14 February 2007

Sexual Tension

I’ve been reading a lot about “the New Woman” of the turn of the twentieth century lately, and gender relations during that period baffle me.

Those wild suffragettes (to whom I owe so much happiness), those advocates of free love, the pushers of the Dry movements, the women who stepped up in wartime, the ones who fought hard for Puritanical traditions, and those who fought hard against them – all these women confound me. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, women made a right spectacle of themselves in Europe and America, with characters like Emma Goldman, Marie Curie, Carrie Nation, Emily Davidson and the Pankhurst women.

Really, what was a well-bred man to think?

The men in the lives of such women fascinate me, especially those who actively supported their wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters and mothers. When writing and reading historical fiction, that sort of respect marks a real hero. His appreciation of her mind, his understanding of her needs, and his willingness to advance her cause, even when he’s faced with great social opposition---all that lends to great romance.

But I also know that in different cultures and different times, men and women have seen each other in an extremely different light; not always this changing, sometimes brash and militant glare, and not always in darkness. I know an embarrassingly small amount about world history, so I’m putting these questions to you for my own benefit:
  1. In “your” writing eras and places, were any social upheavals taking place that would have frustrated relationships between males and females?
  2. How did the sexes interact with one another?
  3. What were the rules of engagement (pun somewhat intended)?
  4. Have you ever used gender as conflict in your writing? If so, did you feel as if it was resolved in an appropriate, historically correct manner?
And for a Valentine's Day goodie: "The Kiss"
"They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss,
and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time."

John C. Rice and May Irwin
filmed by William Heise for Thomas Edison
This was one of the first movies shown to the public.
In 1896, the year of its debut, the film was scandalous.


carrie_lofty said...

The Pankhursts had an ally in their suffrage and anti-war struggles: Keir Hardie, a Scottish socialist and founder of the British Labour Party. He's my English hubby's hero (he wanted to have a boy so we could name him Keir). Hardie stood out from the crowd of his contemporary titiled and wealthy politicians, and he stood up for every worthy cause you can name. What an awesome man. I like knowing that feminist leaders had at least SOME measure of support across the gender aisle.

Also, when the 19th amendment was up for ratification, Tennessee was literally the last state in the union the suffragists had any chance of winning -- and it was the last they needed for it to become national law. The Tennessee Senate passed the motion easily, 25-4, but the House battled. A motion to table the resolution permanently failed 48-48.

But the day was saved by the two youngest men in the assembly.

One, Memphis Democrat Joe Hanover, was the son of Polish immigrants and the second youngest representative. He ran for his seat specifically to fight for suffrage, becoming floor leader and keeping the pro-suffrage forces together. The other was Harry Burn, and here I quote from "Gifts of Speech" by Paula Casey:

"Harry Burn, a Republican who was the youngest member of the General Assembly, had been counted as a sure Anti. But he had not told anyone of a letter he had received that morning from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, of Niota. She had written: 'Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification. Signed, Your Mother.' When his name was called, Harry Burn said 'aye' so quickly that many did not realize what had happened. The resolution carried 48-47."

That's one example of an awesome mama's boy ;)

Tess said...

During the French Revolution, there was a move towards equality between the sexes - at least some of the more moderate revolutionaries were willing to consider it and some even actively supported & expounded it:

So yes, it did cause issues as there would have been men less likely to be so open-minded, while many women embraced the idea and formed women's clubs.

Most rules went out during the Revolution - certainly, just as any other time of war, couples grabbed happiness where they could find it.

The painter David and his wife divorced at one point, because she didn't like his extreme politics. But she saved him from prison after his arrest and remarried him.

I haven't used gender as conflict, per se - not yet, anyway.

Delia DeLeest said...

That's why I love writing in the 1920's so much. Women were really coming into their own during that decade, and it really caused some confusion for the older generation. Eventually, by the end of the decade, even matrons were running around in relatively short skirts and bobbed hair, while their husbands were, if not happy about it, were at least reconciled to the new woman of the 20th century.

I appreciate the fact that I can write a heroine who has the freedom to go and do what she wants, yet I can still be writing a historical, the genre that I love.