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Keeping Historic Heroines Real -- by Mysti Parker

Keeping Historic Heroines Real

By Mysti Parker

Origninally posted on Romancing the Book:

Women today have more freedom than ever before. Contemporary fiction is chock full of strong, independent heroines. They enjoy work, sex, and cold beer. They’re tough as any man. Historical heroines can be just as independent and tough, right?

The answer is yes…but only to a certain point. You have to keep in mind the limitations that were imposed on women depending on the time period. To illustrate, let’s think about your typical mid-1800’s woman.

Women were expected to reside within the “Cult of True Womanhood,” a societal view with four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Any deviation from those virtues marred a woman’s reputation. Ingrained views of how women and men were biologically different were encouraged by Charles Darwin’s theory of “biological determinism.” This theory suggested that biology determined behavior. That particular belief has been used as an excuse for many societal prejudices, but in the case of women vs. men, these are the supposed innate differences:














Emotional, susceptible to madness, hysteria





Able to resist temptation

Unable to resist temptation






Not sexual/sensual

Sphere: Public

Sphere: Private


Women were thought to need the supervision of men, or they could easily give into sinful temptations and hysterics. That’s not to say that there weren’t several women throughout history who defied those standards, but it wasn’t easy.

When writing any historical piece, it’s important to keep that in mind. You can’t put women on an equal playing field with men, at least not without consequences. In A Time for Everything, young widow Portia makes the difficult decision to leave her home to take a job as a tutor in another town. Since her husband and daughter died, she’s relied on her brother-in-law and his wife. But they’re struggling to make ends meet, and she doesn’t want to burden them any longer.

In today’s time, they’d probably be sad to see her go, but would wish her well and offer to help her move. Yet, in 1866, a single woman moving to another town without husband or family was a rare event. Though they let her go, her brother-in-law escorts her to her destination and isn’t at all happy about it. In fact, he feels like a failure for not being able to take care of his late brother’s wife. Here’s an excerpt:

Frank climbed in the wagon and stared straight ahead. Portia didn’t have to ask to know exactly what he was thinking. Though he would never say much about it, he felt responsible for his brother’s widow and thought himself a failure because of her departure. Out of all of them, Frank’s guilt weighed on her most. After Jake left to fight, he had worked twice as hard to keep them all fed, avoiding the call to duty only because he was blind in one eye. Every day since, the worry lines on his face dug deeper, while the hair on his head turned grayer.

All because he wanted to provide for his family and to take care of his little brother’s wife, whom he loved like a sister.….

They passed the small family graveyard where soft green grass covered Abby’s plot. By the gate, a few crocuses poked their purple heads above the ground, blooming amidst the emerging yellow daffodils. Portia wished the lilies were in bloom so she could put some on the graves. She decided to come back this summer and do just that.

Frank broke the silence. “It ain’t right. You ought to stay with your family.”

As you can see, Portia didn’t follow convention. She was strong enough to do what she thought best and put her heart into her new job of teaching Beau Stanford’s son. Once she and Beau overcome their differences and fall in love, they don’t just jump into bed together. In a tender moment, they share their first kiss, though Portia is fully aware that it’s not an acceptable act:

He reached over and picked up a lock of her hair, running his fingers gently along its length. “I wish…”

Her heart raced — he was so close, just a breath away. “You wish what?”

“That I could have kissed you just once.” He slowly let go of her hair and watched it fall over her shoulder.

Her cheeks flamed, hidden only by the dimness of night. She knew kissing Beau Stanford was beyond a bad idea. It could only tear her heart into a million more pieces, but he was everything she admired in a man. Kind, honest… vulnerable. He had no reason to love her. She could bring nothing to their marriage. Yet there he was, confessing his love in the most tender, innocent way he could. For once in her life, she didn’t want to weigh and measure every decision in her path. She wanted to follow her heart.

You can definitely have strong heroines in historical romance, but unless it’s an alternate world, keep it real! Do your research to see how women lived in whatever time period you’re writing in. Whatever decisions your heroine makes, consider the consequences.

QUESTION: Who are your favorite historic fiction heroines? What made them strong? What challenges did they face?


Mysti Parker is a wife, mother, and shameless chocoholic. While her first love is romance, including five published books and an award-winning historical, she enjoys writing flash fiction and children’s stories. When she’s not writing, Mysti works as a freelance editor, serves as a mentor in a 7-week writing course (F2K) and reviews books for SQ Mag, an online speculative fiction magazine. She resides in Buckner, KY with her husband, three children and too many pets.

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Posted by Mysti Parker 8 Dec 2015 at 01:55
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Responses to this blog

Crowefoot 9 Dec 2015 at 16:03  
The trouble is that once it was a novelty to have a herione who went against the conventions of her time. Now it is completely predictable that the modern writer will give her attitudes uncommon to her era.
Sac 11 Dec 2015 at 05:22  
I agree with most of what you said. The only exceptions are on your list of supposed differences between men and women.

Men are on average, far stronger physically than women. There are no scientific grounds to dispute that. That is reason the patriarchy took hold the world over in the time before reason and still persists and even thrives in many impoverished, and less enlightened countries.

What is also true is that women are more emotional than men. I do not say this as a negative, although at times it can be a pain in the ass for men. Women are on average, far more empathetic and yes, emotional, than men. That's just the way it is.

Please don't take this the wrong way. I'm not saying that women can't be strong and that men can't be weak. I'm not saying that women can't be rational or that men can't be emotional and empathetic.

Jongoff 11 Dec 2015 at 08:08  
You're actually talking about the Elizabethan period. If you go further back you will find women were not considered weak at all. They managed estates, monastaries, businesses, and kingdoms. There was a female pope, and women were often more educated and skilled than their husbands, whose business interests they often ran. It wasn't around until the 15th century, ironically an era ushered in by a woman, that women began to be seen as the weaker sex. Women held important roles in society and actually enjoyed a thousand years of not being second class citizens, far longer than our own time of "enlightenment."

So, when you're writing your historically accurate heroine, understand that between the 5th and 15th centuries women were often well educated, influential, and important members of society.

The transition of equality to second class citizen took many long years and sadly, the Catholic church played a prominent role in it.

Demonqueen 11 Dec 2015 at 11:53  
Funnily enough, just been talking about something that touches this in another thread - classic literature and how it was confined/defined by social etiquettes, which very much fell onto the conduct of its women.

Also, anyone who is interested in the history of women, their behaviours and societies expectations of them, you may be interested to watch The Ascent of Woman BBC series (4 parts) which, contrary to Jongoff's claim, very much maps out the path of women in history over 25000 years of being seen as weak, and inferior, and as having had laws of ownership and their rights to free speech stripped away from them as a means of control.

Women who managed to transcend those confines were actually very exceptional to the rule, and still had to operate within the rules of a patriarchal society (even Queen Elizabeth l), to the point of one female ruler having to rule from behind a screen so that her male councellors couldn't see her. Often, when they did rule, it was behind the official position of a son who may have been too weak minded, or too young. The programmes also mention how the opinion of women's inferiority was based on the assumption that because our bodies change (periods, childbirth, menopause) we were not considered a stable host and therefore should not be trusted.

Women were very much discouraged to voice any kind of public opinion, and were not alllowed to challenge their husbands. Laws stripping them of their properties and rights date back for thousands of years. It all began with farming, apparently! (you'll have to watch the vids)

Just to give you a summary!

Interesting stuff. I highly recommend watching the series.
Mysticat 12 Dec 2015 at 03:03  
Thanks Demonqueen for the recommendation. Sounds very good!

The list of attributes was about 19th century women from a professor of women in literature on this website:

It is quite fascinating to see how women's roles/social statuses have changed so drastically over the centuries. Reminds me of the rise and fall of cat-kind from revered creatures to witch's minions and back to beloved pet (depending on who you ask )

Women of course are all over the spectrum in terms of personality throughout history. Some made tidal waves, others ripples, but in writing them, it's important to know how they were conventionally viewed in that particular era so their interactions with other characters and conflicts are believable.

Thanks so much for commenting. I enjoy reading all your thoughts and blogs.

Demonqueen 12 Dec 2015 at 12:53  

Yes, and part of that conventional view was for many years that women were a burden or a commodity to be traded, and any misconduct on the womans part could mean dire financial consequences for all the family. I've not written any historical fiction, but I expect if you could ground yourself into that mentality it would help to write your female characters more authentically.

There most definitely were influential women throughout the ages, but it's important to remember that they still had to operate within the limits inflicted on them by men, and often not in an open, official capacity.

Here in France women didn't even get to vote until the sixties! How bad is that??? It's easy to forget in our modern ways how recently things changed in that respect. Fifty years is not all that long.

I feel very lucky to have been born when and where I was.
Elenya 22 Jan 2016 at 23:40  
If you want to get an idea of what was possible, despite the official rules of the times, it helps to look for biographies of actual strong women in the past. I follow a page on facebook that gives me stories of historic strong women, and it's surprising what things people have done despite their difficulties. For example, there was an African-American woman who won a court case to free her son from slavery in a time where slavery was still a common thing and women where expected to keep their mouth shut. And many times, the first woman doing something did so despite the obstacles, not because she was helped. Marie Curie wasn't allowed to speak on her research on the first lecture about it, her husband had to do it, but eventually, people did come to know that she was the one who started it and he had just helped her. The first Dutch female doctor, Aletta Jacobs, was at first just allowed to visit the lectures, not to ask any questions or do any exams.

Also keep in mind there can be huge differences depending on the time and place, and it's not always the same freedoms going together. For example, current day women in Iran have a lot less freedom than here in Europe, but a woman studying in a STEM-field is much more common there, because they never had the cultural bias that women couldn't do math in the first place (I know this because an Iranian woman who did part of her studies in the Netherlands said in an interview that she was so surprised to be one of the only women here, when it was more fifty-fifty in Iran). And women in medieval Europe had much more freedom to work and move about than women in for example ancient Greece. And in both feudal Japan and ancient Greece, the only way for a woman to be educated and free was to either be very poor (because then there was simply not enough money for them not to work) or to become a prostitute (oiran or hetaire), or an entertainer (geisha). And in 20th-century Japan, the husband would earn the money and the wife would be the homemaker, but when the husband got home, he handed over all his salary to his wife and she would then give him pocket-money, using the rest for the rent, the groceries and so on. Also, keep in mind that while women generally earned less than men and were less valued, the idea of the woman staying at home for the housework and the kids did not become common until the fifties; most people simply weren't wealthy enough before that. And women earning less also meant that during the industrial revolution, generally in poor families the wife and kids were working while the man couldn't get a job because he was too expensive.

The story of the female pope is a myth, as far as I know. It was a story that was invented at the time by those who were angry at the catholic church, to show how low they had gotten.

Lastly, I personally don't think women are more emotional in general than men, they just express it in other ways and they can fluctuate more due to hormones. The main difference is that a sad woman will generally cry, feel angry with herself, talk about it with others and maybe eat lots of chocolate, while a sad man will show aggression, start to do risky things like driving too fast, drinking, doing drugs, etc. This is mostly because men in western societies learn from a young age that a 'real' man does not express emotion: when they are young children, there are hardly any differences, boys cry just as fast as girls, but crying girls are comforted while crying boys are scolded. And women can be just as aggressive as men when they think no one's looking (this was tested with video games) but their aggression is less likely to result in jail time, because they are less likely to do severe bodily damage (because they are generally less strong) and because their victims often don't dare to go to the police if they're male or aren't believed if they do go.

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