In 2014, I was signed to a contract with Seattle publisher Booktrope and part of the deal included bringing my existing publications along with me. Blue Honor was my first book and though it had already been published and received great praise from my peers, there was something missing from the narrative. Blue Honor follows the lives of four families who become intertwined during the course of the American Civil War. The heroine of the tale, Emily Conrad, is yet a young girl when the story opens and the reader will watch her grow to womanhood. Her story needed to be more than what it was. The current climate on gender equality, above all, demanded better action on that front.
Not only had I struggled with telling the story of a runaway slave form a perspective that precludes me from the nuances of being brown in a white world, but now I struggled telling my own tale: Growing Up Woman. I was born into the middle of Second Wave Feminism, and thus, like many young women, have only a small sense of not being an equal to the dominant gender of society, as all that was left was the deeply entrenched and masked bits of inequality (or so we think!). Of course, I had experienced the general glass ceiling to which all women can attest: being denied assistance in my calculus courses in college, because I was one of those biology women and not a male engineering student which the instructor was proud to hold rank among; or, when thinking of a career change, being turned away from computer science because ‘very few women finish the program, so I don’t think it’s for you.’ These incidents took place between 1990 and 2005. Definitely not the heyday of inequality as women are told by men, but science and technology are male dominated fields, and some of the players wish to keep it that way. There are still few women in those fields, comparatively, for half the population of the world and the year being 2015.
In the 1990s, a new wave of feminists (third wave) took up the torch. Some feel they picked it up immediately from the previous generation, but from the issues that are still being battled in courts and legislatures around the country, it is evident that interest in women’s political issues, their equality and rights, has dwindled. The third wave focused on freedom of sexual activity–playing into the male fantasy as they did this. With blow back from men’s rights activism and such groups as #gamergate, there is no wonder. Vitriolic opposition has chased many women back into silence and acceptance. After all, they don’t want to be labeled as one of ‘those feminazi women’, a term in line with First Wave opposition rhetoric, which declared that being a feminist made a woman undesirable to her intended male partner or a ‘man-hater’ (something still used today to scare young women away from their call for equality; threats of being single their whole life if they don’t conform). Then, there is the diminishing of the female experience by those who, frankly, have not lived as women. For instance, street harassment and those claiming complaints against unwarranted comments on a passerby are frivolous (the viral video about this and commentary surrounding it). It’s a very real and disturbing phenomenon, which I have personally experienced on several occasions. Most recently, on such experience has made my ridiculously small trek to work, I once enjoyed a bit of exercise to start and to end the day, into a ridiculously short drive just to ensure my personal safety, and having to schedule exercise at another time or not at all. The reality is: as a woman, I am not safe to walk in my village, from work to home or vice versa – no matter the time of day. This phenomenon illustrates the issues at the very heart of equality, and how they reverberate into causing undue burden to wider affect. This is no more acceptable than telling women that they cannot become engineers or doctors because their anatomy prevents their competence.
In the novel Blue Honor, Emily Conrad goes through such a struggle at home with one of the most sinister supporters of the gender status quo: her mother (the matriarch). Emily lives in rural area of Vermont in the 1860s, so there are few role models available to her. She can pick from the seemingly loose morals of a lively Rose Benson, the tragic history of her beloved but subdued Henrietta (Hettie) the escaped slave or the star of town society, born and bred in the heart of upscale New York Society, her mother Margaret. It is within her that Emily must find the woman she wants to grow into, and that struggle is evident throughout the narrative. At the outset, we learn that her talent is healing. She cares for the sick, big or small, human or other animal, and even tends a robust garden. She has the touch, so to speak. After nursing Hettie back to health from the injuries of her master’s wrath, young Emily decides that becoming a doctor is exactly what her future requires of her. Her surprisingly supportive father must buffer a disproving mother and provide the education the girl requires to meet her dreams. Once again, woman is at the mercy of a kindly patriarch. It was my own father who sat me upon his knee and said, “You can be anything you want. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Without that support, like Emily, I would not be writing today, or have tried my hand at science and technology.
Surrounded by supportive men, who appear to take their cues from Mr. Conrad, Emily grows into womanhood and is set on her journey. Through the readings she’s provided, young Emily is privy to the new idea of woman beyond the borders of her hamlet. From Bluestockings in Britain to Seneca Falls Suffragettes in the States, the role models for women were expanding and old ways were hard dying. One name above all, however, stands out for Emily Conrad. Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell is an authentic historical figure that is overshadowed by the distances of time and the new status quo that we enjoy today. (I am fortunate in that my literary precursors are still quite popular in the classroom and at home.)
Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, United Kingdom on February 3, 1821 to Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell. She had three siblings (two brothers and a sister). Blackwell relocated to the United States as a child with her abolitionist family. Her father never lived to see the Emancipation. He, like Mr. Conrad, however, had instilled equality of person in his children’s rearing: stumping for Women’s Rights as well as the end of Slavery.
Blackwell later went on to study medicine (1849) against great odds and the literal amusement of her male counterparts, becoming the first female doctor in the United States. With degree in hand, she fostered the careers of other women and became a noted speaker. By her death in May of 1910, she had been retired for some time from her practice due to ill health, she was still stumping for equality.
Blue Honor’s heroine has a living struggle to observe, which echoes her own, and gives her impetus to follow through. Despite the hardship, being maligned by her own social circle and facing spinsterhood, it is not a dream Emily will give up. Not even the affection of a stranger can deter her from her goal, and we see her faced by a choice that was afforded many women in that time: marriage or career, but not both. Today, such a choice is unheard of for most women, though many are choosing to wait until later in life and to forgo having children in addition. The struggles for women have changed only slightly, for though it is acceptable to have a career in the present climate, it carries a stigma of which career women are quite aware – including the punishment by pay gap concern. Add to that the stigma placed on those not wanting children, and you see the ‘carreer or marriage’ choice firmly in place to this day. One of the greatest purveyors of this ‘patriarchal status quo’ is other women. Thus, Blue Honor teaches current issues through women’s history. From slut shaming to bullying, the women of Blue Honor are a reflection of the current gender climate teaching the historicity of these issues and bringing a new generation to the table for a much needed conversation, regardless of how they would like to be labeled.
Copies of Blue Honor are available online and by special order at your local bookstore.
Read more about Elizabeth Blackwell online at:
Or get the biography by Barbara Somervill: Elizabeth Blackwell: America’s First Female Doctor