Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

A few days ago, I finally saw Wonder Woman, and it was as delightful as the internet had promised me it would be. I want more movies like this. I want sequels. I want prequels that just focus on the Amazons kicking ass thousands of years ago. I want spin-offs. And I want more heroines, all over the place. More movies focusing on women as central characters, unapologetically, from all kinds of stories and backgrounds and cultures and facets of the multiverse. I want princesses and generals and princesses who grow up to be generals.

I love that the major sentiment women have expressed after seeing this film has been: “Is this how guys feel all the time?” What a powerful thing it is, to come out of a movie feeling like you can take on the world.

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This dovetails with another thought I’ve been having lately: how much articles like “Not in this day and age: when will TV stop horrendously airbrushing history?” and “Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” annoy the living daylights out of me.

The basic premise of these articles (both of which appeared this summer) is that women couldn’t express feminist ideals before feminism existed — that writers should stop ascribing “modern” viewpoints to pre-modern female characters. Apparently not wanting to marry a guy who makes you miserable is a “laughably liberal” 21st-century ideal.

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Let’s set aside that such complaints register a pretty narrow and (yes, I’ll say it, despite the esteemed source quote of one of those articles) uninformed view of women in history. I could point to example after example of women throughout time and across continents who demanded some degree of agency and control over their own destinies — and, in fact, I’m doing so over on Patreon!

And let’s also set aside that these complaints about ahistoricity are always centered on women‘s supposed societal transgressions: whether it’s sexual agency, domestic and economic power, disobeying their husbands, whatever, the thinkpieces always want to complain about women not behaving as they expect. Funny, isn’t it?, how the complaints about historical realism are never about suspiciously literate stable boys, the unlikelihood of landless rogues being able to afford the upkeep of warhorses, or the preponderance of male tavernkeepers in an age when brewing was a primarily female occupation.

But even if we grant the articles’ premise that modern historical fiction creates anachronisms in the independence/sexual agency/snarkiness of its female characters — Why in the name of Juno shouldn’t it?

Women are finally beginning to get their own degree of fantasy fulfillment in sci-fi and fantasy. Yet in historical fiction — a genre that has long placed female characters front and center, showcasing their emotional journeys — writers are disparaged for doing the same. Though, I suppose, it’s also worth noting that historical fiction is a genre where male authors have long been taken “seriously” and female authors have been dismissed with the same derision as romance novelists.

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I resent the implication that my modern fiction — the books I read and the shows I watch for pleasure, for personal enjoyment — shouldn’t reflect the sorts of heroines that modern women want to see and enjoy. I resent the implication that any girl discovering history through a fictional lens (as most of us do) should be denied the sorts of role models she deserves.

I’m a historian. A persnickety one, sometimes. I twitch when New World fruits and vegetables get mentioned in Old World stories. I flinch when I see patterned fabrics in pre-industrial-manufacturing societies (looking at you, Hobbits). I’ve spent hours combing my own manuscripts for words that wouldn’t be conceptually available to my characters, even though they’re speaking another language (it is shockingly difficult to discuss energy-based magic without the language of the atomic age — another upcoming Patreon post).

But let me state quite flatly: if my historical fiction features an unusually high proportion of smart, sassy women, I have no objection whatsoever. I’ve no doubt that some will take umbrage at the Vitelliae and their patriarchy-challenging transgressions — and I simply could not care less.

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Give me fantasy fulfillment in every genre — just as men get and have always gotten.

Figures in History: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Mary_Sydney_HerbertLady Mary Herbert, nee Sidney, was one of the foremost minds of Elizabethan England. More literary works in the period are dedicated to her than to any other woman, save only the Queen. She wrote and translated herself, and was perhaps the first female playwright in England; though her plays were never performed, one likely served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. When her brother, Philip Sidney, a famous courtier and poet, died in the war in the Netherlands, Oxford and Cambridge published elegies to him and refused to let her contribute — so she basically thumbed her nose at them, marched herself to a printer, and published them herself — in addition to completing Philip’s last great work and publishing it as “The Countress of Pembroke’s Arcadia”.

Lady Mary was part of a family of extraordinary women. Her mother, Mary Sidney, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth during her early reign, and in fact nursed the queen through smallpox in 1562. The queen survived, but Mary Sidney was badly scarred and never really appeared in public again. (The queen was less than gracious about this). Mary Herbert was also the aunt of the later English poet Lady Mary Wroth.

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Me at Ludlow, geeking out over imagining my heroine running around this castle as a little girl

Mary grew up at Ludlow Castle (the ruins of which I was lucky enough to visit this summer), most often inseparably in the company of her sister Ambrosia. Their mother reportedly dressed them alike, and when Ambrosia died young, Mary was very greatly affected by the loss. To help her in her grief (and perhaps finally feeling a bit of pity for her erstwhile friend Mary Sidney), Queen Elizabeth suggested that young Mary come to court. Not long afterwards, her uncle Leicester (yes, that Leicester) arranged a marriage for Lady Mary with the much-older Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. He probably had about thirty years on her, but this actually seemed to work out quite well for them. His first two wives had left him with no children, and then Mary popped out four in five years. He was so delighted with her over this that thereafter, he pretty much gave her whatever she wanted. Invite over poets and writers for readings? Sure. Write your own play and want your friends to come over and read it? No problem. Custom-made laboratory so that you can have botanists and chemists come work and study just because it interests you? Go right ahead.

We don’t have any letters or diaries that speak to the personal nature of their relationship, but those details suggest to me that Henry Herbert was utterly besotted with his clever young wife. When he died, his will left her a truly enormous sum of money on the stipulation that she not remarry — and she never did.

That brings me to really the only scandal anyone ever came up with surrounding the Countess of Pembroke. Truly, she was beloved at just an absurd level. The royal court of Elizabethan England was, at best, a petty and back-biting place, and at worst, downright cutthroat. Yet almost no one has anything bad to say about Mary. She was considered beautiful, gracious, talented, witty, and virtuous. The only teensy tiny little blot on that near perfect record is an implication that she might have started having an affair with a doctor sometime after 1600 — by which point she would have been in her 40s, past childbearing, and probably she would’ve married him if it hadn’t been for the loss of income that would’ve entailed. It’s also possible that the scandal-lite was being pushed by one of her own sons (who did not live up to their mother’s virtuous reputation) who wanted to force her to remarry so that they’d have more cash on hand.

Ultimately, her reputation in her own day is summed up in her epitaph:

Underneath this sable hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

If a female English-speaking writer were looking for a patron saint, you could do far worse than Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

Sisters, sisters…

So this has been on my mind for a while, but the recent #Ham4Austen meme, courtesy of @Drunk_Austen, has revived my desire to chatter about it.

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Kindly ignore my tragic misspelling of Bennett; I stand by this statement anyway.

As the deal announcement for my forthcoming novel stated, the backbone of the story belongs largely to three sisters: the Vitelliae — who are, in the creativity of Roman naming conventions, Aula Vitellia Prima (called Aula), Aula Vitellia Secunda (called Latona), and Aula Vitellia Prima (called Alhena). As I’ve discussed before, my inspiration for them came from a painting, but I think it’s slightly more than coincidence that much of the novel has been written and revised while I’ve had not just thematically-appropriate HBO’s Rome and the BBC classic I, Claudius running in the background (I am nearly incapable of working in silence), but also Downton Abbey, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Their relationships, with each other and with those outside the family, drive the story.

I wasn’t consciously adopting a pattern as I wrote, but nearly everyone who’s read the book thus far has commented on how the Vitelliae make them think of the Bennetts, the Crawleys, or the Schuylers. Sarah once asked me if it were intentional, and our notes back and forth are littered with references to Hamilton (not only because of the sisters — but a lot because of them). But it got me thinking just what the similarities and dissimilarities are, because my girls don’t align neatly to any of the characters they are, as a group, compared to.13516359_520496718154978_8947441272109785272_n

Pert, vivacious Aula Prima has the most in common, strangely, with Lydia Bennett — if Lydia Bennett had Angelica Schuyler’s political sense. She loves a good time, has a fondness for military men, and flirts with abandon — but unlike Lydia, she strives to keep her family out of scandal. Knowledgeable and adept, she hides a cunning mind and clever wit behind lively green eyes, pink cheeks, and bouncing auburn curls. In “a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” she turns her political ambitions towards her father and brother.

Editor!Sarah and I have a joke of referring to Alhena as “And Peggy”, but there’s really much more to her than that. She probably has the most in common with Mary Bennett, and maybe a little with Edith, though I think she’s a bit softer than either. She’s a more minor character than Aula and Latona, but she has a lot of room to grow and develop, but at the onset, she’s bookish, and almost painfully shy outside of her own family (with, you’ll learn, good reason).

And then my dear Latona, middle sister and primary protagonist. She’d get along sparklingly a dinner party with Mary and Sybille Crawley, Angelica Schuyler, and both Elizas Bennett and Hamilton, but I don’t know how much she has in common with any of them. She’s a slightly different type. None of the Misses I mention start with as much tragedy in their backgrounds as Latona. She feels Angelica’s frustration and ambition, shares Mary Crawley’s sense of responsibility and Sybille’s social justice, would appreciate Eliza Bennett’s wit, Eliza Hamilton’s yearning for a peaceful and prosperous domestic life… but she also suffers a repression that’s personal, not just societal, and it’s colored her deeply.

So what has made early readers feel such resonance with these sisterly sets? Something in the structure itself, I suspect. A sister is different than a friend. Friends, you can choose (and the Vitelliae have those as well, as I consciously did not want to create a world where women had no social connection outside their families). But sisters, you’re given.

I am a woman with a sister, myself. Just the one, so a smaller set than the families I’ve discussed above, and we’re about six years apart. I would take a bullet for her, but our relationship hasn’t always been easy. That age gap is a bit weird — too far apart to be real allies as children, too close not to feel competitive. When I was in my most troubled years, she was still in grade school; when she was in hers, I was off at college. I often had an older sibling’s exasperation with being expected to be responsible and set a good example, not retaliate when provoked, and irritation with what she got away with that I hadn’t or couldn’t (parental leniency with younger siblings being a well-noted tradition — at least among oldest children!). I suspect that she often felt held to a high standard because of me, that I was something she was expected to live up to. We were both probably a little right and a little wrong. We get along much better as adults, but it’s because we’ve both learned to be more thoughtful, less antagonistic, more empathetic. We’ve learned about each other, not just what we like but how we work, rather than just assuming a genetic bond would either function or not. (To our mother’s total lack of surprise, we often find that our strife has been caused by our similarities, not our differences).

I hope that particular aspect of sororal relations comes across in my writing in a genuine way. It’s one of the things I really adore about the Crawley sisters. While the Bennetts certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s never any real strife among them. Even when Lydia disgraces the family, she shrugs it off with almost no consequences, and everyone else sort of rolls their eyes, and life moves on. Everyone seems far more concerned about how Lydia’s actions reflect on them than about Lydia’s well-being. Lizzy never gives Lydia the dressing-down she had coming, nor do the other sisters air their grievances. ClawJQdUoAAz3lQSaintly Jane never shows impatience or irritation with her siblings. Mary never explodes with frustration at the mockery she endures. The closest we get to real sororal trouble are the sniping between Lydia and Mary, and then the jealousy that Kitty feels over Lydia’s popularity and invitation to go to Brighton — but those are only side notes, the background chatter of the novel. The disconnect between Lizzy and her younger siblings is more glanced at than explored. The reader is meant to dismiss them as silly and pointless (one of the things I like better about the 2005 movie is that you see more soulfulness out of Mary Bennett), and thus not to feel much sympathy for them.

On the other hand, Mary and Edith spend a lot of time at each others’ throats, snarking and subverting and outright sabotaging. But when their tempers aren’t up, they know that they do love each other — and that one day, they will be all each other has left. “Sisters have secrets,” Mary says, at the end of the series, and she’s right — and those secrets are rarely tidy and cute. Their relationship is far less sanitized than that of the Bennetts, and far more real. The Vitelliae aren’t quite so contentious, but they don’t always understand each other. Their personalities are different, and there’s quite an age gap between the elder two and the youngest. They’ll make decisions the others don’t agree with. They’ll be unintentionally hurtful. They’ll worry and scare each other. An older sister accustomed to being in charge may seem bossy. A much-sheltered youngest may struggle to have her maturity recognized. And a troubled middle daughter may feel misunderstood and like she has nowhere to turn, even among people who love her.

I don’t know everything that will happen to them. Their relationships have grown more complex in Book 1’s revisions, and I expect those discoveries will continue. I just know I’m looking forward to the journey — and I hope you are, too!

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month

Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.

Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history.  My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.

Historical Fiction

  • Daughters-of-RomeKate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
  • catherine called birdyKaren Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
  • Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
  • Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
  • Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
  • DovekeepersAlice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
  • Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
  • Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.

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So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉

Two (Wonderfully Feminist) TV Recommendations

This past week, I’ve been taking a brief break from writing as a sort of brain-cleanse, now that the manuscript is off with Connor and my betas. As such, I’ve been letting television occupy my attention, and I wanted to pass some recommendations on to y’all:

Bomb_Girls_S2First up is one I actually watched a couple of years ago: Bomb Girls. This is a Canadian show about women working in a bomb factory during World War II — the real riveters. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds — typical middle-class, working-class from the Canadian prairie, and one blue-blooded girl through whom we get the “fish out of water” perspective. It’s a tight-knit group — protective but competitive, exploring the challenges and freedoms of having their own incomes and their own lives.

The second I just started this week and have been binging every chance I get: Call the Midwife. It’s set in the insular and impoverished neighborhood of Poplar in the London East End in the late 1950s and follows the stories of the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House. It has a feeling sort of like a post-war ER: few patients appear in more than one episode, and each one has its own little mini-arc rather than the larger, season-wide arcs that are in Bomb Girls. The midwives don’t just deliver babies; they provide almost all the medical care in the neighborhood, including prenatal and geriatric, and they also often serve as de facto social workers and therapists. As I gather, it’s based on a book of true stories in an area where, before birth control pills were available, the neighborhood saw 80 to 100 births a month (and less than a dozen a month afterwards).

Despite the differences in location and era, these shows seem to be in conversation with each other in a lot of ways. Both are primarily concerned with the lives of working women. The desires that matter are theirs. The pride and dignity that matter are theirs. We see family life and working life through their eyes. I don’t think I can overstate how important that is. Women are often so overlooked in history, as are their contributions in both the public and private spheres. In one episode of Call the Midwife, a character outright talks about how much women’s health matters. It doesn’t sound anachronistically feminist — it’s simply the natural result of a show focused on female characters who are, themselves, primarily concerned with women’s lives. There are male characters, of course — but they’re all in support roles. The husbands and boyfriends of the main characters are all portrayed as recognizing the amazing qualities of their wives and girlfriends, and the ones who don’t get it are shucked off unceremoniously.

Call the Midwife … 'We don't go out on bikes.'They also both tackle a lot of tough issues — including many that are still relevant, generations later. Abortion, access to contraception, PTSD, workplace harassment, equal pay, mixed-race relationships, abusive relationships, physical and mental disabilities, and so forth. And they all get handled with compassion and grace (which isn’t to say that all of the characters always do — but the storytelling does). Bomb Girls does better on the racial diversity front on the whole, with a major recurring theme surrounding an interracial relationship. Call the Midwife doesn’t have a diverse main cast, but has a few episodes that deal with racial tension of the late-50s. More of its focus is on deprivation and socio-economic divides. For all that Call the Midwife takes place in an Anglican convent, too, it’s remarkably free of slut-shaming narratives. Women who get pregnant out of wedlock are pitied, not in a condescending way, but because it’s hard enough to raise and provide for children with help — doing it alone in those conditions is nigh-impossible. Neither the nuns nor the nurses chide their charges for how they got “in the family way”, and more than once, they physically put themselves between pregnant women and aggressive or abusive men. They stand up for the girls and women entrusted to their care — and they encourage them to look out for themselves and for each other.

Both shows are also unflinching when it comes to the physical realities of their depicted careers: Bomb Girls involves several injuries and mutilations at the factory, and Call the Midwife doesn’t shy from showing the gore and fluids attendant upon childbirth. Bomb Girls has a darker tone overall than Call the Midwife, which is almost relentlessly optimistic. It takes some getting used to, as someone who’s grown up steeped in the “dark and gritty” era of storytelling — but it’s nice, actually. Bomb Girls makes no promises that all will turn out well for the people it makes you care about, but in Call the Midwife,  you’re almost always left with a good sense of hope. People tend to end their stories a little bit better than they started. Even when tragedy strikes, there’s always an uplifting message attending it. Not quite as realistic, perhaps, but I’m actually okay with that. I prefer my fiction optimistic.

So: If you’re interested in television that fights against some of the most common gender-related complaints about the medium, check out these shows. The women in both are all fully-realized characters with their own identities, all strong in their own ways, all vulnerable in their own ways — like, y’know, people. And it’s just delightful.

Women’s Voices in History

I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.

I will see a division

Reading “SFF in Conversation: Women Write SFF” by guest blogger Andrea K Höst over at The Book Smugglers kicked me in the pants to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — actually tally up all of my books and see what the male-female ratio is.

So. My shelves as they currently stand contain 302 books by female authors, 219 by male.

It breaks down thusly:

Fantasy: Female – 47, Male – 58
Historical: Female – 108, Male – 67
Romance: Female – 96, Male – 0
Thriller: Female – 3, Male – 22
Spiritual: Female – 11, Male -3
Academic (Shakespeare): Female – 12, Male – 21
SciFi/Speculative: Female – 23, Male – 31
SciFi Reference (Star Wars): Female – 2, Male – 17

Some further notes on all of that —

This tally does not actually include all the books that I own, just those currently out on my shelves. There are three boxes of “miscellaneous” that have remained in boxes since I moved a year and a half ago, and I was not quite dedicated enough to this little whim project to unpack them. (Yes, I know I own a ridiculous number of books and should probably downsize).

The fantasy shelf would be almost equal if it weren’t for Terry Pratchett, since I own about half of his Discworld series. Neil Gaiman accounts for a large chunk of the rest. But, in fairness, a good chunk of the female novels on those shelves are due to Mercedes Lackey.

The historical shelf is not divided between fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t tally this up, but I can tell at a glance that most of the “hard” histories — primary sources like Suetonius or Boccacio, or nonfiction secondary sources — are by male authors, most of the “soft” historical fiction novels are by female authors like Jean Plaidy, Michele Moran, etc.

It is perhaps no surprise that my entire extensive collection of romances (primarily Regency, some Victorian, a very few Georgian, a very few contemporary) has been written by female authors. It is interesting that if you take out this category, my books are otherwise almost equally represented.

The thriller shelf is dominated by the fact that I own everything Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have ever written. (I counted them as one person, so that number almost doubles if you count them individually).

My spiritual books are all pagan in nature, another realm often dominated by female authors.

The disparity on the academic shelf is saddening but not surprising. Women are making considerable strides in that field but haven’t closed the gap yet.

Sci-Fi/Speculative, though, was the big shocker to me. Those numbers were actually almost even until I got to my Star Wars shelf, thanks to a variety of authors like Gail Carriger, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. And then, when I hit my nostalgic SW shelf, the women disappear almost entirely, which is why I actually separated out the reference books — because, yes, I still have and proudly display my Star Wars encyclopedia, role-playing handbooks, and the guides to droids/weapons/planets/characters/aliens/etc. And the disparity there is breathtaking. In this tally, I only included the top listed name for each book, usually the editor or project director. But things like the roleplaying handbooks had dozens of contributors. The one I opened and counted up had nearly 40 male contributors and 2 female. Just. Astonishing. That franchise needs some female voices in it, fast.

So — I don’t know that I have any grand point about this, but it was a curiosity I had and felt the need to sate.

Figures in History: Hortensia the Orator

Coolest new thing I learned today: So in 42 BCE, the Second Triumvirate found itself in need of a lot of cash. They did the usual thing, proscribing their enemies. Proscribing, for those who don’t know, meant murdering them and confiscating their estates as forfeit to the state — or, for the ones they felt more tenderly towards, driving them into exile and then stealing their stuff. But they then also did something entirely unprecedented: they levied an exorbitant tax on all women who controlled their own estates in suo iure, demanding a full year’s income from them.

And this pissed off a lot of ladies.

One of them, Hortensia, was the daughter of a famous orator, and she decided to put her heritage and her education to good use. First she appealed to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia for help — but Fulvia, who had been exempted from the tax, basically laughed in her face. So, with a tribe of other aggrieved women (possibly including Caesar’s widow Calpurnia), Hortensia stormed the rostra in the Roman Forum — thus occupying a decidedly male space — and proceeded to give a pretty bad-ass speech.

Appian renders her speech thusly (translation found here):

‘As was appropriate for women like ourselves when addressing a petition to you, we rushed to your womenfolk. But we did not get the treatment we were entitled to from Fulvia, and have been driven by her into the forum. You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in pubic office or honours or commands or government in general, an evil you have fought over with such disastrous results? Because, you say, this is a time of war? And when have there not been wars? and when have women paid taxes? By nature of their sex women are absolved from paying taxes among all mankind. Our mothers on one occasion long ago were superior to their sex and paid taxes, when your whole government was threatened and the city itself, when the Carthaginians were pressuring you. They gave willingly, not from their land or their fields or their dowry or their households, without which life would be unlivable for free women, but only from their own jewellery, and not with a fixed price set on it, nor under threat of informers and accusers or by force, but they gave as much as they themselves chose. Why are you now so anxious about the government or the country? But if there should a war against the Celts or Parthians, we will not be less eager for our country’s welfare than our mothers. But we will never pay taxes for civil wars, and we will not cooperate with you against each another. We did not pay taxes to Caesar or to Pompey, nor did Marius ask us for contributions, nor Cinna nor Sulla, even though he was a tyrant over this country. And you say that you are reestablishing the Republic!’

If that was anything like her actual speech, then yeah, her rhetoric kicked ass, especially by first-century-BCE Roman standards. Romans loved them some tricolon and erotema. And here’s what Valerius Maximus has to say about her:

Hortensia vero Q. Hortensi filia, cum ordo matronarum gravi tributo a triumviris esset oneratus nec quisquam virorum patrocinium eis accommodare auderet, causam feminarum apud triumviros et constanter et feliciter egit: repraesentata enim patris facundia, impetravit ut maior pars imperatae pecuniae his remitteretur. revixit tum muliebri stirpe Q. Hortensius verbisque filiae aspiravit.

Hortensia, the only daughter of Quintus Hortensius, together with a league of matrons, felt the burden of the heavy tribute demanded by the triumvirs, but when she could dare no men to lend protection to them, she pled the case of the women against the triumvirs steadily and successfully: for exhibiting the eloquence of her father, she obtained that the greater part of the money should be remitted; thus were the words of Quintus Hortensius revived in his feminine offspring, breathing in his daughter.

(And, dude, I did that translation myself because there is no translation of Valerius Maximus’s Facta et dicta memorabilia, which is a damn shame if it’s full of gems like this. And I did it with only a little help from a dictionary — so if it’s a little wiggly, blame my out-of-practice skills; it’s been a long time since I had to remember what to do with all those ablatives).

So basically Hortensia was a badass who stood up to three guys who were blatantly murdering a few hundred people at the time and told them to stuff it. No taxation without representation, she said — and while we should not construe this as a demand for female enfranchisement, she did bring up the very good point that the citizenship of Roman women was not subject to either the same burdens or the same privileges as male citizenship. When the triumvirs tried to send in people to remove her and the other women from the forum, they flat-out refused to go. And the triumvirs blinked. They drastically reduced the number of women who were subject to the tax, and then utterly failed to enforce it.

Yeah. Definitely filing her away for future use.