Ah yes, that F word, Feminism. It still has the power to polarize communities, split opinions, and horrify the Patriarchy. I can just about guarantee it doesn’t mean what you think it means. I am a feminist, but I still love and adore men, and I certainly don’t want to dominate my husband (much). Feminism, for me, is about opening doors that are closed simply because of a person’s gender; like the right to vote; the right to feel safe on the street no matter how one dresses; the right to a tertiary education to the same levels and in the same fields; and the right to have the same rights within the legal and political arenas. See … not so scary.
The Victorian era was when the Suffragette Movement started, the movement to see women get the vote. The Suffragette movement was active from 1865 in Britain, and spread to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand almost immediately. New Zealand was the very first country to allow white women to vote, in 1893, but it was South Australia that gave white women the right to vote and run for parliament in 1894. Alas, my own state of Queensland didn’t give white women the right to vote until 1905, and the right to run for parliament until 1918. It wasn’t until 1962 that the Australian Indigenous people, women and men, were given the right to vote. Modern Feminism is the descendant of the Suffragette Movement.
My own Steampunk stories tend to have an underlying theme of Feminism. I try not to make it too overt, but sometimes I can’t help myself. So many scholarly women were unable to get university educations, because most universities would allow women to attend classes, and allowed them to take examinations, but wouldn’t allow them to matriculate. For example, Oxford University was allowing women to attend classes from 1870, but they weren’t able to matriculate until 1920. One of my characters, Alice, is a polymath and a genius in the botanical sciences, but is unable to gain acceptance from the British scientific establishment. She can’t join the Royal Society, she isn’t allowed into Kew Gardens without a special permit, she isn’t accepted for publication by any of the journals. If she marries, all her worldly goods are put into the hands of her husband, and she is expected to become nothing more than a wife and mother. Wouldn’t you feel resentful?
It wasn’t just the corsets that were restricting. Is it any wonder that one of the stock characters of the Steampunk genre is the Plucky Girl who dresses like a boy? Dressing as a boy meant freedom! No corset, no bustle, no layers of skirts and petticoats. Sensible boots with steel caps! Hardwearing trews that you could get grease on. No expectation your brain will melt if you learn something technical or mechanical or mathematical. Real freedom.
Being a female in the Victorian era affected your health. There were no female doctors or scientists, so the medical fraternity had little understanding of what they referred to as ‘women’s problems’. This is the era that created the idea that pregnancy was an illness, mainly because the lack of hygiene meant many women died after successful childbirth from postpartum fevers. Male doctors took over from midwives, who knew all about boiling sheets and clean hands. And many female maladies were classed as a form of hysteria, a word from the same Latin source as hysterectomy: .
If you write or read in the Steampunk genre, you don’t need to be a feminist. But an awareness of how much women owe the Suffragette movement might enrich the experience for you.
If you are interested in Steampunk, I run a site on Facebook, Steampunk Sunday, Queensland, Australia: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday