by Sarah MacLean
Forty years ago, the modern romance genre began with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame & the Flower. While she certainly stood on the shoulders of Georgette Heyer and the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, Woodiwiss changed publishing forever with a single, simple, high-concept idea: What if she wrote an adventure story? But what if a woman was the hero? The romance heroine was born.
Woodiwiss‘s Heather fled her tragic life in rural 18th-century England, found herself on the London docks and then in the arms of an American ship’s captain. What ensues is a rollicking high-seas adventure that moves across the Atlantic, to a plantation in the Carolinas, where scandal and danger threaten at every turn. And, through it all, Heather rises to power, winning the day, the man and, most importantly, herself.
Woodiwiss’s books tell the story not only of heroines in the late 1700s, fighting for physical, emotional and sexual freedom, but also of the 1970s—when women in the US were fighting a remarkably similar fight. And, while the books have evolved over time, spanning subgenres and time periods, there are some common lessons that the genre can teach us about women in the world:
Heroines are always proactive.
Life does not simply “happen” to romance heroines. These are women who are the stars of the play—proactive, intelligent and passionate. They are women who recognize the issues facing them and the world and make clear, focused choices to tackle them.
These are inspirational stories that show us that we, too, can eschew inaction and change our own course.
- In Judith McNaught’s seminal medieval-set A Kingdom of Dreams, Scottish heroine Jennifer stands tall in the face of the terrifying English Duke who has kidnapped her in a land-grab—ultimately bringing him to his knees.
- In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had to be You, the beautiful daughter of an NFL owner inherits the team and is expected to immediately fold under the pressure of running a professional football team but instead, rises to the challenge—shocking the entire world.
- In Lisa Kleypas‘s Blue-Eyed Devil, the heroine makes the most difficult decision many women can make—leaving her abusive husband and facing the world and her own fears once more.
Equal partnership is not an unrealistic expectation.
Too often, we criticize romance for setting women up for “unrealistic expectations” in relationships. But what are we really saying to women when we tell them that they shouldn’t expect love from their relationships? That they shouldn’t expect comfort from them? Respect? Sexual pleasure? These are thoroughly reasonable expectations—and yes, romances do establish them as baseline markers of success in relationships. As it should be.
- In Beverly Jenkins’s Forbidden, a black heroine falls in love with a hero who has made a life for himself in the American West by passing as white. In order for them to marry, he must tell the truth—to the world and to the heroine. Is it unrealistic to believe we deserve honesty from our partners?
- In Cindy Gerard’s Taking Fire, the heroine, an Israeli Mossad operative, requires the assistance of an American ex-Special Ops hero in order to save her child. The two fall deeply in love during the mission as they fight together, side-by-side. Is it unrealistic to expect that our partners will recognize our strengths and allow them to shine?
- In Lilah Pace’s brilliant Asking For It, a rape-survivor heroine struggles with the emotional repercussions of her attack—namely that she cannot find sexual pleasure without sexual threat. The book is a tremendous look at the critical roles of consent and partnership in a relationship. Is it unrealistic to expect that our partners will help us break down the barriers to our understanding our own sexual identities?
Women can win. Even better, women do win.
In romance, the heroine always wins. She saves the day, and the battle is as well fought as any we expect from an adventure or a thriller, with a Bond or a Bourne or a Reacher. In romance, however, the story does not always win with explosions and bullets. Sometimes it ends in a quiet, important, equally powerful way.
- In Sonali Dev’s The Bollywood Bride, the heroine, a Bollywood star, returns to her childhood home in Chicago on the run from the truth of mental illness in her family’s past, and afraid of what might come of her career if that truth is found out. Through love, however, the heroine triumphs in the face of the reveal of her past and finds love in the balance.
- The heroine of Rachel Gibson’s Simply Irresistible is told from childhood that her looks are all she has. When she escapes a marriage that would have ended in her becoming a trophy wife, she ends up with nothing but the clothes on her back, and she must begin again—all while caring for a child. Her triumph over her past and the expectations of those around her is not only satisfying for her (and the hero), but also tremendously so for the reader.
- In my own Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover, the heroine lives her life as a mysterious figure and leader in the dark corners of London. When she falls in love with a newspaper magnate, the choice is clear—she can have love, or she can have the life she’s built for herself and those she loves. Of course, she wins. Thoroughly.
I speak often about the intersection of feminism and romance to groups of academics who struggle with balancing “those covers” with the idea that the genre is, on the whole, a tremendously feminist social text. But as a genre written widely by women, widely for women, and widely about women—it’s impossible for me not to think of it as a safe space for women, where we can explore identity, fear, hope and fantasy without judgment. And if that’s not good for women, I’m not sure what is.
A life-long romance reader, Sarah MacLean wrote her first romance novel on a dare, and never looked back. She is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical romances, and the author of a monthly column at The Washington Post celebrating the best of the romance genre. She lives in New York City with her husband, daughter, dog, and a ridiculously large collection of romance novels. She loves to hear from readers.