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Writing women: gender role traps

I thought that, as a woman, writing strong female characters would be a snap. What I didn’t figure, was how easy it was to fall into stereotypical gender roles. After writing my latest historical fiction work with the plan to let women tackle adventure and adversity head on in true urban fantasy style, I came to the conclusion that focus was required with every page.

Without focus, I found scenes appearing where the women were being saved, or at least helped an awful lot by the men in their lives, with men stepping up to take charge and take over. Where was this scene-stealing coming from? The answer is in the thousands of books I’ve read since I first started reading where this stereotype was normal, the aforementioned lack of focus, and a desire to not leave anyone out; to give all my characters a chance to prove themselves.

I’m a firm believer in true equality and in a world that I’ve created, I wanted that, but not at the cost of my plan to write believable female characters who could look after themselves and everyone else. It’s a fine line, but I don’t think equality can be achieved while the scales weigh so heavily in favour of men. Perpetuating ingrained inequality was the opposite of what I had in mind.

I feel the need to point out that my male characters are not incapable of doing what they need to do either. Just that the story does not focus on them. My lens remains fixed on the women.

In Keeper of the Way, I’ve brought to the fore Australian colonial women and given the traditional

female spheres of influence the importance they deserve. It’s a feminist way of looking at the past: not discounting men (or the history we are taught), but in counting women (the history that we are not taught). This includes an even more silenced part of our history – Indigenous women.

My protagonists are Rosalie Ponsonby, proprietor of the Garden Arms Hotel, and her daughter, Florentine. They must face the past and future, reunite with old traditions and prevent a growing evil.

The antagonists in this story represent the misunderstanding and misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise, of women’s history and traditions. Lord Algernon Benedict and his son, Clement, are obsessed with reclaiming their family standing/treasure/power and arrive in Sydney searching for a woman with secrets.

I’ve tried to redress the deliberate writing out of the history books and popular press that has seen many of our forebears forgotten; cloaked with invisibility, by weaving into the fictional story, real women from our history. Flora Heffernan and Anastasia Ponsonby, Rose Scott, Lady Loftus, Lady Mayoress Harris, to name just a few.

Another way of strengthening the role of the women in the story was to have the men not only respectful but also unsurprised by take-charge attitudes and authority, and expectant of the pivotal role the women had in their lives.

Of course editing and revising helped to weed out at least some of my “good girl” tendencies and male-lead actions, and as I continue with the series, I expect the ingrained fall back on old-fashioned learned behaviours to lessen. It is much more fun to arm the women and send them off to protect their loved ones and fight for a better future, than to have them wait at home to be saved.

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