Women’s Rights: What’s a Novelist to Do with Historical Circumstance? 

imageOnce you have written a novel, you have to explain it to people who attend your events. You wrote it, so this should be easy for you, right? Not always. Maybe if I’d written a mystery or a bodice-ripper romance (I like to say those words) I could just sum up the plot points, read an exiting scene, and leave. But, no, I had to go and write a 400-page time with three narrative voices, so even choosing which character to use as an entree into the book is a choice that leads down a path that must be interwoven with the other characters’ viewpoints.
My Eve grew up in the 50s and 60s. Her mom, Maisie, mostly in the 20s and 30s. And Eve’s grandmother, Evangeline, the touchstone of the novel, in the era before women could even vote–the early 1900s. Why and how they made the choices they did was therefore influenced by the social, political, and legal circumstances of their time. Each of those eras preceded the modern women’s movement, and that makes conversations with readers of various ages very interesting. Some were born after many major changes had taken place, while others formed many of their opinions in eras before the 1970s, when most of those changes involved struggles between feminists and lawmakers that still influence our daily conversations. Watch Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton negotiate their presidential campaigns, and you’ll see the controversies still involved in calling oneself a feminist.

I wrote Eve’s Garden partly because I wanted to give current audiences a picture of what the 50s and 60s and early 70s were like, an era before the modern women’s movement took hold of the public conversation. Not the political goals or theories, but the impact, the real struggles of women’s lives. So when Maisie sits on Evangeline’s back porch and tells her daughter that every generation of women has its struggles, and invites Eve to consider how  she will impact her students’ lives and choices, I wanted readers to think about what their mother’s and grandmother’s choices meant for the family’s future.
One younger women who truly gets the impact of a previous generation’s struggles on her own life–and the differences between the choices she made and those faced by even younger women–is Tess Vigelund, the former host of Marketplace Money and current author. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent essay she wrote recently on that topic:
. . .  When I graduated from college in 1990, as a member of Generation X, I didn’t give a second thought to the idea that I would get my own apartment, deposit my own paychecks, file my own taxes and apply for my own credit card.

At the time, I don’t think I understood what a dramatic change that all was from the generation that came before me. But it’s only been in the last half century that women gained any real control over their own finances.
We didn’t have the right to credit cards in our own names until 1974, five years after I was born, thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. It is almost unimaginable to any woman under the age of 50 that your boss would call you a “girl”, as many bosses once referred to any woman in the office. Or that a bank would not allow you to have a joint account with a man, much less a bank account of your own; women had to have a man’s permission to open a bank account. But those were both standard behavior just a few decades ago. And they still would be without the fight for financial independence and equality brought to us by the feminist movement.

Read more at: http://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/aug/10/leaning-in-why-women-still-need-feminism
So when my character, Eve, in 1972 contemplates living far away from her family and working as a writer to fund the lifestyle of travel she wants to lead, she was faced with a truly daunting prospect. She would not have been able in most of the country to rent an apartment or anywhere to open a bank account without a co-signer, and there would be no slapping down a credit card to pay for a flight to Paris. And how she would have afforded it is a question, since as an editor she would have been paid about half the salary of male co-workers.
And when Maisie asks to be made formal guardian of her brother and sisters, the judge has a remedy to her diminished status before the law: Get married. A man, any, man (but, fortunately help, she had Frank) woud, magically transform her into a responsible party.

What is interesting is that, though Eve’s Garden is full of juicy tidbits about realities of women’s lives in various eras, audiences have mostly shied away from discussions about those, and have mostly wanted to talk about the heroic aspects of my characters: Maisie’s decision to fight for her siblings and her proposal to Frank; Evangeline’s defiance of and neat sidestepping of the racial prejudices of the time and her devotion to women’s health care; and Eve’s struggle to try to help a pregnant high school student.

One friend congratulated me on evenhandedly portraying the act if abortion in the novel–one pregnant character chooses that option, while another in similar circumstances does not. This particular reader thought that I was straddling the fence between a pro-choice position and the opposition to abortion. I admit I looked at her with dismay. No, it’s a wholly pro-choice presentation, I finally said. That’s what pro-choice means: having the right to do what’s best for you and your family! Abortion isn’t the answer; having a choice is!

Well, if three decades of discussion on this issue haven’t clarified positions, one novel obviously won’t resolve it, either. But at least let’s have the conversation, okay?

One response to “Women’s Rights: What’s a Novelist to Do with Historical Circumstance? ”

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