07 March 2017

Herstory: Writing from the female gaze

Boadicea, John Opie 1807 (Public domain)
History is full of remarkable women:
  • Boudica, queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire
  • Livia, whose background, strength of will and character made her the perfect partner for Augustus the first Roman emperor
  • Violette Szabo, Resistance operative in German occupied France a true story immortalised in Carve her Name with Pride – courageous, understated, self-sacrificing
  • Elizabeth I, who refused every marriage alliance as she declared herself married to her kingdom and ‘makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.’ (Pope Sixtus V).
  • Mary Wollstoncraft who against all convention called for the equality of men and women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
But these women shouldn’t be called remarkable; they should be noted as exceptional human beings, their gender ignored. But without doubt, they had to be tough, persistent and gifted. But for the average woman, her actions were often jotted down as a footnote, noted as unimportant or even omitted from the historical record by official sources. Their lives, the information that has come down to us, and much of the interpretation of them and their times has been through the eyes and work of mostly male historians. This has changed in recent years and is still changing as old sources are re-interpreted, new information is discovered and new, more ‘herstory’ approaches are used.

So how do you write a strong historical heroine today?
Readers need to see where a heroine came from, what turned her from an ordinary girl into the book’s heroine. Often she passes through a formative traumatic event but writers need to give hints about resilience, integrity and an ability to develop confidence as well as physical abilities. Undoubtedly, a strong female character has to have an equally strong will and a passion to drive through what she believes in.

In my first alternate history thriller, INCEPTIO, Carina starts off as an office worker, but we see from the first page that she’s prepared to stand her ground against people doing wrong. Within the first chapters we know she goes to the gym, we’re with her when she jogs in the park; she’s outdoorsy and sporty. Her disrupted childhood with a barren and loveless adolescence has made her learn to protect herself emotionally, and question everything. She demonstrates signs of mental and physical toughness and resilience, even when living in a ‘normal’ existence, to the level of not feeling completely at ease in her own skin. So when she becomes an undercover operative in a tough Roman society, she already has many of the latent characteristics required.

Beware of bunny rabbits and kittens…
The second challenge is not falling into the trap of making a strong character have moments of unbelievable weakness. Doubt, a temper, love for music, joking with other characters, buying gifts for friends round out a character, but writers must not go too far into fluffy-bunny-land and over-compensate for the toughness. That risks slotting her back into the ‘caring soft female’ stereotype.

Under pressure, a strong heroine often feels aggressive towards people who wish to hurt her family, friends or peers, but it’s her way of showing she cares. Other times she finds everything too much and we see tears and fears. But a habit of picking herself up and facing up to what has to be done is often not depicted as a normal female attribute in stories.

Courage doesn’t come from ‘boldly going’, but from ‘boldly going’ when you are half scared to death and not at all sure you’re going to get out of the situation without being injured or killed.

The Bechdel test
Now, the cliché of tough male hero leading the action and loyal, supportive heroine tagging along or carrying out secondary tasks is being challenged, albeit slowly. The Bechdel test, developed further since its origin in 1985, asks whether a work of fiction features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Although there are excellent examples such as Elizabeth Chadwick’s Lady of the English, many contemporary works fail this basic test of gender bias.

So in an age still stumbling towards equality, it’s a good test to apply to one’s own writing and reading. Are the women instrumental in pushing the story forward? Do they make decisions at the critical points in a novel? But historical writing should always be in context; societal dynamics of history cannot be altered by parachuting in a 21st century feisty young miss against the norms of the period and locality even when writing in subgenres such as historical fantasy or alternative history.

Writing then and now
Writers write in the context of their own societal mores; we can’t help it, that’s what we are immersed
Livia Drusilla (Author photo)
in from babyhood. I remember the rather twee Ladybird history books of the 1960s; by today’s standards condescending, sexist and paternalistic, but at the time perfectly normal. Writing the same children’s history books now a historian would, I hope, take a startlingly different point of view. Today we still can’t have feisty Roman empresses ruling openly, but we can explore the sources containing information about them and their influences with a more open mind-set. Berenice, the queen of Judea and Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, would be splendid examples of women of power to investigate.

In our modern historic fiction, we can transfer this openness into our stories and make connections between women characters unknown from the sources. Women acting together can become agents in the plot rather than the token ‘love interest’ or mother/daughter/sister of the male protagonist.

An egalitarian example
In my alternate history thrillers, I’ve taken this much further and developed a society descended from fourth century Roman dissidents where women rule, but men are not disadvantaged. You can read the whole story here, but Roma Nova’s first few hundred years were unstable and dangerous so daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So it’s reasonably logical that in this context women developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the following centuries.

In the present day, my female protagonist’s story in INCEPTIO begins in a standard Western society. When she is compelled to flee to her dead mother’s homeland in Europe, Roma Nova, she finds the Roman-infused culture unnerving, but in a strange way liberating. Other strong female characters surround her; her grandmother, cousin, female colleagues and friends all drive the action. The ‘love interest’ is male and an integral part of the story, unlike many female love interests in standard historical thrillers. And I pursue this female hero/male love interest through the second trilogy starting in the 1960s.

Holding an alternate historical mirror up to the standard timeline produces very interesting reflections. As I write, I try to ensure that my heroine and other ‘active women’ are driving the story, but sometimes when I read through what I’ve written I see I may have fallen into the cliché hero/heroine placements.  I then switch the gender of the speakers in the dialogue and/or the actors in the scene. I give this the rather grand name of ‘gender mirroring’; this technique clarifies the roles wonderfully.

The natural view of women’s and men’s status and roles in my imaginary Roma Nova is not oriented around how people see things in most of the rest of the world – the often unconscious ‘male gaze’. In Roma Nova, men are not disadvantaged – they are just equal. Not only does this make throw up delicious conflict when my characters interact with nationals from other countries, it piques the reader’s interest and starts them thinking about the gender roles in our real timeline. Of course, it’s an optimistic view, but as we see in Roma Nova, perfectly possible.

And historical fiction now?
When we read older historical fiction, it can seem very outdated in its gender attitudes, even our very favourite titles from childhood and early adulthood. Today, fiction explores a wider variety of possibilities and points of view. With writers like Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Chadwick, Diana Gabaldon and Tracy Chevalier (and the writers contributing to this blog!) we see women portrayed as agents and influencers and their impact on lives and events in the past.

Making women as present as men in historical events and stories should be the norm whether the writer is female or male. But even now, the idea of women writing fiction in niche historical fiction areas or areas that have been seen as traditionally male still persists.  Last year a prominent book programme presenter stated on air that there were no women writing alternative history fiction. She was quickly disabused as was the featured academic. After we discussed it, my writing friend Shannon Selin blogged about it in no uncertain terms.

While it isn’t possible for every female historical protagonist to be a tough heroine, writers are bringing forward more positive and active representations of women as courageous, decision-making and resilient. And stories of known events, but from a female point of view, the "female gaze", are filling the real and virtual bookshelves.


Alison's latest Roma Nova thriller
‘The second fall of Rome?’
Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in early 1980s Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk. But it may be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Early 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader who wants to destroy Aurelia.

Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Available as
- eBook from Amazon,  iBooks,  Kobo,  B&N Nook
- paperback, author signed paperback and from other retailers


Alison Morton is the author of the acclaimed Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO.

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