Celebrate Women’s Equality Day with These Interesting Projects in Women’s History

As August 2020 and the centennial of women’s right vote in the United States grows closer, we’re starting to see some really creative projects highlighting the brave, groundbreaking women of American history. Unfortunately, none of them include Victoria Woodhull yet (trust me, I’m contacting each one as I learn of them), but they do include many of her contemporaries. Here are three projects I’m keeping an eye on:

Rebel Women – A project to get more statues of amazing women of American history built in New York City and throughout the country. The author of the article I linked to is asking for nominations for women from your home town. I’ve already nominated Victoria for New York City and Virginia Minor for St. Louis. Please, feel free to nominate your own or second one of mine by emailing dearmaya@nytimes.com.

Embrazen Wines – This is by far the most clever of the three projects. A winemaker has created three special vintages with labels that highlight the accomplishments of three women in American history: Josephine Baker, Nellie Bly and Celia Cruz. A special app called Living Wine Labels allows you to scan the bottle and hear Beginning August 26 (National Women’s Equality Day, which many groups are lobbying to make a Federal holiday), you can nominate women of history or today to be added to the next group of wines. If you nominate a contemporary woman, she could win a $25,000 grant. You bet I will be making them aware of Victoria when the Trailblazer campaign opens on August 26.

Where Are the Women? – This Kickstarter campaign aims to create sculptures of 20 notable women of U.S. history. Even though Victoria is not among them, her friends Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone are. I have backed it and I have also recommended Victoria to them. Please help them reach their goal. It’s so important that we spread the word about women’s history and all those whose accomplishments have not received the attention they deserve.

Why am I telling you about these? Well, besides oversight of not including Victoria, I’m still working on a proposal for a book on the history of feminism in the U.S., which I’d love to have published near the centennial. Cross your fingers!

Feminism: One Movement in Four Waves (Part 4)

This is the final installment of this series. Here are the other parts: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Wave Four: 2017 – Present – Women Resist
Key Figures: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, celebrities such as Rose McGowan, Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson, and women of the general public who demonstrated.

By Elvert Barnes from Baltimore, Maryland, USA via Wikimedia Commons

In 2005, Pythia Peay became the first women to argue, at least publicly, that the country had slipped into a fourth wave of feminism, one she believed combined justice with spirituality. Jennifer Baumgardner points to 2008 as the date the fourth wave began because of the sanctioning of Take Our Daughters to Work Days and the broadening of feminist agendas to include transgender women, acceptance of sex-positivism and sex workers, support for plus-sized women and other issues.

But I personally believe the change came in 2017. Regardless of who you voted for, it’s hard to deny that the Trump election changed everything for women in the United States. You could argue that this wave began with Hilary Clinton’s campaign, but I believe the stunning blow many women felt when she lost, combined with Trump’s public distain for women, is really what set us into a new wave.

Within days of his election, women were planning ways to protest the rise of a culture in which a political leader with pending lawsuits for sexual misconduct and widely-seen video/audio footage of him bragging about kissing/groping women without their consent is given a pass by fellow lawmakers and voters. They also used it as a chance to advocate for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women’s rights, immigration reform, health care reform, reproductive rights, the environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and freedom of religion. The resulting January 21, 2017, Women’s March in Washington was the largest single-day protest in American history. It and 673 others around the world drew 2.6 million people in all 50 states and 32 countries. (In 2018, more than 1 million women turned out for a second Women’s March in cities across the country, with an emphasis on resistance and creating change through voting in the midterm elections to be held later in the year.)

By Rob Kall from Bucks County, PA, USA via Wikimedia Commons

2017 also saw the ideas of men habitually interrupting women or “mansplaining” ideas to them come into mainstream media when California Sen. Kamala Harris was cut off by two male colleagues during an Intelligence Committee hearing, not once, but twice in a week, without censure.  This event led to former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller branding Harris with the age-old female label of “hysterical.” During the same hearings, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren objected to the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Senate voted to silence her in the middle of a speech, citing  Senate Rule XIX, which prohibits ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” In defending this action, Sen. Mitch McConnell said, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Thus was born the fourth wave feminist slogan “Nevertheless She Persisted.”

Perhaps the most visible movement within the reenergized feminist fourth wave began in October 2017 with a tweet from actress Rose McGowan in which she revealed she had been raped by a man she called HW (who would later be identified as media mogul Harvey Weinstein). Her Charmed co-star Alyssa Milano responded to her tweet by urging women to use the hastag  #MeToo to show how widespread sexual harassment and sexual assault are. A movement was born, resulting in hundreds of thousands of women (both famous and not) around the world sharing their stories, as well as accusations against more than 50 Hollywood heavyweight actors, producers, directors, and other public figures. Time magazine later named the #MeToo silence breakers the Person of the Year for 2017.

A high-profile offshoot of #MeToo is #TimesUp, a movement involving more than 300 women in the film industry who are supporting one another in the fight against sexual harassment and violence through lobbying and providing funds for victims who can’t afford legal counsel.

Given all this fiery activity, it is little surprise that feminism was Merriam-Webster’s 2017 Word of the Year – a move many saw as confirming the rise of feminism from near-death.

From NBC news

One positive outcome of this fledgling wave of feminism is that more women than ever are running for political office, seeking to change trends that threaten to normalize sexual harassment and overall disregard for women’s rights and feelings. Currently, women occupy just 19.1% of House seats, 21% of Senate seats, and only four current U.S. governors are women, according to Catalyst.org, but this may well change with 2018 mid-term elections leaving several seats up for grabs. According to the Washington Post, a record number of women are running for governor: 79 women — 49 Democrats and 30 Republicans — are considering runs for the 2018 campaign. That’s more than double than four years ago. In Michigan, it appears that women will be nominees for every statewide office and more than 110 women have signed up to run for the Texas legislature.

Only time will tell what else this new wave will bring or what permanent changes it will usher in. I, for one, am grateful to be living “in interesting times” where history is made each and every day. If previous waves are any indication, persistence, loud voices and bold action will win the day and hopefully, finally, bring to an end the need for feminism to exist after nearly 200 years. It’s a tall order, but as Rosie the Riveter reminds us “we can do it!”

 

Feminism: One Movement in Four Waves (Part 3)

This is part of an ongoing series. In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2.

Wave Three: 1990 – 2016 – Women Fight for Multiple Ideas and Individuality
Key Figures: Anita Hill, the Riot Grrrl bands, Sarah McLaughlin, Hillary Clinton, and others.

By RockCreek [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of the Internet, the agenda of the feminist movement became fragmented as the world became smaller. This was a time when many issues were brought to the fore, including (but not limited to) gender violence (including rape and rape culture), reproductive rights, the meaning of derogatory language (such as bitch and slut), equal pay, and gender expectations. A key feature of the third wave of feminism was a focus on intersectionality, recognition that the movement should include women of all races, nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations. These women were the daughters of second wave feminists and they were determined to learn from their mother’s mistakes.

It can be argued that Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the beginning of this wave, as it brought high profile sexual harassment into American homes through the nightly news and newspaper headlines. The Pacific Northwest punk movement that came to be known as Riot Grrrl is also credited with starting the third wave. These bands helped open a discourse on feminist subjects through their unabashed lyrics that took on rape, the patriarchy, sexuality, women’s and empowerment. In addition, the divisive issue of sex and sexuality blossoming into the so-called “feminist sex wars” in the early 1990s was another force driving feminism into a third wave.

The popularity of the all-female music festival Lilith Fair and the goddess movement of the 1990s placed a cultural emphasis on Girl Power (Spice Girls, anyone?) and gave women safe havens (both spiritually and at traditionally male-dominated music festivals) that were difficult to ignore. At the same time, The Vagina Monologues drew attention toward female sexual desire and raised money for support services for battered women.

The late 1990s and especially the early 2000s were marked by a backlash against feminism, which caused some in the media to name it the “post-feminist era.” Within the realm of popular imagination, feminists had gained a reputation for militancy and man-hating, which many women wanted to distance themselves from and Rush Limbaugh famously termed “feminazis.” Celebrities came out as openly saying they did not identify has feminist, even though they were for equal rights. It many ways, it began to look as though the movement was dead.

Controversy stalked the third wave in the form of accusations of creating a “culture of raunch,” which grew up around the sex-positive aspects of the movement. Pornography, strip clubs and risqué fashions were taken by many feminists and turned into symbols of female sexual empowerment, rather than being seen as degrading. In a similar vein, in 2015 and 2016, women sought to take back the word “slut” and to end the practice of “slut shaming” through public “slut walks” in which they proclaimed their sexuality and spoke out against victim-blaming and rape culture.

It was into this chaos that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign marched, reigniting the hopes of many and reviving the call for women to vote. Clinton’s election to the presidency was seen by many as the inevitable crowning achievement of the feminist movement. While she was certainly not universally adored and many societal issues still remained against women, the idea of finally having a woman in the highest role in the land – 144 years after Victoria Woodhull first tried – trumped (no pun intended) those concerns for those who viewed her election as the strongest victory for women, perhaps since we were granted the right to vote nearly a century before. This sense of optimism reigned until results started coming in and the unthinkable began to suddenly appear unavoidable.

Feminism: One Movement in Four Waves (Part 2)

I got so busy yesterday I forgot to post part two! So you get two posts today. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.

Wave Two: 1960-1988 – Women Fight for Equality
Key figures: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Anna Nieto-Gómez, Sandra “Casey” Hayden, Mary King, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others.

The second wave of feminism in is often attributed to the strict gender roles that oppressed women in the wake of WWII. Despite new household technologies making homemaking easier than ever and socioeconomic change resulting in an abundance of new jobs not confined to the brute strength of men, women were still expected to fulfill many of the same roles they always had, and women were growing restless. In 1963 author Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, criticizing how white women were shown in the media (as good little housewives with no drive or potential) and showing the emotional toll such a life took on women. Add to this the 1961 advent of the birth control pill which made employment without the threat of unexpected pregnancy a reality for the first time, and American females were primed for action.

It can also be said that there was a direct correlation between the fight for Civil Rights by African-Americans and the beginning of the second wave of feminism, which focused on equality for women. The Civil Rights movement gave women a template to follow and showed that their voices matter in terms of activism. These “radical feminists” went on to led the second wave in speaking out on violence and sexism.

Legal victories such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave women momentum. But this time, there wasn’t just one theme, but many. The women spurred on by consciousness raising meetings fought for the right for women to have access to and equal opportunity in the workforce, as well as the end of legal sex discrimination, championed reproductive rights (especially after 1973’s Rode v. Wade case made abortion legal) and spoke out against domestic violence and marital rape.

By the 1980s many people felt that the movement had achieved its goals through sexual harassment laws, the legalization of abortion and legislation that gave women more equal opportunities with men, so large-scale protests faded away, along with much of the energy behind the movement. Supporters still fought to uphold abortion rights and sexual harassment laws, promote full equality in the military and prevent violence against women, but overall it had lost its spark. On top of this, some feminists were starting to argue over the inclusion of sex workers in the feminism movement, a fight that would continue into the next wave.

The second wave was highly criticized by many African-American feminists and others of color as focusing far too much on the rights and politics of white women, as well as by the LGBT community for being too heteronormative.

On Likeable and Unlikeable Female Characters

Victoria Woodhull drawn as Mrs. Satan in Harper’s Weekly. Thomas Nast, 1872 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally I come across a review of Madame Presidentess that characterizes Victoria Woodhull as an “unlikeable” character. Usually, I shrug and think “whatever,” because you certainly can’t please everyone, and I know, even if the reader didn’t get it, that Victoria is the way she is because the historical woman was that way. I can’t change her without failing in my duty as a biographical historical fiction writer.

However, as I was listening to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist on audio, one of her points made me stop and think a bit harder. She mentioned, that due to some inexplicable literary construct, our characters can’t be human or they risk being termed “unlikable,” especially if they are female. She also points out that unlikeable male characters are called “anti-heroes,” while unlikable female characters are, well, just unlikable. (There are some female anti-heroes, like Miriam Black in Chuck Wendig’s series of the same name. But on the whole, her point stands.)

As Roxane puts it, these unlikable women “are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all thing unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social respectability.” This is certainly true of Victoria, who is at turns brash, self-centered, self-serving, outspoken and sometimes mean. Or in other words, she was human, and dared to not follow the social construct of what it means to be a “good” or “proper” woman.

At some point, we’ve all been fed a line that characters need to be perfect or at least, what I call “stage perfect,” that Truman-show-esque scrubbed clean near-perfection that we’ve come to associate with the heroes of stage, film and fiction. You know, the typical “good” character. I get that many are idealized versions of ourselves, but when you write biographical historical fiction like I do, you are dealing with real people who make mistakes and do things that are sometimes hard to understand. People just like me and you. So just as you both like and hate your friends and relatives, you are going to like and hate them, too.

One great point Roxane makes is that we use the term “likability” as though we read books to make friends with the characters. Which, you know, when you think about it, really is beyond the bounds of what characters are supposed to do. If the story is well-written, they “should serve a greater purpose in the narrative” than that, which is sometimes why the characters we love to hate are so great. Personally, as I writer, I find the characters with more flaws are more fun to write, i.e Mia in Been Searching for You, and Morgan in my Guinevere series. Granted, you could call both of them the antagonists of their respective books, but they are also the heroines of their own stories, which is perhaps why I want to give them their own books. They deserve the chance to tell why they are the way they are and show who they are in all their unlikeability, unfiltered through the gaze of Annabeth and Guinevere, the POV characters of those other books.

But I don’t think unlikeability is such a bad thing. It’s totally different from a character being poorly developed or drawn. A well-developed unlikable character makes you feel, pisses you off, makes you frustrated, etc. And if done well, she still keeps you reading, even if just to find out what that crazy woman will do next or why she just did what she did.

Victoria may be my first “unlikable” character, but she certainly won’t be my last. I refuse to cover up the flaws and foibles of my historical characters to make some readers happy. To do so would be disrespectful to the memories of the actual women, and disingenuous to all women. After all, if all we see in literature is “likable” women, how will we ever begin to accept our flawed selves, much less accept one another? And how boring would those stories be? I say bring on the unlikable characters – let them challenge us, our views of femininity and of what is socially acceptable. It’s the only way we will ever change.

Who are some of your favorite “unlikable” characters in fiction?

My Biggest Dream in Life – Being a UNWOMEN Goodwill Ambassador

The blog challenge topic few weeks ago was “your biggest dream in life.” I know you know I want to be a New York Times Bestseller and a full-time author, so I’m going to talk about something closer to my heart that I haven’t been very public about. It is my dream to be a goodwill ambassador for UNWOMEN, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

As many of you know – and I doubt no one is surprised about, given the nature of my books – I’m a feminist, which I trace back to my parents for always assuring me I can do anything, and to attending a Catholic all-girls high school. I’ve been supporting women-based charities since I was in college, including Women for Women International (where I’ve sponsored more than a dozen women survivors of war), UNIFEM (which is what UNWOMEN used to be called) and local all-girls schools for women of various ages.

I’ve wanted to work at the UN for years, ever since I heard about Angelina Jolie becoming a goodwill ambassador (I hadn’t heard of them before that, but they date to the 1950s). The UN was the first place I visited on my first trip to NYC.  What has kept me from applying for a job there is 1) I can’t afford to live in Manhattan, and 2) I don’t speak any other languages (sadly my high school French is all but gone). But I figure when my books take off, they might be interested in having me as a spokesperson. When I look at the women who are ambassadors now, Emma Watson, Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway, I think, “yeah, that’s company I want to join.”

My ultimate dream is to create a book that captures women’s stories and struggles around the world. I’d love to base it on people I meet on those goodwill trips, and partner with a photographer to bring their faces and voices to greater light in nations like the US and in the UK/mainland Europe, where we don’t pay nearly as much attention to women in Syria, Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries as we should.

That, I feel, is an expansion of the mission I have started by telling the stories of women in danger of being lost to history. I may only be able to do little things toward my dream right now, but each one gets me a step closer.

What is your biggest dream in life?