I was reminded today how I feel about romance novels and feminism by hearing about a graduate student asking writers questions about this. So I dug out a presentation I gave circa 2000 on the subject. Here is a portion of it:
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Some people think romance and feminism couldn’t possibly go together. My reaction is that romance novels are some of the most feminist writing around and I’d like to tell you why I think that.
First of all, let me say that I really am a feminist. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and I remember watching shows like Bewitched. I always wanted to ask Samantha why on earth she was letting some guy tell her what she could do with her gifts and talents!
I grew up being told that women could not do mathematics. I didn’t listen—which is why my undergraduate degree is in honors math and my graduate degree is in operations research. I don’t listen well.
So when it came time to write—the year my husband and I were living in Paris, France--it seemed natural to look at what kind of books were on the market and what I wanted to write about. I knew how many women read romance. Heck, I was reading romance. But I wasn’t always happy with the images in those books. So I decided to try to write one where the characters were the same age and—surprise, surprise!—the heroine was a mathematician. To my utter astonishment, Avalon books wanted to publish my work. So I wrote a few more. During this time my son was born with down syndrome and I said I’d get a 9 to 5 job when he was a little older. That was 23 years ago and I’m still writing romance!
Why do I love writing romance? And why do I think romance novels are feminist? Because the best romances celebrate women learning to be true to themselves. They celebrate women overcoming obstacles and creating the lives they want to have. And they portray men and women coming together in ways that empower both of them—so that neither is diminished and each is greater than he or she would be alone. And to me that’s feminism—to celebrate the possibilities—for both women AND men!
Romance novels were the first to show women in careers such as lawyers, doctors, heads of companies. Women in romance novels no longer wait for a knight in shining armor to rescue them. They are just as likely to not only rescue themselves but help the guy out as well. In the best of situations the men and women help each other. And isn’t that what we would like in our own lives? Not to live in armed camps but to work together to create more than we could each accomplish alone?
Romance novels are about possibilities. About ways to rise above the obstacles we find in our lives. To overcome the tragedies and traumas and find a way to triumph. And I think that’s one of the most empowering messages anyone can hear.
Now I’ll grant you, I write Regencies. You won’t find female lawyers in my books. But you will find women living in a time of change—because the Regency era mirrors our own in that respect—trying to balance what they feel they owe their families and society with the need to be true to who they are. And isn’t that the challenge we all face in our own lives? My characters are, I hope, true to their time but that doesn’t mean they are pushovers.
In The Wily Wastrel, Juliet’s mother wanted a dainty Juliet. Juliet isn’t dainty—or classically feminine. She rather fix a carriage wheel than sew a seam. She gets matched up with a guy who has to pretend he wins his money gambling because it’s disreputable to earn money if you were a gentleman back then. So both have to deal with expectations and how to be true to themselves anyway.
In The Sentimental Soldier, Prudence doesn’t hesitate to masquerade as a Moroccan Prince or a male gypsy, and as a nun for good measure.
In Miss Tibbles Interferes, Mrs. Merriweather is a former governess. She has to deal not only with the expectations for women, but for former governesses as well—even though being married to a colonel now makes her a lady. And nothing ever stops her from doing anything she thinks needs to be done!
Probably my most feminist heroine is Penelope in An Outrageous Proposal. She was never going to get married because she was never going to let any guy tell her what to do—no way, no how, not ever! Well, the hero manages to change her mind, but not without changing a few of his own ideas along the way.
The point is that in romance novels—mine or most other writers these days, you will find strong women, taking charge of their lives, overcoming all sorts of obstacles to create the lives they want to have. And they find ways to do it without throwing away the ties to that people who matter to them. And that’s important. Because the most profound fear any of us has is that of being abandoned. Babies who are not loved literally die—it’s called failure to thrive. The message in these books is that you can be true to yourself and along the way maybe still find someone who shares your vision. And that may be enough to give all of us the courage to try. And what could be more feminist than that?