Review of Historic Aspects of Women in Mystery Fiction from 1860 to 1979
During the one hundred and ten years since American author Anna Katharine Green introduced the first female sleuth to make three appearances, women’s status in society and in the mystery novel have undergone considerable changes. At times these changes paralleled one another; at times, they diverged.
In literature, as in nature, a species cannot develop and flourish except under conditions that support its existence. The more complex the species, the more intricate and sophisticated are the requirements for a hospitable environment. The historical perspective of the heroine in the mystery novel shows such complexity and development. A male fictional detective might transfer easily from the present to the nineteenth century with merely a change in clothes and mode of transportation. Few of the current female private investigators, police officers, attorneys, or other professionals could have existed in the Victorian period.
Genre writers, including such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers, Howard Haycraft, and E. M. Wrong, have identified conditions necessary for the development of credible fictional investigators of either sex, which include:
- Respect for the legal process, including police forces, because there has been-and remains in some communities, a belief that only the powerful receive justice (which in cases may be justified);
- Widespread literacy through public education;
- An inexpensive means of publication and freedom of the press
- The use of series. The popularity of sleuths was enhanced from the onset by the use of series, to which the readership became attached to a character, as in the case of Sherlock
Initially the lack of literacy and cost of publications channeled mystery stories into magazines and newspapers in the form of short stories or serials. These proved so popular that circulation increased, which, along with cheaper forms of printing, led to the dime novel and inexpensive hardbound books. Compulsory education and the development of a public library system expanded the ability and opportunities for leisure reading. The acceptance of the legal system awaited the professionalization of the police forces, democratic selection of the judiciary, and constitutional protection for civil rights. The mystery story has traditionally flourished in those societies with broad personal freedoms. The amateur detective remained the sleuth of choice until these conditions were prevalent.
The development of mysteries featuring female investigators further required:
- The removal of legal and political barriers to women’s advancement.
- Societal acceptance of women as intelligent, logical creatures;
- Personal freedom for women as shown in the clothes they wore and in their ability to move within the community;
- Access to an education equal to that provided for males and to employment based on qualifications, not gender; and
- Awareness that some, if not all, females enjoy risk-taking and adventure.
The Victorian Era—1860-1899
The budding feminist movement in the United States that emerged at the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Convention waned under the more pressing problem of slavery. Progressive women turned their attention to the abolitionist movement, within which they were very effective. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was credited with awakening its readers to the evils of slavery. When the war ended, only minor consideration was given to expanding the rights of females along with those of former slaves through the 15th Amendment. Married women during much of the Nineteenth Century were unable to contract, to make wills, to transfer property, and to manage what property they owned. Even the custody of the children and the wages of the wife were controlled by the husband at this time.
Changes to these onerous conditions came slowly and piecemeal through state, not federal, action. Beginning with the passage of the married Woman’s Property Act in Mississippi in 1839, state legislatures expanded women’s legal rights.
The voting franchise had been awarded to women in several Western states (Wyoming had granted women the vote while a territory) decades before the U.S. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Societal conditions were equally burdensome. Marriage or spinsterhood were the only acceptable possibilities for proper young women. The spinster, unless she was wealthy enough to command respect, was a figure of ridicule, condemned to live upon the charity of male relatives. Indeed most women worked. They have always worked. Housework and the care of children took many more hours than it does today, and only a small number of women had household help. Those who sought employment during the Nineteenth Century found it as domestic servants, underpaid workers, or in the degradation of prostitution.
But ferment existed in life as in literature. By the late Nineteenth Century businesses seeking females for low paying clerical jobs supported education for women. Education widened the horizons of women. It also opened a field of employment for women as teachers. Nursing became a profession, but one that paid badly and no longer attracted men. Those professions considered suitable for women were extensions of their roles in the home. In most cases it was understood, that a female teacher or nurse would abandon her profession upon marriage. To do otherwise would infer that her husband was unable or unwilling to provide for his family.
Clothing changed to make it easier for females to work in factory settings, use such office machinery as the typewriter, and move from work to home. Domicile changed as society accepted the fact that an adult female might live outside of her family home in a boarding house or a private dwelling. The educated woman, and particularly the financially secure woman, often had leisure time that could be spent in reading and in writing fiction. The early female authors frequently utilized pseudonyms or their initials to earn public acceptance for their work. Books available to women before the turn of the century, even those by female authors, encouraged domesticity and femininity, dramatizing the problems experienced by independent women.
A fictional female in the Victorian Era might appear in an investigative capacity. Generally, this role would be justified to meet a financial emergency in her home or to prove the innocence of a loved one, father, fiancé, or husband. Once the emergency had been resolved, there would be a return to the home and an acceptance of domesticity. The skills possessed by fictional female investigators often were those of intuition; special training such as lip reading; and frequently exercised under the tutelage of a male.
Anna Katharine Green created an intelligent, self-sufficient female investigator in Amelia Butterworth, free of the constraints of a household, able to move within a large city through public transportation, and buttressed by her friendship with a male professional, Ebenezer Gryce. Although marriage was still a possibility at her age, Amelia could work with males without constraint.