Honoring National Women's History Month with Historical Fiction Research
In 1987, the United States Congress designated March as National Women’s History Month. When my literary agent, Mark Gottlieb, asked me to write a guest post for his publishing blog, I thought it might be appropriate to write about a woman publisher.
But first we have to talk about bicycles and pantaloons.
(This gal looks a little bitter. She'd much rather be pedaling and steering than riding up front)
Recently, I’ve been working on a presentation for the bi-annual Historical Novel Society Conference in June. The Conference theme is "Revolution" and the title of my talk is Evolution and Revolution in Women’s Fashion from 1850-1970. I’ve been doing a lot of research, of course, just as I do for my novels. Authenticity and plausibility, to me, are everything in historical fiction. We, as authors, are charged with transporting our readers not only to another place, but to another time. To be able to pull that off we absolutely must get the details right. It so happens that I love doing research. Several times I have had the experience of stumbling upon some obscure (or at least, unknown to me) juicy historical factoid that can turn a plot on its axis.
I’ve also stumbled upon the stories of some remarkable women.
(Amelia Jenks Bloomer, publisher of the first newspaper for women, The Lily)
“At the time, women were discouraged from speaking publicly on social issues such as abolition and suffrage...”
In New York City in 1818, Amelia Jenks was born. Her youth was unexceptional—she received a public-school education and worked as a teacher and governess before she married a young man named Dexter Bloomer. Amelia moved upstate to Seneca Falls, where Dexter ran a newspaper. There, she became involved in community and local church organizations and she championed the cause of temperance. With her husband’s encouragement, Amelia began to write. In 1848, along with a "committee of ladies," she published the first newspaper for women, called The Lily. At the time, women were discouraged from speaking publicly on social issues such as abolition and suffrage, but Amelia put forth the decree: "It is WOMAN that speaks through the LILY."
The Lily began as a fairly tame recipes-and-housekeeping-hints sort of magazine with a pro-temperance slant, but over the next couple of years our girl Amelia began to get a little more radical. Under the pseudonym "Sunflower," the great suffragist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton became a contributor and articles about suffrage and women’s rights began to feature prominently.
(Prominent suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
And here, we will leave Amelia for a moment and talk about bikes.
From the 1830s onward, progress in the design and manufacturing of bicycles made a big impact on transportation and recreation, and guess what? Women wanted in on the fun.
But there were more than a few detractors.
Clergy and the press proclaimed that riding a bike, much like riding a horse astride, was not only unflattering, but indelicate and unfeminine and might endanger a woman’s chances of bearing children. Caricatures and cartoons mocked women cyclists.
Progressive women began to wear what were then called, "Turkish trousers" under shorter, tunic-style dresses, as cycling gear.
"Sporting corsets" became available, and these first sports bras were only slightly less constricting than whalebone models, with pleated panels designed to expand, accordion-style, with the exertion of heavy breathing. Minus the constriction of hoops, bustles and petticoats, women suddenly had far more mobility and had the extra advantage of being able to dress themselves.
The comfort and "healthfulness" of this sporty look soon made it popular as streetwear, especially among the early feminist set. Amelia Bloomer wrote about these costumes in The Lily, and began to wear them herself, although I don’t know that she was a cyclist. Before long, the scandalous garment began to be called bloomers.
“It was maybe the equivalent of going braless in the nineteen-seventies.”
By the time the first National Conference of Women was held in Seneca Falls in 1850, bloomers had become a symbol of women’s desire for emancipation. It was maybe the equivalent of going braless in the nineteen-seventies. The idea of a woman having the same freedom of movement as a man was scandalous.
It didn’t take long, however, for suffragists and abolitionists to realize that what they were wearing was getting more press than their message. And it was all negative. At the urging of their leaders, most gave up wearing bloomer costumes, instead, opting for a quieter display of solidarity. The signature colors of the suffrage movement in the U.S. were gold, white and violet. In Great Britain and more militant U.S. factions of the movement the colors were green, white and violet, signifying Green- GIVE, White- WOMEN, the Violet- VOTE. In parades and marches, suffragettes wore white dresses with tri-colored sashes. Day-to-day, they dressed traditionally in feminine styles that would not to incur the wrath of naysayers. Tri-colored hat ribbons, dress trimmings and jewelry made with amethyst, peridot and pearls were worn as quiet proclamations of support.
Suffrage jewelry included brooches of stylized prison cell doors, worn with pride by women who had been arrested and jailed for protesting. Above t is a British medal honoring the wearer for her courage in a hunger strike, with a bar engraved, "FOR VALOUR."
The Lily ceased publication in 1853 after Amelia and Dexter moved westward twice, finally settling in Iowa. By then, The Lily was firmly established as feminist, and several similarly themed women’s newspapers sprung up afterward. Amelia continued to write for other periodicals, championing suffrage until she died in 1894. Twenty-six years later, in 1920, after almost a century of protest, the 19th Amendment would be ratified, granting American women the right to vote.
Liza Nash Taylor is represented by Mark Gottlieb, who brokered a very nice deal for the publication of her two historical novels, forthcoming from Blackstone Publishing. The first, her debut, is titled The Thin End of the Wedge. Set in 1925, the story moves from rural Virginia to Jazz-Age New York and Paris. This post is an excerpt from an upcoming talk, entitled, “…Add more Lipstick and Attack, Evolution and Revolution in Women’s Fashion, 1850-1970.” For the lecture Liza calls upon her experience as a fashion designer for Ralph Lauren in the 1980s. A late-blooming writer, she now writes and resides in bucolic bliss with her best husband so far and three dogs, in Keswick, Virginia, in the 1825 farmhouse which is a setting in both of her forthcoming novels. To learn more and follow Liza’s journey to publication, follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or visit her website, lizanashtaylor.com