Where Were the Women?

The earliest stages of the writing process for me involve no writing at all.  Long stretches of poring over other people’s work are punctuated by intervals spent staring out of windows or at blank walls.  It is in this stage, when I am trying to grasp what my story might be, that I notice most acutely the dearth of historical records about women.  

To pull off a historical novel, one must have piles of information, and sometimes the inverse proportion is what is most golden–the more mundane and trivial a piece of information may seem, the more exciting it is to the novelist.   Sure, it’s important to know the things that historians revel in–famous people’s actions and words, but I want to know what swear words people might have uttered under their breath, how they took care of their bodily functions, and what they wore to bed.

Most lacking is information about what was happening in the women’s sphere–the home, and the immediate neighborhood. To be sure, some historians specialize in such things, but even they can’t conjure up records of things no one thought to write down.  And unfortunately, those things often render to women the final blow of invisibility: even their names are often unrecorded.  This is especially true for Jews, who lack the baptismal records that are sometimes the only evidence a person existed.

Right now, for example, I am looking into the life of a famous Jewish scholar and diplomat in Medieval Spain.  I know the name of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but no one at the time recorded the the name of his wife.  Sources all name his three sons, but disagree about whether he had daughters, and if so, how many.  One major source refers to periods of great domestic happiness in this man’s life, but I am left wondering what that means.  That happiness is enhanced by an invisible wife?  That sons are all a man really needs?  I hate these thoughts and try to banish them quickly, for I don’t really believe that’s the way it was.  But without such records, how much we have lost!

And then again, information can come from the most unlikely sources.  I recently bought a cookbook of recipes from the Sephardic Jews of Spain.  Ironically, one way to gain enough notoriety to have one’s name recorded for posterity was to be brought before the Inquisition.  Because the original target of the Inquisition was those Jewish converts to Christianity whose practice of their new faith was perceived to be insincere, neighbors and servants often gave testimony against “New Christian”  women who were still following the Sabbath and keeping kosher homes. Inquisition records often go into great detail about what foods these women cooked and what practices they observed–a gold mine for the novelist, from a period of human history wretched and vile enough to bring even housewives out of invisibility.

My novels all focus on women–real where possible, and imagined in situations where I know such women must have existed. Unfortunately, even where the women are real, their stories are achingly sad, leaving one to think that perhaps they had not been quite invisible enough.  Still, as a novelist, I embrace the chance to let their silenced voices speak to us about their world,  our shared humanity, and the continuing mistake of valuing some lives more than others.