Honoring Women's History Month with Fiction

An Interview with Stephanie Carroll on 
Celebrating Women's History Month

How does your work contribute to modern day women and or Women’s History Month?
I write fiction for women and particularly fiction that empowers women. The message that seems to come up in most of my fiction, nonfiction, and blogging is that women get this bad wrap as being “crazy” or weak but really they aren’t and never were.

The reality is that this idea is a historical remnant of the hysteria epidemic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was believed at that time that almost all women were “hysterical,” that their sexual organs actually messed with their brains making them incapable of emotional, mental, or physical stability.

Women weren’t crazy and aren’t crazy, yet most of us spend our lives feeling like our normal feelings and behaviors are symptoms of weakness and insanity. This is unacceptable and untrue, so it is my goal as a writer to empower women to overcome this stereotype that has plagued us for over a century.

photo credit: rockcreek via photopin cc
I hope that my book is a contribution to women’s history because I put a lot of effort into capturing the historical experience of women at the turn of the century. I put a lot of research into the book and tried to make sure that everything was as historically accurate as possible. The characters and events in the novel are not true, but they are based on real accounts and trends of the time. 

I also think it sheds light on an often forgotten part of the women’s rights movement. Most people think of the women in the 1920s, but it was the experiences of the women at the turn of the century that led to the “New Woman” of the 1920s. It was these women who served as the transitional generation. They were still very obligated by tradition and culture, but were beginning to push back and say no to their inequalities. It just wasn’t them but their children who finally broke through.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

I do but not in the way that many people think. A true feminist is simply someone who believes in and supports the rights and equality of women. Many believe a feminist is an angry woman shouting in the streets, bra burnt to a crisp, but we can be much more subtle.

In my novel, I deal with some controversial women’s issues. My goal was to be as neutral and unbiased as possible, and my education as a historian helped me in that endeavor. There are no pro or con positions in this book. This book is not meant to influence anyone one way or the other. It’s meant to show how and why women made difficult choices in response to the obligations of their sex.

According to your website one of your inspirations is Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Paper). How did you apply that to your book?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in a magazine in the early 1890s. At first glance, many readers, both past and present, see a scary story of either a haunted house or a situation of pure insanity. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is considered a part of the Victorian Gothic and horror genre, but it is much more than that.

The story was inspired by Gilman’s own experiences after seeking help for her “nervousness” and “melancholia” from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who was known for his rest cure
for hysteria.

Historians now look to Gilman’s short story as one of the most revealing looks at the experience of a woman diagnosed and treated as a hysteric during the late nineteenth century. Since Gilman was also a feminist with very public ideas regarding her views, this work is also seen as a look into how feminism may have developed during a time when hysteria was being diagnosed on epidemic levels.
Public Domain Photo

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is about a woman diagnosed with hysteria and confined to her bed as a form of treatment. Her doctor-husband won’t allow her to do anything but rest because it was believed stimulation would worsen her condition. The story is written as if it were a journal she has hidden in her room. Eventually she goes mad and comes to believe there is a woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper in her room. In the last scene, she is “creeping” around the room peeling the yellow paper from the walls and laughing as everyone watches in horror. She has freed the woman behind the paper and in doing so has become her, a wild thing freed from her bounds.

The first thing in A White Room that people recognize as reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the situation of a husband taking his wife to an isolated and disturbing country home and forcing her to rest as a form of treatment for hysteria. I re-envisioned the element of something inanimate coming to life with the house and furniture as the culprits. I chose those elements instead of the wallpaper because I didn’t want to rewrite “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I wanted A White Room to stand on its own.

There are a variety of other more subtle elements that I took from the story, as well. The narrative is told from a limited and unreliable first-person perspective, so certain characters, like the husband, are strangers to the reader, and certain events may have occurred differently than how we are told.

There is also a very distinctive mood created in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s a sense of isolation, despair, unease, and mystery characteristic of a gothic haunted house story, but with an uncertainty of whether or not the things the main character sees are ghosts or not. Gilman later explained that her story wasn’t meant to be a ghost story, and I can say the same thing about A White Room.

Why is Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” important for women’s history?

In many ways the hysteria movement reflected or embodied certain problems women wanted to be rid of in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Women were believed to be fragile physically, emotionally, and mentally, which is why society considered the public domain as something from which women needed protection. This mentality also meant that women were seen as more susceptible to mental illness and lacked the competence to make decisions regarding their own wants and wellbeing. Unfortunately, this meant that a woman’s objections could be questioned and cast aside because her mind was considered unstable. This was accepted by society, both men and women.
Public Domain Photo

When Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the hysteria diagnosis was not only popular but widely accepted. Gilman was a feminist and women’s rights advocate in addition to being a writer. Her story drew attention to the ignored problems with the diagnosis and treatment of hysteria. The amazing thing about the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that it manages to encompass this in the span of ten or so pages, and it reveals it through experience not through direct explanation. In a time period when it was unacceptable to have these views, taking readers through the experience of a woman had an impact that others could not achieve through stating the problem directly.

Gilman’s message did have an impact, not only to modern readers, but on contemporary readers, including the doctor (S. Weir Mitchell) Gilman wrote the story in response to. In her own words:

“But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Tell us about how your experience as a Navy Wife has affected your writing and this novel.

I actually got the idea for A White Room while I was struggling with a military move. After I graduated from college, my husband was re-stationed in Fallon, Nevada. The move was really difficult for me.  It was going to be the first time I lived far away from friends and family, and Fallon is a very small town, isolated. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was terrified that I wasn’t going to have any options in such a small community. It turns out Fallon became like a second home to us and I earned several awards while working as a reporter there, but I could never have imagined anything like that happening when we first arrived.

I started to feel like I was losing it. Everything felt like an unwanted obligation. I felt so overwhelmed and pressured by everyday responsibilities like paying bills, grocery shopping, getting gas, showering. This, of course, was a reflection of how I felt obligated to move for my husband and give up my goals and chances for a career.  At the time, though, it just all felt like everything was too much and a part of me just wanted to give up, stop caring about everything and go insane.

While feeling all of that, I got the initial idea for A White Room. What’s funny is that by feeding these emotions into a story and writing about my character’s pursuit of purpose, I escaped my own white room and found my purpose in life – to be a writer.

Even though the story is historical and has nothing to do with the military, I have had many military wives and girlfriends tell me how much they relate to my character’s experience. They have to be ready and willing to pick up and move, often times to strange and isolated locations. Their lives are very dependent on their husband’s careers, and it often feels like going back in time to when women were simply wives and mothers. Many military wives struggle to pursue their dreams because of the frequent moves and their husband’s work requirements. Not to mention, the emotional and mental stress of six to twelve month deployments, which are enough to drive any woman insane.

In spite of all that, military wives want to support their husbands, support their husband’s service to our country, and to serve our country through their support. Military wives often doubt themselves because of the difficult experience of it, but the reality is they are some of the strongest women in the world. That is why I write Unhinged & Empowered, to help them during those moments that make them feel crazy or weak, to help them realize that those moments are what make them so inspiring and strong.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and I wish you luck and success during Women’s History Month.

Thank you so much for having me. I hope that everyone gets the chance to be a part of Women’s History Month and remember the amazing things women endured and conquered for us today.


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