Several of our wenches are researchers par none, digging into historical minutiae with zeal. While I admit to a fascination with these intriguing details, I am not a researcher of fine points. I like to see history as a big picture and reflect on how and why we so often repeat our mistakes. Naturally, much of this will never show up in a romance, but it often shapes the background of my stories.
One of the things that fascinated me with my magic stories is the way science developed. In my Georgian era (1750s) series, science had only recently been defined as a body of observations or propositions concerning a subject of speculation and was more akin to philosophy than anything with which we’re familiar. Scientific methods were unheard of. My hero who grew mangelwurzels did so after talking with other farmers and learning that he might better feed his cattle with the rough land he owned. He learned to experiment with productivity by reading articles from other gentleman farmers. The word agronomist hadn’t yet been invented. Universities taught Latin and Greek, not agricultural science. (Must Be Magic)
And one of the heroines from the Magical Malcolm series was a herbalist. She grew and collected the herbs for remedies her grandmother had taught her at a time when physicians were rare. This folk medicine was
perfectly acceptable, and women practitioners were the most common, presumably because men had better occupations than puttering in gardens and swamps. The same with midwives—for centuries, women delivered babies because that was a private at-home matter. Men cut hair and pulled teeth in public. (Merely Magic)
With the increasing use of the Linnaean classification in the late 1700s, educated women like my herbalist began to paint plants, attend classes on plant classification, and collect specimens with an emphasis on the healing properties of plants. This incredible growth of knowledge took on scientific connotations as men explored further afield to find new specimens—something women couldn’t do for lack of resources and/or support. Considered chattel, with no funds of their own, women couldn’t travel or gain an advanced education. It was even difficult for them to obtain the professional periodicals
that men exchanged. So their careful botanical classifications and drawings were considered by men to be on a par with embroidering, something ladies did.
Jump forward to my 1830s Unexpected Magic series. The age of enlightenment has dawned. Microscopes, while still crude, have become a necessity for plant studies. Laboratories are being built. Forceps have been developed for delivering babies. Science defined as a system of knowledge covering the operation of general laws as obtained and tested through scientific method wasn’t yet developed, but it was on the brink.
And guess what happens? Suddenly, the study of plant lore and medicine are male occupations. The sexuality of plant propagation is too provocative for weak females. Delivering babies is forbidden to women with their weak minds and understanding. These are now public occupations, taught in public forums and periodicals and even in a few schools. Women couldn’t attend.
The teaching and licensing of medical practitioners became a male domain. The use of tools, like forceps, was forbidden to anyone without a license. This differed from one country to the next, sometimes even one city or county to the next, but once the segregation started, it ran rampant over the next decades.
Women who had been collecting botanical specimens, creating folk remedies, and acting as midwives were gradually squeezed out of their professions—because men controlled society, and they wanted it to stay that way. Laws forbidding female emancipation were on the books well into the 1900s. Without the freedom to vote, own property, or earn their own living, women were powerless to change their fates.
Even as recently as the 1960s, I was told my only choices of profession were nursing or teaching. A woman who wanted to be a doctor, engineer, or even an accountant had to fight—sometimes literally—for an education, and finding a career afterward required family connections. There are still societies today, in the 21st century, that forbid women to work outside the home.
I’m only here to report the history in my work, not to collect evidence of why men have felt it necessary to oppress women through the ages. My theory is that this behavior is driven by fear—fear of competition, fear that women might be better than they are, fear of change, fear of losing free cooks and bottle-washers. Making choices based on fear has a negative effect on society—history is littered with examples.
Which is why I write my Magic books, where the women stand up to their own fears and that of society to improve their lives and those around them. If you have a better theory, throw it at me. Or better yet, share your experiences with fear and its effects. How about some romances that show women fighting to be more than society expects? I will admit, some of my childhood heroines include Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. How about you?