STRONG WOMEN IN 1888
by Edith Maxwell
I think a lot about strong women in 1888. Rose Carroll, the fictional midwife in my Quaker Midwife Mysteries, certainly qualifies in many ways, but so did most other women of the era.
Rose is an unmarried independent businesswoman. She traverses the busy mill town of Amesbury, Massachusetts on her bicycle, attending births and providing follow-up care to mothers and babies. Her office is also her bedroom, the parlor of her brother-in-law’s home. Frederick offered it to her after the death of Rose’s sister a year earlier, and she’s happy both to live with her five nieces and nephews and to have a consultation room in which to examine her pregnant clients.
Rose is also a Quaker. Her faith is justice-minded and tolerant in many areas: believing in the equality of all races, and of men and women; advocating peace, not violence; expecting that others will tell the truth. But it can be rigid in assuming its members will dress plainly, not marry outside the church, and abstain from intoxication and frivolity such as dancing. Rose struggles with these strictures, particularly as her romance with the non-Quaker physician David Dodge develops. She has to be brave to stand up to the elders at her Friends Meeting.
|Amesbury Friends Meetinghouse. Picture by Kathleen Wooten, used with permission.|
Most women outside the very rich elite were strong, even in the city. Wood stoves had to be stoked. Laundry scrubbed by hand. Chickens plucked and cleaned before cooking. Water boiled for cleaning. Chamberpots emptied and scrubbed every morning. Not to mention tending the family horse or walking everywhere in your one pair of shoes on uneven cobblestones. There were no elevators, escalators, or electric irons. Even gas stoves were new, and most homes had no flush toilets, electric lights, or telephones. Everyday life was hard.
Rose’s friend Bertie Winslow is a tough cookie, too. She’s over forty and is the postmistress of the bustling town. She rides a horse irreverently named Grover – after the President – and lives unconventionally with another woman in what some whisper is a Boston marriage: not just two spinsters sharing a household but in a romantic relationship. Bertie doesn’t care what people think of her. Rose doesn’t either, and they’ve already worked together to solve several crimes the police weren’t making progress on.
And then there’s Orpha Perkins, the old midwife Rose apprenticed with. She’s birthed over a thousand babies at home in her career. Rose has taken over her business, but Orpha is happy to provide consultation on tough cases – of both pregnancy and crime – whenever Rose needs her.
Finally, nearly every woman still birthed her babies at home in those days. The idea of doctors handling births, at home or in hospitals, was just beginning. Women had to be strong, as they still are, to go down into death and bring forth life. And they relied heavily on the age-old honorable profession of midwifery.
I’m delighted to be immersed in life in my town almost a century and a half ago. I feel like some of those women’s strength has already rubbed off on me.
Agatha-nominated and Amazon best-selling author Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her story, “A Questionable Death,” which features the same 1888 setting and characters as Delivering the Truth, is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story.
Edith is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her web site, edithmaxwell.com.
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