Voices from the Past: Strong Women Speak Out in New History Book

Morro Bay author Vicki Leon explores the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. | Photo: Stan Thompson.

For centuries, women were expected to behave, mind their manners and keep their mouths shut. Yet that fact didn't stop them from speaking out, Morro Bay author Vicki Leon said.

"They talked a lot,” she said, and their words were preserved on paper, papyrus and clay tablets.

Leon shares the wit and wisdom of 170 historical heroines in her new book, “Uppity Women Speak Their Minds.” Published by MJF Books in 2015, it's the latest in her “Uppity Women” series of popular history books dedicated to celebrating “rebellious belles, daring dames and headstrong heroines through the ages.”

She'll speak about her experiences as an author, researcher and traveler on March 30 at the Morro Bay Library.

Leon, 73, first got interested in women's history in 1973 while taking a western civilization class at Sacramento City College. Invited to spend a semester studying the ancient world, Leon told her professor, “I’d really like to learn more about women in ancient Greece. I don’t want it to be about mythological women, and I don’t want it to be about literary women. I want it to be about flesh-and-blood women.”

"My professor ruefully shook my head, saying, 'I don't think you're going to find much of anything, Vicki,'” she recalled, which made her even more determined to show him up and “prove something to all those authors who dismissed or ignored long-ago women.”

“I said, 'Well, will you let me try?'”

So began the lengthy process of ferreting out facts about real-life leading ladies, which Leon compared to searching for “thousands of little needles in a huge, huge haystack.”

"Uppity Women of the Renaissance" by Vicki Leon
Vicki Leon profiles more than 200 "heroines, hussies, and harpies" in her book "Uppity Women of the Renaissance."

Finally, while digging through Harvard University Press's Loeb Classical Library, she found references to two sets of ancient athletes: Spartan royal Cynisca, a champion chariot racer and horse breeder who triumphed at two Olympic games in the fourth century B.C., and Hedea, Tryphosa and Dionysia, a trio of sisters from Asia Minor who ran, raced war chariots and competed in music competitions across the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.

"These discoveries were mind-blowing for me, still a student struggling to learn how to be a successful historical detective, and writing, still fighting to find her voice -- and her audience,” Leon recalled. Rather than take an overly serious, overtly scholarly approach, she resolved to “write about these fantastic gals with irreverence, even humor, with more of the unblinking, bulldog spirit they displayed.”

The first book in the series, “Uppity Women of Ancient Greece,” was published in 1989, followed by “Uppity Women of Ancient Times” in 1995.

Leon has showcased the lives of women during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, colonial times and the Victorian era in successive "Uppity Women" books, and contributed a few titles to the "Outrageous Women" series for younger readers. (She's also delved into the curious customs of the past in books such as “The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love & Longing in the Ancient World" and “How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition."

I’ve spent many years of my life writing about what women did and what they accomplished, but not nearly as much time writing about what they thought and what they said, and what they might have said had they been able to say it,” Leon acknowledged.

"Uppity Women Speak Their Minds” gives voice to multiple generations of fierce females.

“From girls to grannies, queens to slaves, all shared key qualities that made them worth knowing, and worth hearing about as trailblazers and role models,” Leon writes in the introduction to the book. “No matter their status, these women spoke their minds, often at great personal cost.”

Leon's subjects range from the well-known -- think Catherine the Great, Sacagawea and Sojourner Truth -- to the relatively obscure. Few readers may recognize the name of Lady Trieu, a young freedom fighter from third century Vietnam, but it's impossible not to be moved by her defiant words: “I want to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women who bow their heads and become housewives. Or concubines.”

Or consider this powerful statement by abolitionist and political activist Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of 19th-century military officer, explorer and politician John C. Frémont: “I am like a deeply built ship -- I drive best under a strong wind.”

The compact, pocket-sized volume is divided into seven sections, including “Brains and Brass,” “Risk-takers and Roamers” and “Warriors for a Rainbow of Rights.” Each quote comes with biographical details and anecdotes that, Leon explained, lend context and flavor to the women's words.

Leon said the historical figures featured in “Uppity Women Speak Their Minds” have plenty in common with modern women. “They’re flexible. They’re vital. They have senses of humor. They have clear senses of self-worth,” she said.

In celebration of Women's History Month, Leon recently chatted with Artbound about “Uppity Women Speak Out.”

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What is an “uppity woman”? How would you define that term?

All these women had certain qualities in common. They didn’t buy into what others said that women should do... They were women who took stock of what they were born with and they just knew how to leverage the pluses they were born with.

They knew how to roll with the punches; they were very flexible women. They must have had quite a bit of vitality because they often outlived one or two husbands... They clearly had senses of humor in order to have made sense of their worlds and just not given up.

They had lively, inquiring minds. And they had just a whole lot of guts.

Who do you consider your personal heroines, and why?

One of them is Hatshepsut... She was the Angela Merkel of her time -- calm, steely-minded, more than able to hold her own in the male-dominated society she lived in. She ruled peacefully as leader and inspirational pharaoh for decades. What I especially admire is her canny grasp of business. She sent the first trading expeditions out of Egypt, to the faraway land of Punt. In doing so, she broke the monopoly of incense trade...

She had an ambitious building program that included two obelisks. The one standing at Karnak today has a poignant poetic statement from her: “Now my heart turns to and fro / In thinking what the people will say / They who shall see my monument in after years / And shall speak of what I have done.” There’s a note of wistfulness there, that thought of “Will I measure up?..."

Sarah Josepha Hale is remembered best for her most trivial creation: the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” ...Thomas Edison used it as the very first audio book to test his brand-new invention, the phonograph. But Sarah is admirable for grander achievements: she was editor of America’s most popular magazine for decades. She had amazing gumption, stick-to-itiveness. (She) lobbied five consecutive U.S. presidents in order to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

She obviously had a wicked sense of humor. It’s obvious from this editorial in her magazine: “If men cannot cope with women in the medical profession, let them take a humble occupation in which they can.” Talk about a zinger!

Morro Bay author Vicki Leon
Morro Bay author Vicki Leon is the writer behind the "Uppity Women" series of popular history books.

Why write “Uppity Women Speak Their Minds”?

When I was first asked if I was interested in doing this (book), I had pitched another idea entirely to the publisher. He came back with this counter-idea, and I said, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”

I have eight or 10 quote books around the house, and I started paging through them. I thought, “You know, this is really dull.” Usually it’s got somebody’s name and the date and then it’s got the quote, and that’s it. There’s no back story. There’s no context. There are no anecdotes, or anything that tells you why (the person) said it or what the circumstances were.

So I came back to the publisher and said, “I’d like to do this, but could I do it my way? Could I make it more of a mini-bio with a back story?” That way the quote really has some zing and it has some vitality and makes a point.

How does this book fit with the rest of the “Uppity Women” series?

I view it as a wonderful progression. Like other writers, when I begin to research, I sometimes cannot see the whole scope of what I'm delving into.

A few years ago, I realized that I've concentrated most often on what women did and not nearly enough on what they said and thought.

This book is much more intimate (than the previous ones), giving (readers) more insights into female thoughts and opinions and cherished beliefs. Their words often reveal their incredible valor -- and their contradictions and inner conflicts too -- such as the struggle to be an individual and to be a wife and mother in earlier times when divorce was unthinkable and childbirth was nearly inevitable and prolonged.

What was your source material for these quotes?

Everything from diaries and letters to speeches... I’ve got hundreds of books on different kinds of women’s history. Some of them led me to the quote, or had part of a quote that led me to the source.

I probably had 200, 250 different sources.

"Uppity Women of the New World" by Vicki Leon
Vicki Leon showcases historical heroines in the Americas and Australia in her book "Uppity Women of the New World."

What were a couple of your favorite discoveries?

From school and the media, we often think we know a well-known person, such as Martha Washington, the nation’s first first lady. But the true Martha was a salty figure who often behaved in surprising and unpresidential ways... Most of us were never taught that she was a rich, slave-owning Virginian. She loved George but wasn’t keen on his new job. In fact, she refused to attend his inauguration! (laughs) She wasn’t big on White House wifely duties, either...

She said to a friend: “I live a very dull life here... indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.” Who would have thought?

There’s this one gal named Annie Smith Peck. She was an archeologist and a college professor. In 1880 she got this hankering to climb mountains. She summited the Alps and then she climbed Mount Shasta and then she went to the Matterhorn. And then she said, “I want to do a little genuine exploration to conquer a virgin peak, to attain some height where no man had previously stood.”

It took her a few years and six tricky attempts. But at age 60, (she) finally scaled a 22,205-foot mountain in Peru. Then, for good measure, in 1914 she climbed a neighboring peak and put a big banner on the summit that said “Women’s Vote.” Is that just wonderful and sassy and neat?

I had never heard of her (before). That just goes to show you that there remain a great many women that are still out there to explore.

What do you want readers to get out of this book?

I want them to get exactly the little thrill of excitement that I got by reading the actual words of actual women in often unusual situations, and to at the same time grasp what they were up against and what their circumstances were. That makes it so much more interesting...

We always think “Oh well, there’s been plenty of books about women’s history.” There really are a lot. But there’s still stuff to be found. It’s just a treasure hunt for me. For me to pass on those treasures to other people, that’s really my goal with all these books.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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