To print this poster click here.
Archive for February, 2017
by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant
Every American child learns about Rosa Parks in school. On December 1, 1955, she, a black woman, was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man. Her arrest led to a boycott of the city’s public transportation that lasted 381 days and ignited the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Nine months earlier, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the exact same thing. She was just 15 years old.
Growing Up in Jim Crow Montgomery
Colvin grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. She was well accustomed with the Jim Crow laws of the South. She says the first time she realized things were different for her was when she was a little girl and her mother took her to a department store. A white boy started staring at her and laughing because she looked different than him. She put her hands up to his to show him they both were really the same. Her mother slapped her for acting out and touching a white person. She picked up quickly that black people “had to be on their best behavior” while out in public because of Jim Crow. In school, she learned about inequalities black people in the South faced on a regular basis. She attended an all-black school, as Alabama did not actually desegregate its schools until years after the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. Her instructors took the time to teach their students about Jim Crow and about Black History, especially during February. February was the month during which Negro History Week (as it was then known) was celebrated around the country, but Colvin’s school celebrated Black History for the entire month, as we do now, because her teachers felt black people were absent from history books. Her personal heroes were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
Boarding the Bus and Making a Decision
After school on March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin walked to downtown Montgomery with three of her classmates. She and her friends were going to take the city bus home from school that day. When they boarded the bus, they sat behind the first five rows, which were reserved for white passengers. A young white woman boarded the bus after Colvin and her friends and found nowhere to sit because the white section was full. Bus drivers had the authority to make black passengers move for white passengers, even if they were sitting in the black section. The bus driver asked Colvin and her friends to get up, which her friends immediately did. She refused to move. On her mind were the lessons she had learned throughout her life, especially during Negro History Month at her school just days before. Though her friends’ seats (one next to Colvin and two across the aisle) were now vacant, the white woman refused to sit in them because, according to Jim Crow laws, black people could not sit next to next to white people. They had to sit behind white people to show their inferiority. When asked again, Colvin refused to get up. The bus driver alerted the traffic police, and three stops later, a traffic officer came onto the bus and asked her why she was sitting there and why she would not get up. She replied, “because it’s my constitutional right,” and told him she was not breaking the segregation law by sitting there. The traffic officer told the bus driver that the police needed to get involved. A stop or two later, two police officers came onto the bus and instructed Colvin to get up. She refused. She later said, “I could not move because history had me glued to the seat…Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder.” The police officers each grabbed one of her arms, kicked her, threw her books from her lap, and “manhandled” her off the bus. They shoved her in their police car, handcuffed her through the windows, and took her off to jail. She was the first person to be arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation laws.
Arrested, Afraid, and Awaiting Consequences
On the way to jail, the police officers called her racist and sexist names, “took turns trying to guess [her] bra size…and cracked jokes about parts of [her] body.” When they got to the jail, other police officers joined in on the name calling. She was charged with breaking the segregation law, resisting arrest, and assaulting a police officer (one of them got scratched in the scuffle off the bus). They booked her as an adult and locked her in a cell without permitting her to make a phone call. She had no idea if anyone who could help her would find out where she was. The classmates that were on the bus with her called her mother and her minister, however, and told them what happened. Her minister paid her bail and she was released. This time her mother did not scold her, instead she only asked if she was okay. Colvin, her family, and her neighbors were all afraid of retaliation from the KKK. They stayed up all night keeping watch, her father with gun in hand in case they came. Luckily, they never did. When she went back to school after her arrest, she found that many parents told her classmates to stay away from her because she was crazy. As a result of the stand she took, she was made fun of by other teenagers. She was eventually found guilty on all three charges, but later had two of them dropped by a judge. The judge upheld the assaulting a police officer charge, knowing it meant she would have “a serious police record that could harm her future, but she could no longer appeal to challenge the Jim Crow regulations.” She remembers the words her revered said to her on the way home from jail – “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom…But you’re different – you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.” But the revolution would not actually occur until nine months later.
Colvin’s Stance Paved the Way
Colvin feels her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement have been largely forgotten. When asked why her arrest did not have the impact Parks’ did, she often sites five reasons. First, Colvin was a minor and Parks was an adult – Parks seemed more trustworthy as the face of a movement than a kid would have been. Second, Parks had lighter skin than Colvin – a feature more socially acceptable at the time. Third, Colvin was poor and Parks was more middle class – also more socially acceptable. Fourth, Parks was already well-known and respected in black political circles. Fifth, Colvin became pregnant (by a man ten years her senior) a few months after her arrest – black leaders did not believe it would be good for their movement if the face of it was an unwed teenage mother. Additionally, Colvin moved to New York shortly after her arrest and rarely mentioned it to others because people there, she says, were more interested in the growing Black Power Movement and Malcolm X than they were in the bus boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though her arrest has been completely overshadowed by the arrest of Rosa Parks, Parks’ arrest might not have been such a powerful action if it weren’t for Colvin. Prior to December, 1955, black leaders in Montgomery had been in talks with the bus company about a boycott if they did not desegregate. The bus company depended on black passengers to stay in business, so they knew a boycott would really hit them hard and have a large impact. As secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Parks was well aware of those talks, as well as other strategies they hoped to use to end the unequal treatment of blacks in Alabama and around the country. When Colvin refused to get off the bus in March 1955, they got to work developing a plan and preparing for the moment to thrust their cause into the national spotlight. If they did not have that preparation time, Parks’ arrest might not have gained much more than local attention. Dr. King might not have become the face of the boycott if he had not had that preparation time between the two arrests.
Though she does not get the notoriety Parks gets, Colvin’s contributions to the cause are still most definitely felt. A year after she was arrested, Colvin became one of four plaintiffs in a segregation case that reached the Supreme Court. Colvin testified in federal court in the Browder v. Gayle (Gayle was the Montgomery mayor) case and was the so-called star witness. Her testimony helped the court reach its verdict – that segregation on Montgomery buses was illegal.
Read more about Women in the Civil Rights Movement here.
It’s so easy to bash historical romance novels. You know you’ve seen them – the paperbacks with covers featuring heroines in billowing dresses, swooning with desire into the arms of a shirtless hero – and you may have laughed and felt superior, and maybe even used one of the cynical, pejorative terms for the genre that I’m not going to repeat here.
But I’m betting that many of you aren’t laughing, because you read these books, and you understand why they’re so popular. And they are popular: romance sales make up over half of all mass market books sales in America. It’s also the single portion of the publishing world where not only are nearly all the readers are women, but so are the writers, and the editors, too.
Yes, like all genre fiction (such as sci-fi, mysteries, paranormals, and so on), historical romances are the books read for escapist fun. A love story set in the past is a wonderful way to forget 21st century problems. But it’s not just any old past: it’s a past filled with women. You know, that sizable part of the population that history textbooks so long forgot existed.
Heroines Experience Everyday Reality of the Past
Too often history is remembered only as the most boring class in school, all dates, wars, and men with white hair. The best writers of historical romance take their research seriously. They can transform history from dry dates into stories filled with real people suffering real joys and real tragedies, and yes, at least half of those people are women.
Historical romances offer a strong heroine living in a vividly recreated world. She’s often adventurous, daring, and accomplished in non-traditional ways that challenge the convictions of the men around her. She may be a healer, a journalist, a scholar, or a spy, a conductor on the Underground Railway or a lady-in-waiting to an English Queen. That she finds the one man who will fall in love with her for who she is will, of course, be what most readers expect from a romance; a happy ending is guaranteed. But readers live through the heroine, and experience what she experiences – not only the joys of true love, but also the everyday realities of women in the past: how they kept warm, what they ate, and how they dressed, what they feared and what they cherished.
Inspiring Curiosity about the History behind the Fiction
Historical romances can do much more than just entertain, however. They can become gateway books that inspire a lasting interest in history in a more general sense. For many casual readers, a wall of traditional history books or biographies in a bookstore or library can be intimidating. Even if there’s a nearby clerk or librarian waiting to offer suggestions, many readers won’t ask because they don’t know what they want or like, and don’t want to appear uninformed.
But if that reader has read a historical romance set in the court of Henry VIII, she may become curious to learn more, and ask for a book about life in Tudor England, or a biography of Anne Boleyn. A historical romance set in 19th century Texas might lead a reader to begin investigating the women in her own family tree at the local historical society, and the historical romance about the Underground Railway could inspire another reader to take her family to the National Museum of African American History.
Just remember that history – and history lovers – come in many forms. Don’t judge the book by the cover. You might be surprised what you’ll learn from a historical romance.
By Susan Holloway Scott
Susan Holloway Scott is the author of over fifty historical romances (written under the pseudonyms Isabella Bradford and Miranda Jarrett) and historical novels, and she is also half of the history blog Two Nerdy History Girls. Her new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, is based on the turbulent life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, and will be published in September, 2017 by Kensington Books.
Read more about the “History of Romance” here.
The giving and receiving of valentines or love tokens dates to medieval times, but the origins of the modern celebration lie in the 18th century with the rise of romantic marriage. During the 18th century, society encouraged young people to select their marriage partners based on their romantic attachments. This was a decided change from past practice when marriages had been arranged to cement relationships between families or clans and to consolidate fortunes. Brides’ and grooms’ feelings were not of paramount consideration. While love and respect might be a byproduct of marriage, young couples had not entered into marriage with that expectation. That changed in the eighteenth century.
You know what to expect from me, as you have seen my character of a good wife. Suppose I tell you now, what I, in my turn, expect, and how you may best please me and make me happy.—Thus then I begin—Let me ever have the sweet consiousness of knowing myself the best beloved of your heart—I do not always require a lover’s attention—that wou’d be impossible, but let it never appear by your conduct that I am indifferent to you. ~ (Margaret Davenport Coulter to John Coulter, May 10, 1795)
As expectations increased that marriage would be built on a foundation of love rather than mutual, economic interest, the way that partners were selected had to evolve. When parents stopped making the selection, prospective lovers needed to find one another and then determine the extent of mutual attraction. Courtship became a distinctive phase of partner selection, and familiar rituals evolved. Young women, perhaps more than young men, often enjoyed the process of courtship as it represented a time of freedom and choice. The selection of a husband was the most important decision a girl would make, but it was also the most autonomous. Courting empowered young women. They decided who to accept or reject, and some wielded their power ruthlessly.
You know I have never with all my faults betrayed one symptom of vanity, but now if you should discover a little spice of it can you Wonder—just at this moment are at my entire disposal two of the Very Smartest Beaux this country can boast of… . There is much speculation going on as to the preference I shall give & tho I do not intend to practice one Coquettish air … yet for my own amusement do I intend to leave these speculating geniuss to their own conjectures … till I have made up my mind. (Letter from Eliza Ambler to Mildred Smith, February 1785.)
Courtship requires that prospective lovers reveal their feelings and that they do so more creatively and sincerely than their competitors. Exchanging Valentines became a popular way to express those feelings. A popular eighteenth-century Valentine form was a homemade love-letter puzzle. The writer intricately folded the paper, writing a different sentiment in each section. As the beloved unfolded the Valentine, her lover’s feelings were revealed. Many were sentimentally preserved and reside in museum collections today.
Reproduction Love-Letter Valentine: National Women’s History Museum
Nineteenth Century Romance Evolves
Romance blossomed in nineteenth-century American culture. Both men and women were encouraged to express their most intimate thoughts in letters. High literacy rates and a reliable postal service facilitated romantic communication. Letter-writing culture flourished. Letter-writing manuals provided sample love letter language for those who were not naturally adept at self-expression. Or, lovers could quote their favorite poets, drawing from an abundance of romantic literature.
Elizabeth Barrett published the love poems she composed to her future husband Robert Browning, at his insistence, after overcoming her reluctance to share their intimate correspondence.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height. My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of everyday’s most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right; I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. ~ (“How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways,” Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
More casual lovers, those of less intimate acquaintance, were able to purchase ready-made Valentines in the mid-nineteenth century. The first commercial Valentines sold in the United States were produced by Mount Holyoke graduate Esther Howland. Following her college graduation in 1847, Howland began to produce and sell fancy, paper Valentines. In 1850 she expanded her operation, hiring local women to craft elaborate creations with ribbon, glitter, and paper lace in an assembly line fashion. Howland ran her New England Valentine Company until 1881 when she sold it to the George C. Whitney Company, headed by one of her former employees. The New England Valentine Company had annual gross sales of $100,000 at the end, demonstrating that romance could turn a profit.
Post Card Valentine – circa 1900. National Women’s History Museum
Securing a Mate
Throughout the nineteenth century, middle and upper class married women were idealized for their role as mothers and helpmates. Whereas earlier generations recognized women as making economic contributions to households and family businesses, nineteenth-century social conventions diminished their role. Instead, their part–often called the Cult of Domesticity–was to create a pleasant and restorative environment for their husbands while raising children to be contributing citizens. When households began to be constituted as a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife, the practical advantages of marriage, such as the wife’s ability to economically manage a household, were minimized. While romantic love flourished, there was an increasing idealization of women as mothers and wives.
Women’s eligibility for marriage became increasingly tied to their appearance and social ability, though wealth and familial connections remained important factors to prospective partners. Men took the lead in partner selection, choosing which women to pursue while women waited to be selected. There was an expectation that everyone would eventually marry, both men and women, but men were expected also to establish a career and a public persona. For women, becoming a wife and mother was an achievement to aspire to. Therefore, women were discouraged from participating in activities that might make them less suited to marriage, such as higher education. Society was furthermore suspicious of women who did not marry, often characterizing them as deviants or old maids, and limiting their options.
While romance remains a prime consideration in partner selection for twenty-first century women, the interest in selecting a partner has waned. In 2006, the Pew Trust found that only 16% of uncoupled Americans were actively looking for a partner. And when they are searching for love, marriage is not necessarily the romantic goal. In 2012, 23% of American men and 17% of women–over age 25—had never married, doubling from 1890 when 11% of men and 8% of women had never married. While marriage rates are down, cohabitation for unmarried men and women has increased. About a quarter (24%) of never-married young adults ages 25 to 34 lived with a partner in 2015. Social scientists have explored factors contributing to a decline in the marriage rate. They point to shifting public attitudes towards cohabitation, increasing acceptance of singledom, difficult economic times, and women’s increased economic independence. Romantic love in modern times has a different feel when women no longer see marriage as an end goal but rather a partnership between equals.
By Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program
- Coontz, Stephanie. 2006. Marriage, a history: from obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New York, NY [u.a.]: Penguin.
- Elliott, Diana B., Kristy Krivickas, Matthew W. Brault, and Rose M. Kreider. “Historical Marriage Trends from 1890 – 2010: A Focus on Race Differences.” (n.d.): n. pag. May 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/marriage/data/acs/ElliottetalPAA2012presentation.pdf>.
- Lystra, Karen. 1989. Searching the heart: women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Madden, Mary, and Lee Rainie. “Romance in America.” Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. Pew Research Center, 12 Feb. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2006/02/13/romance-in-america/>.
- Saad, Lydia. “Fewer Young People Say I Do — to Any Relationship.” Gallup.com. Gallup, 8 June 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/183515/fewer-young-people-say-relationship.aspx>.
- Wang, Wendy, and Kim Parker. “Record Share of Americans Have Never Married.” Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. N.p., 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/09/24/record-share-of-americans-have-never-married/>.