In a genre still dominated by women, Carolyn Hector Hall, Rachel Brimble and Farah Mendleson talk about how and why we should strive for inclusivity.
Carolyn Hector Hall―Empowering Women
Anything you can do I can do better! That little rhyme still plays in my head. I was the youngest child of two brothers and a step brother. I wouldn’t call myself a tomboy but I would be-damned before I let them out run me just because they said I was a girl and couldn’t beat them.
Like most women my age, I grew up reading Francine Pascal, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume. For me, as a woman of color, certain books stood out. Iggie’s House or Are We in Love? #94 of Sweet Valley High. These books though, were more like the “very special episode after school specials”. I shamefully confess, I didn’t want to read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor back then. I wanted to read the fun lifestyle the teenagers were living, but with a diverse cast.
I didn’t see what I wanted on the bookshelves and I didn’t see what I wanted on TV. What’s a gal to do? Well, I guess it is called fanfiction these days.
When I started reading romance novels, I fell in love with the heroines who didn’t take crap from their love-interests…or were at least defiant enough to become strong women. Check out Vella Munn’s Seminole Song. Yes, I did buy the book based on the cover. This book merged Seminole history with Black Seminoles and it was fantastic! Cherry Adair wrote the TFLAC series. I was so excited to see how I could merge bits of my competitive self with kick-ass heroes in this series. I loved Cherry’s men—dreamy and hardcore dudes―but I wanted to create a group of beautiful kick-ass women who saved the world and who are of course POC.
Hence a glimpse of them in Mr. and Mrs. Rossi. My first book published with Harlequin, The Magic of Mistletoe was about a woman who is not just an interior decorator but an exterior one—at Christmas time. Yep! You can find Macy Cuomo climbing up a ladder with her hammer and nails in hand to decorate your homes for the holidays so you don’t have to. I’m betting she would have saved Clark Griswold a lot of frustration had he hired her.
So I’ve scrutinized over this topic for a while now.
Am I doing my part on empowering women and representing WOC in an industry where at one time, they did not qualify. It’s true. Miss America’s qualifications for contestants once were for women to be—of good health and of the White race. They got rid of the rule in 1950. Even then, there hasn’t been enough diversity for my taste.
I took a page out of J. Morris Anderson’s (creator of Miss Black America) book and I’m created my own set of beauty queens. They come in all shapes and sizes and all my beauty queens are POC. My beauty queen heroines are not without controversy. Their hero counterparts are not all fans pageantry but they are insanely in love with their heroine. And, a little different some of my favorite traditional romances, it is my heroines who are the ones avoiding relationships. They’re career orientated until life, scandal, or love derails their path to the tiara.
Pageant Diversity and Empowered Women History:
1941 Miss Oklahoma, Mifauny Shunatona, became the first Native American contestant.
1945 Bess Myerson, the first Jewish-American to win the title of Miss America.
1948 Miss Puerto Rico's Irma Nydia Vázquez became the first Latina contestant at the Miss America Pageant.
1948 Miss Hawaii, Yun Tau Chee, was the 1st Asian contestant.
1970 Miss Iowa, Cheryl Brown is the first African American contestant.
1984 Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American to be crowned Miss America
2001 Miss Hawaii, Angela Perez won the title of Miss America-the 1st Asian pageant title holder.
2014 Miss America crowned its first Indian-American contestant and queen.
Carolyn Hector Hall's latest release is Her Mistletoe Bachelor. You can find out more on Twitter, Instagram, Bookbub, and at CarolynHector.com.
Rachel Brimble―Celebrating Strong Female Leads
It’s International Woman’s Day on 8th March and what better time to discuss strong female leads in romance novels? I have written over twenty books and I am proud to admit I start each and every novel by creating a strong woman whose story I want to tell.
My branding is ‘Inspiration, empowerment & romance…one book at a time’ and I hope I deliver.
Throughout history women have strived for change and achieved incredible feats people often deemed impossible. They’ve secured the vote, they’ve flown aeroplanes, they’ve climbed mountains and they’ve discovered medical cures. Women are powerful…and best of all, we know it.
As a romance novelist, it’s incredibly important to me that I reflect the inner strength and tenacity of the women I portray in my stories. I want my readers to recognise the heroine’s struggles, hopes and dreams. I want their hearts, souls and minds to be at the forefront of their imaginations as I transport my readers to someone else’s world.
Some have a complete misconception about romance novels and their heroines―yes, there were definitely swooning ladies and non-consensual sex. Not to mention verbal, mental and physical abuse, but there have always been strong, female leads, too.
For example, I would argue every one of Jane Austen’s heroines was strong, often opinionated and hell-bent on getting what she wants out of life. Elizabeth Bennett is no shrinking violet, neither is Elinor or her sister, Marianne in Sense & Sensibility. Although, love and the pursuit of eternal emotional happiness are definitely present in Austen’s novels, so are a woman’s determination, self-worth and personal empowerment.
My latest series is set in the early 20th century and the theme is female empowerment. I purposely set out to highlight an Edwardian women’s issue in each book and have my heroines fight to be heard, fight for change and, in the end, succeed. I truly believe it’s these kinds of heroines readers want in their romance novels and, maybe, they always have.
It is often portrayed in period dramas and films how women would devour romance novels, hide away and read them, secretly reveling in… What? Are we really supposed to believe the fascination and enthrallment was all about the grand hero coming along to sweep the heroine off her feet?
Pfft, I think not! Wasn’t it really about the reader watching the heroine’s journey, relishing how she overcame societal and familial objections and obstacles? How the heroine defiantly refused to be held back, caged and controlled? Think of Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp and Scarlet O’Hara.
Romance novels have had a pretty derogatory reputation in the past, but I think that has changed. I think women know when they pick up a romance they are going to get―and expect―more than a love story. Today’s woman is ambitious, empowered, strong and, yes, she might want to fall in love, marry and have a family, but that does not mean those things are everything she wants in life.
And why shouldn’t she have it all?
There are inspirational women all around us, past and present. From the suffragists and suffragettes who ensured the vote, from the female doctors, surgeons and scientists who broke through male-dominated barriers, to entrepreneurial mothers raising children and running their own businesses.
I, for one, intend to keep strong female leads at the heart of my romances and hope to inspire, empower and romance every single one of my readers for many years to come!
Rachel Brimble is the author of the Pennington's Department Store series. You can find out more on Facebook, Instagram, or on RachelBrimble.com.
Farah Mendlesohn―Ending the Class Divide
I can’t speak for the period since the turn of the century because it’s only recently I got back into romance, but I can speak for the difference between what I read now and what I read when I was fourteen.
Here you need to know I grew up in a feminist household.
At the same time I read Mills & Boon I was working my way through Virago Classics and Virago Moderns. We had a membership to the Woman’s Press Book Club. I don't think I ever read Mills & Boon as anything other than fantasy. And the fantasy was that somewhere between 18 and 22 (gosh the heroines were young) a woman would meet a terribly dominant man who would crush her mouth, and treat her forcefully, or would gentle her until she gave way. The women were completely passive: they quite literally just stood there. Just standing there was consent. Struggling was enthusiastic consent. The youngest didn’t work. The oldest of that age group had jobs that had titles but no activity. They also had no female friends. The only females present were mothers, sisters or rivals.
On to now. I currently have two favourite writers of contemporary romances: Katie Fforde who writes heterosexual romances and Clare Lydon who writes lesbian romances. Both have some key things in common: they both use much older women protagonists, and both write novels in which the story is often not about the romance per se, but about a woman starting a new way of life, or a new project, or a new business.
They are women who are doing their own growing.
In Katie Fforde’s novels, often the men are a bit in the background. In A Secret Garden for example, the bulk of the novel focuses on Lorna and Philly’s plans to bring a house up to scratch, and their recruitment of a new arrival. All of the women acquire new skills. The men they end up with fall in love with them not just for who they are but who they aspire to be. The more the women grow into themselves, we learn, the more rewarding a relationship is likely to be.
Clare Lydon’s London Calling uses a similar trajectory as Jess returns from a bad relationship in Australia and reconstructs her life in ways that bring her in to the orbit of someone new who is also interested in seeing Jess grow.
Historical romances sometimes find it harder to find this space for personal growth, but Courtney Milan pulls it off. Her heroines find chinks in society into which they can insert careers in science and politics. They do tend to be upper and upper middle class, however, [editor's note: The Suffragette Scandal and Talk Sweetly to Me ―pictured left―deal with lower middle class people, and Unravelled with a working class and talented heroine] and I’ve yet to see many people providing working class historical heroines who are able to find this kind of personal growth. K J Charles, who writes m/m romances, has a character in her newest book, Any Old Diamonds, who has potential but at the moment she is just a side character.
So if there is a challenge that's it. Do the research to find the kinds of lives working class women lived: the factory girls who marched down the street on Friday nights in the mill towns, arms linked, scaring the bejeezsus out of everyone, the women who ran their own tiny businesses running hostels and serving food, the women who found themselves in political activities, the women who read, and the women who wrote. Give me working class heroines in historical romances with the same agency as middle class ones, and the same range of sexualities and complex gender identities, and ambitions to better themselves or be educated, who end up with fine relationships of whatever kind.
Prof. Farah Mendlesohn is an oft-published expert in the written word, editor at Manifold Press and specialises in accessibility. You can find out more on Twitter, Facebook, or at FarahMendlesohn.com.
The Patriarchy might be hard to smash, but literature can help give it the death of a thousand cuts. How do you want romance to lift women? What authors do you recommend who uplift women and paint romance against a backdrop of equality?