Imagine a young Jewish woman in 1660s London serving as a scribe for a blind rabbi. That’s the set-up for “The Weight of Ink,” a historical novel I just finished reading. It’s an inspiring story of a young woman who flouted conventions of the day that denied women intellectual opportunities. Not to mention denying them other rights we take for granted today. She had to create a fictitious male persona to hide behind and risked never marrying in a society that demanded women stay in the home and tend to their families. It’s the kind of book that makes you think about what it means to be a woman.
My latest novel, “A Daffodil for Angie,” delves into the growing awareness of the 1960s women’s rights movement and how it affects a teenage girl during that transformative decade. Through reading, Angie becomes acquainted with Susan B. Anthony who battled long and hard for women’s right to vote. Anthony never married, which allowed her to travel as she lobbied for her cause.
It’s sometimes maddening to think how long it took for women to gain freedom and respect. It’s infuriating to think that even today women in many places around the world are still severely restricted by men in power, whether you’re talking about government, religion, academia, the arts or business.
There was a time, not so long ago, that three English sisters hid their gender when they published their novels. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte used the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Why? In the 19th century, women authors were often attacked as being unfeminine and non-literary. And the sisters wanted to avoid such negative notoriety.
I think also of Jane Austen who never married. Had she done so, she might not have written her much-loved novels. Because if you married in the early 19th century, you would, no doubt, be tied down having babies. Of course, her novels are filled with stories of young women who must find a husband. In that time, an unmarried woman - a spinster - was pitied. More than that, she likely wouldn’t have an income. Modern readers may view the stories as romantic – falling in love with Mr. Darcy and all – but the underlying theme of the need to get married may be lost on many readers. Austen, herself, managed to make money through her writing and had a family to lean on, but she was not typical.
Lots of women are writers now. Me, for instance. Lots of women are lawyers, doctors, elected officials and company CEOs. Maybe not as many as we’d like. But it wasn’t so long ago that the vast majority of women were denied creative and professional outlets. It took the bravery of many women to break down those barriers. I’m inspired by such women, whether they’re actual historical figures or fictional characters whose stories represent so many women’s dreams and aspirations.
The picture above is of Charlotte Bronte with her autograph in a frontispiece of "Jane Eyre."
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