In one of her scholarly articles, Lauren Thatcher Ulrich wrote, ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’ It’s been interpreted a number of ways, one of which is that the women who have the most impact on history do so because they don’t accept the status quo. They live their lives by their own rules, and don’t look to prevailing standards (or, sometimes, even laws) to determine what they’ll do. There are plenty of examples in real life, of course, from all across history and all over the world. And if you follow the news, you see that there’s a new generation of strong women growing to adulthood.
We also see examples of women who don’t accept the status quo in crime fiction. It can be a challenge to write a character like that, especially in historical fiction. Readers want their characters to be authentic, and it’s important to remember that historical characters are products of their times. When they’re drawn well, though, women who are ‘game changers’ can be interesting, even compelling, fictional characters.
For instance, as Ariana Franklin, Diana Norman wrote a series of novels featuring Adelia Aguilar, a 12th Century doctor who was educated at the University of Salerno. In the first novel, Mistress of the Art of Death, Aguilar is sent to England at the request of King Henry II. He wants an investigation of a murder and some remains, and he knows that Salerno has a gilt-edged reputation. As a woman, Aguilar isn’t allowed to actually conduct examinations or do medical analyses. So she pretends that her assistant is actually the one who does the work. She is, in that way, a product of her time. It’s her expertise, though, that solves these mysteries. In that sense, she doesn’t conform to the expectations of the period, and it makes her an interesting character.
K.B. Owen has written two historical (end of the 19th Century) series. One features Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. In her world, it’s acceptable for a woman to teach, but only until she marries. ‘Ladies’ don’t have professional aspirations; their roles are domestic. In many ways, she shares her era’s values. But she doesn’t see why she can’t have a home and a career. And she keeps getting drawn into mysteries, despite the fact that ‘ladies’ don’t concern themselves with something as sordid as crime. Owen’s other series features Penelope Hamilton, who is Concordia’s mentor. Miss Hamilton is a Pinkerton agent – something many ‘proper’ women would never consider. She, too, lives by many of the customs of the time, but she makes her own way and lives quite independently. Both women find ways to bend (and sometimes break) the rules that govern the the things that women are ‘supposed to’ do and be.
In Anna Katherine Green’s The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange, we are introduced to New York debutante Violet Strange. This collection of short stories was published in 1915, at a time when women, especially women of Violet’s social class, were expected to marry well and then manage the household. Certainly they weren’t expected to engage in the professions. But that’s not how Violet sees things. Secretly, she is a private investigator. She has a mysterious employer who gives her the information that she needs to solve cases, but almost nobody knows what she does – certainly her parents don’t. She does conform to many of the expectations of her times. She goes to dances and teas, dresses as her peers do, and speaks and behaves ‘like a lady.’ But there’s a great deal more to her than that.
Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins is a sculptor and sometimes-performer. She is good friends with Gentill’s protagonist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair – both his muse and his love interest. But she is very much her own independent self. The novels take place during the early 1930’s up until the onset of WW II, a time when ‘ladies’ are expected to settle down, marry, have children, and behave with decorum. But Miss Higgins is not one for any of those things. She poses in the nude, has no particular desire for a domestic life, and doesn’t depend on anyone to earn her living. There are certainly some ways in which she is a product of her times, but she doesn’t let the customs of the day dictate to her.
Neither does Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher. She’s a private investigator – a ‘lady detective’ – in 1920’s Melbourne. At that time, detection and crime solving are for men. It’s very unusual for a woman to do that sort of work. But Miss Fisher certainly doesn’t let that stop her. And it’s not just a matter of her profession. She’s also not much of a social conformist. She lives independently, has had several lovers, and makes her own life decisions. She also doesn’t adhere to the class system of the day. Although she lives a privileged life, she has egalitarian views. In fact, several of her cases involve working-class and poor clients.
Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town introduces Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy. They are police officers in 1970’s Atlanta. They’re both smart and capable, but they face several challenges. One of them is that women are still relatively new to the Atlanta police force, and plenty of their male colleagues do not women to be cops. So, when they investigate the shooting of a fellow officer, there are lots of roadblocks on the way. They’re shut out of information, bullied, harassed, and not given the resources they need. Still, both Lawson and Murphy want to be good cops. They want to do their jobs well, and they persist with their investigation. And in the end, they find out the truth about the case.
There are lots of other examples, of course, of fictional women who don’t allow themselves to be dictated to by others’ expectations. They chart their own courses and make their own decisions. And sometimes, that makes all the difference. On this International Women’s Day, let’s make that a reality. Let’s keep working to make this a world where all women and girls are free to follow their own paths.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Superchick’s One Girl Revolution.