Now more than ever it’s important for women’s voices to be heard loud and clear. When I learned that women’s rights activist Catherine Raphael had penned her first novel, and it was a fantasy at that, I had to hear more. Catherine graciously offered to write a guest post for us detailing her journey as an activist and writer, and why fantasy became her genre of choice. Thank you and welcome Catherine!

As a girl growing up in the 50s and 60s, life was full of restrictions: you can do this; you can’t do that. Take home economics, not wood shop. Become a secretary, not an executive. You’re too delicate for competitive sports. Drop out of the job market. Get married. Have children. Support your husband. Limits, limits, limits.

Second Wave feminism arrived when I was in my twenties. I was more than ready to jump in. Equal rights. Equal pay. Liberation. Opportunities for women — for me! — suddenly felt wide open. And women’s equality would extrapolate into equality for everyone, I was convinced. 

I marched for women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. I worked with others to start a Women and Girls Foundation in my area of Pennsylvania. I served on the boards of the Ms. Foundation for Women and other progressive women’s organizations. I supported and volunteered for nonprofits working to expand parity and human rights. 

Over the years, I developed a wide community of like-minded women and men — all working for justice and to offset the patriarchy. Their passion and commitment reinforces my own and encourages hope, despite the inevitable backlash. And there is a lot of backlash. I’m still committed to working for women’s equality today.

So, I am a feminist and a donor activist. To balance my life, I read fantasy novels. 

Most of the fantasy I read in my younger days didn’t have inspiring female protagonists. Women were usually idealized beauties inserted as a love interest or a damsel in distress. Older or less perfect women were, more often than not, portrayed as wicked, conniving villains. In those days it was a challenge to find complex, interesting female characters who could pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which requires the media have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Out of frustration, I started writing my own fantasy — Journey to the Heart Stone (SparkPress). When asked, I would say with a smile that my novel was an allegory for our times about a group of diverse people building trust and community to overthrow the patriarchy. 

My female characters are not idealized beauties. They definitely pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. They look a lot like the women in my life — various ages, shapes and sizes from different traditions. They have an interesting assortment of skills and talents. They are coping with scars, both visible and invisible, acquired through their life’s journeys. These characters feel familiar and relatable to me.

Writing this novel was a pleasurable escape from my day to day reality. I could lose myself in a different space and time, and be able to determine the path the story would take, guaranteeing a good outcome. It was also an opportunity to imagine a world that demonstrated what I long for in this one — equality and respect between the sexes.

Fortunately, the paradigm in fantasy writing has changed. Today there are many authors who recognize the strength, power and wisdom of women. So many books; so little time. Not a bad situation. When I read Gail Carriger’s book The Heroine’s Journey I recognized there was a tangible  connection between my activism and my reading/writing. What a surprise!

Here’s her definition of the ‘Heroine’s Journey’ in one pithy sentence: “Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them on to victory, together.”

She nailed it! This is exactly the kind of book I want to read, the kind of book I strove to write. And, it’s also a wonderful description of the Women’s Movement and the fight for equality. There is power and satisfaction in joining forces with friends to achieve a desired goal, both in literature and in life. 

Guest Author Catherine Raphael grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is one of the founding mothers of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. She has served on the boards of the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Women Donors Network and volunteered with other progressive women’s rights organizations. Her stories have won prizes in Writer Advice and the Ageless Authors competition, and her work has been shortlisted in Women On Writing and long-listed in Bumble Bee. Journey to the Heart Stone is her first novel. You can find Catherine Raphael on her website.