How Can Historical Fiction Be Feminist?

July 21, 2017 | 12 books mentioned 9 4 min read

Hilary Mantel, twice awarded the Booker Prize for her detailed fictional explorations of the court of Henry VIII, recently remarked that “women writers…can’t resist retrospectively empowering” women of the past in historical fiction. She presents us with a false choice: “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?”

Historical fiction poses unique challenges and opportunities. Writing a historical novel requires all the same things writing a contemporary novel does—intelligence, dedication, research, and a whiff of heedless optimism—as well as a fine-tuned commitment to not betraying the “historical” elements for those better fit by the label “fiction.”

Writing feminist historical fiction adds another layer of complexity. Any historical novel worth its salt has to address society’s expectations of women at the time it’s set. Some authors focus on ordinary women, some on extraordinary ones; both options offer countless possibilities for advancing or contradicting feminist viewpoints. But knowing one’s time period is essential, no matter what. A historical novel in which women play key roles doesn’t resonate unless the author can faithfully and honestly depict ordinary women, and ordinary men, of the time.

Reducing the possibilities of historical fiction to two options, as Mantel does, represents a failure of imagination. The good news is that the imaginations of many writers, women and men alike, are up to the task of telling stories set in the past that are both faithful and feminist.

cover Did Amy Stewart have to “retrospectively empower” Constance Kopp to make her a law enforcement pioneer, appointed the first female undersheriff of Bergen County, N.J., in 1915? Not a bit. Kopp’s cases were well-documented in the newspapers of the day, and Stewart has woven her stories into three novels so far: Girl Waits with Gun, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, and the upcoming Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. Kopp was quoted by a reporter as saying “Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.” Ahead of her time, yes, but still someone who made her way within it.

cover Stewart was a non-fiction writer before she was a novelist, and sticks close to the known facts with her novels, but that’s far from the only approach. On the more fictional end of the spectrum is Kate Quinn’s new novel The Alice Network. Its historical kernel is a real-life World War I spy ring run by and consisting of women, named for its leader, whose code name was Alice Dubois. Quinn interlaces the war story with a second timeline, this one centered on a fictional, pregnant protagonist searching for a lost cousin. Quinn’s book offers an unusually entertaining way to examine how women, both ordinary and extraordinary, are called upon to act in the world during wartime.

cover Naturally, the historical novels it’s easiest to recognize as feminist are those written about women who explicitly fought for women’s rights and women’s issues, like Terrible Virtue, written by Ellen Feldman about reproductive rights pioneer Margaret Sanger. Similarly, novels that center on women adjacent to more famous men—Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb (artist Camille Claudel) or The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict (physicist Mileva Maric)—argue without stating outright that in a fairer world, these lesser-known female subjects would be as famous and renowned as their better-known partners. Biographies can make these arguments too, but fiction puts us there in the moment, breathing and crying and cheering with these women. Paula McLain, whose biographical historical novels The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun are some of the best-known in the genre, was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying “We love to learn about history, but don’t we love to get close to it?”

cover Returning to Mantel for a moment, she takes issue with “women writers who want to write about women in the past,” implying that male writers are in some other category, possibly exempt from the “persistent difficulty” of wanting to write female characters of action and agency. But it’s hard to think of a book that takes its heroine’s part more wholeheartedly than Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, which is by turns rip-roaring, tragic, giddy, dramatic, and delightful, but never loses its keen awareness that its extraordinary heroine, soprano Lilliet Berne, operates within the constraints of a man’s world. Her fate is changed at every turn by men’s decisions, men’s gifts, men’s egos, men’s wars. And her journey is all the more riveting because of it. Chee’s heroine was inspired by real-life opera singer Jenny Lind, known as “The Swedish Nightingale”; Lilliet Berne is fictional. But this is what the best historical novels do—blend fact and fiction in a way that sweeps us into the world of the past and informs our experience of the present.

The characters above could be considered extraordinary women of their time—historical novels can also focus on ordinary women without, as Mantel suggests, reducing them to “victims.” The very act of centering a novel on a woman’s story, of giving her the same respect and attention men’s stories have traditionally received, can be feminist. The women of the distant past may only appear in sepia-toned photographs today, but when they lived, they lived in full color. Historical fiction and feminism can work hand in hand, and novels may in fact be the best delivery mechanism for certain stories. The question then becomes not whether or how historical fiction can be feminist, but which feminist historical novel you’ll choose to read and recommend next.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Markus Winkler.

is a poet, short story writer, playwright, and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel, The Magician's Lie, was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain's Freckle Films. Her new novel, Girl in Disguise, also an Indie Next pick, was inspired by the real-life first woman detective in the U.S., Kate Warne, who was hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856 Chicago to solve cases and fight crime. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it "Loaded with suspense and action" and "a well-told, superb story."


  1. Good points made.There are plenty of women from the past who did all sorts of things on which to base stories.Many have been forgotten and need to be rediscovered and written about.Feminist treasure trove of subject matter!

  2. Philipa Gregory has written many wonderful epics of British history from the woman’s POV. I highly recommend them.

  3. It is true in history some women have been autonomous and brave, but when one considers that women in the West have only had the vote for a mere century, Mantel’s comment is put in context. I think a lot of the essay’s examples to refute Mantel’s statements are (to me) “cosy” fiction. When you look at the big picture of women in history, it would be difficult to find any political period where women had voices. I think Mantel’s statement is correct.

  4. I think there’s a fairly substantive problem here. It’s not only feminism. The problem is with almost all historical fiction – people in the past did not think like we do. The way they did think is in many ways fundamentally opposed to us at basic levels. When you’re trying to use a historical character to try to make them dance to our tunes, it so often rings false – not only in the historic sense, but also fictional sense.

    What we tend to do is assume that people in the past were just stupid, for lack of better words. But – not only is that false – it’s often true that many historic persons or eras had as good or even better understandings of themselves than we do of ourselves. Examples: how many people write stuff set in the late Middle Ages (basically portraying them as effectively barbarians) when they themselves are not smart enough to understand the extremely sophisticated philosophy, writing, symbolism and religion of the time? How many current writers are simply too dumb to understand even basic textbooks of that time (people forget that things like Aquinas’ Summa or Peter Lombard’s Sentences were introductory textbooks for beginners, not advanced texts at all.)

  5. Kind of like “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”. L.P. Hartley, author of the outstanding novel “The Go Between”.

  6. I listened to Hilary Mantel’s comments, quoted in this piece, as part of her Reith Lecture talks. I was rooting for Hilary, whom I admire, while also feeling she was in the awkward position of defending her trade in a way that writers of contemporary fiction generally aren’t required to do. In Britain, there is a divide between literary fiction (respectable) and populist fiction (not respectable). Historical fiction, even that of a literary tone, slides by default into the ‘not-respectable’ category. Ms Mantel vigorously defended her right to write historical fiction without being questioned, or downgraded. She gave brisk shrift to a professional historian (respectable) who tried to imply that her historical perspective was inevitably second-rate for being fictional. If I understood her response, she believes that her work delivers reality and truth to readers, by another means.

    Can historical novelists be feminist? I am one, and when I’m asked if I’m a feminist reply ‘Of course I am. All women who think are feminists.’ (I developed this response to checkmate the men who liked to say ‘My wife isn’t a feminist, she doesn’t feel the need to be.’) But I digress. My personal brief when writing my commercial historical novels (not respectable, sadly) is that the era in which they are set dictates the moral atmosphere. Victorian females did not generally kick people’s backsides and demand careers. Yet many of them were pioneers, travellers and business women. Their struggle to be so IS the story. My own female forebears raised families through war and grinding poverty. It’s unlikely they’d have thought of themselves as feminists as the concept was a rarefied one at the time. I think of them as sisters, and their lives worthy of scrutiny. We living in the second millenium can learn much from them and if our learning is through fiction, then more power to the genre. In a hundred years time, someone might look at my life, or yours, and use it as the inspiration of a novel.

  7. Natalie Meg Evans – excellent comment. When I think of women who kicked ass, I think of Gertrude Bell, Mary Kingsley and Florence Nightingale, for example, and other explorers who were not afraid to satisfy and induldge their curiosity with the intent to help society and not to colonize it. These are women I aspire to emulate, if only I were brave enough. Regarding Mantel, 8 months on Gaza Street and A Place of Greater Safety, show how women can write historical fiction with empathy, yet without sentimentality. Rose Tremain does a great job with historical fiction as well. Highly literary and without “pandering” to women readers. Pandering is in quotations because I despise that word, used by some male writers regarding fiction that interests women, in the most obnoxious and condescending way.

  8. Historical fiction can certainly be feminist and there are many ways to make it so. However, one of the most effective ways is to allow your female lead to tell the story. I like first person narratives because they allow you into an internal world and to make the voice female gives the narrative a distinctly female point of view.
    With historical fiction the external details may be historically accurate, however what fiction enables you to do is to present the constants in new ways and challenge accepted interpretations – particularly useful in giving women of history back their voices so that women of today and tomorrow won’t risk losing them in the first place.

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