Elizabeth Van Lew created a spy ring that helped the Union win the Civil War.
Sophie Scholl formed a non-violent resistance group to oppose the Nazis.
Vera Atkins spearheaded one of the first sections of the British Special Operations Executive that sent female agents into occupied France during World War II.
But no one knows their names. No one tells their stories. Like so many other influential women in history, their lives and contributions have been pushed to the wayside for the sake of telling the same masculine, white narrative we are taught from grade school, through high school and into college. With this narrative fed to us from youth, we’ve become accustomed to believing this is the only true tale of the past, the only version that exists and the only version that matters.
The continued emphasis on and teaching of this narrative only perpetuates the cycle. As a society, we have become desensitized to the effects of only teaching this narrow version of history. Author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beautifully summarizes some of these teachings and effects in Beyonce’s song ‘Flawless’. As she puts it, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.” The mixed messages of this narrative are enough to confuse anyone. Because of them, there are so many young women not daring to dream big because they are taught they will never measure up to the knowledge, skill and strength of men. So many others not reaching their full potential because they conform to the conventions of society. And still, so many others feeling stuck in an endless tug of war between what they want and what is expected of them.
As a student of history, I am constantly drawn to the past. But as a woman, the past has told me my story isn’t one worth telling. Unless I do something drastic or noteworthy, I’m not significant enough to make a footnote in the grand narrative written by men. As the saying goes, “well-behaved women seldom make history.”
I’ve struggled with what this means for me, especially when that very notion is re-enforced every time I open a history book written by a man about a man or attend a conference dominated by male speakers and attendees. How do I fit into this academic world of history and the world I live in as a woman? How do I change the narrative so the stories and voices of women in the past and today are heard and acknowledged?
My own wrestle with these questions and others like them led me to one simple conclusion: if I want to see a change, I need to start a change. I need to bring the stories of women to light and create a dialogue on the subject. The beautiful thing about real change is that it doesn’t all start at once. It’s a butterfly effect. A ripple effect. I don’t have to uproot the whole system overnight. All I need to do is drop a pebble in the water and get them talking. The same goes for you, reader.
I realize this is a work of fiction and I have taken liberties with some of the historic content for the sake of the story I wish to tell. But it is my belief that sometimes fiction speaks more truth to us than anything else can. If we let it. It is my hope that as you enter into the world of the Red Rose Society, that you wrestle alongside Adelaide with truth and convention. May you, like Adelaide and the others, have the courage to ask questions, the determination to seek answers and the boldness to test convention. And when you close the pages of this book, may you follow the example of the women in this novel and the past who found the strength to throw a pebble into the water of their passion and spark a change.
So here it is. Here’s my pebble. Let’s see how far the ripple can reach.
To pre-order Emily VanderBent’s novel, click here.