It is said that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. I am beginning to suspect that those who do not remember history become copy editors.
I have a story in the anthology Elementary, which is coming out next week. The stories are set in Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters world, and mine is set in Victorian England. (Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and died in 1901.)
When I got the copy-edited version of my story, it contained comments such as: “But a girl is a person” in response to a request that a twelve-year-old Fire Master be treated as a person, not just a girl, and “The general message that’s coming through is that being feminine is a bad thing...”
Even today, a twelve-year-old of either sex has limited rights. Just think of how many Internet sites require you to be at least thirteen to have an account (which explains the 22-year-old on Facebook who was still in middle school—really he needed to add only one year to his age, ten was overkill). Today a girl is considered a person and does have some rights.
But let’s go back to the mid-20th century. Where I grew up it was illegal for a married woman to use birth control until 1965. This meant that my parents were breaking the law, but it’s why I’m the oldest of three children, not the oldest of seven or more. And that was in Connecticut, which is not exactly a bastion of conservatism.
Women could not vote in the US until 1920—and not every woman cared. I once asked a ‘feminine’ woman (one whose primary interests were getting married, having children, and making a nice home for her family) what she was doing during the fight for women’s suffrage, and she replied, “Oh, I never paid any attention to all that nonsense.” She got the right to vote at the age of 24, and probably just voted for whoever her husband told her to—if she bothered to vote at all.
In England women who met age, educational, and property-ownership requirements could vote in 1918, but it wasn’t until 1928 that all women could vote. And a married woman could not even own property prior to the first of the UK’s Married Women's Property Acts, which was enacted in 1870.
In the mid-19th century, being a woman meant you had few, if any, rights, and choices as to what to do with your life were severely limited. So if you take a girl who has been raised—and educated—as a boy, and a mother who thinks that pretty clothes and a suitable marriage are a woman’s highest aspirations and expects her daughter to instantly learn to be a proper young lady, you are going to have conflict. And that’s what gives you a story.