We Didn’t Start the Fire: Women’s Rights in Historical Romantic Fiction

Sometimes women in much of the world, born in the latter half of the  twentieth century, like me,  forget that women struggled and fought for their rights long before Betty Friedan wrote THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE.  We take our rights — to vote, marry who we wish, travel at will, to own property — for granted because it is what we grew up with. As I read and write about Historical Fiction lately it seems that a common thread in the genre is women’s rights. And it has become obvious to me that we didn’t start the fire, it’s been burning in the hearts of women and many men for a long time. I want to bring it up as something to think about as we read so-called genre fiction.  These books have a lot of themes and ideas that go beyond titillation and escapist fantasy and which actually incite interest in important issues.

Most recently I read an ARC of Miranda Neville’s new LADY WINDERMERE’S LOVER  which appealed to me as a riff  on Oscar Wilde’s play, LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN.  I review this book on Saturday and on Monday offer an extensive interview with the author and a giveaway!

“You brute! You coward!” from an anonymous artist’s illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the plot for this book was the quest for equal pay for women around the beginning of the 19th century spurred on my silk works in the Spittalfields section of London. The story was intricately woven around this theme and made me very interested in the idea.

This issue at the time was more about the differences between master weavers and apprentices but the laws enacted in regards to the silk industry, the Spittalfields acts (late 18th century to the first third of the 19th century) extended their provisions to women.   (read more here: A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton,  Author William Page (Editor), 1911 ).

What stood out to me as I read was that here I was reading about women looking for equal pay for equal work from the 18th century (and earlier) and we are actually still looking for this now, over two hundred years later. Shocking.

Jane Austen, who wrote some of the earliest novels by a woman in English,  often looked at women’s rights in the distribution and control of fortunes, and inheritance laws. Many romance novels have plots based on, influenced by or mention this property issue.  I recently listened to two audiobooks by Lynsay Sands in the Madsion Ssters series: THE COUNTESS and THE HEIRESS wherein the sisters’ grandfather left them each a dowery accessible upon marriage, but their husband would own it when they wed. They had to find men who would allow them to control it.

Recently, I read and reviewed HOW TO LOSE A DUKE IN TEN DAYS wherein a wealthy victim of an act of sexual violence marries with enough contractual agreements to ensure her independence. Even with a contract, however, laws would be on her husband’s side if he chose to have her committed because she would not grace the marital bed.

According to Wikipedia:

Before 1870, any money made by a woman either through a wage, from investment, by gift, or through inheritance automatically became the property of her husband once she was married. Once a woman became married her property was no longer her own and her husband could choose to dispose of it whenever he thought suitable: “Thus, a woman, on marrying, relinquished her personal property—moveable property such as money, stocks, furniture, and livestock— to her husband’s ownership; by law he was permitted to dispose of it at will at any time in the marriage and could even will it away at death”. Even in death a woman’s husband continued to have control over her former property. Married women had few legal rights and were by law not recognized as being a separate legal being – a feme sole. In contrast, single and widowed women were considered in common law to be femes sole, and they already had the right to own property in their own names. Once a woman became married she still had the right to legally own her land or house but she no longer had the rights to do anything with it such as rent out a house that she owned or sell her piece of land: “Thus, a wife retained legal ownership of her real property—immovable property such as housing and land, but she could not manage or control it; she could not sell her real property, rent it, or mortgage it without her husband’s consent”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Married_Women%27s_Property_Act_1870

That’s kind of like being given food when you are hungry but not be allowed to eat. It’s interesting that these changed began to occur while Queen Victoria was on the throne.  It’s hard to even comprehend what it would be like to not have the legal and civil rights I have now, but there are plenty women in the world who experience legal restraints and lack of civil rights.

Romance novels placed in time earlier than the Georgian or Regency eras often go beyond property rights to rights of self-determination, choice of husband, even the duty and right of a husband to discipline a wife or daughter with corporal punishment.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) by John Opie

Women needed education to become whole and in Gayle Callen’s recently released REDEMPTION OF THE DUKE several characters discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN.  It’s interesting in a full circle  or coincidentals way that she was born in Spittalfields in 1759. Mary Wollstoncraft went beyond calling for education to philosophizing about the place of women in society. She was a maverick, but like many women, sadly died shortly after giving birth of septicemia shortly after giving birth to the Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later, Shelley,  who would write Frankenstein. (OpenCourseware, University of Notre Dame)

Well, if this has inspired you to investigate themes about feminism and women’s rights in romance novels I’ll be very happy.  While we may not have started the fire, recent events here in the United States, in Nigeria, and in countries around the world point out that we need to throw some logs on the bed of coals.  The quest is not over and probably never will be.

Romance novels entertain: they are sexy, fun, and make us sigh, but there’s often more at work within the pages.

QUESTION MARK Have you ever been spurred on by a theme, like equal rights,  in a  romance novel, to learn more about it?

BTW: I review LADY WINDERMERE’S LOVER on Saturday and have an Interview and Giveaway with Author Miranda Neville starting on Monday.