Millions of women have shaped our world, but there’s limited representation of them in historical archives. These invisible women—who span differing ethnicities, regional economies, social statuses and age groups—have been reduced to passive bystanders in society.
In the essay collection The Western Women, one researcher describes how historical women been painted over with three stereotypes popularized through movies and novels. Since March is Women’s History Month, let’s look at women who defy each stereotype.
The refined woman archetype is too delicate and civilized for the roughness of pioneering and is ultimately driven mad. Catherine Parr Trail and her sister Susanna Moodie were born to wealthy English families, yet adapted and thrived on the 1800s frontier. They each published handbooks advising new settlers on best practices for adjusting to life in the bush.
The helpmate represents the adaptable woman, an uncomplaining model of productivity. In achieving this status, she sacrifices her individuality. Laura Secord supported her husband in their general store, and managed a household and childrearing as well. During the War of 1812, she dragged him injured from the battle field. Her miles-long walk through swamps and enemy lines to forewarn Fitzgibbon of an American attack is still celebrated today.
In the bad woman archetype, a sensational and powerful woman is a cautionary tale destined for a tragic end. She must pay the price for living outside boundaries set for Victorian women. In 1860s Whitby, Ontario, infamous Mrs. Glass refused to pay fines for serving alcohol in her ‘house of ill-fame’. Brandishing a loaded pistol, she chased away a constable. Her court trial records disappeared, then so did she (to greener pastures).
Professor of history, Susan Armitage wrote about the “gentle tamer” stereotype, that by virtue of women’s presence, men adopted civility and built communities. In truth, schools, churches and libraries were initiated mostly by women who argued and fundraised.
My mission as a novelist is to write about women of the past in purposeful ways that call attention to their contribution and refrain from perpetuating the fragile refined lady, the faceless helpmate, the doomed the bad woman, or the passive gentle tamer.
(Featured at the top of the article is a Hidden Mother photograph, a style of picture taking in which the mother was concealed beneath draped fabric so she wasn’t visible to the lens.)
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