Posts Tagged ‘role of women in steampunk’

Today we welcome author Philippa Ballantine!

Philippa Ballantine is a fantasy writer hailing from Wellington, New Zealand. In the coming year she will have three books hitting the real and virtual shelves. The first of which a supernatural fantasy (containing the odd airship and feisty heroine), GEIST from Ace Books will available in late October 2010—just in time for Halloween. Find out more at booksoftheorder.com and pjballantine.com

The First Ladies of Steam

By Philippa Ballantine

We often discuss steam, but today I’m taking the chance to talk about some punks to go with them.

This last weekend was the 117th year of woman’s suffrage in New Zealand—and of all the excellent things about my country that’s the one I am most proud of.

Yep, New Zealand women have been accused of being bossy, stroppy and overly independent. (Actually we have been accused of running the country—which we have done a couple of time.) However all of these are excellent attributes for a steampunk woman.

True, there were millions of proper women in Victorian and Edwardian society, drinking tea, and staying in their place—but we also shouldn’t forget that there were plenty of the other kind of women—the kind that risked their position in society, their health and their lives to go against the grain. What’s more punk than that?

When I was at WorldCon in Melbourne, I was on a steampunk panel—one on the future of the movement. It was argued that the genre doesn’t represent the true terribleness that did exist in that time period. While costumers make goggles, and authors write about airships, it was suggested we are largely ignoring the racism, colonialism and sexism that existed in that time. While there are plenty of stories to tell, and issues to explore as the genre continues to grow, there is some truth in that statement.

Now I admit—the kind of steampunk I like is fun. As the Brits would say, I enjoy a jolly good romp—but that doesn’t mean we can’t inject a little education into those very same stories.

The second book of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences I am writing with Tee Morris, is going to revolve to a large extent around the suffrage movement. While our suffragettes will be a little better equipped than their real life counterparts, their spirit will be drawn from the same place. (Still, it’s interesting to imagine what they could have done with the odd automaton or raygun to further their cause).

I am having great old time using actual suffragettes for the basis of our story—two in particular are loads of fun to give the steampunk treatment to.

Kate Sheppard is so famous in my home country she is on the ten-dollar bill—not bad for a chick that spent her adult life fighting to change the system. This charismatic woman was a powerhouse of energy and the leader of the suffrage movement in New Zealand. Without her the whole thing would have struggled to wrestle the vote from the hands of men. As it was it took three separate petitions and constant work to get the job done. Her determination and energy is something I feel like I am honouring—but then I give her a clock-work eye and ordnance system to go with it. (There is something awfully appealing about the gentile and lovely Kate with her own steampowered weaponry to really ram home the point to menfolk).

One suffragette from Britain is someone I might be afraid to give such devices to.

Lilian Lenton- oh my! If you have an impression that suffragettes were gentile ladies, who sat around drinking tea and painting signs, then you are in for a shock. This girl was born to shake things up. If I could steal anyone’s Wikipedia entry it would be hers.

…dancer, suffragist, arsonist and winner of a French Red Cross…

Quite a set of accomplishments! This lady was known for two things: setting fire to buildings, and making daring escapes from custody. The buildings she burnt were things like gazebos in the public gardens, but her escapes from home detention were nothing short of brilliant. The house where Lilian was under house arrest (recovering from the horrific practice of force feeding) was guarded by two police officers. A whole posse of suffragettes entered the house, then all dressed the same as her rushed out and scattered up the street taking her with them. Pure theatrical brilliance.

I mean what writer wouldn’t grab that as inspiration?

And what better basis for our female steampunk aviators, inventors and adventurers than the suffragettes? If we teach a little, or add a remembrance of how things actually were for women in the nineteenth century then all the better. If steampunk is a history that never was, then such people and such stories deserve a place in it.

Sure I am giving the suffragettes a little update, but their spirit and adventures remain the same. I like to think at least some of them (Hey Lilian!) would have approved—and I for one am dying to discover just what they would have accomplished with the right steampunk gadgets!

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When I recently was part of a panel of Steampunk at RWA 2010 we got some very interesting questions from the audience. One of which was “What roles can women play in Steampunk stories, given the traditional roles of Victorian women?”

My answer was somewhere along the lines of “In Steampunk women can do whatever they want.”

Women and girls can be anything in Steampunk–from ladies to air pirates. They could be pushing social norms or they could be the norm. In Leviathan, Deryn works on an airship (though she pretends to be a boy). In the Girl Genius comics, Agatha is the one inventing things and going on adventures. In Clockwork Heart Taya is a winged courier.

A woman in a Steampunk story could wear *trousers* like Madame Lefoux in Changeless or could be like Captain Octavia Pye in Steamed who captains an airship in a skirt and corset.

Steampunk women can still be ladies. Perhaps she doesn’t defy society at all–but that doesn’t have to mean she’s sitting at home drinking tea. Alexia in Soulless is a lady, granted she’s a spinster and a bluestocking, but she’s a lady. She also makes it work for her, going on adventures, solving mysteries, and whacking Vampires with parasols. Percy in The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is a student. Lyra in The Golden Compass gets into all sorts of trouble.

She could also be chafing under social norms. In my Steampunk YA, my main character doesn’t want to take the path her mother, and society, has laid out for her. The themes of coming into your own in a society (or family) that frowns on your choices can make for a great read–especially in YA where it’s all about grey area, pushing the boundaries, and finding where you fit in the universe.

Maybe she’s stuck in a situation that she feels powerless to get out of–or she’ll fight tooth and nail to improve her situation. The Victorian era has a darker side that I think could be explored a lot more in Steampunk stories. She could have been forced into a loveless marriage, perhaps she’s a prostitute, she could be a child who works in a factory, a “street sparrow”, or a victim of Imperialism. These, too, could make for stories with great character development and tell stories that aren’t yet being told. Darker stories have a place in Steampunk, too.

She could be plucky or permissive, a fighter or a nurturer, turning life on it’s ear or making the system working for her, dreaming of a better life or giving up everything to go after what she wants. She could be wealthy, poor, or self-reliant, should could live anywhere, anytime, anyplace. She could be driven around in a enabled carriage or be building an airship. She could barely read or be a professor.

That is the sheer beauty of Steampunk. So go ahead, tell the story that needs to be told of whether it’s the tale of a bold air pirate, a scrappy street sparrow,or a fine lady.

Women in Steampunk can be anything. They can be anything at all.

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