As you've surely noticed by now, March is well behind us, and I'm still publishing #WomensHistoryReads interviews every day. Obviously there are far more than 31 women writing today inspired by far more than 31 women from history -- but that's only part of the motivation. Today's interviewee, Erin Blakemore, made some great points on Twitter a few weeks back about Women's History Month, about which many of us have mixed feelings. It's great to shine a light on women's stories during that period. BUT it's a huge injustice to only shine a light on women's stories during that period. The real goal is to one day have women's history be so well-known, widespread and acknowledged, it makes Women's History Month obsolete. Obviously we're not there yet.
So how do we get there? All year long, keep reading and writing about women's stories, spreading the word, and seeking out the work of great writers like Erin. More from her below.
Greer: How would you describe what you write?
Erin: I write voice-driven nonfiction that’s underpinned by historical context and deep research. I’m a freelance journalist, so that means everything from reporting on the hidden racial history of America’s highways to what supermarkets tell us about American women and how their sexuality was used to fuel consumption in the mid 20th century. I write a lot about science, too, for outlets like the Washington Post and Popular Science. But my favorite work always incorporates two things: women and history.
Fewer people know this about me, but I write fiction, as well. My first book (historical fiction about a famous woman, of course!) is currently on submission. I like to think that I write nonfiction that reads like a novel and fiction that comes to life as if it were fact, but I’ll let my readers be the judges!
Greer: Ooh, good luck on submission and I very much look forward to reading your fiction! What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
Erin: *leans on elbows* How much time do you have, Greer?
Seriously speaking, there are so many frustrations in researching women’s lives. A lot of lesser-known women fail basic notoriety tests that keep information about them out of the public domain, so it can be really tough to find out more without going into an archive. (Want to know why they are seen as “not noteworthy enough” to be written about? Because nobody wrote about them to begin with…which kind of dooms them to a prolonged state of non-noteworthiness! Go figure.)
If you do go into an archive, papers can be unprocessed or scant. Or there may not be papers at all. This, of course, is a function of systemic biases that tell us women’s lives are too domestic, or too unremarkable, and that interfered with women’s abilities to document their own lives, either because they spent their time laboring for others or didn’t have the tools or skills with which to read or write.
Then there are the financial challenges, especially for an independent researcher like me. I can’t afford to jaunt off to wherever to dig into an archive, and academic resources are largely closed. Luckily, I have generous friends in academia and some reference librarian-level skills when it comes to tracking down information.
That said, I find researching historical women incredibly exciting and invigorating. It’s so meaningful to meet someone new and help tell her story, and the detective work has the thrill of discovery. It’s such a privilege to get to do this work.
Greer: Agreed. And your readers appreciate it. If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?
Erin: Clara Lemlich Shavelson. As a young garment worker, she sparked a gigantic shirtwaist strike years before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by giving an impassioned speech in Yiddish to a packed house at Cooper Union. As one of the farbrente maydlakh—Yiddish for “fiery girls”—she helped lead what was the largest strike ever by women at the time. We’re talking over 20,000 impoverished, seemingly disempowered young women walking out on their jobs and being harassed by police, hired thugs, and hecklers.
Clara was a force to be reckoned with, and she didn’t play around. She insisted that men and women be treated equally within the labor movement, got blacklisted from her job, and wouldn’t back down from her revolutionary ideals, even when they cost her her friends and her connections within the movement. And she didn’t give up when she grew up, either: She organized boycotts and strikes, raised hell, and stood in solidarity with others until her death at age 96.
Clara was a Ukrainian immigrant who lived in the tenements of New York as a young woman and who overcame a substantial amount of adversity in her youth. She fought tooth and nail for what she believed in—and was willing to give up a lot for her ideals. She didn’t always win, but she was resourceful and gritty. I didn’t learn her name until I was older, but I would have found her story incredibly inspirational as a younger person.
The history textbooks I encountered as a student touched really briefly on the labor movement, but it would have meant a lot to see someone like Clara Lemlich in their pages. At the very minimum, her speech is a must-read. It’s pretty brief, too:
"I am a working girl; one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall strike or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.”
Short and sweet…but incredibly powerful.
And now a question for you, Greer…what’s an anachronism that drives you crazy in an adaptation of a historical event or period?
Greer: The completely modern woman plopped down in a historical environment really irritates the heck out of me. And books like that give historical fiction a bad name. Mary Sharratt made a good point in yesterday's interview that "if you sit down and do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment." So it isn't that our characters can't swim upstream against the racist, sexist, conformist attitudes of their day. They can and should. But the best historical fiction rarely features a character who's only a mouthpiece for modern opinions and walks around 16th-century London or Gold Rush California commenting on society's narrow-mindedness. As Mary Doria Russell put it so succinctly, "The past is not just now, with hats." Historical novelists really owe it to themselves and their readers to get inside the minds of the women and men of the time where their work is set. Then it means so much more when we see what we do have in common, where the parallels between then and now are strongest. In my opinion, that's the great gift of historical fiction -- helping us see how far we've come, and how far we haven't.
Learn more about Erin's work at erinblakemore.com or on Twitter @heroinebook.