Romance Novels Through a Feminist Lens

Romance novels mirror the evolution of feminism, speaker says

There's still plenty of bodice in romance novels, but now there's also feminism, said writer Sarah MacLean. Photo by Sonja Foust
There's still plenty of bodice in romance novels, but now there's also feminism, said writer Sarah MacLean. Photo by Sonja Foust

When Sarah MacLean, a historical romance author, talks about old-school “bodice-rippers,” she also talks about first-wave feminism. “The characters in these stories are symbolic of the women’s rights movement of the 1970s,” she told a group of students and romance enthusiasts at Duke on Feb. 24.

MacLean was a guest speaker for the “Unspeakable” series, a series of guest lectures this spring held in conjunction with a Duke course on the romance novel. The course, taught by Katharine Brophy Dubois, who also writes romances under the pen name Katharine Ashe, explores the history, development, consumption and form of the modern commercial novel by studying romance novels in particular. 

flame and flower
The pathbreaking "The Flame and the Flower" paved the way for modern feminist romance novels.

“The Flame and the Flower,” written by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and published in 1972, is widely considered the first modern romance, MacLean said.  It sold over 3 million copies and came out the same year Ms. magazine debuted and Gloria Steinem spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and at a time when Congress was debating the Equal Rights Amendment.

“Married women weren’t even allowed to have credit cards,” MacLean said. “But now they had books about women, where women were the ones who had all the power by the end.”

Romance novels have shifted with society since the 1970s, and those shifts map to the different waves of feminism, MacLean said. Now romance novels are tackling the issue of diversity, for instance, mirroring third wave feminism’s push to be more inclusive to women of color.

Throughout those shifts, community has remained an important part of the romance novel tradition, MacLean said. Before the days of e-readers and online reviews, for instance, romance readers created an informal review system, communicating with each other about which library books they liked by making marks on the back inside cover of books they’d read.

“I didn’t even know the woman who wrote in green ink and used stars to rate books, but I knew her tastes were similar to mine,” says MacLean. “It was sort of like a secret code or a secret society.”

The “Unsuitable” speaker series will host another guest speaker, USA Today bestselling author Beverly Jenkins, on April 6 at 4:40 p.m. in 011 Old Chem building. She will discuss writing African-American romances.

“The series is meant to engage students and members of the community,” Dubois said. “We want to have a critical, active discussion of a massive cultural phenomenon—the romance novel—that is often overlooked in university studies.”

The “Unsuitable” series events are free and open to the public. The full series schedule is available online.