White Cotton Dress and Women's Suffrage Sash, Mount Holyoke College.
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Writing A Balm in Gilead has been challenging for me. The next Saint Maggie full-length novel has two storylines – and they pushed me to learn more about mid-19th century science and politics.
The most obvious challenge was the main storyline of the epidemic. I had to learn as much as I could about typhoid fever and its treatment in the mid-1860s to flesh out a story about an epidemic and how a small town in New Jersey dealt with it. I needed to know the causes of typhoid fever, how long after exposure a person would start exhibiting symptoms, what course the disease generally took, how much physicians and scientists knew at the time, and how it was treated (or not treated).
Early in the writing process, I developed a timeline for the disease that ran from the earliest exposure to a time cases no longer were being reported. I tried to follow my timeline, but as I’m still in the revision process, I’ll see how closely I stuck to it! If things are too far off, then I will need to move things around in the manuscript and do a bit of rewriting. You may ask, why bother doing this? It’s fiction! Yes, it is. But it’s also historical fiction. And my graduate work in the field of North American Religion and Culture taught me to be as accurate as possible when it comes to history. While some things can be “fudged” when writing historical fiction, I cannot ignore a story’s historical underpinnings. Good historical fiction will tell a compelling story and have characters with whom readers can identify without sacrificing its historicity.
The secondary storyline involves Maggie and her possible run for political office. And it is this, and 19th century women and politics in general, to which I will devote the next few blog posts.
I took an early stab at the topic through three blog posts in December 2019. However, since the new book will be published early in 2021, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit some of this information and maybe go a little deeper.
Truthfully, I found the topic of women in 19th century USA politics to be much more difficult to research than typhoid fever. The best resource I have found to date lives on the internet. Indeed, most of my research must be done on the internet. This necessity is not just because of the current COVID pandemic. It also is because I do not have the time, nor the money, to travel to libraries and archives to do onsite information. Maybe post-COVID and after I retire, I’ll be able to do hang out among old books again, because I love nothing better than nosing through dusty old tomes and periodicals. I’m serious about this. I’m a total geek and would be lying if I didn’t say I totally miss my grad school years when I could spend hours at the United Methodist Archives and Special Archives at Drew University (Madison, NJ).
So much for nostalgia. Let’s get on with it.
To my great disappointment, most online sources I found were focused on women’s election to national and state offices. Generally, they offered next to nothing on what women were doing locally in the 1800s.
Well, that was discouraging! But I couldn’t let that go. I knew there was something more to the story. I just could not rid myself of the hunch that women got active locally before they moved into larger fields.
That hunch was based on my knowledge of how women moved into other fields. One example of this may be found in religious circles – more specifically, women living in the USA who were members of Protestant churches. In the 1800s, women in these settings first began to move into leadership positions by starting groups of their own to undertake mission and other benevolent work. These women tackled issues that had an impact on other women: poverty, health, education, nutrition, alcoholism, and more. Eventually, they raised money and sent women to work as missionaries nationally and abroad. Basically, they took things into their own hands.
Finally, during one search, I found what I was looking for: “Her Hat Was in the Ring: How Thousands of Women Were Elected to Political Office before 1920.” This is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to start wading into the weeds of women and local politics. This is what caught my attention:
“In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the well-known leader of the woman’s rights movement, declared her intention to run for Congress, from Brooklyn, New York. Stanton was probably the first woman to campaign for a federal office. It would be another fifty years before the first woman took her seat in Congress. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was elected and served in the US House of Representatives from 1917 to 1919. Far less well known is the fact that in the decade before Stanton announced her intention to campaign for office, four women had been elected to local and county offices in three states” (“Her Hat Was in the Ring”).
I probably do not need to say that I was thrilled. But I was thrilled! The last sentence in that paragraph confirmed what I had suspected. Maggie’s proposed run for political office falls into that “far less well known” category. It was not common for women to run for local office, but it was done. It would have been possible for Maggie to run for office, although rare. As portrayed in the series, Maggie is an exceptional woman, one who has gifts, graces, and learned skills that recommend her as a town leader.
With that in mind the next two blogs will 1) take a little look at the history of women’s early involvement in politics, and 2) investigate how Maggie’s skill set would fit her for political office, despite her own fears.
Have a good week, everyone.
And again, please stay safe. This pandemic ain’t over yet, so be considerate, kind, and patient with one another.
Janet R. Stafford
Chmielewski, Wendy, “Her Hat Was in the Ring: How Thousands of Women Were Elected to Political Office before 1920,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; AP US History Study Guide; http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/node/317932
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder