As I started to write my first historical novel, SUN’S PARTING RAY, a couple of years ago, I thought a lot about what it would be like to be a woman living in Kentucky in the 19th century, since that’s who my main character is…and that’s who my real life ancestor, Jane Compton Austin, on whom my MC was very loosely based, was.
While I think I would have enjoyed certain aspects of living back then, there are some definite things I would not have liked at all (although I have to wonder if, had a lived back then, these things would bother me quite as much as they do now – having the 20th/21st century mindset that I have). Anyway, here are two of the main reasons I would not have wanted to live back then (and they mostly have to do with the fact that I am a woman).
1) Childbirth/Periods: Not long ago, I learned about something called the menstrual cup. Intrigued, I Googled it (Actually I Binged it. I use Bing more than Google now because I can earn stuff for doing so. It’s pretty cool!), and I discovered that it is an admirable eco-friendly alternative to pads and tampons. However, the whole idea of the thing sounds gross. You’re constantly having to take it out, wash it, and put it back in. It’s so much easier to use something up, take it out, and throw it away. Call me wasteful, but in this case, I absolutely am and always will be.
In a similar vein, the idea of having children (more specifically, the actual process of giving birth) in the 19th century just doesn’t appeal to me at all. Both my daughters were born via c-section, which wasn’t generally done until the latter part of the 19th century. Considering that the first was a medical emergency and the second, while scheduled, would have been necessary given the thinness of my uterus at the time, all I have to say is, “Thank God for modern medicine,” because surely either I or my babies (or both of us) would have died during the process of delivery, had we been forced to follow the natural childbirth process of the 19th century.
2) Not having the right to vote: As a woman, I would not have had the right to vote (and, honestly, I would have been little more than my husband’s property). I have to wonder, though, if I would have minded so much about it then as I do now. I mean, having been born in 1977, well after the women’s liberation movement was in full swing, I’m sure my worldview and cultural mindset is very different from what my female ancestors’ mindsets would have been…at least, I think it is. There were, even at the time, women like Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams, who fought for equal rights (and suffrage) for women because they believed it to be an important, worthy cause.
The reason I wonder so much whether I would have felt differently had I lived in a different era is because of a conversation I had with my grandmother after I turned 18 and gained the right to vote. She said she never voted in any election, and I asked why. She just shrugged and said, “It’s just not that important.”
That really upset me for a long time…until I realized she was born in 1923, and women didn’t earn the right to vote in the U.S. until 1920. Still, I would think that being in the very first generation to have the right to vote would inspire her to actually take advantage of that right… but maybe not. Maybe it wasn’t important in the culture in which she grew up. And I have to wonder how important it was to Jane Compton Austin and her generation, back in the latter part of the century.
Still, I never liked the idea of being any man’s property, and I’ve written my character Jane in that way…wanting to be independent – to do things on her own. I’m certain she would have been completely in favor of women’s suffrage, and not just because I am.