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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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