Sunday, March 22, 2009

Good Golly, Miss Molly

It's been a whirlwind March for me so far. First I was being feted in Hawaii as guest of honor at Left Coast Crime. That was a surreal experience, being treated like royalty while the blue waters lapped the shores and the palm trees swayed in the wind. Of course I've always dreamed of being a celeb--what writer hasn't? But so many people wanted to have their photo taken with me and I am still overcome with embarrassment when people tell me they love my books. I never know what to say. I believe Agatha Christie had the same problem, so I'm in good company!

So I spent almost a week being queen of the convention, along with co-Guest of Honor Barry Eisler (and let me tell you that wasn't one of the harder tasks of my life) then I arrived home just in time for the release of my new Molly Murphy mystery, called IN A GILDED CAGE.
This story focuses on the role of women in the early Twentieth Century. Molly joins a suffragists march and gets involved with a group of Vassar grads. They all left college with visions of doing great things with their education, only to find themselves confined by convention to be mindless accessories to their husband's life and career once they marry. Molly is affected by this observation as she is considering getting married herself in the near future. Can a woman be her own person and be married, she wonders? Could any woman at that time?
Of course the answer was yes: Marie Curie was experimenting with radium beside her husband. Nelly Bly, who appears in my last Molly book, traveled the world as an investigative reporter while her husband stayed home. So all things were possible for exceptional women, but most were forced to abandon their own dreams when they said "I do."
And I think that was true until fairly recently. Even when I left college most women stayed home once they had children. My mother was an exception--she had always been a school teacher and later principal but even in the sixties when I graduated, women were assigned certain roles in life: teacher, nurse,or secretary were the usual expectations. Some girls went to medical school, some into research, but not many. So I was lucky to go straight into the BBC and learn all the aspects of broadcasting, finally settling down in the drama department where I started writing my own plays. Doubly lucky because I'd have made a rotten secretary or nurse!

So do we think that discrimination is now completely a thing of the past? Is any door open to our daughters today? Here in the Western world I'm sure the answer is yes, but we have to remind ourselves that there are still countries where women have no rights at all--where a woman can be forced to marry a man chosen by her family or killed by her family for not obeying them. And one of the places this is happening is not Afghanistan, but in Britain. Girls of Pakistani descent are being lured back to Pakistan and then married against their wishes. This has become so common that a special branch of the British secret service has been formed to rescue them. But after that they are never free, of course. Their families will hunt them down and they live in fear of their lives.I wrote about this in my last Constable Evans book, called Evanly Bodies. My editor didn't want to publish because it was too inflamatory, but I sent her a wad of newspaper cuttings to show how often it was happening.

I like to write about themes of social relevence as well as telling a good mystery story. I suspect I'm an activist at heart. Certainly a feminist! So what about my fellow JRRs. Did you ever find your job was made harder because you were a woman?
Do you think we've finally come a long way, baby?
HALLIE: First off, congratulAAAAtions on the new book. Can't wait to read it!! And I was so impressed by your singing at Left there anything in your past you haven't told us about?

Yeah, I think we've come a very long way, baby. When I was a kid there were virtually no school sports programs for girls, and the choices career counselors talked about for us were your basic nurse, teacher, librarian, and maybe social worker. It's great that about half the crime novels that cross my desk are written by women. And both my daughters never hesitated about considering the widest array of career options. However, I also realize I was being naive to think, "if only women were in charge..." there'd be less self-serving policy making, general dishonesty and mean-spiritedness in politics. Sadly, we've come a long way in that department, too.
HANK: My life worked the other way. I applied for my very first job in broadcasting, at a radio station, in 1971 or so.
Short version: I said to the news director: NO, I've never been a reporter. NO, I've never worked in radio. NO, I didn't go to journalism school. But I've just left a job as assistant press secretary to a gubernatorial candidate. I know how reporters work, and what they need. I've written a million press releases and I know this city inside out.

Then I paused. Then I said, as I smiled sweetly: And your station's license is up for renewal right now at the FCC and you don't have any women working here.
I got the job!
Could it happen that way today? Nope. Because in my profession, at least, there are as many women as men, and getting equal pay, even in management jobs. I know we're not the norm.
ROBERTA: Yes, we've come a long way. I too regret the lack of women's sports teams when I was a kid. However, my thwarted ambitions were funneled into the Cassie Burdette golf mysteries so all was not lost:). But we still have a long way to go. Even in our own field, I believe women are still getting smaller advances and having more books published as paperback originals, which means fewer marketing dollars and reviews. And in general, not even counting the terrible things that go on in less progressive countries, women bear more of the burden of feeling they must make uncomfortable choices between career and motherhood.

JAN: First of all, congrats on the new book, Rhys. But having recently raised a teenage daughter -- and having done all the research on cyberporn for Teaser, I guess I don't think women have come that far. Yes, we've made progress in the career and equal pay front, but I see a tremendous amount of slippage from the 60s. The exploitation of young girls sexually is huge. And I've actually thrown shoes at the television images that make young girls think that they have to weigh 90 pounds and have size D-cup breasts.

The Internet and the insatiable US demand for pornography (and I'm not talking about Playboy or even Hustler-type porn, I'm talking about really sick stuff) has made for a brisk sex slave trade. In someways, I think we've actually gone backwards.
RHYS: One of the statistics that bothers me is the teen pregnancy rate. We are not winning this battle, expecially among the disadvantaged youth who see having a baby as one of the few accomplishments within their reach. These girls can only picture themselves of people of worth by becoming mothers.

So it seems we still have a way to go. It was interesting to see the reaction of certain men when Hilary Clinton ran for president. Pretty much the same things were said as the insults shouted during a suffragists' march in my new book. I think we're hard wired for gender in many ways. Let me know what you think of the new book.



  1. I went to a women's college, where we competed only with each other (and that was one talented group!), and I was extraordinarily pleased when my daughter also chose a women's college (although not the same one). I don't believe that women have achieved true equality, and I'm not sure we will, although I'm not about to stop fighting for it. But, oh, it was lovely to have a few sheltered years when gender didn't matter, only ability!

  2. I went to an all-women's college, too. I thought it was ridiculous, at first. It's not the real world! We complained.

    Then I grew to adore it.
    It's not the real world! We applauded.

    The pressures were so much different! For instance--my poor German teacher (eight AM class) only saw me in a trench coat over my pajamas.

    And once I actually got dressed, I wore the same clothes every day for
    about a year. I do not exaggerate here. Heather blue sweater, heather blue miniskirt, black tights, loafers. EVERY DAY.

    I loved it.

  3. I did not go to an all girls school--I was in the third year of women admitted to an all-male school. It was hard going to adjust to that situation, and deal with being away at school, and deal with men. Let's just say I didn't do it very gracefully, though I did not wear pajamas to organic chemistry class:)

  4. It's a good thing, really.
    A true fashion statement.

  5. I had the best of both. I went to an all women's college within a big collegiate university so I had the coziness of the dorm and small classes with my tutor and then unviversity wide lectures with the other sex. Having been to an all girls school I was intimidated at first when I was in a mixed discussion group. Suddenly I realized--hey, these blokes aren't as smart as I am. Wonderful awakening moment!