Elizabeth: Remember the Women

‘W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man’, 1918 (c). Image courtesy of National Army Museum.

I’m not sure if it was the recent Veteran’s Day and Armistice Day coverage, the last few books I read, or my new copy of Feminism A to Z, but I’ve been thinking about women’s roles and assumptions people make about them lately

In the mystery I finished reading a few weeks ago (which I’m leaving unnamed so I’m not spoiling the story for anyone), the criminal turned out to be a woman. The evidence pointed to the man, the men investigating the crime were confident it was the man, and it wasn’t until Our Girl made them look more closely that the woman behind the crimes was identified. When the investigator asked Our Girl how she knew, she answered:

“She was a woman. And she was in a subordinate position. Men don’t pay attention to women. They rarely wonder what women do, and they never wonder at all what they think. If you’re a secretary . . .when it was a choice between the two, everyone automatically assumed that the man was in charge. Was smarter, was the one who would be running a successful money-laundering scheme.”

Now there are generalizations there, but some truth as well. People make assumptions about other people all the time, both consciously and subconsciously. I remember a study I saw years ago where they showed the participants two pictures – a pretty, young, blond girl, and a an older, dark-haired man – and asked which of the two they would feel more comfortable hiring as a babysitter. The participants all pointed to the girl who, it turned out, was a notorious killer.  So much for preconceived notions.

Getting back to the book above, the criminal almost got away with her crimes because, as a woman, she was somewhat invisible.

That kind of invisibility was a plus in the other book I finished a few days ago (which I’ll be Book-squeezing about in a later post). The book was set in Britain, just months after the end of World War I. In this story, Our Girl, like a number of other women, worked for the Secret Service during war. She was successful both because as a woman of her time she was somewhat invisible, but also because she was in a role one wouldn’t normally expect her to be in. In essence, people saw what they expect to see and when they saw her, they didn’t expect to see a spy, so they didn’t see one.

Naturally, thinking about female spies caused me to lose a good chunk of time searching away on the internet, where I read about women like Louise de Bettignies, Marthe Cnockaert, Gabrielle Petit, and Edith Cavell among others. Sadly, many of the women I read about were ultimately captured and executed, but they were able to provide vast amounts of critical intelligence to help turn the tide of the war.

Here in the present, closer to home, looking at our current political elections, women are shedding their cloaks of invisibility and taking center stage. I love the fact that the newly elected congressmen (and women) are in Washington this week attending Freshman Orientation, as if they’re all starting a new term at school. I can just picture their families dropping them off at the Capitol, with their backpacks and newly sharpened pencils; making them promise to call very week and keep out of trouble.

Although all the votes still have not been counted, and there are still some races that are undecided, this new freshman class contains a record number of women, including 29-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman in American history to serve in Congress. Out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, more than 100 of them are now held by women. That’s a big change from 30 years ago when there were just twelve women in Congress and politics was considered “men’s work” (as undoubtably, it still is to some).

According to post-election statistics, the majority of people voting in the last election were women, as were the majority of campaign workers, facts that some of those running for office did not take as seriously as they probably should have. Perhaps it will give them something to think about in their now-free-time as they begin looking for new jobs.

I’m my Regency romance – which I’m still trying to revise into something that won’t be relegated to the obscurity of a box under the bed for all eternity – I already had a female spy. I was thinking of her as a kind of Mata Hari type. She plays a minor role in the story but, after all of my recent research and reading, I’m thinking she could be a great catalyst for things to happen in the story.

And the best part? The rest of the cast will probably never see her coming.

So, have you been able to use preconceived notions, unconscious bias, or gender expectations to advantage in any of your stories? If not, have you read any good stories that did?

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Remember the Women

  1. I have not set gender expectations on their head in my writing, although I have two small-ish things I can point to: in Phoebe 3, My Girl proposes marriage to the hero, although she knew he’d say yes. And under a pseudonym, I wrote two FBI suspense novels where the heroine is a computer hacker/genius sort. Both of those character types/behaviors exist in the real world, even if they’re not particularly the norm. But they’re hardly ground-breaking.

    But like you, I’ve been thinking about women’s role(s), too. Sometimes I get mad about it (men keeping us down! [which they do]) and sometimes depressed (women should get out there and do it! [which they don’t, or haven’t]). Changing social norms is a complicated process.

    I read an analysis years ago that discussed how when women entered professions that men had dominated, the profession then became devalued. They pointed, first, to typing! And I thought of an ad I’d seen from I think WWII, where there was a guy at a typewriter and the copy was something like “Be cutting edge! Learn to type! Lead your team!” Seems so quaint now. And then women learned to type, and the rest is history. Same with medicine. Same with law. And now, maybe, politics.

    However, I’m glad women ran for Congress in record numbers, and I hope next cycle, they break the record again. And again after that. As they say, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

    • I haven’t done much “setting gender expectations on their head” in my writing and I think part of that is due to the fact that I don’t have clear lines drawn in my mind about male roles and female roles. Maybe it’s a side effect of being raised with brothers or maybe because I’ve generally done whatever I’ve wanted to do, whether it’s a “girl” thing or not. I guess it could also be due to the Day Job, where there is a big focus on gender equity and equality.

      Regardless, now I feel like I need to find the manliest thing I can think of, and then write a story with a woman in that role.

      Well, maybe not right this minute . . .

  2. Like you, Elizabeth, I’m a bit fuzzy about what’s for men and what’s for women, but when I run up against my prejudices, I tend to run up against them hard! (-: The first time I really noticed it was with my baldy daughters. I was all high-minded with the first, and was going to rear her gender-free with dolls and trucks, and all green/yellow clothing. But then I found myself getting mad when people thought she was a boy (-:. Very, very odd experience.

    In science fiction, the women can do anything a man can do (as long it doesn’t need sperm) and men can do anything a women can do (as long as it doesn’t require a uterus) — and in some stories, even those firm lines are blurred! But right now, I’m trying to play with the tropes. I’ve got a rich housewife heading to a new planetary home, and she’s pudgy and feminine and cares for her two children deeply. The young Specialist First Class doesn’t see her as a threat or an asset — just a dumb, boring first assignment. But it turns out that she used to be a space mercenary, and there are a lot of people after her blood. And she proves that she always wins the day in each and every scenario.

    So, we’ll see what happens.

  3. I love this post! In my HFF series, set in 1869-1870 London/greater England, I’m trying to push the limits of acceptability for my heroines without getting too anachronistic. There are some real parallels between that era and our own, so anyone paying attention will probably notice a lot of my Woman Power beliefs, transported back 150 years.

    I wrote a fun (for me, at least!) scene in the first draft I just finished where the hero pulls out a pistol to protect the heroine, and she chastises him for not knowing what the hell he’s doing, proceeds to give him a Pistols 101 demonstration, and reveals that she’s a crack shot. Needless to say, he is slack-jawed and in luuuurrrve by the end of that :-). It’s rough, but I’ll see if it’s ok enough to share on Friday’s writing sprint post.

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