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 email@example.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!
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!”
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.
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.
Some of you may be aware that I’m working on a proposal for a non-fiction book on the history of U.S. feminism that I hope to have published on or near the 100th anniversary of American women getting the right to vote, which is August 19, 2020. This week, Diana at Creating Herstory is featuring a four-part article I wrote on this very same subject and I thought I’d repost the article each day as it runs on her site. It will give you a rough idea of what the book will include, although the book also will have a section on colonial feminist thought that this article doesn’t cover.
Image purchased from Adobe Stock
For me, every day is Women’s History month because I’m currently researching the history of the feminism movement in the United States for a book.
Honestly, although I’ve considered myself a feminist for more than 20 years, I never really thought much about the movement in general or how it came to be. But then I researched my historical fiction novel Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist and the first woman to run for president in the U.S. in 1872 – 48 years before women won the right to vote. Because she was friends with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I came to learn a lot about how feminism and women’s rights came to be in our country.
Historians generally agree that there have been at least three “waves” or intense periods of activity around women’s rights. But that is where the consensus ends. Exactly when these waves took place and what they encompassed is a serious matter of debate, especially where later waves are concerned. Some people (like me), believe we’re currently living in a fourth wave of feminism, while others say we’re still in the third or even in a fifth. There is even some debate on whether or not feminism in American dates back to colonial times, far before the generally accepted seminal event of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
While one article could never do justice to the many facets of the feminist movement (that’s what the book is for, and even then it is impossible to hit all points), here’s a brief summary of the three accepted waves, as well as my theory of a current fourth wave. All dates are approximate.
Wave One: 1840-1920 – Women Fight for Citizenship and Suffrage Key figures: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others.
Susan B. Anthony (standing) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Beginning in the 1830s, women started to quietly talk amongst themselves about their rights and to question why, under United States law, they were not considered full citizens. This eventually led to the first public debate on women’s rights at Oberlin College in 1846 and the first public address about women’s rights the next year. The first women’s rights convention in the United States took place the following July in Seneca Falls, New York. From this meeting came the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, was all about woman and her rights, or lack thereof, in the country at that time. It became the basis for the women’s rights movement until the Civil War disrupted the whole country and placed the public’s attention squarely on abolition.
After the Civil War, the women’s movement split into two groups divided over the idea of enfranchisement of blacks as well as whether universal suffrage should be granted at the Federal or state levels. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the leaders of the radical National Woman Suffrage Association, whose members believed that the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men would make it more difficult for women to be given the vote and called for a federal agreement for women suffrage. On the other side of the fence were Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association, whose members supported the 15th Amendment and worked for women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.
This division hampered the efforts of both groups, by weakening resources, causing in-fighting within the movement and fracturing public attention. As time went on, some states granted suffrage on a case-by-case basis, usually beginning with school suffrage. The first state to grant women full voting rights was Wyoming in 1869. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, even though she wasn’t technically old enough and the vast majority of women didn’t have the right to vote for her. Despite the odds, Susan B. Anthony succeeded in voting in that election (not for Victoria, as the two were bitter enemies by this point) but was arrested and found guilty of illegal voting. But she made history and headlines with her act, and her widely publicized trial spurred on flagging suffragists across the country. In 1875, Virginia Minor, a suffragist from Missouri, argued before the Supreme Court that women already had the right to vote under the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which that states suffrage is a right of all citizens of the United States. But the Supreme Court ruled against her, stating that all “men” had the right to vote, and the suffragists realized that the Federal government wasn’t going to help them. Thus began the decades-long campaign
Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.
for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enfranchise women.
The two warring factions of women’s suffrage finally reunited in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the united cause of getting suffrage state-by-state. Twenty-six years later, tired of this slow, tame approach, Alice Paul formed the National Woman’s Party, a militant group focused on the passage of a national suffrage amendment. The following year, more than 200 members of this group – known as the Silent Sentinels – were arrested while picketing the White House. Many of them went on hunger strikes in prison and were subjected to torture and barbaric practices like forced feeding. (These women were the Iron-Jawed Angels of the 2004 film of the same name.)
Despite these setbacks, the women’s movement continued under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, who focused whole-heartedly on the national amendment from 1916 on. Women finally gained the right to vote on a Federal level on August 20, 1920. But it took a long time for the states to catch up (Mississippi was the last state in the union to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1984) and it wasn’t for several decades that African-American women were truly able to vote without fear of discrimination and harm.
Tomorrow’s Part 2 will talk about the Second Wave of feminism, which lasted approximately from 1960-the late 1980s.
Before I begin, I just found a cache of 65 comments in the trash of my website. Thanks for that, web site. I’m so sorry to have missed them. So if didn’t respond, I wasn’t being rude; I just didn’t know they were there. I have responded to all of them now.
Also, I completely missed my blogiversary. This little ol’ blog turned six on June 16.
And now, on to our main topic…
At the end of June, I had the pleasure of attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland Oregon. It was hands-down the best, most fun conference I’ve ever been to. From the second I stepped into the hotel, I saw people I knew or who knew me, and it felt like a homecoming. These truly are my people. It was humbling and immensely gratifying to have so many people approach me, saying they loved my books and/or had seen me speak somewhere and learned something. I have to say that for the first time I felt like, maybe not a celebrity, but a rising star. I was certainly encouraged to continue on my journey as a historical fiction author!
I have to say I was thrilled by the diversity in the program offerings. In addition to panels on craft and dedicated to certain time periods, there were panels on everything from gender fluidity in Shakespeare’s England and race/minority viewpoints in historical fiction to LBGT characters in history and including women’s stories in history. It was encouraging in an increasingly polarized culture to see that within the Society, authors are talking about all forms of inclusiveness. On a similar note, there were workshops and koffee klatches for both traditional and indie authors and both forms of publishing (as well as being a hybrid author) were talked about on panels. Here again, I took comfort from the open-mindedness I experienced.
Honestly, there were so many great choices, it was often hard to decide which workshop to attend. (Note to HNS: Please bring back the recording of sessions. I would buy every single one.) Of the ones I attended (that I wasn’t on), the one I enjoyed the most were Writing in Multiple Genres, which reaffirmed that you can and perhaps should write in multiple areas, especially if you can make your fiction and non-fiction relate (which mine do, whew!)
From Bustles to Suffragettes panel
I was on two panels and lead a packed koffee klatch. The first panel was “From Bustles to Suffragettes: Writing Victorian Era & Gilded Age Fiction” with Stephanie Carroll, Leanna Renee Hieber, Amanda McCabe (Laurel McKee) and moderator Susan McDuffie. I had corresponded with these ladies online but had never met most of them until the conference. Stephanie and I were roommates at the conference (we met at the 2015 conference in Denver) and Leanna quickly became my new favorite person. (When you share a love of Victoria Woodhull and outspoken Victorian women, I guess this is bound to happen!) We certainly shared a feministic vibe and were two of the more passionate panelists in our answers. We all worked really well together and I’m very glad to have met all these ladies.
Putting the Her in History panel. Photo by Jessica Knauss.
Next was “Putting the ‘Her’ in History” with Patricia Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and moderator Stephanie Lehmann. I was somehow magically added to this one a few months ago and I’m so glad it happened. First of all, I love Patricia Bracewell and Mary Sharatt as authors. Okay, I love Patricia Bracewell in every respect. I like to think of her as one of my writing idols. Needless to say, I was humbled and thrilled to be on this panel. Again, we were a group of well-spoken, intelligent women with no shortage of opinions and more than enough moxie to voice them. As Patricia Bracewell wrote in her blog post reflecting on the conference,”I can only tell you that my fellow panelists were passionate and eloquent about the roles of women throughout history, about the definition of POWER, and the difficulties that historical novelists face in bringing all-but-forgotten women to life.” We must have gotten rather feministic without realizing it, because when the panel started, there were four or five men in the audience; by the time it was over, there were none left. Oops. Sorry guys. We really meant no disrespect. But our message was received. I’ve seen the panel called the best of the conference on several wrap-up blogs like this one and Jessica Knauss said she thought we “had possibly the best energy of any of the panels.”
My koffee klatch was an “ask me anything” style open forum on being an indie author. About 25 people showed up and it was a rapid-fire hour. I barely stopped talking to catch my breath the whole time. Luckily, there were a few other experienced indie authors in the room (hi Lars!) so when I didn’t know the answer (like on KDP select, for example) they were able to fill in for me. Several people told me they really enjoyed it and learned a lot, so I can’t ask for more than that!
Lookie! I got to meet Geraldine Brooks!
The guests of honor, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing, The Golden Chord, Year of Wonders) and David Ebershoff (The Danish Girl, The 19th Wife, Pasadena). I have been a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ writing for years, so it was a dream come true to get to hear her speak. I love that she said she “looks for the stories that are too crazy to be believed” as the basis for her fiction. Finding those is one of my favorite parts of research (Victoria’s family, anyone?) and even if readers don’t believe them, they are things that need to be told. A woman after my own heart, Geraldine gave my favorite quote from the whole event when reflecting on her time and experiences as a war correspondent in the Middle East: “In societies where women are publicly silenced, they find ways to wield private power.”
I had never heard of David before he spoke and I wasn’t expecting to be interested in, much less bowled over by, his speech. But I was captivated. He spoke so eloquently of the life of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in the transgender movement, who was the inspiration for his book The Danish Girl. His speech helped me understand transgender issues a little better and I actually teared up when he talked about Paramount quietly replacing the long-lost headstone on Lili’s grave.
Hooch Through History.
And what would a conference be without extra-circular activities? The first was Hooch Through History, a multi-flight alcohol tasting event that was accompanied by a well-researched presentation about what drinks were popular at different times in history and why. We had mead (which I’ve had before and find way too sweet), mulled wine (which I am very familiar with due to my German/Austrian heritage -YUM!), two kinds of gin (the first, which was an older type was kind of okay, but the second tasted like pine trees), absinthe (which tastes and smells like black licorice – all kinds of wrong) and a bellini (which was my favorite drink of the night). I knew some of the history from my own research, but it was fun to learn more and taste with my friends. It was a unanimous opinion in the sold-out room that this should be an annual event.
Stephanie Carroll and I at the masked ball.
On the final night of the conference there was Hellfire at HNS, the first ever after party. It was so much much! It was a masquerade ball, and even though they gave out free domino masks, I bought a fancy bejeweled mask to wear, as did a few other people. You could choose from two activities: learning Regency dance or learning to play whist. I had major blisters on my feet from the stupid shoes I wore the night before, so dancing was out, but luckily I love playing cards. I can’t say I fully understand whist yet, but I think I have the basics down and my partner and I won, so there is that. I had a really, really good time and I hope they do something like this again in 2019.
My new discovery from this conference is author Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens). I saw her on a panel on Myth, Magic, and Fairy Tales in Historical Fiction. She also spellbound the crowd with recitation of the fairy tale Tam Lin (click the link to watch my shaky video). I fell in love with her. She mentioned on the panel that she has a PhD in fairy tales (how awesome is that?) and that she’s written 40 books in 20 years. As soon as I heard that, I realized that is my new goal! (The books rewritten part; though the PhD would be cool too.)
Jenny Q. and I
Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, I met my lovely cover designer, Jenny Q., in person for the first time!
Next year the conference is in Scotland. I really wish I could go, but unless things change that isn’t going to happen. So I’m already looking forward to 2019. I’m considering being on the board, so we’ll see where that goes!
Many of you know that I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nut. I have a deep love for his comedies and I’m a Marlovian. (Yes, you will be getting a Shakespeare-was-really-Christopher-Marlowe novel from me sometime in the future.) So when I was asked if Charlene could do a guest post on her book about one of the most enduring mysteries surrounding Shakespeare – the identity of the Dark Lady in his sonnets – I jumped at the chance. So without further ado (or should that be “Much Ado?”) please welcome scholar and fellow feminist Charlene Ball!
Author Charlene Ball
I was in the auditorium at the University of Georgia listening to a short, dapper English historian explain his theory that Emilia Bassano Lanyer was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was around 1975. I was fascinated. Imagine my excitement to learn that someone had discovered a woman who not only might have been close to Shakespeare, but who was a poet in her own right—and, moreover, was an early feminist!
Up until then, my feminism and my love of Renaissance literature were kept in separate areas of my world. Feminism was about marches and demonstrations for the Equal Rights Amendment and Take Back the Night, reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Our Bodies Our Selves, and Sinister Wisdom; listening to talks by popular feminists like Gloria Steinem; reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde; and talking with our very own resident radical feminist, Julia Penelope Stanley, who taught linguistics in the UGA English Department and whose mother ran a cool bookstore called The Hairy Hobbit.
Feminism was also about living with my woman lover, identifying as a lesbian, going to softball games to cheer on our lesbian friends who played on a softball team called—what else?—The Hairy Hobbits (the bookstore sponsored the team).
My coursework for my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, on the other hand, involved attending classes and writing papers on Medieval Narrative, Shakespeare, European Romanticism, French Classical Drama, and Renaissance Narrative Poetry.
I loved it all. But there was a disconnect. My coursework did not overlap at all with my life.
So when I heard A.L. Rowse say that not only was Emilia Lanyer the lover of Shakespeare, but also an early feminist who roundly condemned men for slandering women and called for women’s equality, I could not contain my excitement. I was already fascinated by Christopher Marlowe, or the myth of him as an early gay poet, and I wrote a play about him. I also wrote a play about Shakespeare and Emilia Lanyer.
This was about the time that feminist scholars were beginning to write about early women writers. The decades that followed brought my graduation, my search for academic employment, and the changes in the world and in my life. I taught English composition and literature, and, in between part-time teaching gigs, I took temp jobs. I put Emilia on the back burner. My life changed. My relationship ended. I found a position as an office administrator in a Women’s Studies department. I researched and wrote about feminist utopias and Audre Lorde. I began to write fiction.
When I returned to the literature I first loved, no longer called the Renaissance, but the Early Modern Period, I found that feminist scholars had discovered Emilia (or Aemilia) Bassano Lanyer and had written a great deal about her. But from a very different point of view.
What I had found most troubling about Rowse’s description of Emilia in his talk, the introduction to his edition of her poems, and his books about Shakespeare was that he took an unquestioningly misogynistic view of her, calling her “a bad lot” and “no better than she should be.” Other scholars agreed, including the historians who chronicled the Bassano family of musicians, David Lasocki and Roger Pryor. Pryor assumed she was “a well known whore.”
So I was delighted to discover Susanne Woods’s biography and edition of Lanyer’s poems. Woods makes it clear that there is no evidence at all to believe that Emilia was promiscuous, and even if she were, what would it matter anyway?
The feminist Aemilia was not the same as Rowse’s Emilia. There seemed to be no way to see them as the same person.
Yet—why couldn’t they be? There was no reason I could see that a vehement defender of women could not also have been the lover of, not only Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, but of William Shakespeare as well. And those sonnets of Shakespeare’s that are clearly addressed to a woman are far from flattering. Most of them are angry, mocking, and disparaging. Might not a woman who read them and realized they were about her be offended? Might she not want to answer back in her own defense, in the defense of all women?
So I wanted to write about Emilia (I kept to the spelling of her name that I had first learned) as a woman of her time, assuming just as a “what if” that she was Shakespeare’s lover AND a talented poet. I wanted to portray her as she might have been, doing all the things we know she probably did based on Rowse’s research, but not accepting his easy misogyny and stereotyped thinking. For no scholars deny the basics of Rowse’s research; they just don’t accept his conclusions that she must have known Shakespeare and must have been the woman in the Sonnets.
My Emilia, then, is the daughter of a Court musician and member of the large extended family of Bassanos who came from Venice to London at the invitation of Henry VIII. She is the one whose father died when she was young, who was fostered by Suzan Bertie, Countess of Kent, who became the mistress of Lord Hunsdon at a young age, who married her cousin Alfonso Lanyer when she became pregnant, and who visited the astrologer Simon Forman and endured and may have encouraged his sexual advances. My Emilia is also the mother of two children, one of whom died in infancy. My Emilia is the friend of literary women and a poet herself. She is the woman who published a book of poetry in 1611 and who dedicated it to nine of these women, thus becoming one of the first women in England to publish her work and the first to seek patronage as male authors did.
So—shameless plug!—my novel, Dark Lady: A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, brings together my feminism and my love of this fascinating time in history called the Early Modern Period, the time of the incredible burgeoning of drama and poetry by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Phillip Sidney, and so many other men. And now we know about some of the women: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke; Lady Arbella Stuart; Isabella Whitney; Mary Wroth; Anne Vaughan Locke Prowse. And Emilia Bassano Lanyer.
Books for Further Reading:
David Lasocki with Roger Prior, The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665 (Scolar, 1995).
A.L. Rowse, The Poems of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Lanier (Clarkston N. Potter, 1979).
Susanne Woods, ed., The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Oxford UP, 1993).
____________, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet (Oxford UP, 1999).
Thank you, Charlene! I, for one, can’t wait to read your book! If you have questions for Charlotte, please put them in the comments. I’ll let her know and she’s be around to respond.
In the summer, this is what editing looks like. This is me trying to figure out what needs to change in Mistress of Legend.
I’m thankful to finally be back to writing on a regular basis. I seem to have fits and starts this year, which I guess is normal, given that I write in between conferences and day job.
Speaking of conferences, don’t forget that I’ll be at Gateway Con June 16-17 in St. Louis and the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland, Oregon, June 23-24. I’m speaking and signing/selling books at both, so please come and say hello! I’ve just been added to a thirdpanel at the HNS conference, “Putting the Her in History,” with two of my favorites, Patricia Bracewell and Mary Sharratt! Here’s the full information: https://nicoleevelina.com/events/. (Make sure you look at both the reader and writer sections of the page.)
I’ve had some new projects pop up, so I wanted to give you a rundown of where everything stands:
The Once and Future Queen: Guinevere in Arthurian Legend (non-fiction)
I spent the early part of this year researching for my first non-fiction book, which traces the evolution of the character of Guinevere from her Celtic roots to today. I started writing on it in April, but then other things came up. But I’m back at it at a steady clip now. I was hoping for a summer release, but now it’s looking more like end of the year.
Mistress of Legend (Guinevere’s Tale Book 3)(historical fantasy)
I know all of you are eagerly awaiting this book, and frankly, so am I. Guinevere and Morgan have been talking to me a bit, but not as much as I want them to, so things are going slower than I would like. I have re-read my first draft and while it’s not as bad as I thought it was, it still needs work. I have a revision outline and am doing some additional research, which should be finished in the next few weeks. I’m hoping to start writing in earnest on it over the long Fourth of July weekend. I was hoping to have this out by the end of the year, but now I think it will likely be early 2018.
But the book does have a cover! Members of the Guardians of Endangered Stories (my street team) have seen it, so if you can’t wait, please join! Everyone else will get to see it when we get closer to the book’s release.
Ever since I started researching Victoria Woodhull, I have come to realize how much feminism means to me. There are so many great stories of women who have gone against the grain of their society and fought for our rights. I am considering writing a biographical historical fiction of another of them, but I also want to examine what feminism has meant in the United States since the birth of our nation and where the movement might be going, especially in our current political climate.
We know for sure there have been three waves in the movement, each with their own inciting event, primary cause, public figures and cultural shifts. The first was in the 19th and early 20th centuries when women fought for the right to vote. The second was from the 1960s – 1980s, when women fought for equal rights, equal pay, an end to sexual harassment and other causes. The third began in the 1990s and encompasses a variety of topics from slut shaming to contraception and more. Just in a little bit of reading, I’ve learned that the waves are more similar than one might think at first glance. I would also argue that we are currently in the beginning of a fourth wave, spurred on by the 2016 presidential election and its fallout.
This is a passion project that I am just beginning to outline and research. I know it is going to take several years and it won’t take the place of my fiction writing. I need something to work on when the characters aren’t talking, so this is my ongoing project.
“You, a feminist?” I can hear all of your mock shock and horror. I can also hear some of you saying, “You don’t need another project. Just write.” While that’s true, I have to follow my heart in all that I do, and it was telling me the time had come for this blog.
Those of you who have been around here a while know I’m all about the strong female characters. Well, that extends to other areas of my life, too. So I decided a few months ago to start a blog to talk about issues around feminism, women’s equality, female rights, whatever you want to call it. (Check out my “why I’m here” post for more about why I created this blog.) I gathered up nine of my closest friends and several people who wanted to be guest bloggers, we did some planning via email and voila: Femina Aequalitas was born.
Femina Aequalitas is Latin for Female Equality. (Thanks to Liv for the name!) It was an easy way to show what we’re all about. It just so happens that it was ready for prime time right around the time that Emma Watson gave her groundbreaking speech on the role men play in the fight for gender equality. (If you haven’t seen, go watch it. You won’t regret it.) I’m grateful she broke the ice on the subject; we intend our blog to be a place where it can continue.
We’re not like a lot of other feminist blogs out there. You won’t find any man-hating or hard-line rhetoric. As our “About” page will tell you, we’re a group of men (yes, we have male contributors, too) and women who are searching for equality among the sexes in our lives and in our world – in pop culture (movies, music, books, TV, etc.), world news, politics and in our own lives. We’re want share those thoughts in order to foster healthy discussion and grow a community of like-minded individuals. We are desirous of change, but aren’t necessarily traditional activists.
We’re also taking a different approach to blogging. For now at least, we don’t have a regular posting schedule; we just post when something moves us so that the content is fresh and heartfelt, rather than required by a schedule. (We’ll see how that works.) We also have a Twitter account that all of us tweet from to spread the word about women’s issues that way. Feel free to follow us at @feminaaequalita.
We’re open to contributions, so if any of you would like to get involved, please either subscribe or check out our submission guidelines, or both! We’d love for you to stop by and say hi. While we’re still in our infancy, we hope you’ll join us as we build our community.
They say to practice what you preach, and this is the best way (online) I knew how to do that.
What do you think about the site? Are you interested in joining? Or at least following the conversation? What do you think about the recent discussions about feminism on social media and in the news? How do you define feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist?