Authenticity and empowerment: Female role models in historical fiction from the Amelia Bloomer Project
Due to the shortage of female characters in historical texts, it is important for librarians and educators to share historical fiction novels containing strong female protagonists with children. While guidelines are available for critiquing authenticity in historical fiction and empowerment of female characters, these approaches are rarely combined.
This study posed the following research question: What is the relationship between Boreen’s three stages of historical authenticity (1999) and Brown and St. Clair’s three levels of female empowerment (2002) in the historical middle school novels selected in the first decade of the ALA Amelia Bloomer Project list?
To examine authenticity and empowerment, twenty-seven historical fiction novels were selected from the Amelia Bloomer Project. Each conflict between the female protagonist and society’s expectations was assigned one of Boreen’s authenticity levels and one of Brown and St. Clair’s empowerment stages. Frequencies and correlations were analyzed, showing a strong correlation of .863 between female protagonists’ authenticity and empowerment.
Boreen’s most historically accurate protagonist (30.8%) correlated most often with Brown and St. Clair’s heroine that is strong on a limited scale (34.6%). Boreen’s historical role model acting courageously within society’s bounds (56.8%) correlated most often with Brown and St. Clair’s female character that defies society for personal ambition (55.9%). Boreen’s social renegade (12.4%) correlated most often with Brown and St. Clair’s role model that acts as a catalyst for change (9.5%).
Secondary analyses showed the largest percentage of books was set in the United States (44.4%), accounting for 52.2% of all the books placed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The sources of conflict correlations gradually increased following the escalation of the protagonists’ actions from internal conflict, to interpersonal disputes, to eventually confronting society. These results mirrored the progressive stages of Boreen’s (1999) historical role models and Brown and St. Clair’s (2002) female empowerment levels.
In conclusion, analyzing female characters’ levels of authenticity and empowerment is one method of evaluating and understanding historical literature for young people. The depiction of brave girls struggling to make their own choices in life may be particularly motivational for today’s readers.