Student-led activism and demonstrations such as last week’s Climate Strike do more than call attention to the critical issues that our world faces — they illustrate the need to advocate for who (or what) has been silenced throughout history. This value is one that many Wooster students cultivate throughout their time at the College, and a value which transcends class years to connect future and current students with Wooster alumni.
One such alumnus is historical fiction author Sophie Perinot ’86 whose work centers around the experiences and activism of women who have largely been left out of narratives pertaining to significant historical events.
Perinot will be speaking at the College on Wednesday, Oct. 2 about her new novel Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution. I reached out to Perinot in advance of her visit to the College to ask some questions about the inspiration behind her novels, as well as how her time at Wooster influenced her career.
Ribbons of Scarlet is Perinot’s fourth historical novel, preceded by A Day of Fire, The Sister Queens and Médicis Daughter. While each novel focuses on different historical time periods — ranging from Pompeii’s fiery tragedy in 79 A.D. to the French Wars of Religion in the mid-1500s — they are alike in sharing stories rarely found in textbooks. Ribbons of Scarlet, for example, focuses on the activism of women during the French Revolution, which Perinot posits as “one of the most compelling and significant events of modern western history. Yet … what is far less recognized is that women were at the fore — working and fighting to achieve some of its most important triumphs and changes.” This lack of historical acknowledgement is what motivated Perinot and her five co-authors to conceptualize the novel, a move that Perinot describes as being “owed” to the women of the French Revolution.
In our discussion, Perinot expressed that the historical erasure of women’s voices can be easily recognized as a pattern still today, stating that “the stories at the heart of Ribbons of Scarlet are devastating and devastatingly familiar — women who march for progress, who engage in political writings, who stand on the floor of the Assembly and argue passionately for rights for those of their sex, are punished again and again. They are assaulted in the media and assaulted physically. They are intimidated and, when they will not be intimidated, ultimately executed.”
Perinot also emphasized the danger that this erasure of female actors poses for progress, both historically and contemporarily. She stated that such dynamics “[play] into the common misconception that women’s history is linear and always gets better the further along you go. This is not only a simplistic view but a dangerous one as it lulls us into a false sense that progress is inevitable, a feeling that can undercut activism and agency.”
Perinot’s passion for “rediscovering and rehabilitating” historical women makes sense when considering her trajectory as a student at the College. A history major, Perinot’s Independent Study focused on the role of women in World War II, which she completed under the direction of Professor John Gates. Talking about her research at Wooster, Perinot noted that “Wooster impacted my careers … by emboldening me to follow my passions. I received such terrific support and mentoring at Wooster from faculty member after faculty member — building both my skills and my confidence. There are no limits at Wooster except your own imagination, and, perhaps the hours in the day.”
Although Perinot’s dedication to sharing the stories of women throughout history is evident, her career path wasn’t exactly linear. After graduating from the College in 1986, Perinot earned a law degree from Northwestern University and worked within a litigation practice. Her time as a lawyer, however, came to a halt when she came to a critical understanding: she wasn’t happy. Using her poignant words, which can be taken as a lesson for all of us here at Wooster, Perinot reflected that “the most important thing my first career as a lawyer taught me is that being good at something is not the same as enjoying it. When it got to the point that I was no longer excited by my litigation practice I decided to take a leap of faith, to trust that I could find something to do with myself that would also make me happy.” Perinot’s leap of faith was clearly successful, resulting in her status as an acclaimed author doing what she’s always done — sharing the stories of those left out of the traditional historical narrative.
When asked for final words of advice for Wooster students embarking on our own journeys of research, careers and leaps of faith, Perinot emphasized that “once you know who you are, trust in your passions and in your ability to be an active and contributing member of society in all the best ways. Wooster is preparing you for that. Do not define yourself merely in terms of money. If I’d done that I’d still be a miserable lawyer instead of a genuinely happy writer. You’ve got this. Seriously, you have.