Feisty Females of Historical Fiction: Truth or Trope?

Written by Kathleen Baldwin

Recently, I sat on a panel with several historical novelists, all of us discussing our upcoming novels. Mine is Refuge for Masterminds. The moderator asked a well-known author to list a genre trope that peeved her. The author leaned into the microphone and without hesitation said, “Feisty historical heroines.”

My mouth dropped open. “What?”

“It’s not historically accurate,” she insisted. “Women weren’t feisty until modern times.” She’s a writer I deeply respect, and for a full five seconds my world spun crazily off-kilter. Key themes in my storytelling suddenly came into question. If Hitchcock had been filming us, the room would’ve pulsed in and out of focus.

There I sat, with my feisty heroine blazoned across my cover, blinking to comprehend. Five minutes earlier, I’d been regaling the audience with true tales of young women who served as spies throughout history. George Washington employed female spies to act as British camp followers. Two young African American women were key spies in the civil war. Last year a Danish researcher uncovered a spy ring of seventy females that had been active during the 17th century.

Lady Caroline Lamb

Were they not feisty females?

Consider Lady Caroline Lamb. Born 1785, this young lady lopped off her hair and dressed as a pageboy to get Lord Byron’s attention. Childish, yes. Scandalous, absolutely. But definitely plucky. In fact, pluckier than today’s woman because her actions were so far out of the acceptable norm.

Heroines, fictional or otherwise, are generally out of the norm.

Admittedly, men have traditionally kept a tight grip on the reins of power. They dominate the recorded historical scene. However, there have always been those few daring women, those born with spirited souls, who boldly went where their sisters dared not go.

Were all woman in history feisty? Certainly not. Nor is every man in the world brave and heroic. It’s the outliers whose stories writers love to tell.

The Flying Cloud, a clipper ship much like the one Mary Patten sailed around the Cape Horn during a storm.

TRUTH: Thousands of women in history exemplify feisty heroines: Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart, to name just a few. Thousands more, warrior women such as Boudicca (Celtic warrior queen who battled Rome), Artemisia (ally to Xerxes), and Nakano Takeko (one of several female Samurai), were incredibly fierce and yet barely made it onto the pages of history books. Regardless of whether or not historians catalogue female heroism, every generation bears the mark of high-spirited women.True story from 1854. Nineteen year-old Mary Patten married the captain of a clipper ship and although four months pregnant, she insisted on sailing with him on a dangerous voyage around Cape Horn. During the trip, Mary assisted him with navigation. Not only that, she helped him stop a mutiny. Sadly, Captain Patten had a serious illness and collapsed during a bad storm just as they approached the treacherous Cape Horn. Since no one else on the crew knew how to navigate, Mary took command of the vessel, a large clipper ship similar to the Flying Cloud in this painting, and sailed it safely around the Horn to San Francisco.

They may not be well known, but the contributions of feisty women ripple down through time to us. We owe them our gratitude.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on her trip to Turkey where she discovered a prevention for smallpox.

We might not even be alive if it weren’t for feisty Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. In the 1700’s, small pox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year. On a journey through Turkey, Lady Montagu noticed locals scratching powdered small pox scabs on villager’s arms. She had a keen interest because she bore scars from this lethal disease, her brother and other family members had died of it. Lady Montagu observed how effective the Turks were at preventing small pox, and tried to bring the innovation back to England. The medical community scoffed at her. A woman of influence and a persistent nature, she demanded the government take notice. In 1718 she even had her son inoculated in front of influential embassy members to demonstrate the preventative. Doctors Maitland and Jenner were given credit for developing the vaccination, but it was Lady Montagu who brought it to their notice, thus saving millions of lives.

Meet Elizabeth Fry, a quiet unassuming Quaker girl, responsible for prison reform. She was only 23 years-old the first time she visited Newgate prison in 1813. The squalid conditions horrified her. Elizabeth took pity on the female inmates, many of whom couldn’t afford to pay for room and board in any way other than selling themselves. She returned to the prison bringing food, clothing, and stacks of sewing to give the women a more humane way to earn their keep.

The rest of her life, Elizabeth continued her work, including petitioning Parliament for better welfare for prisoners and patients at mental institutions. Elizabeth may not exactly be the feisty type, but it took gumption to stand up in front of Parliament, and true grit to revisit the disease and filth in sections of Newgate prison.

Statue in Spain of feisty 20 yr-old Juana Galán, a national hero. Notice the iron stewpot down by her skirts.

I write about feisty young women plunged in the dangerous world of diplomacy and spies during the Napoleonic era. This also happens to be Jane Austen’s time. Despite my beloved Austen’s wonderfully witty but sedate novels, the Regency era wasn’t all ballrooms and embroidery. The war with Napoleon was devastating most of Europe at the time, claiming the lives of 3 million soldiers, combined with civilian deaths, the total ranges from 3,250,000 to 6,500,000. Napoleon’s horrific war threatened England itself.

Let me to introduce you to one of the era’s spunkiest women. Meet Juana Galán, a 20 year-old tavern keeper in Valdepeñas. In 1808, Juana led the people of her village in guerilla warfare against the French cavalry. She is largely responsible for driving Napoleon’s troops out of the region.

Because there were so few men left, La Galána (as she is affectionately called in Spain) had to convince the women of the village to fight with her. The women poured boiling oil on the roads to stop the cavalry horses and force the men to fight them on foot. These gutsy women didn’t have many weapons, so Juana and her band of female guerillas dumped hot water on soldiers’ heads from their windows, and used homemade clubs and cast-iron stewpots to clobber invading soldiers.

How’s that for feisty?

What about you? I’ll wager you have a feisty historical female story up your sleeve. Do you have a family legend, a tale about your great grandmother, or her mother? Or maybe your feisty heroics? We love true stories about grit and determination. Priceless stories fade if we don’t share them. I’d love to hear yours.

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Find out more about Kathleen Baldwin on Twitter at @KatBaldwin and on her website.

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Photo sources:

Caroline Lamb Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1809362
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by S. Hollyer after J. B. Wandesforde – Bildarchiv Austria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372187
Juana Galán: By Cimeg1984 – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716687
Clipper ship: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buttersworth_-_flying_cloud.jpg

9 thoughts on “Feisty Females of Historical Fiction: Truth or Trope?

  1. I believe history is full of feisty females. My grandmother told me stories about the ones in our family. My grandmother’s grandmother and her niece, both southern women during the Civil War, were burying family heirlooms in garden, knowing the Yankees were coming. They were women of steel, having only enough powder for one shot with the pistol, if they needed it. My grandmother bobbed her hair in the ’20s, going against her mother’s wishes, and had a career when it wasn’t exactly fashionable. I love that these women blazed the trail for me to be as strong as I want to be with no apologies.

  2. Tripe! Women ruled countries long before Elizabeth ll, we aren’t stupid or defenseless given an ounce, we have a voice and make good use of it combined with knowledge. My brother once asked his wife to repeat a derogatory remark she made. When she didn’t immediately respond he said,” She has a voice I know. Because I’ve heard it.” Women have been down trodden at some points in history but many have used guile, wit, common sense, courage and conning to move forward.
    My Nonnie and her sister both crossed an ocean to marry men they had never even met at the turn of the 20th century. She was only 4’11” tall but not even her husband dared to argue with her when she knew she was right. She chased a man who broke into her home with a broom down the street yelling for the police. As the story goes she decided not to marry my Poppie when she realized he was 31 to her 19 years, but when he threatened to cut her face so no other man would look at her she agreed to marry him but not sleep with him. They called her the” little trunk woman” in Italian because for a time she slept on her steamer trunk. It took her combined family to convince her to sleep with him. If he gambled and lost money she would dress the children in old torn clothes and hide the food at her sister’s house. Then she would point out that they had no money, no food and his children looked like street beggars. Over the next 50 years she learned to love him, handle him and never forgave his son’s when they convinced her she was to old to sleep in a chair next to his bed at night after a fall that disabled him. He died in the night. They had 16 children.

  3. Katy I had a feisty Nonnie too! She ruled the family with love but practiced tough love on her sons. Her mother took care of the children and the farm with only help from her own mother. Where were the men? In America. When 2xs great-Nonnie came to America, she found her long lost husband had lived with and married an American woman, leaving her to survive on her own in Italy. She didn’t want to go back to him but the priest told her she had to. The family story goes she made his life difficult for the next few years they lived together. My Nonnie’s older sister was way ahead of her time. If the Food Network celebrity chef craze had been around when she was alive, she would have had her own cooking show. Back in the day, she wanted to become a licensed undertaker to get rich. The male dominated powers that be refused to grant her license though she passed the test.

    Finally, my personal hero, Louisa May Alcott, was as feisty as they come. She was not a “little woman.” Jo March is nearly autobiographical. Louisa was strong, athletic, brave, a nurse during the Civil War, wrote stories about adultery, drug use, and women who dared to try to have a career in addition to marriage and motherhood. She never married, unlike Jo, was the highest paid woman in Concord and stood up for the causes she believed in. Her mother, Abigail May aka Marmee, was a huge influence on Louisa and also dared to write to the Massachusetts legislature asking for woman suffrage!

  4. Oh wow, Katy! Loved your story. You actually summoned up tears–not easy to do as I am pretty tough. Nothing like the courage of a gutsy woman to touch my heart. Thank you for sharing about your brave little Nonnie, the little trunk woman. Feisty, personified. You got her gumption, I can tell!
    You, too Patience. thank you both for keeping these stories about women of courage alive.

  5. The feisty heroine of my Tor/Forge novels, THE SIXTH STATION and the upcoming (Sept.) BOOK OF JUDAS, Alessandra Russo is a modern day female protagonist and yet, and yet, several editors at several other UNENLIGHTENED houses told my agent, “A female protagonist shouldn’t be flawed,” “Can’t she be in her 20’s because a 42-year old woman is too old to have adventures,” and “A female protagonist shouldn’t be…” etc. etc., etc. No, it’s true. These were comments from FEMALE editors. The more things change the more they don’t.

    1. Oh that’s sad to hear. Sometimes it seems like women have kept themselves in a box. But there are always the brave feisty few. Glad you’re one of them and glad you’re with Tor. The women here are outstanding!

  6. I think the point is that we infer feminist ideology and mindsets went with these brazen actions. I personally have known many strong women who consider feminism a joke. Yes, they’ll rope steers, bitch slap their fathers for having affairs, and make their own money, but still have deeply internalized ideas about gender roles.

    They still see themselves as having a “place” because of the culture they’ve grown up in. They still limit themselves because of what they were told as girls. That seems to me the point the author was trying to make.

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