Today is International Women’s Day, and a group of the Authors 18 are writing about what that means to them and how feminist ideals have influenced their work.
I wrote From Unseen Fire long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements caught fire, but my heroine, Latona, would be all about them.
Ancient Rome was far from the worst time in history to be a woman. You had legal rights. You could own property. You could run a business and make quite a bit of money doing it. Unlike the Greek women, you had freedom of movement outside the house. Raping you was a severe crime (as long as you were a free woman, that is) and punishable by the loss of a man’s hands or genitals. If you were of middling or above social class, you probably got some sort of an education, at least enough to be considered literate. You could hold religious office and earn great respect for it. You could wield phenomenal political power behind the scenes, as women like Cornelia, Fulvia, Livia, both Agrippinae, Plotina, Sabina, Julia Domna, and Helena can attest. And, since Rome had decent sanitation and health care, as well as a plant that was so effective as birth control it was eventually driven to extinction, you were somewhat less likely to die in childbirth than other women before modern times.
So, not the worst.
But not, like, ideal.
You had rights, but you still weren’t, y’know, a full citizen. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t speak at the public rostrum (except in a few extreme circumstances). You still belonged to a man, usually your father or husband, but if they were both dead, then perhaps a brother or uncle. Only if they all died and the courts couldn’t find anyone to take you on might you be named a woman in suo jure, in charge of herself. You might wield power behind the scenes, but if you came too far out into the open, you were considered a monster of some kind, derided either as mannish or as a succubus. Beating you was frowned upon, but legal. If you were lower-class, your career options were limited; if you were upper-class, they were nonexistant. Wherever you were, unless you were a Vestal Virgin, you were expected to be fruitful and multiply. Rape still, of course, happened, and if you didn’t have more money and influence than the rapist, bringing the violator to court and getting justice could be challenging-to-impossible; if you were a slave, absolutely impossible. Social expectations hemmed in your behavior pretty much everywhere.
This is the world that Latona of the Vitelliae finds herself chafing against. Aven adds the component of magic, and Latona is incredibly gifted. She’s never been allowed to discover just how talented she is, though. Her parents were fearful for her, worrying that if she made her powers known, she would be a target for use and abuse by unscrupulous men. They’re also worried about her emotions; the Vitellians are known for their tempers, and Latona’s elements, Fire and Spirit, can so easily run out of control. They try first to hide her in a temple, but when her mentor dies, the new High Priestess, worried that Latona’s power and influence will outstrip her own, sends her back home. So her parents marry her to a wealthy but unimportant nobody, hoping it will keep her beneath notice. It doesn’t work. As readers will learn in the prologue (so this doesn’t really count as a spoiler), Latona is too fiercely devoted to her family to stand aside when they’re threatened. She uses her magic to protect them from a vicious Dictator — and while she keeps the magical manipulation secret, she draws the Dictator’s attention for her earthly attributes. She considers it a bargain she makes for her family’s lives; we would certainly call it rape. As though that weren’t enough trauma to be getting along with, her relationship with her husband, never more than dutiful, deteriorates after that, from cold and distant to outright emotionally abusive.
So this is where the beginning of From Unseen Fire finds her: wound so tightly she’s about to explode. She’s been gaslit into believing she’s dangerous, that she can’t control herself, that her emotions will cause chaos if expressed; she’s been told that claiming her power will only make her prey; she’s been abused and traumatized and has rationalized it all to herself as sacrifice; she has stood by while others were abused because she couldn’t save them without endangering herself and her sisters, though she hates herself for the inaction; she’s unhappy in her marriage and has been unable to conceive a child, and so she worries she’s a disappointment to her patron goddess Juno; she knows, deep down, that she is capable of so much more than the confines of her life have allowed, but at every turn, she gets nudged, coddled, bullied, or outright shoved back inside those suffocating parameters.
Her whole life, Latona has tried to make herself smaller, so that she’ll fit into the world around her.
She’s about to burst.
I think that’s a feeling a lot of women can relate to, no matter when or in what conditions they live.
And be sure to check out these other 2018 debuts featuring women taking action against injustice in society: