I hope everyone will forgive me for not writing about western history this month — at least not specifically. Every so often, though, even those of us devoted to the history of the Old West must take a look even farther into the past, and sometimes much closer to the present, in order to develop a broader perspective about the era in which our imagination spends so much time. This is one of those occasions.
March is Women’s History Month. While I appreciate the increased emphasis on remembering women’s contributions to science, art, philosophy, and society in general, I’ve always considered it a bit odd that we need reminding women have contributed. Designating a specific month during which to focus on women’s history implies that for the rest of the year, everyone thinks of women as secondary characters in their own life stories.
Women don’t sit around waiting for men to make all the great discoveries, think all the great thoughts, and fight all the dragons. They never have. Throughout history, as many women as men have explored the unexplored, cured the previously incurable, and given voices to those unable to speak for themselves. And, as has been famously stated, they did it all dancing backward in high heels.
“It would be ridiculous to talk of male and female atmospheres, male and female springs or rains, male and female sunshine…,” women’s rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in one of their suffrage pamphlets. “[H]ow much more ridiculous is it in relation to mind, to soul, to thought…?”
Anthony and Stanton often railed against inequality between the genders and the resulting injustices visited upon the distaff side of humanity — lack of access to education and discriminatory civil laws, for example. Today, the philosophy they espoused is, or should be, de rigueur, but until the mid-20th Century, speaking such thoughts in public in many societies carried significant risk to life and liberty. In some societies, it still does.
For precisely that reason, historical romance novels can be important beyond the obvious entertainment. Unlike much literature written in previous ages, primarily by men, romance novels written during the past twenty to thirty years, primarily by women, portray heroines and female villains with courage, determination, and strength equal to the hero’s. Call me a man-bashing feminist if you must, but I believe it is crucial for readers, particularly younger ones, to be presented with female characters who are much more than decorative pedestal dwellers.
In fact, when one studies history, it becomes impossible to consider the romantic notion of heroes on white chargers rescuing damsels in distress anything more than exactly that: a romantic notion. On any frontier in any age, toughness and capability are essential for survival, regardless of gender. Today’s well-researched historical fiction makes that abundantly clear — and like it or not, fiction resonates in contemporary culture, subtly but undeniably influencing attitudes on both sides of the gender divide. Art always has been both reactive and proactive in that way.
So, readers and writers of romance, don’t let anyone tell you you’re wasting your time with ludicrous, lowbrow “trash.” You’re not. You’re buttressing ramparts our foremothers built long ago. Could there be a more pleasant, if stealthy, way to celebrate Women’s History Month?