Monday, July 12, 2010

Why I Love Strong Women by Faith L. Justice

I read a post in a forum recently that irked me. The person was looking for historical fiction recommendations but "none of that anachronistic modern women dressed up in historical costumes crap." I don't think he was disparaging time travel fiction and, yes, I've read a few stories where the women seem to have more modern sensibilities than might be warranted. But not all strong females are anachronistic. The protagonist in my own book, Selene of Alexandria is a young woman who wants to become a physician in 5C Alexandria—not a "healer" or midwife—a trained and apprenticed physician. The poster would most likely consider her attitude and journey anachronistic, but she isn't. There is ample written and archaeological evidence of women physicians through the ages, including this period. But if you don't look outside the traditional history texts, you wouldn't know that.

When you think about what we were taught in history class, you begin to feel a little like Jane Austen's character Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, "History…tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men…good for nothing and hardly any women at all." That’s how most of us remember school history – boring lists of dates and battles and "hardly any women at all." If we learn about any women, it's Cleopatra who slept her way to the top, Elizabeth I with the "heart and stomach of a king," or the fictional Betsy Ross best known for her sewing skills.

I grew up with the same history books as other people, with the same sensibilities, getting only part of the story. I started to believe women did nothing in the past other than get married, have babies, and die. As an adult, I learned differently. Once I pitched the traditional texts, I found women everywhere. Women ruled countries, led and fought in armies, managed huge religious organizations, created art and literature, healed people, studied and taught math and science, traded and explored. They were also pirates, gladiators, murderers, traitors and spies. In every age, in every culture, there were exceptional women making their marks. Their stories inspired me and, if I could, I'd write about every single one who struggled in spite of her sex, class, birth and/or situation to accomplish something special. Unfortunately, I can't. But I do try to pick my favorites and bring their stories to life. I love writing about strong historical women because it helps redress the balance. But, most of all, I love writing about them because they are so damn interesting. That makes my job as a writer very easy.

Faith L. Justice is a science geek and history junkie who has worked as a lifeguard, paralegal, systems analyst, human resources executive, college professor, freelance writer and novelist. It's not that she can't keep a job; it's that there always seems to be something new to learn. She writes in her historic land-marked home “The Suffragette House” in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her husband, daughter and the required gaggle of cats. For fun, Faith likes to dig in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.

Her first historical novel, Selene of Alexandria, is now available through several bookstores. Her second book, Twilight Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome, won first place in the Historical category in the Maryland Writer’s Association contest. She’s currently working on two new novels—both set in the time of Imperial Rome and featuring strong female protagonists. You can read all about her at her website:


  1. Faith you are so right. I love to feature strong women of history on my blog. How can they be anachronistic when there has never been enough written about women to dispute this? Don't you think that strong women have been ignored and overlooked in history by those who would rather they didn't rule, lead or achieve? I am with you. Sounds like your book is something I will pick up. Thanks for your article.

  2. I have to confess that I've felt the same way as that forum poster...not because there were not strong women in history, but because so often it seems writers and filmakers do not take the time to develop them in historically authentic ways. I get very frustrated with "strong" women who toss off their corsets, put on pants, and begin to chew tobacco, or something else equally superficial. When a strong woman is developped well, though, it's a great story! Selene sounds like a great inspiration for a book--will have to check it out!

  3. What a great and inspirational post! I think it's a great tragedy that school history shows women in this light - if young women only see women's history as having babies and getting married (or being curiously absent), then how can they be expected to dream of or feel worthy of anything more? What an excellent reason to write about these interesting historical women.

  4. I have several strong women characters--such women have been in literature since the Greeks! And probably before.

  5. Faith, thanks for sharing this wonderful post!
    I still remember one of my teachers in college (she taught Middle Ages) advising us to go to Women's History classes because she thought there wasn't enough focus on women in our programs. This almost created a scandal, especially among the older teachers, who immediately labeled that attitude as feminist and subversive. Some of us went nonetheless, but others were ashamed or as offended as the other teachers.

    Oh and might I say that I loved Selene? She is such a wonderful heroine.:)

  6. Thanks for all the positive comments, everyone! Alex, I'm so glad you loved Selene.

    Rowenna, I totally agree that it's the author's job to develop their strong women characters in an authentic way. It's documented that women threw off their corsets, wore pants and chewed/smoked tobacco; but why would any particular woman do such a thing when the vast majority of women didn't? It's important to build the character's motivation. Why would she take such a risk? What are the consequences of her unorthodox behavior? A skilled writer will pull the reader into the story and make it all feel natural. If you read Selene, let me know if I pulled it off!