Mon
May 11 2015 2:20pm

The Flame and the Feminist: The Feminism of Kathleen Woodiwiss?

Dangerous Books for Girls by Maya RodaleToday we're thrilled to have Maya Rodale on Heroes and Heartbreakers. Maya's latest book is a little different. Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained, came out at the end of April and explores...the bad reputation of romance novels! Maya is here today to talk about one author that gets a bad rap, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and how her books were actually revolutionary for her time. Thanks, Maya!

When I got the opportunity to write on the topic of feminism and the works of Kathleen Woodiwiss—queen of the 1970s romance novels aka bodice rippers aka the works least likely to be considered feminist—I was thrilled. I had grand plans to count the ways in which these books championed women who got out of the house, explored their sexuality, defied expectations for their lives, and lived happily ever after. But when rereading them, I wondered if it was more complicated. And I got to thinking: how do you look at the feminism of a romance novel? Is it something about the hero, the heroine and the dynamics of their relationship? What about the happy ending or the impact it has on the readers and the culture?

The Flame and the Flower, published in 1972, was Kathleen Woodiwiss’ first novel and the book that is credited with launching the long form erotic romance we know and love. This one is easy to dismiss as not feminist. For starters, the Brandon Birmingham, the hero, rapes the heroine repeatedly. Heather Simmons is also a little too innocent in the facts of life and ways of the world. And yet, this book hit a nerve with American women, selling 4.5 million copies within the first six years. Why was a book that seems so retrograde be so attractive to the women at the dawn of the women’s rights movement? There are actually some interesting feminist interpretations of those troubling scenes and the heroine, which I examine in my book Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained (and require more than a blog post to do justice). 

It’s also worth considering this book in context. In 1972, women could not have credit cards in their own names, take action against job discrimination, or say no to sex if their husbands wanted it (spousal rape wasn’t criminalized until 1993!). But 1972 was also the year that Title 9 was passed—landmark legislation that requires gender equity in educational programs that receive federal funding—and the year that the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by congress (though it hasn’t yet been included in the constitution, wtf).

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. WoodiwissIn short, things were starting to change for women in an unprecedented way when The Flame And The Flower hit bookshelves and bedside tables everywhere. The story parallels the journey many women were making in the real world. It’s about a woman leaving behind household drudgery and venturing out into the world, learning who to trust, having pre-marital sex, and negotiating a man’s world with little experience, guidance, or education. Is Heather Simmons the perfect role model or an expert guide? Or is there something powerful about seeing an imperfect character make mistakes on her journey, but still succeeding in the end? Which one makes her more likely to be a feminist heroine and inspiration to real women?

Twenty-seven years later, Woodiwiss published The Elusive Flame starring Beau Birmingham, Heather and Brandon’s child. To me, this one felt like a rewrite of the original story.  We have another Birmingham ship captain, another distraught heroine in a dire situation found wandering the London docks alone, another not totally consensual sex scene. Perhaps in a nod to changing times, the heroine, Cerynise Kendall, now has an occupation—she’s a talented and profitable painter, at the tender age of 17. When she finds herself abandoned and pregnant, she plans to move to another city and support herself and her child with her painting. On the one hand, I admire her determination to go it alone (yay!) but not her motivation—she doesn’t want to bother Beau and tie him down (nay!). What I find interesting in this example is how virtually the same story can be updated to be more reflective of cultural attitudes at the time in was written. 

And then there’s the heroine of Ashes In the Wind (1979). Set in Louisiana during the civil war, it’s the story of Alaina MacGaren, a Southern woman trying to survive the war by disguising herself as a boy, and her relationship with Yankee doctor Cole Latimer. Alaina (or “Al”) is fiercely independent, working to support herself and paying her own way. She possesses a bunch of qualities that I think make her a great feminist heroine: she challenges assumptions about what a woman can do, she blends typically “masculine” qualities with typically “feminine” qualities, and she never takes the hero too seriously or is afraid to stand up to him. While it takes Cole a while to really see her, when he finally does, he doesn’t try to change her, to tame her, to make her be someone she isn’t and that’s what I think makes him a feminist hero: he loves the heroine just as she is and encourages her to be herself.

I think what is most feminist about the romance genre—bodice rippers and all—is the sheer variety of stories that declare that every and any kind of woman has a right to be herself, make all kinds of decisions on her journey (good or bad) and still live happily ever after.

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Learn more about or order a copy of Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained by Maya Rodale, available now:

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Maya Rodale began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence. She is now the bestselling and award winning author of numerous smart and sassy romance novels. A champion of the genre and its readers, she is also the author of the non-fiction book Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation Of Romance Novels, Explained and a co-founder of Lady Jane’s Salon, a national reading series devoted to romantic fiction. Maya lives in New York City with her darling dog and a rogue of her own.

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5 comments
Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
This is great, thank you! I think you put it perfectly here:

I think what is most feminist about the romance genre—bodice rippers and all—is the sheer variety of stories that declare that every and any kind of woman has a right to be herself....
Trish5170
2. Trish5170
I had a credit card in my name in 1972. I was unmarried and kept in my name after marriage.
Trish5170
3. hww
Everyone ignores The Wolf and the Dove which I thought was the best of all her books. You could live a fantasy life for years on this book alone. I normally do not like Medevils but this was a beautiful story and the ending gangbusters.
Trish5170
4. hww
Everyone ignores The Wolf and the Dove which I thought was the best of all her books. You could live a fantasy life for years on this book alone. I normally do not like Medevils but this was a beautiful story and the ending gangbusters.
Trish5170
5. Karen H near Tampa
I know I'm late to the conversation but in 1971, I applied for a credit card in my name because I was working full-time. I did add my husband's name to get him a card, too, but he was a graduate student and contributed no income. I was appalled (and 45 years later still am) to receive the new card with his name on it instead of mine! I have always been a feminist, even before I knew what it was, and am very saddened that very little has changed this many years later.
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