Women today have more freedom than ever before. Contemporary fiction is chock full of strong, independent heroines. They enjoy work, sex, and cold beer. They’re tough as any man. Historical heroines can be just as independent and tough, right?
The answer is yes…but only to a certain point. You have to keep in mind the limitations that were imposed on women depending on the time period. To illustrate, let’s think about your typical mid-1800’s woman.
Women were expected to reside within the “Cult of True Womanhood,” a societal view with four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Any deviation from those virtues marred a woman’s reputation. Ingrained views of how women and men were biologically different were encouraged by Charles Darwin’s theory of “biological determinism.” This theory suggested that biology determined behavior. That particular belief has been used as an excuse for many societal prejudices, but in the case of women vs. men, these are the supposed innate differences:
|Rational||Emotional, susceptible to madness, hysteria|
|Able to resist temptation||Unable to resist temptation|
|Sphere: Public||Sphere: Private|
Women were thought to need the supervision of men, or they could easily give into sinful temptations and hysterics. That’s not to say that there weren’t several women throughout history who defied those standards, but it wasn’t easy.
When writing any historical piece, it’s important to keep that in mind. You can’t put women on an equal playing field with men, at least not without consequences. In A Time for Everything, young widow Portia makes the difficult decision to leave her home to take a job as a tutor in another town. Since her husband and daughter died, she’s relied on her brother-in-law and his wife. But they’re struggling to make ends meet, and she doesn’t want to burden them any longer.
In today’s time, they’d probably be sad to see her go, but would wish her well and offer to help her move. Yet, in 1866, a single woman moving to another town without husband or family was a rare event. Though they let her go, her brother-in-law escorts her to her destination and isn’t at all happy about it. In fact, he feels like a failure for not being able to take care of his late brother’s wife. Here’s an excerpt:
Frank climbed in the wagon and stared straight ahead. Portia didn’t have to ask to know exactly what he was thinking. Though he would never say much about it, he felt responsible for his brother’s widow and thought himself a failure because of her departure. Out of all of them, Frank’s guilt weighed on her most. After Jake left to fight, he had worked twice as hard to keep them all fed, avoiding the call to duty only because he was blind in one eye. Every day since, the worry lines on his face dug deeper, while the hair on his head turned grayer.
All because he wanted to provide for his family and to take care of his little brother’s wife, whom he loved like a sister.….
They passed the small family graveyard where soft green grass covered Abby’s plot. By the gate, a few crocuses poked their purple heads above the ground, blooming amidst the emerging yellow daffodils. Portia wished the lilies were in bloom so she could put some on the graves. She decided to come back this summer and do just that.
Frank broke the silence. “It ain’t right. You ought to stay with your family.”
As you can see, Portia didn’t follow convention. She was strong enough to do what she thought best and put her heart into her new job of teaching Beau Stanford’s son. Once she and Beau overcome their differences and fall in love, they don’t just jump into bed together. In a tender moment, they share their first kiss, though Portia is fully aware that it’s not an acceptable act:
He reached over and picked up a lock of her hair, running his fingers gently along its length. “I wish…”
Her heart raced — he was so close, just a breath away. “You wish what?”
“That I could have kissed you just once.” He slowly let go of her hair and watched it fall over her shoulder.
Her cheeks flamed, hidden only by the dimness of night. She knew kissing Beau Stanford was beyond a bad idea. It could only tear her heart into a million more pieces, but he was everything she admired in a man. Kind, honest… vulnerable. He had no reason to love her. She could bring nothing to their marriage. Yet there he was, confessing his love in the most tender, innocent way he could. For once in her life, she didn’t want to weigh and measure every decision in her path. She wanted to follow her heart.
You can definitely have strong heroines in historical romance, but unless it’s an alternate world, keep it real! Do your research to see how women lived in whatever time period you’re writing in. Whatever decisions your heroine makes, consider the consequences.
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Mysti Parker is a wife, mother, and shameless chocoholic. While her first love is romance, including five published books and an award-winning historical, she enjoys writing flash fiction and children’s stories. When she’s not writing, Mysti works as a freelance editor, serves as a mentor in a 7-week writing course (F2K) and reviews books for SQ Mag, an online speculative fiction magazine. She resides in Buckner, KY with her husband, three children and too many pets.