Aug 28 2013 10:00am

More than a Housewife: Feminism in Romance Novels

The Feminine Mystique by Betty FriedanAs a devout romance reader, no doubt you've heard many of the same things I have when people have seen what genre my book is: “really, you read romance?” or “isn’t that just porn for women?” or, worst of all, “aren’t those books anti-feminist?” An insulting amount of my time has been spent defending romances from these unfair allegations. But for me, from friends or acquaintances, the questions are always more pointed—“why are you, of all people, reading those sort of novels?” (‘You’ being Betty Friedan’s granddaughter). Shouldn’t I be upholding a higher degree of feminism?

It’s true, I’ve always felt that responsibility. It’s hard not to when your grandmother is one of the premier feminist leaders of the last fifty years. I’m a feminist down to the DNA, and I will happily rant about sexual double standards and the unfairness of pay scales to anyone who will listen (and many who would rather not).

But I’ve never taken that to mean I can’t read romances, too.

Let’s ignore the fact that romance is one of the few genres that has traditionally been dominated by female authors. Let’s ignore that romance as a genre allowed women to be breadwinners in a time before many careers were open to respectable women. Let’s ignore that we don’t expect other genres to have to have a feminist message to be worthwhile. That’s clearly irrelevant. Romances are about a woman subsuming her identity completely into the male hero’s, about the epitome of female success being a man and babies and a married happily ever after, right?

Clearly, if you’re reading this, you don’t believe that. But I’ve had enough debates to need to set down my argument, once and for all.

The worst romance novels can be that bad. I’ve certainly read romances I put down out of disgust at the weak women who cling to a man, or the women who let themselves create an identity inextricably linked to a lover’s. But all sorts of novels can have those problems, and all genres cover a wide swath of opinions and themes. That sort of anti-feminism isn’t inherent to the romance genre. It’s more endemic, and that’s much, much worse.

In fact, I would argue that romance has, essentially, a feminism message. Note that by feminist, I mean second wave feminism (I can’t escape my legacy): women escaping the feminine mystique of the housewife, women learning to define themselves apart from their husbands/lovers/whatevers. Because romances are, essentially, about compromise—on both the man and woman’s part.

The best husband, all Regencies agree, is a reformed rake. And it is the woman who reforms him, brings him out of the wildness of his adolescence to responsible adulthood. He changes while the woman seizes her power over him—and herself.

The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh by Stephanie LaurensIn Stephanie Laurens’s The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, Mary’s (the heroine) cousin asks her “You do realize…that you will be expected to bring him to his knees?” She not only wants to assert her control over the man—she is nearly required to. Even during sex—which is where the alpha hero tends to shine—she acts as sexual aggressor, informing him that “If you think I am going to be the only female in my family to go to the altar a virgin, you’re mistaken.” Historically accurate? Probably not. Feminist? Most certainly. This is a woman who is taking control of her body and her life.

Admittedly, Mary is a particularly assertive heroine—bossy, her family calls her. But the themes carry through to other historicals. Most women choose to have sex before marriage against conventions; most learn to be equals to their husbands—to bring them to their knees, if you will. It is the men who often have to be convinced that marriage is the right step, and the women who tame them.

The Perfect Fling by Carly PhillipsIn contemporaries, the expectations for both women and men are different, of course. Different times, different gender constructions. But even the most alpha heroic of alpha heroes has to renounce some of their alpha-ness in favor of allowing the woman more say over their lives and their relationship. Erin, in Carly Phillips’s Perfect Fling, is a modern woman—intelligent, independent, with a good job and a solid family life. She’s comparatively innocent, sexually, but even then she takes responsibility for the one-night stand she has with Cole, admits her enjoyment of it and moves on.

***(Warning: Spoilers ahead!) Last chance...***

Most importantly, though, when she becomes pregnant she does not become the '50s housewife. She is willing, though perhaps not happy, to raise the child on her own, making plans for a new job and a new life to accommodate a single mother. It is Cole who, in the end, insists on them being a family. The man is convinced he can’t be a lone wolf anymore, that he has to compromise and rescind some of his independence. The woman is always in control of her life, even when she’s running for it.

**Spoilers for Carly Phillips's Perfect Fling are done**

Both in and out of bed, romances are about men and women growing together into a unit, one with equal roles for the man and the woman. This might not be strictly feminist, in that the heroine always ends up with a man, but that’s not because that’s the only way for her to be a fully realized person—it’s because she loves him. That love is what makes them compromise, what makes both change into better people. And I can’t imagine my grandmother would have claimed love isn’t feminist. Love is the great equalizer, and that includes—in most modern romance novels—between men and women.

Isabel Farhi is an aspiring editor and amateur fangirl. If she isn't reading romances, she's probably reading fanfics or waiting to go to the bookstore. Follow her on Twitter at @IzzyFarhi.

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1 comment
Thili Abuna
1. Thili
One thing that really bothers me is when people talk down about romance novels and romance in general because it's emotional. People in my book clubs consider "emotional" to be bad writing, immature, especially if it's the emotions stereotypically associated with women. Women who wish to appear well-read in these groups are quick to dissociate themselves from liking it. I don't think they realize the root of this attitude is misogynistic. It always disturbs me though, and I try to discuss it, and they roll their eyes at me, because my liking emotion in books has made my opinion on the subject worthless. Very frustrating.
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