women’s politics

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.

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Emmeline Pankhurst – Deeds not Words

emmeline
Today would have been the birthday of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement in Britain, lathough the woman herself did not believe this day to actually be her birthday. She always maintained that she had in fact been born a day earlier, on the 14th July – Bastille Day. Various books about her, including some written by her children, repeat this claim. Bastille Day would indeed have made an appropriate birthday, and Emmeline is said to have felt an affinity with the female revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille. In June Purvis’ 2002 biography, she is quoted as saying: “I have always thought that the fact that I was born on that day had some kind of influence over my life.”

Whether or not today is actually her 156th birthday, it is still an excuse, if one were needed, to celebrate the life of a remarkable woman to whom all women should be grateful. It is easy to forget that it was less than 100 years ago that woman were given the right to vote. If it hadn’t been for Emmeline Pankhurst, the fight might have taken a lot longer. And if you think suffragettes were like the rather dizzy mother portrayed in ‘Mary Poppins’ then think again; Emmeline and her colleagues were made of much sterner stuff, and the suffragette movement was no Disneyesque fantasy.

Emmeline was born in Moss Side, Manchester to politically active parents. This may have had some bearing on her own political views, as may have the French finishing school she later attended. The headmistress there believed that girls’ education was just as important as boys’ and subjects such as chemistry and book keeping were taught alongside the more traditional ‘female’ subjects.

Emmeline married at the age of twenty. Her husband, Dr Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer, was twenty four years older. He was a radical and a socialist and believed in women’s rights. The couple had five children. All their daughters, including Christabel, became active in the women’s’ suffrage movement with their mother.

wspu

It was Emmeline who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) a group dedicated to practical activism in order to obtain equal voting rights for woman. The group’s motto was ‘Deeds not Words’ and it gained a reputation for its tactics – these involved demonstrations, cutting telephone lines, destroying greenhouses at Kew Gardens and chaining themselves to railings. Many women were arrested and imprisoned, Emmeline amongst them. In Holloway, Emmeline staged her first hunger strike in an attempt to improve conditions for the other suffragettes imprisoned there. Other activists followed suit, and force-feeding began. Emmeline was spared this trauma however. As she recounts in her biography ‘My Own Story’, when officers tried to enter her cell, she held a clay jug over her head, threatening to defend herself.

Emmeline in prison

Emmeline in prison

Emmeline continued to break the law, continued to be imprisoned and continued to go on hunger strike, a process that proved extremely detrimental to her health. However, the First World War put a stop to the movement’s activities, and Emmeline threw herself into helping the war effort. She organised rallies, gave speeches and lobbied the government on the issue of helping women to enter the workforce in order to fill gaps left by fighting men. She also became involved in helping ‘war babies’; those children born to single mothers whose fathers were away fighting.
With the end of the war came the 1918 Representation of the People Act which granted the vote to certain women over the age of thirty.

Emmeline continued to be involved with politics. Surprisingly to some, she joined the Conservative Party in 1926 and was selected as a candidate for Whitechapel and St George in 1928. However, her health had been impacted by her frequent incarcerations and hunger strikes and she died that same year at the age of 69. Just eighteen days later, Parliament passed the Representation of the People (equal franchise) Act 1928, giving the vote to all women over the age of twenty-one regardless of property ownership. Finally, women had equality with men in terms of voting. It was a shame that Emmeline, after devoting her life and sacrificing her health to the cause, never got to see her dream fully realised.