I had an interesting question asked of me at my recent book launch for It Begins In Betrayal. I was asked about the role of feminism in the actions of my heroine. This is a massive question. I have a character who is clearly a strong individual, and who sets out to be the ‘rescuer’ in It Begins In Betrayal. Where is a character like that positioned in the question of feminism?
The business of feminism in the post war years is an entire Women’s Studies course. Though there are ample histories of bravery and leadership by women coming out of the war years, I write characters based on my own experience of people, in this case my own mother, and the people I knew in the small community I write about, and the stories I heard about my family. Women I knew as a child in that community had been through wars, had lost husbands, or worked on an equal footing with them in agricultural pursuits. They were strong out of necessity, but I perceived them as strong by inclination as well. Everyone I knew just ‘got on with it’. My own English aunts just got on with things as well in spite of setbacks or societal expectations.
Based on the balance of power, as I perceived it in my household, I truly believed that women were much stronger than men, and I still remember my genuine surprise at twelve or so when I was finally in a proper school, that society in general called women things like ‘the weaker sex’. I was quite shocked when I learned that my father’s younger brother married a fully qualified doctor and then immediately forbade her to work. I was disappointed by him, though by then I was in my twenties and I had begun to understand how men lived out their privileges, but I was puzzled by her. Why had she accepted these terms? The most I could ever glean from her in all her uncomplaining years was that she perceived it to be her duty. Subsuming your personal ambitions to duty is very surely a kind of strength as well.
An examination of what went into the solidifying of my mother’s strength reveals that though she had social, class and educational advantages, nevertheless she had painful experiences that had a profound influence on her behaviour and attitudes. She was poorly treated by her father, and much disappointed to find that marriage to her husband meant that she would be alone for much of her life, both because he was away for most of the war, and because in peacetime he was away doing geology. These disappointing circumstances undoubtedly strengthened her and fed her desire refuse to settle for a life in which only men could have adventure. She embarked on adventure and doing whatever she darn well wanted to beginning when I was three, and never really let up. My father was certainly powerless to stop her for the most part, and in fact revealed after she died how much he admired her.
She acquired four master’s degrees after the age of fifty (much to the delight and admiration of my friends in high school who rarely saw such things) after growing up with little formal education as we know it here, having been educated by governesses and a brief and unhappy stint of boarding school. One of her Master’s degrees was in philosophy. She was intolerant of the growing fascination of psychology in the sixties because she believed all it provided was excuses. She believed profoundly in individual will and agency. “Just get on with it,” was the strongest lesson of my childhood.
So to answer a question about feminism and my characters, I have to consider what benefit there might have been to women who were ‘feminists’ by nature, but not attached to any political movements that forward the advancement of women. The world, after all, is full of women who are powerhouses, but not political. I think the service they provide to the advancement of women is to be found in modelling. In this case, especially in the times, modelling strength and agency. Modelling intolerance for the attempt to restrict their movements and activities. Of course, there were women all around Lane trapped in restrictive marriages, or indeed, who believed profoundly in the institution and the proper role of women in the home, but what people like my mother and the many other powerful women I knew did was to model this one fact: it doesn’t have to be that way. You can just get on with it.