Friday, May 30, 2014

Maya Angelou on Love

In tribute to American poet, novelist, dramatist, musician, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who died on Wednesday at the age of 76, three poems, two in celebration of black men, one about white women's attempts to claim "sisterhood" with black women:

To a Suitor

     If you are Black and for me,
press steady, as the weight
of night. And I will show
cascades of brilliance, astrally.

     If you are Black and constant,
descend importantly,
as ritual, and I will arch
a crescent moon, naturally.

To a Man
     My man is
Black Golden Amber
Warm mouths of Brandy Fine
Cautious sunlight on a patterned rug
Coughing laughter, rocked on a whorl of French tobacco
Graceful turns on woolen stilts
A cat's eye.
Souther. Plump and tender with navy-bean sullenness
And did I say "Tender"?
The gentleness
A big cat stalks through stubborn bush
And did I mention "Amber"?
The heatless fire consuming itself.
Again. Anew. Into ever neverlessness.
My man is Amber
Always into itself
New. Now New.
Still itself.

Family Affairs

     You let down, from arched
Over hand-cut stones of your
Cathedrals, seas of golden hair.

     While I, pulled by dusty braids,
Left furrows in the Sands of African beaches.

     Princes and commoners
Climbed over waves to reach
Your vaulted boudoirs,

     As the sun, capriciously,
Struck silver fire from waiting
Chains, where I was bound.

     My screams never reached
The rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history.

      Tired now of pedestal existence
For fear of flying
And vertigo, you descend
And step lightly over My centuries of horror
And take my hand,

     Smiling, call me

     Sister, accept
That I must wait a
While. Allow an age
Ruts left on my
Beach in Africa.

 (All poems from The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou Random House, 1994)

Maya Angelou (Academy of Achievement)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Romance Cover Remixing as Political Protest: The #LoveRomance Project

Yesterday here in the States we celebrated Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who sacrificed their lives in military conflicts. I'd like to use today's short post to honor a different type of heroine: the Australian women writers, designers, and scholars who created the #LoveRomance project, a campaign to call attention to the way that romance as a genre is all too often excluded from major literary events. Here is a link to #LoveRomance web site, with information about the campaign; here is a link to the cover remixes that designer Jennifer Wu created to circulate as protest postcards.

Help spread the word!

Friday, May 23, 2014

On the Ripping of Bodices, and other Sundry Garments

     Her nerves stretched taut with her toilette complete, and needing some task to occupy her thoughts, she began putting some order to the cabin, which was littered with clothing. His were thrown over the back of a chair, her beige gown in another. The torn chemise was still where he had dropped it after ripping it from her. She picked it up and found it irreparable.
     His hands destroy well, she mused.
         —Kathleen Woodiwiss, The Flame and The Flower (45)

"Bodice-ripper" has a long history of being used as a stand-in for the genre of popular romance in general. Witness, for example, headlines from many of the mainstream news outlets reporting on Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Harlequin earlier this month: "News Corp buys "bodice-ripper" publisher Harlequin." To the romance-literate, however, "bodice-ripper" has a more precise meaning: an epic historical romance, told from the point of view of a young heroine as she gradually wins the older, brutal man's love. Violence, evil villains, bad metaphors for sex, and myriad incidences of what today we would call rape perpetrated on the body of the heroine by the "hero" are the staples of the sub-genre, books written in the mold of Kathleen Woodiwiss's 1972 The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers' 1974 Sweet Savage Love.

Make sure you don't step on the hem
of that gown, Kristen!
Some suggest that the term "bodice-ripper" refers to the book's covers, in particular, to their penchant for depicting women whose bosoms seem poised to rip free of their bodices if they make one wrong move. But almost all bodice rippers include a scene or scenes of actual bodice-ripping, scenes in which the male protagonist violently tears a garment of the heroine's clothing off of her body prior to forcing himself sexually upon her. It's this trope I'd like to explore in today's post.

A search for "bodice" and "rip" in my e-text version of The Flame and the Flower reveals that it was not actually a bodice, but a chemise, that ended up on the scrap heap after being torn from our heroine Heather's body during her first sexual encounter with the book's eventual hero. Although when you read the actual passage, the violence of the act is rather underplayed: "She felt his hands go up her back and with an easy tug he separated the shift and snatched it from her" (28). Only later, when Heather is cleaning up the room after being assaulted (see above passage), is it made clear that it was not only Heather's virgin body, but also her garment, which was rent by ship's captain Brandon Birmingham.

What's going on with all that garment ripping? I think it's a dual signal to the reader, one that conveys opposing messages that are somehow made compatible through the symbolic power of the act. On the one hand, ripping a woman's clothing off of her body is a clear signal of the hero's lack of control. He is so driven by his passion for the heroine that he cannot stand to wait for any delay, even the minor delay of pushing a few buttons through their proper holes or untying a recalcitrant tie. His passion for the heroine has moved so far beyond social conventions that he must rip any symbol of said conventions from her body. His lack of control points both to the overwhelming nature of his feelings, and to the fact that someone else besides the hero is the one in charge, the one with the power. Perhaps it might be the heroine? If she and she alone can make him act so?

On the other hand, bodice ripping is all about the physical power of the male. The hero is strong enough to hold a woman still, and to tear apart some pretty strong fabrics (except in the case of those flimsy summer Regency gowns): linen, silk, flax, cotton, brocade. In the days before the sewing machine, clothing was made to last; even ripping a garment along its seams likely would have required more than average strength. A man strong enough to rip your bodice from you would likely be stalwart enough to prevent other men from attacking you, too. You might have to put up with his rapes, but at least you would gain protection from the rape of others...

One might think that with "rapetastic" Old Skool romances long out of fashion, few twenty-first century romance novels would include such scenes of bodices, or other pieces of women's clothing, being sacrificed on the altar of a romance hero's ardor. Yet the trope has a surprisingly persistent presence in both historical and contemporary romances.

Just this past week, I read two romances which featured scenes of male garment-rending. But they did so in a way that called into question the masculinist assumptions that underlie the original trope: the assumptions that a man has an unquestionable right to a woman's body, and that ripping off her clothes is a sexy articulation of his dominance, and the heroine's submission to it.

The male lead in Megan Mulry's comic romance If the Shoe Fits, the second book in her Unruly Royals series, is not much like the brutal alpha male of your typical bodice ripper. The second son of a duke, Devon Heyworth has spent most of his life being indulged by a doting mother and a long line of willing women, and rarely has to raise a finger, never mind a violent hand, to get what he wants in or out of bed (of course he's hiding his stellar mathematical brain and a kind heart behind his deceptive playboy exterior). When he falls, and falls hard, for American shoe-designer Sarah James, though, he's not at all prepared for the overwhelming strength of his feelings for her. Or how much like a possessive jerk they'll lead him to act.

Devon pops over to Chicago for a surprise weekend visit, and doesn't object when Sarah tells him that she already has dinner plans for Saturday night. But when spies a handsome young man helping her out of the car after she returns to her apartment, he's overcome with jealousy, jealousy that he knows is ridiculous:

     Why had he been looking out the window in the first place? Was he hovering like a child waiting for her return? What a jerk, he thought. And too late to trot upstairs and pretend he had been watching a movie in her boudoir. He felt  like a fool, a kept man all of a sudden. Not the carefree, fast-car-driving, mindless-pleasure-seeking persona he had spent years manufacturing, that she would be expecting.
     By the time Sarah opened the door to her home and came in a breathless rush toward him, her arms outstretched like a toddler, he had worked himself into a proper snit. Her skin against his face was cold from the biting night air, and the fur cape was monstrously sexy, and he knew he was about to fuck it all to hell.
     But some things couldn't be helped. (148)

When Sarah greets Devon's subsequent accusatory and jealous outburst not with apologetic deference or rational justification, but with the scorn it deserves ("Fuck you"), Devon displays all the characteristics of the bodice-ripping hero in mid-lust: "far too out of control," he "wanted her so keenly and with such an irrational, violent level of possession that he did not even recognize his feelings" (149). Unlike the early bodice rippers, Mulry's book allows the reader inside Devon's head, so we see that Devon is all too aware that his alpha male feelings and behavior are not the signs of a depth of passion that Sarah should and will find gratifying. Devon doesn't feel powerful, or privileged; his out-of-control possessiveness makes him feel "disgusted with himself" (149). Devon's self-awareness simultaneously allows the reader the emotional pleasure of knowing just how out of control his feelings have driven him (Sarah's power over him) and provides the comic kick of the scene—despite his awareness, Devon finds himself acting like a jerk nonetheless.

Sarah's Yves Saint Laurent vintage blouse?
The comedy turns dark, though, when the combination of anger and sexual charge drives Devon to turn to the tried-and-true bodice-ripper method for beating back a man's emotional vulnerability: forcing the woman who has made him feel weak to feel weak herself, by seducing her into having sex with him. He's livid not with the man he saw her with, but with her: "Sarah was to blame for making him this way" (150). Though he struggles to be gentle in the midst of his seduction, the anger inspired by his own vulnerability pushes him into retaliatory violence: "He started to undo the loose fabric bow at the neck of her blouse, then unable to fully undo the knot, he lost control and tore the fragile fabric right down the front of her torso" (150). Only the sight of Sarah's own vulnerability (a single tear), finally shocks Devon out of his self-absorbed, dominating behavior and halts his forced seduction/rape.

The blouse, significantly, was not just an easily replaceable shift, but a piece of clothing that once belonged to Sarah's now dead mother. Devon's rending of the garment, then, is both a physical and emotional attack on Sarah's well-being. Not surprisingly, Devon's act of sexual violence does not win him Sarah's acceptance, but instead is what convinces her to end their relationship: "her anticipatory warmth at returning to a happy, lusty, carefree Devon was a prehistoric, fossilized memory. Regardless of whatever happened tonight, this... this... whatever it had been with Devon... was over as far as Sarah was concerned" (150-51).

This being a romance, Sarah and Devon do eventually get back together, but not until many, many months have passed. And they have to go through the cycle again, although in a less violent manner, before Devon comes to accept both the vulnerability that his love for Sarah opens him to and the mutual give-and-take that a romantic relationship requires if it is to be at all an equitable one. Mulry's exploration of the dark side of a woman's desire for a man to be "overcome" by passion for her argues that unless the violence is divorced from the want, being "love[d] in the most irrational, improbable way imaginable," as Devon proclaims he loves Sarah, will always come with a heavy price tag (307).

Laura Florand's short story, Sun-Kissed, takes a different approach to re-envisioning bodice-ripping, suggesting that's what's good for the gander can be equally good for the goose. Anne Winters, a fifty-three-year-old Martha-Stewart-like domestic/business goddess, and Mack Corey, middle-aged multi-billionaire captain of industry, both are used to being the ones in power. But even their combined power was not enough to keep Anne out of jail when she was charged with insider trading. Unable to make the actual charge stick, prosecutors instead convicted Anne of obstruction of justice, a conviction that the novel suggests is in large part an anti-feminist backlash against Anne's financial success and "fuck you" attitude. As the novel opens, Anne has just finished serving a six-months jail term, and is taking pleasure in reasserting her control, creating the most beautiful wedding for the daughter of her friend and neighbor, Mack.

Mack, a long-time widower, has fantasized about Anne for years; Anne, emotionally protective after a series of miscarriages and a painful divorce, keeps her own sexuality tightly under wraps. The two have long been friends and business confidantes, talking daily walks on the beach by their adjacent Long Island homes every morning whenever they are both in town. Spending six months apart, though, has led Mack to realize just how much the icy Anne has woven herself into his well-being: "I just—I can't—that prison. It still makes me want to rip everything. Rip up the whole world," Mack reveals to his bossy father. And then he thinks to himself, "And I hugged her. And God damn but does she feel good, nestled up against my damn dick like that. Now I can't separate the reality anymore from all those years of fantasy. I don't want to. I want to rip that damn sheet of plastic between us all away" (Loc 785).

But Mack is wary that going on the sexual offensive with Anne might endanger their friendship, something that he's not willing to put at risk. His father shakes up Mack's assumptions, though, when he offers him a different way of looking at the situation: "Well, you say she's your best friend. You've known each other twenty years. And you still don't realize that if you try to get Anne Winters and she doesn't want you to, she'll stop you?" (Loc 737). By not acting on his sexual feelings, the elder Corey points out, Mack is not protecting Anne or himself, but is disrespecting Anne's power and strength. His father's insight helps Mack decide to gradually, but aggressively, attack the icy exterior which Anne has erected in self-defense:

     He'd been eying that gorgeous, queen's castle a long time. Trying to make himself hold off, respect their treaties, keep his ally. But that fundamental greed pushed at him, that need to claim every territory he wanted. About high time he ripped those treaties up and laid siege.
     Well, siege. He was fifty-three years old and he'd been on the other side of that moat a hell of a long time already. Maybe it was time to bring in the cannons. (Loc 909)

For her part, Anne is equal parts wary and wonder-filled at Mack's sudden change in attitude. The two banter and circle, Mack openly declaring his intentions, Anne offering up her usual defenses. Anne's protests, though, are made not out of fear; she's always been disappointed that no other man has been able to match her power, to breach the strength of her emotional walls:

     But she wanted him to win. Behind those walls, she was terrified he would lose. Everyone else always had. Without her even getting a chance to flex her full strength in the battle. Like a wisp of clouds, those other men. They brought up their forces, they pretended to lay siege, and she took a deep breath in preparation for battle—and at its release, they just dissipated. (Loc 1470)

With Anne and Mack, sex is about power, about the pleasures of fighting and winning, of dominating and submitting, the physical tied directly to the emotional:

    Mack knocked her hands aside, grabbed the two panels of her tailored white shirt, and ripped them open.
     Buttons flew. She gasped, her heart pounding in shock and agonized delight as he tore that outermost wall apart and left her naked. (Loc 1479)

Anne is still wearing her bra here. Mack's action has stripped away not her dignity or her power of choice, but the defenses that have protected her from opening herself to vulnerability.

But Anne is not the only one who can choose to be vulnerable, or to take on the role of dominating tyrant. Turnabout, Anne and Mack discover, is more than fair play:

     She considered him for a long moment, enjoying the way she could torment him just by barely twisting her hips. Torment herself. Then, still astride him, she leaned over to her nightstand drawer and pulled out her tiny embroidery scissors. Mack's eyes widened at the sight of them, and he held very still, as if he might be genuinely afraid her instincts for torture were going to come out. As if he felt genuinely caught at the mercy of a dangerous queen.
     Very carefully, she cut through the hem of his T-shirt's neckline. Then she set the scissors back on the nightstand, grabbed either side of that cut, and ripped the panels in half. (Loc 1632)

Both Florand's and Mulry's stories conclude not with the ripping of garments, but the careful opening of gift-wrapped packages, packages that contain gifts made by hand. Bodices—or white tailored shirts, silk blouses, even t-shirts—may be rent during passionate interludes. But it's the weaving of garments back together, or the creation of new ones, that best symbolizes the equitable sharing of power both Mulry's and Florand's couples reach in their HEAs.

What other memorable bodice-ripping scenes do you recall from romance novels you've read? And how does the rending of garments in them reveal the power dynamics between the lovers depicted?

Photo credits:
Yves St. Laurent blouse: Decades Inc.
Windsor castle: KPBS
Embroidery Scissors: Rochelle Mendle Conwell

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


After even a quick glance at the publisher's sell copy for All Beautiful Things, a potential reader would be hard-pressed to imagine the book that awaits is anything but a work of romantic suspense. A woman brutally attacked? The brother of the man convicted for the attack convinced he's innocent, and intent on convincing the woman to help him prove it? The romance between them "hot, tender, and almost as dangerous as the hunter who waits in the shadows of the city's darkest streets"?

Not to take anything away from romantic suspense, but Nicki Salcedo's debut novel proves far different from the genre its cover blurb works so hard to evoke. Told primarily through the third-person point of view of Ava Camden, a wealthy Atlanta socialite who was beaten and knifed in the face just after graduating from law school, All Beautiful Things struck me as more of a work of women's fiction with romantic elements than a straight-up romantic suspense. In her depiction of Ava, Salcedo not only paints a compelling portrait of trauma, but also hints at the broader landscape of acceptance, as Ava slowly begins to realize that the "partially broken" person who emerges in trauma's wake is still deserving of, and can actively work toward, happiness. Even if that happiness takes a form unimaginably different from that she once assumed it would.

Even though Ava's father, a member of Atlanta's black business elite, made sure the man accused of assaulting his daughter was speedily tried and convicted, seven years after the attack Ava still has not come to terms with her seemingly inexplicable victimization. Cecil Camden "did things white people told him he could not do. Then later he did things that white people told him he should not do.... Cecil didn't want to be the richest black man. He wanted to be the richest and most successful man in the city. Period. No qualifiers" (12). But despite his success, Cecil had not been able to keep his daughter safe from a white attacker: "Her father had been wrong. Everyone had an equal. Everyone could be brought low" (12). Her father's death shortly after the attack has only exacerbated Ava's feeling that she's been "unborn," that the only thing keeping her alive, keeping her safe, is the anger she continues to nurture toward the man convicted for the attack, Joel Sapphire (42).

Her powerhouse mother, a lawyer, wants Ava to take up the profession for which she was trained, to wear pretty clothes, to be respectable, to be normal once again. But Ava won't, or can't; instead, she spends her afternoons and evenings working in a shelter, where "the men didn't seem to notice or care about her scars, because they had seen so much worse in the world" (22), her nights prowling the city, following the sounds of ambulances and sirens to photograph of the victims of crimes other than her own: "She wasn't insane as long as she had something to photograph. There was too much movement in life. She had to create order and stillness" (34).

Ava tries hard, though, to at least appear somewhat normal; whenever someone asks about her scars, she tells them only what they want to hear: "I had an accident, but now I'm fine." A statement that simultaneously asserts Ava's sanity and prevents the inquirer from gaining any real access to Ava's inner pain. Why shouldn't she use such a distancing platitude, when she's been on the receiving end of so many herself? You are lucky you weren't raped. You are lucky you aren't dead (35). Aren't such platitudes all about denying her pain?

When Graham Sapphire intrudes into her life, Ava's initial reaction is to offer platitudes to him, too. Far better to lie than to have a beautiful white man taking pity on her, especially the brother of the man who attacked her. But Graham sees beyond the platitudes, to something even Ava isn't quite aware she possesses: "He appreciated all beautiful things. As she stood before him poised, scrutinizing every inch of his face, and liable to strike him, he thought she was the most incredible thing he had seen in his life. She didn't step away from fear, she walked up to it" (60). Only after an emotionally harrowing confrontation between the Ava and Graham, one in which Ava is forced to face not only her own anger and pain, but to really see and feel the anger and pain of another, can Ava begin to grab hold of her own courage, her own power. No longer able to keep her pain at a distance through the safety of a camera lens, Ava starts to realize that she's not alone, and that she still has the power to choose, even if the choices available to her are different than the ones she thought she'd have: "If everyone had scars, there are two choices. Bleed to death slowly or stitch yourself together" (161).

Plot-wise, the final confrontation between Ava and her attacker is both melodramatic and a bit anti-climactic, although it's symbolically potent: Ava remembering, Ava planning, Ava choosing to face the man by herself, all highlight her bravery, independence, determination, and courage, characteristics that Ava feared had been cut away the night of her attack.


[When I first read the true motivation behind the attack on Ava, I thought Salcedo had returned us to more typical romantic suspense ground: the attack was not a race-based hate crime, but the gendered, sexist one far more common to the genre. But then I began to wonder if the two weren't entwined in a more subtle way than I had first thought. Ava's attacker was white, and assaulted her in order to teach his own [white] partner a lesson—leave me and I'll harm you just as I've harmed her. That this white man chose a black woman's body as the "canvas" for his violent lesson says something quite sickening, yet still far-too-often quite sickeningly true, about the value, or rather, the lack of value, in which white American culture holds black women.]

By the end of the novel, when someone asks, "Ava? How are you?,"  "I had an accident, but now I'm fine" is still the first thing that jumps into her head. But instead of speaking the platitude, Ava is finally able to give voice to the truth of her experience: "Terrible," she finally admits. But "If everyone could be brought low, then everyone could rise up," Ava realizes (144). Even in the face of bigotry, or sexism, or violence. Including Ava herself.

Photo credits:
woman with camera:
camera charm:

All Beautiful Things
Belle Books, 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Feminism and Romance Authors: Survey Results

Thanks to RNFF readers who answered my call for suggestions and advice about a survey I was crafting, a survey designed to explore romance authors views about identity and feminism. Thanks to your input, I was able to design and administer said survey for the first time earlier this month to attendees of the NECRWA "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" annual conference. I've been tallying and ruminating over the completed surveys, and am pleased to be able to share some raw data from the study with RNFF readers, as well as some preliminary thoughts about what that data may mean.

Approximately 170 writers attended the conference. Surveys were distributed to all attendees via the conference tote bag, given out to attendees at registration. 37 completed surveys were returned to the box at the registration desk, for a response rate of about 21%. A few folks asked for more time; I'm expecting to receive one or two more surveys on Sunday, at the next NECRWA monthly meeting.

The first page of the survey asked respondents to supply demographic information, the raw data from which is listed below. The majority of respondents identified themselves as female, white, heterosexual, and had grown up in the Northeast, all fairly expected results. 75% of the respondents reported family incomes of at $50,000 or higher; given that attendees had to pay between $199 and $229 to register, it's perhaps not surprising to find income levels on the higher rather than the lower end of the spectrum.

The only result that I found somewhat surprising was the education level of respondents. Every respondent had at least attended some undergraduate college; 19, or over 50%, had completed a graduate degree. Romance authors, at least those attending the NECRWA conference, have education levels far higher than the American population as a whole.


1. What is your age?
18-25: 0
26-35: 4
36-45: 5
45-55: 14
55-65: 11
over 65: 3

2. In what part of the U.S. did you grow up?
Northeast: 28
South: 3
Midwest: 3
Southwest: 1
West: 0
I did not grow up in the United States: 2
One person added: all over

3. What is your race? (choose all that apply)
White: 31
Black or African-American: 1
Asian or Pacific Islander: 1
Native American/American Indian: 0
      1 mixed (unspecified)
      1 White & Asian or Pacific Islander
      1 blank
      1 “human”

4. What is your sexual orientation?
Heterosexual: 34
Homosexual: 1
Bisexual: 1
I describe myself in a different way (please specify): 0
Blank: 1

5. Are you yourself of Hispanic or Latino descent, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or some other Latin American background?
                          YES: 0     NO: 37

6. What gender do you identify as?
Female: 37
Male: 0
I describe myself in a different way (please specify): 0

7. What is the highest level of education you have reached?
Some high school: 0
Completed high school: 0
Some undergraduate college: 6
Completed undergraduate college: 8
Some graduate school: 4
Completed a graduate degree: 19

9. What is your average yearly family income?
Under $10,000: 0
$10,000-$25,000: 1
$25,000-$50,000: 4
$50,000-$100,000: 11
Over $100,000: 17
Blank: 4

The next set of questions asked about respondents' publishing experiences. I wondered if published authors had a greater or lesser investment in feminism than unpublished ones? Did authors who self-published have stronger feminist leanings than their less entrepreneurial colleagues? What about authors whose publishing contributed a significant amount to their overall family income?

I'm not sure it's possible to suggest any answers to these questions yet, given the small pool of respondents. But here is the data, FYI:


8. Have you published your romance fiction?
             YES: 15   NO: 18   BLANK: 4
(but all 4 blanks went on to check boxes below, though…)

If yes, in what format(s)? (check all that apply):
Self-published: 3
Published with an e-book publisher: 2
Published with a print-book publisher: 4
Multiple: 9
      2 who published in all three formats
      7 who published in 2 of the 3 formats

Blank: 1

10. What percentage of your yearly family income comes from your romance writing?

     0%: 19 (16 b/c they haven’t published yet; 3 who have been published)
     0-25%: 10
     25%-50%: 4
     50%-100%: 0 

One interesting fact: the 4 respondents who reported that between 25-50% of their yearly family income came from their romance writing all both self-published AND published with print publishers.

The second page of the survey was designed to explore respondents' views about feminism and identity. Many of the questions were open-ended, meaning that it is difficult to give quantitative summaries of answers. For the more open-ended questions, I've report on common patterns or themes.


Huffington Post poll results 2013
1. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I consider myself very much a feminist: 23
I consider myself somewhat feminist: 4
I do not consider myself as either a feminist or not a feminist: 8
I consider myself more of a non-feminist than a feminist: 1
I do not consider myself a feminist at all: 0

The majority of respondents self-identified as somewhat or very much a feminist (over 70%), a higher number than I had anticipated. I'm curious to administer the survey in other parts of the country, to see if romance authors in more politically conservative areas identify more or less strongly with feminism as do those in the liberal northeast.

3. How do you define feminism?

9 respondents left this question blank, including 3 who had checked off "I consider myself very much a feminist" in response to question 1. One respondent wrote "Couldn't answer if I tried."

Of those who did response to this question, 18 used the words "equal" or "equality" in their definitions.
     One simply wrote "Equality"
      5 referred to equality for women without mentioning to whom they were equal (i.e, made no mention of males or men)
      7 wrote more specifically of women's equality with men
      3 wrote of equality between "genders"
      1 wrote of equality between "sexes"
      1 respondent (as part of a longer definition), wrote "It [feminism] is not to disadvantage men. It promotes equality for women and men"

Respondents who wrote of "equal" or "equality" discussed many different aspects of equality, including:
      Social changes
      Public life
      Freedom of choice
      Political, social, and economic
      Intellectual ability
      Health/body issues

Many used the word "belief" to describe feminism; fewer used the word "promote" or "movement," suggesting that feminism is something one does, as well as something one believes. 

6 respondents focused not on issues of equality, but on a pro-woman stance:
     • "empowering women to reach for happiness and success in all areas of life"
     • "the belief that women can do what they want... what works for their life. Full time work. Full time motherhood. Some combination thereof."
     • "A feminist is someone who values the innate qualities of women and seeks fair treatment of both sexes"

Definitions that did not fall within either of these two categories:
   •  "A worldview that supports the reality that women must rescue themselves and others from 'benign' and abusive forms of sexism"
    • "Feminism is a step forward in humanism. As a feminist one does not discriminate due to gender. Further, as a humanist, one does not discriminate against someone because of race, religion, or anything else"
    •  "over the top pro woman"
     • "A woman with a chip on their shoulder who thinks men are out to get them and the world is unfair"
     •"GIRLS RULE. MEN are okay too. Everyone is okay."

4. Where/from whom did you learn this definition of feminism? (NOTE: several respondents checked off more than one box)

Family member: 7
Friend(s): 9 (one write-in specified “writer’s critique group”)
Popular media (magazines, TV, newspaper, etc.): 9
School: 10
Other (please specify)
     Self: 8
     Unspecified: 2
     Life: 2
     Independent research: 1
     “inherent sense of equality”: 1
     “interacting with intelligent, engaged people & reading their work: 1
     “too long ago to remember: 1
Blank: 4 (with one note, “None! Where have I been?” and one “Everywhere”)

5. If you do consider yourself a feminist, have you ever felt that your feminist ideals were in conflict with your romance writing?

N/A or Blank: 9
Do not write romance: 1
No (even though they checked off “I do not consider myself as either a feminist or not a feminist): 2
No: 19
• “No! I don’t write anything I wouldn’t want to live through”
• “Not at all! I think it’s a feminist exercise—stories for, by, and about women finding love and happiness”
• “No, I write romance because I am a feminist”
• “No. Wrote a paper in college bout how romance novels were feminist”
• “Maybe I should but I don’t. I have not deeply investigated that idea”

YES: 4
• “Not with the writing, but in terms of getting some of it published”
• “Yes, sometimes. At others, I feel romance is the best format for exploring female agency”
• “My romance writing twists convention, so I make sure there is not conflict. However, I am learning to write in the context of a formula that is counter to feminism in some respects”
• I don’t like the covers on many romance novels—usually those where a submissive/adoring female is draped over a strong muscular man”

6. Has an editor, agent, or fellow author ever advised you to change your writing in ways that made it seem (to you) less feminist?

YES: 7    NO: 25     BLANK: 1   N/A: 1

“Not yet”: 1
Do not write romance: 1
“To make it more feminist”: 1

One of the No’s wrote: “my editor is very feminist (maybe why she acquired my work?). My heroines are doctors, lawyers, engineers and CEOs."

Comments from those who wrote “yes”:
• “Yes, often”
• “YES—mostly editors, asking for more alpha male behavior that my female characters should/would not tolerate”
• “Perhaps. I was advised to take out a subplot on overcoming a past with domestic violence as irrelevant/unnecessary, where to me that was a big part of the character’s growth/arc. And she triumphed in the end, too, becoming so strong and loving and self-actualized”
• “Yes—but it isn’t important because I didn’t/wouldn’t do it”
• “Yes. So I went with a different agent or editor or publisher”
• “Yes. Fellow author has suggested that feminism is irrelevant in life and in novels”

7. If a romance author openly declares her/himself to be a feminist, do you think that she/he is likely to alienate potential readers? Why or why not?

No: 4
No additional comments

Yes: 5
• “Yes. Many people still perceive feminists to be angry man-haters”
• “Yes. Feminism is misunderstood. Also some feminist activists are contemptuous of popular culture and alienate those whoa re ignorant of actual feminism”
• “Yes. Because art is for entertainment, first and foremost, and the reader should not feel like he/she needs to intellectualize the story. Political views have to be separate in so much as they are not a necessity to enjoying the story, but that the infusion of views (which should be integrated in the author) is integrated in the story, and the story retains its entertainment value”
• “Yes, because the right-win radio crowd has really ruined the term with their talk of “feminazi.” They are listened to more than I would like to admit.

Maybe/Perhaps: 15

• Several commented that an author might lose some readers, but gain others: “Maybe some because of different perceptions and misperceptions about feminisms. Others would find it very appealing (e.g. all my friends)
• Several referred to how the author declares her feminist identity: “It really depends on the way she defines her version of feminism. The term is too open to interpretation to make a hard and fast judgment”; “If [in] strident terms, yes. Otherwise no”; “Does she simply defend her rights as a woman? Or does she attack/demean others who disagree?”
• Several focused on readers: “Depends on who their market is”; “Educated, thoughtful readers want more balance in partnerships. There are readers that feel more comfortable in outmoded stereotypes or who have been brainwashed into ‘submitting’ to male partners who would resist”
• “I think the answer to that may be ‘it’s a regional thing’”
• “Any author taking any stance or opinion in public risks alienating someone!”

Blank: 1

8. Some romance authors argue that romance as a genre, because it focuses on women’s experiences, is by its very nature feminist. Others argue that because romance privileges the romantic relationship over other aspects of a person’s life, the genre as a whole is not feminist. Do you consider romance as a genre to be inherently feminist or not? Why?

YES: 7
“Overall, I do. A fulfilled emotional life would seem to be a desirable goal for anyone, male or female”
• “Very much feminist because it usually, today, shows the woman to be in equal relationship to her partner—exploring different ways to do that and live a full life.”
• “Yes, inherently feminist. Concerned with women’s individual lives, quest for finding another person who values them”
• “Yes, inherently feminist, though it has had its missteps. It’s still an amazing dialogue among women”
• “It’s feminist in that it’s written by women for women. But even men need romance in their lives”
• “In the very broad definition of feminism, romance writing focuses on the romance relationship which is an important part of every woman’s life. There is simply not enough time in the scope of the novel to include very element of a woman’s life”
•Relationships are important to everyone. It is okay to prioritize them in writing. It is also just good storytelling”

• “It is certainly an ideal vehicle for feminism, but I don’t think the genre as a whole is feminist, and not just because there is no common definition of feminism with regard to romance”
• “I think it can go either way”
• “Neither. If the author is true to the characters and story, it is about the transformative power of love—not about gender”
• “Neither. Why must things be either/or? Feminism is not a yes/ho, it’s a belief, a conviction”
• “Intelligently-written romance can be positive and feminist. Too much category romance remains in outmoded, sexist clichés and is not feminist”
• “The romance genre is inherently feminist because it gives women access to publishing. Anti-feminist because what we write often promotes stereotypes”
• “Romance is not in itself feminist or non-feminist; the presentation makes it so”
• “I don’t believe romance is any more feminist or not feminist than SF or mysteries or action adventure”

NO: 7
• “No, not inherently because there are elements within the genre that are conservative. I think there is a strain of patriarchy in the genre”
• “I don’t think of it as related to feminism in any way”
• “No. I don’t think women’s rights are a women-only issue. Men have mothers and sisters and daughters”??
• “No. Men read and write romance. Women read and write ‘male’ topic novels”
• “No! I’ve known many men—some homosexual, some not, who enjoy romance novels. I think they cater to all markets, I just think we perceive it to be a genre women read when the don’t have a significant other”
• “Not feminist; realistic”

It's getting late here in survey-analysis land, so I'll just leave you with the data, and look forward to hearing your thoughts about what it all means, as well as future directions this research project might take.

Photo/Illustration Credits:
Education pie chart: Common Knowledge
Feminism identity chart: Ida Ellen Bach blog, from information from the Huffington Post
Whiteboard feminism definitions: State Press Magazine
Rebecca West: Science in Our World