One was a review of a Western novel in which the reviewer, who obviously doesn’t read a lot of historical romance, was shocked by restrictions placed on women of the time period. I guess she was expecting contemporary characters in period dress, but the author took her work more seriously than that.
The second was The Hard Won Ground, Rose Anderson’s Fourth of July blog post where she reminisced about her family’s long connection to American history and how the women were right there with the men, settling the frontier and opening the West. As she correctly points out, men rode or drove wagons west. Women walked. (So much for the “weaker” sex.)
Finally, when I read Sara Robinson’s article entitled “Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control and Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About It 100 Years From Now”, the three threads coalesced in my mind.
Robinson points out the revolutionary nature of modern, reliable, and effective methods of birth control. She ranks contraception as one of the three most important innovations of the 20th century. The others are the integrated circuit, which led to the computer revolution, and the space racing culminating in the moon landing, mankind’s first steps outside the bounds of earth. I’d never thought about it before, but she’s right. The pill changed everything for women. Without it there would have been no sexual revolution and possibly no feminist gains. Birth control gives women the freedom men have always had, and levels the playing field. After thousands of years, men are losing control of women and some are freaking out about it. This is one reason why the Taliban, for instance, cannot bear the thought of educated girls. The very idea upsets their male-centered world view. (I encourage everyone to read the original article. It’s brilliant.)
In Technopoly, Neil Postman wrote that “technological change isn’t addictive or subtractive, it’s ecological.” We need no further proof of that than the onslaught of change we’ve seen since the computer revolution began.
But no change has been more profound, or at least has the potential to be, than the advent of reliable birth control. For centuries, no for millennia, women have been slaves to their biology. And men took advantage of the fact to keep women under control, reserving privileges like voting and inheritance for themselves. Women still earn less than men, even for the same work, even though we are now as well-educated as they are. Even female CEO’s make less than their male counterparts, and that’s the top of the food chain!
We should not forget what life used to be like for our female ancestors, lest the hard-won gains we’ve made be taken from us. As George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I get that not everyone likes historical novels, perhaps because a realistically depicted woman of the past cannot be the kind of modern kick-ass character so popular now. (Don’t get me wrong, I love that kind of heroine, like Katniss Everdean of The Hunger Games.) I also suspect one reason why steampunk romance is popular is because you can have a kick-ass heroine in a corset with a deadly ray gun in her reticule. The best of both worlds. But steampunk is science fiction, not based on real life.
Reading a historical novel now and again is an easy way to remember the past. Outside of women’s studies programs, most history books and classes don’t really deal with women’s issues. It’s not spelled “his” story for nothing!
Historical novels are a pain-free way of reminding us how important the changes of the last fifty years really are. We learn where we’ve been and why we don’t want to go back!
Am I on the right track here? Let me know what you think.
PS. Everyone who comments in August will be entered in my monthly drawing for a $15 Starbucks gift card.