Susanna here, just back from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in beautiful British Columbia, where I’ve been privileged to be a presenter the past several years.
It’s always difficult to choose a conference highlight because honestly, there are so many, but this year my highlight has to be the panel session that I shared with Mary Robinette Kowal and Elizabeth Boyle, moderated by our friend Nephele Tempest, in which we discussed viewing history “Through A Feminine Lens”.
We talked about the ways in which women have been largely erased from the historical record, and how those few that remain are put forward as “exceptional”, when in reality women were present—and being successful—in most walks of life. They were shopkeepers, landowners, scientists, artists.
Mary shared the tale of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning as an example of how a woman’s legacy can be curated out of the historical record, quite literally, by a museum curator deciding the donated scientific papers of Miss Anning were not valuable or needed, and disposing of them as mere curiosities.
Elizabeth reminded us that women in Wyoming gained the vote in 1869, and were able to keep it in spite of attempts to repeal the law later.
And I told of Peter the Great’s beloved wife, Empress Catherine the First, and how historians continue to dismiss her achievements by sexualizing her friendships with other men, even when contemporary accounts by those who knew her offer no evidence of this.
In what was arguably the most fun part of the session, we all share our favourite go-to resources and tips for unearthing the voices of women, from diaries held by small libraries to the online records of the Old Bailey, and we listened with envy as Elizabeth described the scrapbook she had found in which a woman detailed every dress she’d made and worn, including fabric swatches, sketches, and a note of the occasion she had worn it for.
The voices are there, even if they do require some dedicated digging to uncover them. I know I usually find them at the fringes of the letters and the documents I’m reading, in which men speak of their mothers, wives, and sisters, or—as happened in one fortunate discovery—save the notes those women send them.
Are there any women in history you think deserve to be written about? Any voices you’ve stumbled across in your own research/reading?