“YOU CAN’T KNOCK A WOMAN OFF A PEDESTAL SHE BUILT HERSELF.”
I don’t know who first said those words, but they are affirming.Throughout history, the image of the ideal woman has been created by men and includes attributes like being a good housewife and letting their husbands make all the decisions. Society imposes other requirements for women, including a particular body shape, good looks, and fashion. I’ve done my share of living up to the prevailing societal expectation of ideal, but it’s never been a good fit for me. That’s why my novels are told by some of the much more interesting outliers of the past two centuries, women who are related to me.
“I commit my first overt act of rebellion at the age of twenty-one when I insist to my mother that I must marry my cousin, Jacob Perkins.”
So begins my novel Under the Almond Trees from Ellen VanValkenburgh’s point of view. Ellen went on to scandalize the entire company by wearing bloomers while traveling to California from New York. They voyaged to Nicaragua, then traveled mule back to the Pacific coast before resuming their voyage. Bloomers make perfect sense to me if you’re riding a donkey! In 1851, however, it was not how the ideal woman behaved. Much later, after the death of her husband, she chose to wear black for the rest of her life. Her sisters had to work hard to talk her out of wearing it to her second wedding. When he, too, died, Ellen ran his paper mill while pregnant with their third child. Incensed that she had no say over legislation that affected business, Ellen sued to vote in 1872, long before women were granted the vote.
“Samantha’s older brother had told fabulous tales of the frontier’s wild beauty and the danger of the natives, but in all his stories he neglected to speak of the mud.”
The River Remembers begins with Samantha Lockwood arriving in Michigan territory determined to choose her own husband. At Fort Snelling, she meets strong women like Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of future U. S. president Zachary Taylor, who elopes with Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, when her father refuses to give his approval. Samantha chooses her husband poorly and is left with an infant daughter to raise alone. It’s 1836, and life in the territory is hard. Alone and with an infant, it’s impossible. She marries again and follows her husband to Valparaiso, Chile, when President Lincoln appoints him consul, and to California after that for the Gold Rush.
“Dolores’s father deemed her useless when she was seven.”
From the very beginning of The Aloha Spirit, Dolores is beset by tragedy. Inspired by Carmen Rodrigues, my husband’s grandmother, Dolores figures out how to be strong without a role model. Her mother dies when she is a child, her father leaves her when she is seven, her adopted family piles on more chores than love. She marries at sixteen to escape, only to find herself in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic husband. Despite it all, she builds a loving life for herself and her daughters.
“Out on Third Street and beyond, the world makes progress in transportation, politics, and fashion. Out there, women work to control their own destinies.”
Emily Williams’ section of Under the Almond Trees begins while she is still being forced into conformity by her father. Upon his death, she is able to fulfill her dream of becoming an architect, and to move in with her partner Lillian Palmer. Unable to get an architect’s license because she’s a woman, Emily is limited to building homes. She and Lillian begin by building themselves a home in Pacific Grove, California.
Ellen, Samantha, Carmen and Emily are representative of the women who populate my family tree. Rather than be shaped by public expectations, I prefer to build my own pedestal inspired by these four women and others like them. Many of the lifestyle choices they fought for are everyday possibilities for me. Their experiences inspire me to raise my expectations even higher. Through their legacy, I can create my own ideal, a woman strong enough to know what she wants and determined enough to persevere until she achieves it.
This post first appeared on PaperLanternWriters.com
Linda Ulleseit is the award-winning author of The Aloha Spirit and Under the Almond Trees. Her next historical novel, The River Remembers, will be published in June 2023. To interact with her and other historical fiction authors and readers, join PLW’s Facebook group SHINE.
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