Young Feminists in Historical Fiction

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This is one of those posts that has the potential to get me into trouble with people who know more about this topic than I do. But that’s okay. Maybe it’ll turn out to be another interesting discussion in the comments!

I’m currently 200 pages into Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, one of the Newbery Honor books for this year. It’s historical fiction set in Texas in 1899, and the main character is the eleven-year-old only daughter of a wealthy family (“her daddy’s in cotton”). And partly because she’s the only girl among six brothers, Calpurnia spends a good chunk of the book questioning gender roles.

I’ve heard many times the argument that too often historical fiction places a heroine with a modern feminist perspective back in a time period when people didn’t have the modern ideals that we do now, thus invalidating such historical fiction by making it anachronistic.

For me, I just wonder where the line is. How do we know when a character is too modern in her sensibilities? Weren’t plenty of women in history far beyond their time in picturing rights for women that would take many more lifetimes to come about?

I use a speech from 1851 every semester with my beginning comp class as we learn about rhetoric, and it’s a speech that was given at a women’s rights convention by an emancipated slave self-named Sojourner Truth. She says at one part,

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?

I do wonder: If women were talking about suffrage in these ways, what’s so wrong with having a feminist main character in a historical setting? When does the character cross the line into being too modern?

I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve read about Calpurnia, and I think for me the line is that the questions the character raises about gender roles have to make sense for her situation. Calpurnia hangs out with her grandfather, who is a naturalist, and learns to love it so much that girly things like knitting (for example) become a nuisance because they get in the way. The more time she’s forced to spend on traditional women’s work, the fewer daylight hours are left for exploring their 600 acres with her grandfather. It makes sense that she would wonder why she should have to do certain things simply because of her gender.

The way she questions the world seems natural to me, and maybe that’s the difference.

What do you think? Have you read historical fiction on both sides, both where the feminism felt too modern and where it felt right for the time? What makes the distinction for you?

Leave a comment!

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4 responses »

  1. At LTUE last month, one of the panelist said that we weren’t trying to make our stories historically accurate so much as trying to portray truth, specifically truth that is understandable to us today. Sometimes having such a strictly accurate representation of a person living in the past makes them so alien that we can’t identify with them. And, after all, we’re writing for people today.

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    • Thanks for sharing. That’s a perspective I hadn’t heard before. I think it would be a very hard line to walk, since so many readers claim to be turned off by historical protagonists who feel too modern. I admire writers who can do historical fiction well!

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  2. I don’t think that your answer lies in historical fiction, but in non-fiction. For example, Cokie Robert’s book, Founding Mothers, features many historical letters written by women (Abigail Adams comes to mind) who were frustrated with a woman’s traditional role in society. A.A. famously petitioned her husband to “remember the ladies” (March 31, 1776) when considering new laws for post independence.

    If you do want to go the fiction route, however, Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Jo’ from Little Women (first pub. 1868) springs to mind.

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    • That’s exactly what I’m wondering. Why is it that when we have so many historical examples of real women who thought these ways, fictional characters can seem unrealistic to us? And yes, I love Jo and think you’re on to something by mentioning when it was published because that publication date also gives us clues about how women were thinking about their roles at the time.

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