Once upon a time I was young.  No, honestly.  Then as now I was a history nerd—big time.  In fact (trivia alert), I was the first member of my graduating class to declare a major in history.  Anyway, one day the younger me was given a postcard by her Woman’s History professor.  A postcard showing the black and white image of Belva Lockwood.  This image as a matter of fact.

It took me a while to discover the importance of this gift, delivered, as I remember it, with no real explanation beyond the mild-mannered comment, “I thought you might like this.”  With age and distance I now realize my professor gave me the postcard to galvanize me to action; to make me angry—not at him but at the way history was taught and who got left out.  You see Belva Lockwood was the first woman to have her name on the ballot for President of the United States (yes, I know Victoria Woodhull “ran” but her name did not appear on official ballots and votes for her were never tallied).  She was also the first woman to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court (though mind you she had to write to President Grant just to get the law diploma she’d earned and it took an act of Congress to see her admitted before the High Court).  But I’d never heard of her.

That DID make me angry, and it also made me think.  Just what does a woman have to do to be noticed, historically speaking?  Give birth to a King?  Have her head chopped off?  How can that be when there were so many women throughout history who did so much more?  Even today, Belva remains only the tip of the “over-looked” iceberg.  And because we continue to under-represent women in history and underestimate their activities readers—both of non-fiction history and historical fiction—often think writers get it WRONG when they accurately report what historical female characters did.

I recently saw an example of this in a book review.  A reviewer took Author X to task because her female main-character pressed her right to rule her own territories.  “How dare the author suggest,” and I am paraphrasing here, “that a woman in the Middle Ages would assert such authority, or would even have the desire to rule in her own right!”  The reviewer went on to castigate Author X for imposing modern feminist ideas on long dead women.  But the truth is plenty of women held territory (and titles) in their own right during the time period of the author’s book.  The reviewer was just wrong—likely because he/she had never heard of such women.  I remember wondering what said reviewer would make of the fact that my main characters’ uncle, Thomas of Savoy, was Count of Flanders only by marriage and lost that title when his wife died and her title passed to her SISTER.  My guess is the particular reviewer would think that bit of history was made-up, feminist-revisionism as well.

It is time to recognize, as consumers of history and historical fiction, that women have filled many, varied, roles throughout the centuries—even if we haven’t always heard about them.  Some women did extra-ordinary things with those roles (e.g. just like male rulers, some female rulers were better at it than others), but the fact women held such roles wasn’t, in and of itself, necessarily as extraordinary as modern audiences seem to think.  In each period of history we need to look at the specific facts rather than relying on broad assumptions.  For example, to assume things were necessarily better for women later in history than they were earlier is to incorrectly posit a linear progression in women’s rights and opportunities.

I am happy to say that, imo, there’s a lot of really wonderful historical fiction celebrating women who have been historically overlooked these days.  There are also fabulous books that examine “big name” historical women in new ways—as more than “ornaments of royal courts” or “mothers of kings.”  Personally, I am very interested in telling the stories of women who are more obscure than they deserve to be.  Probably because of that darned postcard.  When I stumbled upon a footnote in a history of Notre Dame de Paris about Marguerite of Provence (her image is carved over Notre Dame’s Portal Rouge) and her sisters I had a Belva Lockwood moment.  Clearly these young women (all of whom made significant political marriages) were celebrities of the High Middle Ages.  Marguerite and Eleanor were the queens of France andEngland for heaven’s sake!  Yet I had never heard of them.  I made up my mind right then to tell their story.

I wish Professor T was alive today.  I’d send him a copy of my book and I’d put the Belva Lockwood postcard in it—as an excellent bookmark and a thank you of sorts.

8 Responses to “How Belva Lockwood Got Me Thinking About Overlooked Women in History”

  1. I so agree – and find it dispiriting that we are still having this discussion. When feminism first burnt bras in the late 1960s it was fine to realise that women hadn’t had their voices heard for centuries, and that men had written them out of the history books.

    Seems we’ve learned nothing. *sighs*

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Interesting timing because I recently received a critique on my WIP where the reader complained that a particular female character of mine (in the late 1600’s America) would never talk back to her husband or look at sex as anything but the animal act required by marriage. Readers and writers are shortsighted to believe that every individual acted the way society (and history) expected them to.

    • Susan that’s quite funny (though I guess not from where you are sitting) considering the fact the Church in the 13th century (time of my debut) recognized a woman’s right to sex with her husband and a man’s duty to pay his wife’s “marriage debt” as a preventative against sins like adultery. Clearly there was recognition of women as sexual (and let’s face it sometimes the Church tended to hyper-sexualize them, viewing them as lascivious temptresses) beings.

  3. I was very excited to receive an email from Jill Norgren who said:

    “I have written an adult biography (Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would
    be President) and young adult biography (Belva Lockwood)for those who
    want to know more about this impressive American woman lawyer and
    politician.”

    For those interested in reading more about Belva, the link to Jill’s adult biography is http://www.amazon.com/Belva-Lockwood-Woman-Would-President/dp/0814758517/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_3

  4. It is discouraging to be still be fighting this battle. A reader recently castigated me for my 5C heroine’s “modern” attitude because she wanted to get an education. This was in spite of the fact that the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled by a 15-year-old girl and my protagonist’s patroness was one of the most famous scholars of her age. Last year I read about another author’s work because the reader didn’t believe a man would take flying lessons from a woman during WWII. Her grandfather would never have done such a thing, so no other man would have either. So much for reality!

    My hope is that more people will read about these forgotten women in fiction and will take the time to follow up with the non-fiction. That may be a vain hope, but I still hold it!

    • If there weren’t strong women who spoke their mind and pushed their agendas in the past then men wouldn’t have needed to invent words to condemn such behavior. But plenty such terms exist. My Eleanor was called “virago” in her own time (13th cen.) which meant overbearing or domineering. I say, good for her.

  5. Apologies for the garbled sentence above. Should have read, “Last year I read a complaint about another author’s work…”

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