Busting Myths: Women and Freedom During the Revolutionary War

The protagonist in Paper Woman, Sophie Barton, operates a printing press. Many people ask me some variation on the same question: Would women have been allowed to conduct such a “non-traditional” business during the Revolutionary War? They’re astonished when I say, “Yes.”

We view the past through a Victorian-tinted lens. Queen Victoria ruled for so many decades and left her stamp everywhere, buried deeply. We automatically ascribe the morals of her society to societies throughout history without a second thought. We believe that because Victorian women were looked upon as fragile, domestic creatures, women throughout history must have been the same way. Poppycock.

With just a little research, you uncover stories about women ruling countries, women as athletes and soldiers, and nuns who weren’t tied to celibacy. Georgian society, following the lead of its monarchs, was much earthier than Victorian society. Women during the American War of Independence had many more freedoms than those of the surrounding centuries.

In her book Awesome Women Lost in History, due out March 2007, author Leslie Sackrison chronicles women shipbuilders, blacksmiths, printers, soldiers, sailors, spies — the list goes on and on. For centuries, women have been employed in just about all fields that have employed men. Most of the time, they came to their professions out of necessity, took over a business after the death of a male relative.

Plucky women in the Revolution weren’t proto-feminists. (The modern feminist movement didn’t take root until the early 1800s.) Women took up “non-traditional” trades because they were already familiar with a business and it paid the bills, because they were capable of managing the business, or because no one else could do it. It speaks to the innate, “get it done” ability of women, something that cannot be driven out of the gender.

History provides us with so many examples of women engaged in various businesses that it’s time to honestly evaluate what a “traditional” occupation is for a woman. Keep your eye on the growing movement among non-fiction and fiction authors who are redefining the role of women in history. That’s the topic of my panel discussion next June at the conference for the Historical Novel Society in Albany, NY. I hope to see you there.

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Revolutionary War Days 2006 at Camden

Acrobat at Revolurtionary War Days

Traditionally, the November reenactment in Camden, SC is one of the more well-attended for reenactors and spectators in the South. It always draws a variety of sutlers — merchants who sell period items such as wool fabric, clay pipes, wooden bowls, horn spoons, pewter buttons, and jewelry — plus artisans who demonstrate period crafts, such as candle making and blacksmithing, and entertainers, such as this acrobat. I enjoy strolling Sutler Row at Camden, and it’s dashed hard to keep from spending money there because everyone is so friendly and helpful.

Saturday morning, 3 November, the panel discussion on non-traditional roles of women and girls during the Revolution (Leslie Sackrison, Dr. Christine Swager, and me) went smoothly, as if the three of us had done the panel together several times before. It was also well attended. The State, one of Columbia’s newspapers, gave us publicity in the 2 November edition. Joanna Craig of Historic Camden wants us on the schedule for Camden 2007 and will try to generate more interest among the general public. Redefining the role of women in history is a timely idea. It’s a theme touched on by many historical fiction authors, such as Mary Sharratt. At the conference for the Historical Novel Society 9 June 2007, I will be on a panel discussion about this topic. How exciting to be in the forefront of this “wave.”

I missed seeing the battle on both Saturday and Sunday. I was selling and signing books. But I heard the battles both days went well, and from the sounds of the cannon and musket fire, the reenactors on the field were putting on their usual entertaining show for spectators.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Suzanne Adair and Guy Fawkes

For my family and me, one of the high points of Camden each year is the Bonfire Night celebration on Saturday night. Bonfire Night is a fine, old British fete celebrated by colonists even during the Revolution to commemorate Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. (Guy Fawkes was one of a group of conspirators who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with kegs of gunpowder 5 November 1605.) If you think our Guy looks a bit worn out, it’s because he’s been tortured a bit.

Carrying "the Guy"

This year, my sons received the honor of carrying the Guy to the bonfire as we processed through the camps. Imagine torches in the night, drums beating, and a mob chanting, “Treason! Burn the Guy! Kill the Guy!” Perhaps that’s why British expatriates elsewhere in America are apt to have the cops called on them by American neighbors who mistake their jollification for a bit of backyard human sacrifice. The Camden cops don’t even bat an eyelash at us — some of them are even reenactors — and didn’t stop the Guy from being tossed onto the bonfire, where he ignited, along with all the fireworks planted within him, to provide us with a thrilling show. For an interesting twist on Bonfire Night, check out Carola Dunn’s mystery, Gunpowder Plot.

After the fireworks, Historic Camden treats reenactors to a feast of heavy hors d’oeuvres in the candlelit dining room of the Kershaw-Cornwallis house. (The house is named for Joseph Kershaw, owner in 1780, and Charles Lord Cornwallis, who briefly occupied the house in 1780.) Because there’s 18th-century dancing afterwards, some reenactors trot out their finest period clothing for the night, and this is where you see elegantly-attired men and women in velvet and lace. One fellow pulled out all the stops: white wig, black satin suit, loads of lace at his throat and wrists, black shoes with red high heels, and a painted-on mole beside his eyebrow. He looked like Mozart.

Fan rules

Women used the positioning of their fans at dances in the 18th century to communicate messages to potential suitors. Here’s a list of some of the signals and interpretations. The comedic theater got a lot of mileage out of misinterpreted fan signals. After a few drinks, it’s easy to forget (or pretend to forget) what signal means yes and what means no.

I admit to being a “Ramada Ranger” for this event and not camping out. By the time we left the dance, the ground was already covered in frost, and I just couldn’t envision sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures in a British Army tent as benefiting my booksignings every weekend through Christmas. Gotta vacuum the straw and grass from the inside of my car and air it out to dissipate the smells of wood smoke and burned black powder. Business as usual after a weekend of reenacting fun.

Here’s a Huzzah! for my family for helping with the mechanics of the booksigning. And another Huzzah! for Joanna Craig for providing me with the opportunity to participate on the panel and sell more copies of Paper Woman.

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The Cape Fear Crime Festival (CFCF) 2006 and the Sophie Barton Room

CFCF, held in Wilmington, NC, the weekend closest to Halloween, is a regional conference now in its sixth year. Proceeds from the keynote dinner Saturday night benefit the Guardian ad Litem program, which acts as an advocate for children in the court system. This year, the conference also pulled in forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs as a special speaker Thursday night.

Cape Fear Crime Festival 2005 Jack Fryar, Suzanne Adair, Dewey Lambdin

Hold your horses before you blow off a regional conference like CFCF as a waste of time. CFCF 2005 was where I met my publisher. In fact, someone snapped a picture of that pivotal moment and posted it on the CFCF 2006 blog –- serendipity, what hey? — so I grabbed it for my blog. From left to right: publisher Jack Fryar, soon-to-be published author Suzanne Adair, and historical novelist Dewey Lambdin.

This year I daytripped the Saturday daytime events only. More serendipity: my publisher and I arrived at the parking deck at the same time. It was great to see him again because the last time we’d seen each other in person was CFCF 2005. While we walked upstairs to the conference floor, he told me about a panel he’d been on Friday about publishing, where he’d told everyone that I’m “out there” and finding creative ways to market Paper Woman. I don’t just schedule appearances at bookstores, but also at reenactments, teahouses, D.A.R. luncheons, museums, etc. — and sometimes I appear in costume with my family, also in costume. The challenge, he told all the aspiring writers in the audience, is competing with 200,000 other books per year, so you have to be out there selling, and you have to be creative about it. That meant a lot to me to hear his appreciation.

The Sophie Barton Room at the Cape Fear Crime Festival 2006

He introduced me to the conference coordinators and booksellers. I asked him if he’d noticed on Friday that the conference coordinators had changed the names of the rooms. He laughed and said yes. You see, each year at CFCF, rooms are named after the protagonists in attending authors’ new books, and there was a Sophie Barton room at this year’s conference. (Sophie is the protagonist in Paper Woman.) The Sophie Barton Room was, in fact, the room my publisher’s panel was in Friday and the room my second panel was in Saturday. Gosh, Grasshopper is amazed by all this serendipity. (Thanks, Dorothy, for selecting Sophie’s name!)

My first panel, with the Carolina Conspiracy, went well and had good audience attendance. Joyce Lavene, our moderator, had us all enter in the dark and take our places at the table up front with "Phantom of the Opera" music playing and a red strobe light on us -– a dramatic entry that earned us applause before we’d even sat down. Afterwards, we agreed that since we’d all dressed in black and red, the next time we perform that entry, we’ll carry flashlights to avoid an incident resembling a vehicle pile-up on the interstate during a fog.

Sister conspirator Terry Hoover, whose first novel Double Dead will be released in January, was in the panel immediately following with me, “Murder in the Past Tense: Historical Settings.” Like me, Terry is also a member of the Guppies sub-group of Sisters in Crime. Moderated by Charles Todd, that second panel was excellent, and the room was packed with people.

After lunch, I autographed copies of Paper Woman and chatted with readers as well as authors Michael Malone, Randy Rawls, Sarah Shaber, and Alexandra Sokoloff before I headed home. Whew, quite a full day.

Thanks to the Cape Fear Crime Festival committee, especially the venerable Dorothy Hodder, for the opportunity to participate in the conference.

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The Crystal Coast Book Festival 2006 and Three Magical Surprises

Not long ago, the Webb Memorial Library in Morehead City, NC was in danger of closing. Thanks to the Crystal Coast Book Festival, now in its second year, that won’t be happening. This gem-of-a-library, located in the historic area of Morehead City, is in a 1930s-era building that used to be a house. (Or was it two houses?) Individual rooms within the library, each furnished differently, hold specific collections of books, such as fine arts, fiction, and classics. There’s a piano in a room upstairs and a ghost who wanders throughout, and although I didn’t make the acquaintance of the latter, I never before met a library imbued with such charm and quaint personality.

Friday 20 October was the big fundraiser day. Proceeds from luncheon workshops and themed literary dinners benefited various local libraries, including the Webb Memorial Library. I participated with five other mystery/suspense authors in a dinner called “The Mysterious Affair at the Waterfront” at Captain Bill’s waterfront restaurant. Each author sat at a table, and during a course, conversed with guests at the table. Authors switched tables every fifteen minutes or so. Later, we talked before the group about our work and signed books the guests had published. And the view of the sunset was stunning.

Magical Surprise Number 1: One of the dinner guests, librarian Pam Janosky (Hi, Pam!), was about 7/8ths finished reading the library’s copy of Paper Woman, and she liked it so much that she’d been stumping for it. She’d drummed up interest in several other librarians, and they were queuing up to read it. Wow! Grasshopper is humbled and amazed. My first fans!

Reading from Paper Woman at the Crystal Coast Book Festival 2006

Saturday 21 October delivered cool, autumn weather and clear skies. At 9:30 a.m. in the Reading Room of the Webb Memorial Library, I read from Paper Woman and made a presentation on the extraordinary courage of ordinary people in the Revolutionary War. Thanks to all the folks who turned out to hear me so early in the morning — and who purchased books from me afterwards.

Magical Surprise Number 2: Toward noon on Saturday, the stack of books my publisher sent sold out, necessitating my supplying the bookseller with additional copies from the stash in the trunk of my car. Tough break, eh?

Magical Surprise Number 3: When I arrived home Saturday evening and checked email, Lesa Holstine, a librarian from Glendale, AZ, had posted a very favorable review of Paper Woman (and my first review) to her blog as well as to the Dorothy-L discussion list. Sunday morning, she posted a version of her review on Amazon.com. And she gave me five stars. Thank you, Lesa!

Last weekend, I found myself answering some of the same types of queries I’ve received all along. Wasn’t it unusual for women in the Revolutionary War to run a business like a printing press? Would women in 1780 really have done the sorts of things my protagonist Sophie Barton did? Look for me to address these questions in a future blog entry.

Thanks to the Crystal Coast committee and the staff at the Webb Memorial Library for the opportunity to participate in the book festival.

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Walnut Grove Plantation 2006 Living History and Battle Reenactment — and My First Booksigning

Tremendous improvements have been made to Walnut Grove Plantation since my last visit, in 2001. In addition to a new visitors’ center, the site features a pavilion with a fireplace, focus of activities during rainy or chilly weather. At the pavilion last Friday night, 6 October, the Spartanburg County Historical Association held its annual fundraiser for the plantation: live bluegrass music, South Carolina upcountry BBQ with scrumptious hushpuppies and ribs, and an open bar. And if you came dressed in your 18th-century finery, you didn’t pay the $60 admission fee!

During dinner, the Historical Association held a silent auction, the donated items ranging from bags of dog food to ceramics to woodworking. Dressed in my polonaise gown, I quickly homed in on board members to learn how I could donate a copy of Paper Woman to the auction. In no time at all, they had the book set up on one of the auction tables. My pleasure to contribute to such a worthy cause.

Saturday 7 October delivered the type of weather that wool-clad reenactors relish: cloudy but not rainy, and highs in the lower 60s. The tree leaves on site were just beginning to turn color and helped make the grounds lovely. As usual, the crown and patriot encampments were separated, and most of the sutlers and tradesfolk set up for business in the patriot camp. Plenty of things to see there. I was so busy chasing details for my booksigning that I didn’t get to spend much time in that section of camp, but I did spot blacksmithing, soap making, food preservation, surveying, and dressmaking.

Milking a goat at Walnut Grove Plantation

One lady brought her goats and demonstrated how to milk them. She had for sale goats’ milk cheese and shampoo and soap made from goats’ milk.

The historical incident that puts Walnut Grove on the map for the Revolution involves loyalists under “Bloody” Bill Cunningham who barged into the house and killed three patriots. Kate Barry, wife of the owner, slipped away to warn her husband, and he returned in time to spare the house from being torched. But spectators at reenactments want to see battles, so Walnut Grove follows its staging of the three patriots’ killings with a fictitious battle reminiscent of backcountry skirmishes that occurred all the time in the Carolinas. Plenty of musket fire and black powder smoke, colorful uniforms, noise, and “death” on the battlefield. The spectator crowd numbered several hundred, and a good time was had by all.

Signing books at Walnut Grove Plantation

After the battle, the staff at Walnut Grove turned the mike over to me. For the debut of Paper Woman, I read a passage from the book and tied the action found therein with what had happened at Walnut Grove. And then I sold books to total strangers — an amazing feeling! Was I nervous? Not really. I felt very much alive and enjoyed everything about the afternoon. I’m grateful to everyone who purchased books from me and was delighted to connect with each reader at an individual level.

Here’s a Huzzah! for my family for helping with the mechanics of the booksigning. And another Huzzah! for the folks at Walnut Grove — Becky Slayton, Jim Crocker, and Jennifer Furrow — for allowing me the opportunity to debut my novel in such a lovely location.

Next up: the Crystal Coast Book Festival, 20-21 October 2006.

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First Interview

My first media interview, printed in the Sunday 1 October edition of The
Spartanburg Herald-Journal
, can be read online at the following link:

http://www.goupstate.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061001/NEWS/610010327/1028

Ann Patterson, book columnist with the paper, interviewed me. We talk about history, camp followers, battle reenactments, women in the American Revolution, and writing. Thanks to Ann for the interview.

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Reenacting

Thanks to everyone who sent congratulations via email and blog comments.

060927-Hillsborough 2002 Reenactment

I’ve been a reenactor for almost seven years. At living history events such as those listed on the calendar, I portray the wife of a soldier (otherwise known as a "camp follower") in His Majesty’s 33rd Light Company of Foot. Although the term "camp follower" conjures images of a shabbily dressed, poxed prostitute who skulks around the fringe of a military camp, prostitutes made up only a small percentage of camp followers during the Revolutionary War. A camp follower was any non-combatant attending a military group: a soldier’s wife, sibling, child, parent, servant, or slave, for example, or an artisan (blacksmith, wheelwright, etc.), merchant (stationer, green grocer, etc.), trader, or peddler. One reason I reenact is to help educate the public about real history.

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T-Minus Two Weeks to Launch

2006 Paper Woman book cover

The first novel of my historical suspense series, Paper Woman: A Mystery of the American Revolution, debuts at Walnut Grove Plantation’s “Festifall” event two weeks from today, on Saturday 7 October 2006, in Roebuck, SC. I’ll be on site all day in 18th-century clothing. The battle reenactment starts at 1:00 p.m., and my reading begins approximately 1:30 p.m., just after the battle concludes, in front of the main house. For the booksigning, we’ll move around the side of the house to the grape arbor.

Paper Woman (ISBN 0-9785265-1-1) is published by Whittler’s Bench Press, a new fiction imprint of Dram Tree Books, and is also available through chains such as Books-a-Million and Amazon.

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