember not to make her into a hero! I do love reading biographies about real women – the very few – who bucked the odds in the societies of their times. I’m thinking of Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth Blackwell, Marie Curie…

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