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Friday, March 7, 2014

Romance Novels: Agents of Social Change

By Kathleen Rice Adams

Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs
which treat us only as the vassals of [their] sex.
—Abigail Adams (1744-1818)
second First Lady of the U.S.
March is Women’s History Month. While I appreciate the increased emphasis on remembering women’s contributions to science, art, philosophy, and society in general, I’ve always considered it a bit odd that we need reminding women have contributed. Designating a specific month during which to focus on women’s history implies that for the rest of the year, everyone thinks of women as secondary characters instead of protagonists in the grand drama that is the human experience.

I do not wish women to have power
over men, but over themselves.
—Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
writer and advocate of women’s rights 
Women don’t sit around waiting for men to make all the great discoveries, think all the great thoughts, and fight all the dragons. They never have. Throughout history, as many women as men have explored the unexplored, cured the previously incurable, and given voices to those unable to speak for themselves. And, as has been famously stated, they did it all dancing backward in high heels.

“It would be ridiculous to talk of male and female atmospheres, male and female springs or rains, male and female sunshine...,” women’s rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in one of their suffrage speeches. “[H]ow much more ridiculous is it in relation to mind, to soul, to thought…?”

Old-fashioned ways which no longer apply
to changed conditions are a snare in which
the feet of women have always become
readily entangled.
—Jane Addams (1860-1935)
social reformer, women’s rights activist, first
American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize
Anthony and Stanton often railed against inequality between the genders and the resulting injustices — like lack of access to education and discriminatory civil laws — visited upon the distaff side of humanity. Today, the philosophy they espoused is, or should be, de rigueur, but until the mid-20th Century, speaking such thoughts in public in many societies carried significant risk to life and liberty. In some societies, it still does.

That is one reason I feel historical romance novels can be important beyond the obvious entertainment. Unlike much literature written in previous ages, primarily by men, romance novels written during the past twenty to thirty years, primarily by women, portray heroines and female villains with courage, determination, and strength equal to the hero’s. Call me a man-bashing feminist if you must, but I believe it is critical for readers, particularly younger ones, to be presented with women characters who are much more than decorative pedestal dwellers.

If women could go into your Congress,
I think justice would soon be done
to the Indians.
—Thoc-me-tony (aka Sara Winnemucca,
Pauite educator, interpreter,
writer, activist
In fact, when one studies history, it becomes impossible to consider the romantic notion of heroes on white horses rescuing damsels in distress anything more than exactly that: a romantic notion. On any frontier in any age, toughness and capability are essential for survival, regardless of gender. Today’s well-researched historical fiction makes that abundantly clear — and like it or not, fiction resonates in contemporary culture, subtly but undeniably influencing attitudes on both sides of the gender divide. Art has always been both reactive and proactive in that way.

The best protection any woman can have
… is courage.
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
social activist, abolitionist,
women’s rights crusader
So, readers and writers of romance, take a bow. We’re not wasting our time with ludicrous, lowbrow literature; we’re buttressing ramparts our foremothers built long ago. Could there be a more pleasant, if stealthy, way to celebrate Women’s History Month?

The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.
—Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), social reformer, women’s suffrage leader


  1. Kathleen,
    Excellent and thought-provoking post. When I discovered romance novels (in my 20's), what I loved was the independence of the heroines, the ability to make their way in whatever world they navigated, and of course, the discovery and ownership of her part in the relationship with the hero. Romance novels are a hugely underrated literary resource that not only entertains but empowers women. The fact that it's one of the biggest selling genres in the book industry just means that women know this, and ignore the naysayers.

    And, one of my favorite characters (and real-life person) was Laura Ingalls Wilder. She didn't let anyone stand in her way.

  2. I came late to the romance-novel party, being too much of a literary snob to realize the richness and diversity in the genre. (I did, however, read two romance novels as a young adult without realizing it: Barbara Taylor Bradford's A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE and Belva Plain's EVERGREEN.) I so agree with you, Kristy, about romances being hugely underrated as a literary -- and historical! -- resource. And the empowerment angle can be incredibly important. I'm just sorry I didn't begin reading more widely in the genre earlier than I did.

    Thank you for adding your perspective! HUGS!!!!

  3. Oh, Tex, you touched on a nerve with this post. I absolutely hate "Women's History month," "Black History Month" ..."Blah, Blah, blah, history month." It makes me throw up a little in my throat. I completely agree it cheapens the contributions of all in history to focus on one subset. Good, bad and ugly all groups created and defined the United States and each should be studied throughout the year (even white men **gasp**).

    And I do have to agree with you about the importance of authors (romance and other) giving a true illustration of women. I don't think at any point in this country's history a woman had the luxury of being soft or waiting for rescue to come from anyplace but their own hands.

    1. Kirsten, I SOOOOO agree! I get so sick of everyone having their own history month, and I've often thought how if white men had their own history month there'd be such a hue and a cry that we'd never hear the end of it.

    2. That's what I've always said, Cheryl. And the revisionist historians can do their best to wipe them from the pages of history, but we owe a lot to some of those white men.

    3. I agree with both of y'all, Rustler and Okie. "[Insert your pet group here] History Month" just seems to me to emphasize disparities instead of having the intended opposite effect. Who we are, as humanity, today is the product of all sorts of contributions from every kind of person, every race, every creed, every gender. That we seem to need to remind ourselves of that every so often with a special month, week, day, whatever, is kinda sad. Education, especially about our shared history, should be inclusive, not sneakily discriminatory, IMO.

    4. And since I'm on a roll this morning...While I love strong heroines in romance novels, I hate how to some authors "strong" means an abusive hag. I've read a few novels where the heroine is described as strong and sassy and by the end of the story I wish the cowboy would dump her behind off his horse and ride off into the sunset alone. I'm done now, sorry.

    5. LOL! Don't be done! I've had that reaction to heroines, too. :-D

      Seriously: What is up with the conflation of "strong" and "termagant"? Capricious fits of temper rarely are becoming on anyone.

      I might mention here that it takes an ENORMOUS amount of strength to trust another human being with one's heart. That's one of the things I think many romance readers find appealing about romance novels. Forget sword fights, shootouts, and blowing things up. The single biggest display of strength in any romance novel, IMO, is embodied in a journey toward trust. (Okay, y'all are invited to throw rocks now. ;-) )

    6. As much as it pains me, I can't throw a rock. I agree with this 100%. I think the bravest thing is for a heroine to hand her heart to the hero and sometimes to take a humble role (not subhuman or accepting abuse) in order to help a fellow human being find trust. Kindness and compassion can be two of the greatest strengths.

      Another heroine that shortens my teeth due to the grinding, is the "I can do this because I'm just as tough and mean as any man." I think this gets to me, because I've heard it and what. Be good at something because you're good at it. Do a job, because you love it and want to do it. Learn to ride, shoot, hunt and spit because you enjoy those things or have to learn those skills to survive not because you want to prove you're as good or better than someone else man or woman. (I guess I wasn't done)

    7. LOL! The day you're actually done with topics like this, Rustler, is the day the rest of us head up to Wyomin' in a pack to make sure some other posse didn't get to you first. :-D

      I think what offends me most about the "just as good as any man" notion is the implication that because women don't or can't do {something} as well as a man, women are somehow less worthy. To me, that seems lie poisonous thinking, and it's ingrained in our culture. There are any number of things women do better than men without giving those things a second thought. The genders are differently abled (largely by biology), but the differences don't make either inherently inferior to the other, IMO.

    8. Exactly, Tex. Your comment states what I meant if my fingers hadn't been flying too fast for the brain to catch up (this is also a common occurrence with my mouth). :)

    9. My answer to that is Much Ado About Mavericks. My heroine can do as much as any man because that's the way she was raised, but it isn't the focus of the book. For me, that's the key. What people can do is not important--what's important is the emotional journey. And I despise the "feisty" heroine, who generally has no brains whatsoever, considering her ridiculous choices--plunging headlong into danger without considering the consequences, and half the time endangering others, including the hero. That sort of book is a wallbanger for me.

    10. That's what I love about you, Trail Boss: You're so reticent to express an opinion. :-D

      Women being raised "with the boys" (like your heroine in MAAM) and therefore being able to do anything a man can do are one thing. There's legitimate backstory there, and I think that's fine -- but there's a world of difference between that and just haulin' off and deciding to show up the gents for the heck of it. Maybe if the heroine were a reporter investigating a story or in the midst of some challenge or something....

      Don't get me started on TSTL characters of any gender. GAH! :-D

  4. Kathleen, I love this post. I never thought about how empowering romance novels were when I was reading them as a young woman. But I think that must have been what attracted me. In Sweet Savage Love, Ginny flew in the face of convention and made her life her own. She had to, to survive.

    And when we write our novels, isn't that what we do? We create exciting heroines who seize their lives and manage to make their own happiness out of what has been dealt to them.

    Great post. You've given me food for thought!

    1. Exactly, Okie! I so agree with this whole line of thought you expressed. I'll have to use your argument the next time someone bashes "trashy romances" in my earshot. :-D

  5. Kathleen, I agree with Cheryl! Wonderful post.....and great food for thought!! And I love the idea that our stories have such importance --- wonderful!

    1. Thanks, Gail! Let us all go forth and spread the gospel of female empowerment through reading romance novels! (I'm only being partially facetious there.)


  6. You captured perfectly the wonder of being a female and how important we all are to the world. Been one of those who always thought she was just a good as any man. My mother taught me, everyone is equal. Some may do things better than you, but you do things better than others. It all equals out. I understood the idea of inequality, but never experienced the inequality until leaving home, then I demanded to be treated the same as anyone else. (It made some uncomfortable...but that was their problem.) *Smile* Doris

    1. Doris, sounds like your momma raised you up right! Don't you just love this "wisdom gene" mothers seem to have? My mother and father both always encouraged their kids to pursue their own talents and interests without comparing themselves to others. Like you said, each of us is special and worthwhile in his or her own way. :-)

  7. I appreciate Kirsten's comments. The romance genre definitely has good and bad writing, like any other book category. And I agree that true strength is in learning to trust and gaining inner fortitude. I have to admit I don't really care for romances in which the heroine is more of a he-man. A good example of a great female story is the movie "Gravity." Everyone is so consumed by the technology (and some of the scientific inaccuracies) but truly--the meat of the story is a woman finding her will to live again. The rest is just window-dressing. Good romance stories have a strong, underlying theme such as that. And we read them because we want to learn, need to learn, the same skills as well.

    1. As much as I hate to admit agreeing with that dang Wyomin' Rustler, I find that happening a lot lately. Must be all that winter weather she sent down thisaway this year. ;-)

      I like feminine heroines, too, Kristy. I think a woman can be feminine and strong at the same time, without subscribing to some flawed ideal of the non-existent "perfect little woman."

      I love the way you look beneath the surface of books and movies to find the real story. Bravo!

  8. Wow, I'm sorry I'm late to this party! (and sad that I don't have a neat nickname like Rustler and Okie. Sigh! ;-) ) I never understood why women were considered less. Even if I believed that the man provides--the woman does everything else. He hunts--she cleans it, cooks it, preserves it, shares it, adds to it… and has kids, to boot.

    I was raised in an equal is good home. Dad did what he was best at; Mom did what she was best at. And sometimes they changed jobs!

    Romance novels are the epitome of soft is strong and sharing the good and bad is best. That's why I love to read --and write-- them.

    1. You're not late, Tracy. You're "fashionable." ;-)

      I'm REALLY late getting back. Darn day job. Hate it when it cuts into a perfectly good discussion like that. :-\

      You make some really good points about balance. Maybe that's one of the essentials of strong relationships in both fiction and real life: Each individual plays to his or strengths of the moment, supporting the other's strengths in whatever way they can.

      And your take on romance novels: LOVE IT! Such a beautiful way to put the essence of the genre. :-)

  9. Marvelous article, Kathleen. I was lucky my dad had the attitude that women needed to be self-reliant and educated. I remember him telling my sister and I not to count on a husband to support us because husbands can fall ill or lose their jobs--and where would we be then?
    I think men like to pretend that love is a thing apart, but women know it isn't so. Love bonds us together to give us the strength to carry on through life's hardships, raise a family and brace each other up when the kids become teenagers. Love draws us together when our partner becomes seriously sick or injured. Romance stories always lift me up.
    I loved reading the quotes by those brave pioneers of women's suffrage.
    Well done.

    1. Sarah, my dad had the same attitude, and I'm so glad he did! He made sure his daughters and sons could change tires and oil and spark plugs in our own cars. He taught us to shoot. He encouraged all of us never to stop learning. Most of all, he taught us to dream, and not to let anyone tell us our dreams were wrong. I'll forever be beholden to him for those lessons.

      Thank you for reminding me what a blessed childhood I had, sweetie. HUGS!!!!

    2. You know, God made Adam--then made Eve because Adam couldn't do it alone.

    3. And neither could Eve. Even the Amazons, fierce as they were, needed men. There were just some things the fabled women warriors couldn't do by themselves. ;-)

  10. All in all, I think the reason the romance genre is dissed has nothing to do with the quality of the literature, but that books about women's strength make many uncomfortable. I didn't read romance until my kids were in high school. Before that, I wouldn't touch one because of the bodice ripper tag. What's interesting is that most of the romance authors I know have definite feminist leanings, just as I do, and once I started reading the genre, I saw that in the better books, women were always strong in a positive way--not just in a sassy way, which makes me wonder if the author understands how to be assertive herself.

    1. Good point, Trail Boss. I was a bodice-ripper-avoider, too. Before I started reading romance novels at the urging of a friend, I honestly believed they must all be nothing but heaving bosoms and manly chests, with all sorts of sighing and fluttering eyelashes and that whole nine yards. My experience appears to have been similar to yours: Once I started reading good romances, the strength of the heroine and the emotional depth of the stories really spoke to me.

      Romances as feminist literature. That's actually an intriguing notion. I wonder what would happen if we took a survey of romance writers. How many of us would self-identify as feminists? I am. You are. I bet everyone who's chimed in on this page today would call herself a feminist -- and I think our work, though we all write very different stories, supports that observation. :-)

    2. Are you familiar with The Popular Romance Project?
      I've met and spoken with the producer--its an amazing project, exploring just what we' e been discussing here.

    3. Wow, Tracy! I hadn't heard about that project before you mentioned it, but what a fascinating undertaking! I particularly like the bit on their "About" page talking about the communities of romance writers and readers that have sprung up all over the world, each focused on their own cultural traditions. I'm going to have to spend some more time poking through that site. Thank you SO MUCH for the link! :-)