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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