Young Feminists in Historical Fiction

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?

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Women’s Lib, Strong Female Characters, and YA Lit

Does it seem to anyone else that feminism, which was meant to be freeing for women, somehow instead became restrictive, limiting our idea of what makes a strong woman?

I feel as though I lack a complete perspective, since I was born after the movement for women’s rights, but I have read The Feminist Mystique and I have read plenty of contemporary literature. It seems to me that somewhere along the way feminism adopted the attitude that we needed to reverse the old hegemony and actually have women be stronger than men and almost hostile toward them. It seems like feminism expected women to reject femininity, because it’s a “weakness,” and also to reject traditionally female pursuits, because they’re “less worthy.”

Similarly, it seems like feminism suggested that wanting to marry or have children made you less of a woman. To really show the world women are equal, we all have to be top executives or top scholars and the female equivalent of confirmed bachelors.


I haven’t actually met any feminists of this degree in real life, but where I do meet them far too often is in the “strong female characters” of YA lit.

Too often, these strong females don’t seem at all female. They seem like what we once criticized men as being: obtuse. They seem emotionally disconnected, leaving the more “pathetic” role of relying on feelings and intuition to the supporting male characters in the book. They seem driven by a single purpose without regard for those around them, because being caring and nurturing are weak feminine traits. They reject the idea of allowing others to help them because a strong woman, apparently, doesn’t believe in team work. And too often, in the end they reject romance and men altogether in favor of careers and independence.

And when a female character in YA lit isn’t written that way, it seems like the character (and by extension, the author) gets criticized.

It frustrates me. I didn’t participate in the movements for Women’s Rights, but if I had, I would have been fighting for all my rights — including the right to be both strong and feminine, to choose both career and children, to have feminine pursuits considered just as worthwhile as traditionally male pursuits. I would have been fighting for the right to be considered an equal partner with my spouse/love — not better than him or stronger than him or more capable than him.

It’s a battle of ideology, and if our characters in literature didn’t win, I worry for our whole sex.

I’m not saying that all female characters are this way. I do read plenty that find ways to overcome the stereotypes. I just worry when the accolades seem to side with the excesses of feminism.

I don’t want to list negative examples here, and I do admit that I still find merit in “feminist” books. I’ve enjoyed many of them; I simply worry about the message it sends when those are the only female characters worth our praise.

Let me instead give an example of the kind of character traits I wish would receive more attention. Last week I finished Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, so it happens to be fresh in my mind, and I think that at least in this area it’s a useful book to consider, regardless of the fantasy elements.  [UPDATE: A comment alerted me to how unclear I was in this paragraph. I would rewrite it without the critical-sounding words “at least” or “regardless” — I simply meant that I don’t intend for the fantasy elements to matter for this discussion except as details of the story. :)]

I want to discuss it without creating spoilers for those who haven’t read it, but I also want to discuss a key element that will definitely spoil it, so watch for the spoiler alert to follow.

Wicked Lovely hinges on the conflicting desires of the two main characters.

Keenan is the Summer King of the fey, but he cannot come into his full power as king until he finds the mortal girl who is meant to rule next to him as Summer Queen. (Right there, you have to love it already, right? They have to share the responsibility, and it will take both of them — a guy and a girl working together — to have full power.)

Aislinn, as it quickly becomes obvious, is the one who is meant to be the Summer Queen. But she is in love with Seth — her mortal boyfriend — and Seth is in love with her. Aislinn is a strong character: she’s been enduring the awful struggle of dealing with Fairy Sight her entire life, able to see all the cruel things faeries do but having to pretend that she doesn’t see them. The last thing she wants is to be their queen. She wants to stay with Seth and go to college.

Still without spoiling too much, here’s what else I love about the setup. Seth and Aislinn help each other. They rely on each other for strength and support. They treat each other as equal partners. Similarly, Keenan has Donia, who is also strong but still feminine and who also helps and supports him. No one is made lesser by being in love. Love actually makes them stronger.


My favorite aspect, though, and where the women’s lib ideas really won me over in this book, is where Aislinn makes the choice we never expect: she chooses to view her role as Queen as a job and continue to love and be with Seth, continue to pursue college. She doesn’t let herself get boxed in by traditional expectations.

I cheered so hard: Yes! Yes! Yes! She stands up for herself and what she wants. She understands that she is the Summer Queen, that it feels right — that it’s her calling, her career — but she doesn’t let that dictate what else she can and can’t have. She chooses also to keep what is most important to her: Seth. And Seth stands by her, because regardless of what feminism may tell us, loyalty in relationships still counts.


To me, the heroines of literature need to be more like that. They need to help us see that relationships are important, that team work is important, that there are always compromises.

I still credit a literature professor of mine for helping me see outside the box as far as career-and-family compromises. He simply mentioned an example of somebody he knew where the husband worked Monday through Thursday and the wife worked on Fridays, so that way they shared the responsibility of being home with the kids. Before then, I had seen the choice as either/or: either I work full time and put my kids in day care, or I stay home full time and sacrifice my own career until they get to school. Because of a literature professor (and I suspect, though I can’t remember for sure, that his comment arose from whatever text we were reading and studying), I looked at my life choices differently, and now I teach two evenings a week while my husband’s home with the kids. We found our compromise.

I don’t believe literature needs to be purposely didactic. I don’t believe it should set out to teach young adults certain lessons about life. But I do appreciate the literature that happens to show out-of-the-box thinking — that reinforces good things, relationships being one of the top good things.

And I certainly don’t think we as a book community should be lauding only the “strong” female characters who shun men and all things feminine.

Just a thought.

What do you think? Is there a perspective I’m missing here? I’d love to hear more thoughts on the subject and more examples of strong heroines that you think get it right. [UPDATE: Here’s a link I just stumbled across to a discussion with Maggie Stiefvater and others about strong characters, if you’re interested. Love what Maggie says about resilience and how real strength is doing what needs to be done, no matter how hard it is.]

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