A Tyranny of Petticoats: The Beginnings of an Anthology by Jessica Spotswood
I trace my love of reading back to my grandmother.
Memaw’s house was full of thick Danielle Steel novels and dog-eared paperbacks with scantily dressed couples on the covers. When she wasn’t putting together puzzles at her card table, she was reading in her recliner with a glass of Lipton iced tea and a handful of hard pretzels.
I grew up in a tiny town in central Pennsylvania, one-stoplight small. Too small for its own library or bookstore. Memaw drove us to the Waldenbooks forty minutes away, or to little used bookstores, and she made up a rule: she’d buy me the newest Sweet Valley Twins or Babysitter’s Club book as long as I also picked out a classic.
Because of her, I read The Little Princess and The Secret Garden. I read battered old copies of The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books and all of the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon books. And in third grade I devoured Little Women.
Maybe it was because I had sisters, too – or because, like Jo, I was always scribbling in notebooks – or because our tiny town was fifteen minutes from Gettysburg, so I grew up hiking and picnicking on the Civil War battlefield – but whatever the reason, I loved Little Women. It was – to me, reading in the late 1980s – historical fiction, but it was about girls. Girls who seemed to exist both long ago (the fear of scarlet fever) and now. Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy felt relevant to me: bickering sisters, cute neighbor boys, a yearning for something more.
My dad was a big reader, too. I loved hanging out in his study in the basement. It had been decorated in the seventies and you could tell: the shag carpeting, the wood-paneled walls, the waterbed, the autographed pictures of John Wayne and Olivia Newton John (which led me to believe, for far longer than I should have, that they were married). The built-in bookshelves were overflowing with Louis L’Amour and other Westerns, but Dad also had thick tomes about various battles and biographies of presidents and generals and statesmen.
There was a problem with all of those books. None of them were by – or about – women. So – despite what fertile ground history is for stories – I was largely disinterested. I didn’t see any connection between those real-life battles and presidents and the stories I devoured about long-ago girls.
Then, in fifth grade, a friend lent me her mom’s copy of Gone with the Wind. As an adult, I recognize how problematic the book is, how it glorifies slavery and the South. But at age ten I loved it. I read it a dozen times. Scarlett O’Hara was revelatory to me. She was not bookish, like Jo March, or dreamy, like Anne Shirley. She was not spoiled but well meaning, or sweet and self-sacrificing. Scarlett was clever and calculating; she was selfish; she was a survivor, no matter what.
Gone with the Wind had none of Little Women’s moralizing; it didn’t have a happily-ever-after. It instilled in me a lifelong love for complex characters and independent, unlikable heroines. And it inspired me to stop writing short stories about the horses at the stables where I took riding lessons and take a stab at writing my first book.
My first novels – written at ages twelve through fifteen – were three-hundred-page Gone with the Wind knockoffs. They were all set on Southern plantations and featured headstrong girls who loved to ride horses (like I said, I was taking riding lessons) and kiss snarky, inscrutable boys (I had not yet been kissed myself); there was nothing of the seriousness of war or the harsh reality of slavery in them. All of the heroines were anachronistic feminists who were “not like other girls.” These early books were, in retrospect, dreadful, and offensive on multiple levels. But they were excellent practice.
After high school, college, and graduate school, I started reading for fun again. I reread the books I’d loved as a child and then I dove into current YA lit. One of the first books I snatched up was Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, and something in me lit up. This – YA historical fantasy, about powerful Victorian girls who performed terrible magic and still got in a fair amount of swoony kissing – was the kind of story I wanted to tell.
Eventually, I wrote my own historical fantasy trilogy, the Cahill Witch Chronicles. The series is set in an alternate version of 1890s New England ruled by a group of patriarchal priests who have outlawed magic. My heroines were three sisters, all witches, who were clever and ambitious and fallible.
After I finished my trilogy, I was inspired to try to organize and edit an anthology. Coming up with a theme was easy: it would be my favorite genre, historical fiction and historical fantasy. It would be fifteen short stories by women, about girls of various races, sexualities, classes, eras, and settings. I approached my favorite historical YA authors, women who’d written about topics as wide-ranging as the Black Panthers, school desegregation, Soviet-era spies, World War II pilots and prisoners of war, Victorian spiritualists, Revolutionary War-era inventors, the doomed wives of Henry VIII, and medieval Welsh girls. I asked other author friends to try their hands at writing historical fiction for the first time.
That’s how A Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and Other Badass Girls was born.
The Nerdy Book Club is the first stop on our educator blog tour, which runs from 3/1-3/8. All fifteen of the authors, including me, have been asked the same three questions: What inspired you to write about this historical time and place? What was the most interesting piece of research you uncovered while writing your story? Who is your favorite woman in history and why. Our answers are as different as our heroines. We’ll be sharing the Q&A all week, and I hope that teachers and librarians will be able to use it, in conjunction with A Tyranny of Petticoats, to help students learn – as I have – that history is not and never has been solely the purview of men.
JESSICA SPOTSWOOD is the author of the Cahill Witch Chronicles, a historical fantasy trilogy, as well as the contemporary novel Wild Swans. She grew up near the Gettysburg battlefield but now lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the D.C. Public Library system as a children’s library associate. You can find Jessica on Twitter as @jessica_shea, on Facebook, and Instagram.