Tag Archives: girl power

Women at the Fall of Civilizations

May 20, 2014

TaraThe other day, my friend Felicity and I were sitting around at lunch talking about historical precedent for the decline of civilizations and the people who succeed in creating a new world out of the ashes of failure. Yeah, lunch at our table is like that. I had started out talking about thematic elements of the sci-fi series, Grace’s Moon, that I’m going to start publishing in July and the backstory for the first book, Saving Grace. But the more we talked about hypotheticals of the future, the more we realized that there are strong correlations to things that have happened in the past. Not only that, we have some pretty spiffy representations of building a new world out of the old in popular entertainment!

I am, of course, talking about the shocking similarities between Scarlett O’Hara and the world she lived in and the changes it saw and Lady Mary Crawley, her world and its changes. Like a proverbial light bulb going off over my head, it dawned on me that these two women have a whole lot in common. They are survivors of two cataclysmic changes that ripped the carpet out from under the feet of their class contemporaries.

There are a lot of parallels that can be made between the antebellum South and British nobility in the early 20th century. Both societies were built on strong class foundations that went back for generations. Old families had old money and the estates to prove it. Southern plantations were their own little empires, just as the great estates of the British nobility were reminders of Europe’s feudal past. The social order was strictly maintained. Granted, you can’t exactly compare Southern slaves with British estate downstairs staff, but the gap between rich and poor was there in both cases.

Downton AbbeyThen came the change. In both cases, change was brought on by war. Also in both cases, the societies in question had begun to teeter a little before the war. The Southern economy was a real problem as technology advanced. The very agrarian dependence that had made them great was slowly becoming a handicap as the means of manufacturing were located increasingly in the North. For early 20th century Britain, the economic problems were coming in the form of grand estates going bankrupt, also as wider economic demands shifted to cities and factories and away from the old agrarian center. War merely forced the issue in both cases.

As both Scarlett and Lady Mary were quick to grasp, the only way to hold onto what they had and what they loved was to change to fit the changing times. The very title Gone With the Wind is a sad commentary about what happened to most of the great Southern plantations and families. They folded under the weight of their unpreparedness. But not Scarlett. Scarlett was shrewd and a little bit merciless. She saw what was going on and did whatever it took to salvage what was hers. Whether that meant going out and working in the fields so that she could eat or marrying a man she didn’t like so that she could take over his mill, she was willing to do it. She had her faults, but blindness was not one of them.

The same goes for Lady Mary. Although the salvation of Downton Abbey in a time when all of her peers were losing their estates to bankruptcy was not quite a single-handed (or close to it) effort, like Scarlett’s, she certainly saw which way the wind was blowing. If you boil it down, the entire plot of Downton Abbey is that the estate belongs, in spirit if not in name, to Mary, and come hell or high water, she is going to save it. Whether that means marrying the heir (which worked out nicely, considering she loved him) or getting down and dirty with the pigs, she is willing to do it. What she doesn’t know, she learns (which is why she and Tom Branson make such a great team, imho). She will save that estate while all the others fall.

Scarlett_MaryI think it’s more than just a literary coincidence that both Tara and Downton Abbey were saved by strong women. Women’s history is all too often swept under the carpet of academic study, but we can still find it in literature and personal accounts. Whether it’s the Civil War or WWI, when the men went off to fight, the women stayed home and ran their estates. Men may have controlled politics, but you can easily make the case that women ran the economy. More than a few great estates survived wars because clever women were behind the wheel. It’s just a shame that they had to hand over the reins once their men came home. Although if you dig a little, it’s pretty apparent that in many cases they didn’t.

So here’s to you, Scarlett and Mary! I hope that we have strong women like you around when our modern house of cards falls down.

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Will They Or Won’t They (Ever Learn)

May 12, 2014
The most romantic thing a man can do for a woman is read aloud to her, with voices

The most romantic thing a man can do for a woman is read aloud to her, with voices

Today I’m going to diverge from my usual topics of writing and history to talk about the other thing nearest and dearest to my heart: Romance. Not just any romance, though. I want to talk about the way that romance is handled by television, because there’s something that TV does to 95% of all good small screen romances that drives me completely bonkers. I am, of course, talking about the myth that getting the “will they or won’t they” couple together kills the show.

Now, I don’t actually watch TV these days. I have too many other things to do! But I do download my favorite show to watch when I have time. I pretty much watch one and only one show, The Mindy Project. (Downton Abbey doesn’t count, btw, because it’s more of a seasonal mini-series than a show) I watch Mindy because I find it to be some of the most brilliant, zingy writing on TV. I also watch it because, like me, Mindy is a hopeless romantic and rom-com fan.

Yes, I spent the entire second season waiting with giggling, baited breath to see if the writers would get Mindy and Danny together. Yes, I squeed my pants when they had THE KISS on the airplane. We’re talking serious romantic-y crack here! I came to the conclusion that very possibly the most romantic thing a man could do for a woman is to read Bridget Jones’ Diary aloud to her, doing the accents in the episode where Danny did just that. And this season’s season finale? I almost cried.

So imagine my horror when I was surfing the internet the next morning, only to find this blog post on the Washington Post site about how bringing Mindy and Danny together is more or less sitcom suicide! I was livid! No, I was more than livid, I was sorely disappointed in the writer of this blog and in the entire faulty belief that in order for a television show with a romantic pairing to keep its comedic edge and its viewers, the central couple can never get together.

I’ve actually felt this way for years. As a romance writer, I spend a lot of time keeping heroes and heroines apart, only to have them get together at the very end of the book. Actually, I personally tend not to do that. I prefer to have my characters get together somewhere in the middle or even beginning of the book and have them face challenges together until the end. I’ve always been let down by those show that keep the couple apart until the show is on the verge of being canceled. They miss out on a wealth of opportunities and, dare I say it, they take the easy way out.

I was crazy about Mad About You

I was crazy about Mad About You

Comedy, drama, and human interest do not end when a couple gets together. In order to be engaging and to keep an audience, two people in love do not have to be kept constantly apart. There is far more to the essentials of tension and conflict in a relationship than having the hero and heroine be at odds with one another in a way that will destroy their relationship. And frankly, I’m sick of the television world failing time and again to portray relationships as strong, loving, lasting, and funny, entertaining, and moving at the same time.

They say having a couple get together kills a show, but what about Mad About You? I absolutely loved that show! And it was about two married people. They were a couple from the beginning and they stayed a couple until the end, with all the usual bumps, weirdness, laughs, and tears of a real couple. The show was phenomenal, and it won tons of awards and made Helen Hunt’s career. It also, by the way, made my brother cry during the episode where their daughter was born. My brother. Cry. (I’m so glad he doesn’t read my blog right about now!)

I’m thrilled that The Mindy Project was renewed, but anxious that it was only renewed for 15 episodes instead of a full season. But if the writers of the show are out there, please hear this! I beg of you, please let Mindy and Danny stay in their relationship and get married. Please satisfy all of the millions of fans who know that contained within that wacky, perfect relationship is all the comedy you need to keep us laughing ourselves off our couches and crying over our downloads for years and years to come! Keep Mindy and Danny together! Set the example not only for the television world, but for the impressionable minds who watch too much TV and think anything less than commitment to the one you love is normal.

Mindy and Danny 2As for we writers, The Mindy Project is a brilliant example of how the comedy and drama of the story comes from the richness of the characters. All of the characters on the show (except maybe Jeremy, who they just can’t seem to get right) have so much depth and sparkle. As a writer, you need to develop as many dimensions to your characters as possible and then just let them loose in their world and a story will be born. I watch The Mindy Project because just about every episode teaches me something about the craft of writing romance. Mindy Kaling is one of my heroes because of her vision and talent.

Keep up the good work, Mindy! Don’t let Hollywood take you down the wrong path. Let love and romance rule!

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How Could They Even Think That???

Apr 08, 2014

manners for men and womenLast week, a couple of my friends shared an article on Facebook that has been making the rounds. It’s a series of extremely sexist ads from earlier in the 20th century. By 21st century standards, they’re incredibly misogynistic and damning. I mean, the best you can buy for your wife for Christmas is household appliances? You are actually suggesting that she should cry to get what she wants?

My initial scornful reaction quickly took a backseat to a whole different thought, though. One of the things that is debated over and over with those of us who write historical novels is the fact that you can’t interpret the actions and morals of any given era of history using nothing but modern sensibilities and viewpoints. In days gone by, people actually thought differently about things, hard as it is for us to grasp. Stuff that make modern women in particular rage wouldn’t have been a concern to women of, say, the 19th century or earlier.

The feminine ideal in the 19th century, for example, was vastly different from what women are taught to aspire to now. Not just superficially, either. Here in the 21st century we can look back at women in the 19th century and be appalled about their lack of legal rights (which 21st century pop-culture has exaggerated, btw), their inability to inherit or vote, and the appearance that they were the property of their husbands. Yes, those inequalities lit up a section of the female population, pushing them on to pass reforms and change the standard of living for women. For just as many or more women, though, what we in the 21st century see as egregious violations of human rights were non-issues.

I know, I know. I hear your heart and soul rebelling at the concept. I hear the sputtering and the whole “How can you possibly say that women were happy living like that?” But guess what? Many of them were! We can’t translate our 21st century ideals onto 19th century women across the board when their ideals were so different than our own. That’s not to say that 19th or early 20th century women laughed in the face of spousal abuse or smiled prettily at cruel treatment by some. The point is that for the vast majority of boring, uneventful, contented lives and relationships, what we balk at was what they strived to achieve.

Sewing Manual 1949I loved one of the comments that a woman posted on Facebook in response to these sewing manual instructions from 1949. The commenter noted that her mother and her friends followed this advice to the T and were proud to do it. They were proud of their lives as homemakers and delighted in achieving all of those things we are outraged by now. The commenter also noticed that her mother and her friends didn’t have a divorce among them and had happy marriages of 50+ years. Different attitudes, different times.

I just want to note one other thing about the shift in attitudes, ideals, and social standards that took place around the 1920s. It wasn’t just attitudes about how women should behave. I am always struck when I read advice books from the 19th century about how men should behave, both in their lives and business and with women. It was a very different kind of chivalry that produced a very different kind of man. In fact, when I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, the point was made that our modern preference for outgoing, aggressive, loud, macho men is a 20th century invention, and that in the 19th century, men were praised more for prudence, careful thought, and for not being overly outwardly aggressive or loud. How things have changed!

Anyhow, all this got me to thinking. We look back at women of the 19th and early 20th century with more censure than we should and with indignation about how they could put up with that kind of behavior. I wonder what those women would think about the lifestyles and ideals that women of the 21st century cling to.

Number one, I think 19th century women would be shocked and appalled at the way women in the 21st century dress. They would take one look at our fashion and shudder at how skimpy, revealing, and ugly it has become. I think they would see it as cheap and unfeminine, considering that clothing in the 19th century was tailored rather than off-the-rack and accentuated the feminine form (have you seen what a corset does to a woman’s shape?) rather than uncovering it.

victorian women riverI also think that 19th century woman would shudder at how many expectations are thrust on women of the 21st century without any sort of reassurances or reciprocations. You mean 21st century women are expected to work outside the home, supporting their families—if they even have one—and to maintain a household at the same time? Remember, the recession we just went through was hardest on men, and there are now a large number of households where the woman brings home the bacon while the men are still searching for jobs. I think a 19th century woman would find it horrible that so many women don’t have a husband to take care of them.

I especially think that 19th and early 20th century women would be outraged by sexual expectations. Women are expected to be sexually active outside of marriage? With no guarantee that a man would support the children that might come out of those kinds of activities? And women are okay with this? Where is the security in life? Where is the connection and the caring?

Now, do you find yourself getting angry over these assumptions I’m making about how 19th century women would see us? Are you ready to fight and argue that it is ridiculous to assume they would view our lives like that and, in fact, it was their 19th and early 20th century lives that had it all wrong? Well, that’s the point. You may be offended if the women of the past looked with utter distain on the values that we hold dear today, just as I believe they would be offended to see their great-great-granddaughters holding them in such contempt for the ideals they believed in.

Times have changed and attitudes have changed with them, but it is absolutely wrong of us to scorn what were genuinely the things that women who came before us wanted. Their lives were not ours and they were not suited to our ideals. So next time you see one of these memes or articles pop up that makes fun of how women were seen in a different time, stop to consider it from the viewpoint of that moment in history before denigrating generations who lived happily well before you were even born.

 

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Victorian Husbands and Wives

Jul 15, 2013
The Courtship, by Charles Green

The Courtship, by Charles Green

A lot of press is given to the horrible inequalities of men and women in the Victorian era and how restricted and controlled women were in the 19th century. The first thing that springs to mind when we think about women in the Victorian era is that women were property, legally owned by their husbands (who were allowed to beat them with no consequences), unable to vote or maintain ownership of the property they had before marriage, who were even worse off if they remained unmarried, and who were, in the end, nothing more than slaves of the men in their lives.

I’ve always had a problem with this view of things. Yes, it’s true on paper. Legally, women in the 19th century had very few individual rights. No property, no vote, no recourse to divorce if they ended up with a dud, and no chance at all of maintaining custody of their children if there was a split. Those things are all true. And they sucked! But people knew they sucked. That’s why women’s rights became an increasingly huge issue throughout the century, why the various suffragette movements exploded in voice and popularity, and why the laws were changed. Continue reading

2013 Book #14 ___ and Book #15 – Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

May 31, 2013

Okay, books #14 and #15 are getting a tag-team book report because they are an absolute study in opposites. One kept me glued to the page, making excuses to sit down and read just so that I could imbibe it, and the other one was so lacking that I gave up after about 40%. (Funny how we don’t talk about page numbers anymore, just percentage on our eReaders) One, you will notice, I did not even name in the title of this blog, and the other was Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me?, by Mindy Kaling.

Mindy Book

As you might have guessed, in spite of my clever little switcheroo trick there, the one that I didn’t name was the one that I couldn’t finish. But I loved Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? like an old friend that I couldn’t get enough of and just wanted to hang out with. No Name Book was a novel, Mindy Kaling’s book is a memoir. Is it fair to compare the two? I think so, and here’s why. Continue reading