Category Archives: Women in HIstory

Invisible Women

Invisible Women

“A historian must “reconstruct” history by using “historical imagination” to “re-enact” the thought processes of historical persons based on information and evidence from historical sources.” The Idea of History– R. G. Collingwood ********

If we’re referring only to the images in our brains from light hitting objects in front of us, then people from the past are invisible. But if we can clearly see them with our mind’s eye, the neurological connection comes from an entirely different source. Ironically, I hadn’t focused on the people from my past who influenced Certain Liberties, until I wrote a hasty acknowledgement page at the end of the novel.

I wrote it quickly because I don’t like to dwell on literary ‘thank you’s’ much. It’s almost impossible to be discerning about them. Everyone and no one is responsible for writing your book with you and helping it into existence. But there are a few clear distinctions any author can make, and I tried to do that honestly by dividing my helpers into two classes. It was only after I’d finished that I realized one group was completely missing: the women in my family who’d lived at almost the same time as my protagonist, Emily Alden. It was their diaries, and memoirs written by their husband’s and children, as well as my own personal memories of them when I was very young that etched their voices and values on my psyche. They influenced my characters and their stories as completely as if they’d put the words on the page themselves. So, to make up for my inadvertent omission, I’d like to write a heartfelt ‘thank you’ note to them now, here.

There are 4 women who came together involuntarily to help me with this book. My grandmother Sarah Hardwick and her younger sister Mary, born and raised in Augusta, GA, were the source for my connection to the Deep South and the Civil War. I heard stories from them both about their 3 older brothers’ experiences fighting as Confederates. Their tales of the changes to their way of life brought by the war, and descriptions of families dissected by strained loyalties and moral choices stay with me to this day. The sisters’ parents came from Scotland, as many who settled in that part of the Deep South did, and they made it easy for me to figuratively fling my British immigrant protagonist into the fighting. The divided sympathies and commitments to North and South simultaneously was a reality I understood listening to these strong ladies talk. I also understood how trapped a woman of one culture can feel when entering another, as they did when they came north to marry.

A generation later, my great aunt (by marriage) Louise Homer chose an unusual career on the stage as an opera singer when the art form was still very young. A woman from a deprived family background, she didn’t have the societal constraints on the same level as my protagonist, yet those naturally attached to the fact of her gender were still hobbling. It wasn’t acceptable for a “good” wife and mother to perform in public and raise a family of 6 children while maintaining a vibrant professional career; which she did. And even her daughter was tarred with the same brush when she tried to follow in her mother’s footsteps and marry my uncle. Her future father-in-law, my grandfather, stated no son of his would marry a “painted woman of the stage”. Rather than leave her fiancé, she abandoned her career and never quite recovered from its loss. I’ve never forgotten my grandfather’s phrase and brought it out often for my beleaguered protagonist.

A few decades later than the Hardwick sisters, but no less robbed of freedom, were my mother’s Dutch parents. They became the models for the family my protagonist lives with when coming to New York for the first time. The Dutch culture was in sharp contrast to Emily’s British/European background, and I particularly enjoyed launching her quest for liberty from that family’s shores. Every one of these women showed me the many nuances of freedom and enslavement in all their disguises and exposures, and Certain Liberties wouldn’t be the book it is without them.

“Which is worse,” my grandmother Hardwick would ask, “the constraints put upon us by others or those imposed by ourselves?”

“We are our own worst enemies,” my grandmother Van Cott would mutter.

Either that, or we can become our own best friends, as I know my protagonist intends to be. I thank the invisible women in my family who remind me of these truths, even though they’re not self-evident (the truths or the women). They should always be remembered when we explore the certain liberties summoned up in my new novel.