by guest blogger Maya Rodale, author of smart and sassy romance novels
Once upon a time, if a woman wanted to make it in the world she had to keep her ankles covered and her thoughts to herself. And “making it” most likely meant just a marriage and a respectable reputation. Times have changed—right? Well, three novels have made me question that.
Daring women were on my mind as I read The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott. This riveting historical novel is about mill girls in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1832. Most of these young women left a predictable life on the family farm and endured long hours in unsafe working conditions just to have a little bit of independence and earn their own money. But as young ladies on their own in the world, they had to be careful with their behavior and reputation.
The heroine, Alice Barrow, dares to speak up publicly about the treacherous working conditions—and finds herself questioned by the mill’s powerful owners. Her friend Lovey Cornell dared to flaunt the rules of ladylike behavior—and paid with her life.
In this book, and in real life, there’s no story—or change—if people don’t push the boundaries of what is acceptable, or give voice to uncomfortable truths. It’s always a risk to question the status quo, but then we look back and wonder how we ever allowed working conditions that had girls coughing up balls of cotton in the first place.
While writing my historical novel, Wallflower Gone Wild, I found that it was quite easy for a woman to “act out” in the 19th century—simply drinking too much sherry, showing some ankle, using makeup, or neglecting to wear a bonnet could get a girl dubbed a rule breaker. It’s harder for a girl to break the rules in the modern day, as I discovered while writing Wallflower’s contemporary counterpart, The Bad Boy Billionaire’s Girl Gone Wild. Are there boundaries left to be pushed? Is any behavior shocking anymore?
These days, few will get their unmentionables in a twist if a girl goes out sans bonnet, has a baby without being married, or engages in a whole host of other previously scandalous behaviors. But the truth is, reputation still matters, maybe more than ever, and speaking up and speaking out are still risky endeavors—especially for women.
These days, there are new “rules” to follow along with the old: Be careful what you post on Facebook or Twitter. Don’t ask where the relationship is going or how he feels. Ask for the raise—but be sweet and non-threatening about it. Don’t talk about politics. Don’t call out Powerful Men, whether they’re your colleagues in Congress or players on the football team.
Even in our empowered age, women who give voice to uncomfortable truths are often ridiculed and find their reputations publicly smeared. I watch with pride as women like Wendy Davis, Sandra Fluke, and Daisy Coleman speak up to protect their own rights and those of other women. And then I watch with dismay as they’re attacked for it. Why? Because it discourages other women from giving voice to their own thoughts and desires.
The message remains that women should be seen and not heard.
Just after I turned in the manuscript for Wallflower Gone Wild, I realized that of all the rules my heroine breaks, speaking up about her wants and desires is the one that gets her into the most trouble—and closest to happiness with a hero who suggests it’s best to “make your own rules.” In these books, and others, the story relies upon heroines who dare to push boundaries, speak up for what they want and against injustices, risk their reputation for a greater good or even personal satisfaction—and they’re rewarded for it in the end. In this, one hopes that real life follows fiction.
Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels, as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master’s degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her latest book is The Wicked Wallflower. Visit her online at mayarodale.com, or say hello to @mayarodale on Twitter.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of The Daring Ladies of Lowell from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.