The Theme of Women’s Suffrage in Romance Novels, Then and Now
By Jessica Marks (2021)
Last year marked 100 years since the greatest achievement of feminist campaigns was achieved: women’s suffrage. In the 100 years since then the women’s rights movement has made significant progress, but the topic of gender equality is still a prominent issue today. The reality of feminist striving has been represented in romance fiction in both eras: the turn of the century and the modern era. This paper shows how there has been a shift in the modern historical romance genre to tell stories set in the Gilded Age featuring the women’s suffrage movement in response to fourth wave feminism and the political context of the last five years. This shift is inspired by the original suffrage fiction from this time period but deviates in some respects to reflect modern feminist rhetoric.
The time period between 2014-2019 correlates to a turbulent societal moment. Fourth wave feminism is a renewed movement in women’s activism in the 21st century, generally accepted as beginning in 2012. Fourth wave feminism is characterized by a unique digital presence as social media catalyzed campaigns supporting reproductive rights, demanding equal pay, and denouncing sexual and other types of violence against women, among other causes (Abrahams). Trump’s controversial presidency continued to expose the many ways sexism is alive and well in America and produced feminist movements such as the #MeToo campaign in response to the underlying misogynist culture.
The increasing prevalence of fourth wave feminism affected the publishing world of genre romance. As an industry consisting of mostly female authors tailored to a mostly female readership, many romance authors claim that feminist conversations in romance novels about consent, independent heroines, and enlightened heroes predated mainstream movements like #MeToo as the genre tried to satisfy the changing expectations of female readers (Colyard). Part of this trend to represent the current feminist culture includes the change in historical romances from traditional Regency stories to including Gilded Age motifs.
The classic modern historical romance harkens back to the Regency era featuring dashing dukes and darling debutantes navigating high society and vying for marriage offers with singular focus. This is a generalization and can’t be universally applied, but consistent themes characterize Regency romances. Typically, the heroes are wealthy, and their title grants them social capital that makes them very powerful. Heroines in Regency fictions are often a part of this social scene, however they are usually more disadvantaged in finances or social status. Marriage is often seen as imperative and the main way heroines can ensure a secure future independent from their familial home.
Recently, there has been a transition in historical romances as some authors shift their time period towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, what is referred to as the Gilded Age. The Goodreads page for “Gilded Age Romances” features 21 books explicitly marketed as Gilded Age, all published between 2016-2020, with two exceptions from 2000 and 2001. Multiple authors like Joanna Shupe and Marie Force have been consistently publishing novels and series in this subgenre; clearly they have found a successful niche in the historical romance market. The Regency era romance is still thriving (for comparison Goodreads shows 3001 results for “Regency Romance”) but the recent uptick in Gilded Age publication is notable. The “Gilded Age” terminology typically applies to urban American contexts. For the purposes of this examination focused on suffrage, novels set in the same time period but within the context of the English suffrage movement were also included. The time frames for landmark historical cutoffs are not strictly defined; the social world within the novel and the focal themes are defining factors than can give a novel a Gilded Age flair without being marketed as strictly Gilded Age.
Gilded Age romances maintain some of the important elements of classic Regency stories but have significant contrasts. This era still features titled heroes and the luxuries of wealthy society but focuses on the waning power of these positions during changing times, instead of basking in their Regency prime. Heroines are generally employed and career-oriented rather than existing exclusively in the parlors and ballrooms of the Regency world. In many Gilded Age novels, marriage is presented as a potential obstacle to these other goals rather than the primary expectation of the heroine.
A fundamental aspect of Gilded Age fiction is the theme of women’s suffrage explored as a subplot in these novels. Women’s suffrage is not a new topic for romance fiction; the theme was first introduced in the late 1800s during the real women’s suffrage movement. In the context of fourth wave feminism, modern authors have drawn inspiration from a historical age of unprecedented female empowerment: the fight for women’s right to vote. Modern historical romances have adopted the defining themes of this literary trend from the first wave of feminism, while also adapting them to reflect the modern flavor of feminism. Both modern Gilded Age romances and the original Gilded Age suffrage fiction balance political engagement with the obligate entertainment of romance books, but historical and modern fiction approach the theme of sacrifice differently to reflect different expectations from first versus fourth wave feminism.
Romance fiction about suffrage, both modern and historical, both balance political engagement and pure entertainment. In historical suffrage fiction, authors used the romance novel as a vehicle to market revolutionary feminist ideas to the average female reader. Books like “The Convert”, originally published in 1907, by Elizabeth Robins used excerpts from real speeches that added gravity to the character’s plight for the vote as an extension of the real world (Robins). Robins used her book to generate an intentional political message supporting the movement of women’s rights but did so within a context that still operated within the constraints of the market (Park). Romance fiction was already popular and widely consumed among all classes of female readers, so “The Convert”, and other suffrage novels, were marketed primarily as romance novels. In a 1911 review of another suffrage romance fiction “No Surrender” Charlotte Despard, the editor of a women’s newspaper The Vote, claims the book is “…the best suffrage novel I ever read. But the story is not all suffrage. It is enlivened by a love episode” (Park). Entertainment value was crucial to the success of historical suffrage fiction and its incorporation into the thriving romance novel industry broadened its reach to more readers. Some critics of suffrage fiction found the heavy-handed inclusion of moral and political messages compromising to the entertainment value of these books. A different review of “No Surrender” at the time of its publication in 1911 claims: “the story would be more convincing if all the “anti[suffragist]s” were not so intolerable” (Woman’s Leader and the Common Cause).
Modern romance fictions take a less extreme approach in the incorporation of persuasive political messages, but the feminist themes of the new Gilded Age genre are integral to the identity of the books. An interview-based sociology paper published in January of 2021 explored how the romance genre community felt about socio-political discussion in romance novels. While the extent of acceptable political engagement is debated, it was universally acknowledged by all respondents that romance books are inherently feminist. This was justified by asserting the genre was a space that uniquely featured women’s fantasies, autonomy, and sexual fulfillment (Michelson). Importantly this characterization was made by participants in the romance community, some outside commentators have criticized the romance industry and do not share this opinion. These novels are not isolated theoretical entities but instead must engage with a reader in the modern world, and therefore the political discourse within it to some extent. This is reflected in how fourth wave feminism inspired more suffrage themes in modern historical novels.
Maya Rodale is a historical romance author who ventured away from Regency settings to publish a Gilded Age series in 2018 with Avon Publications. Rodale has consistently published short series of historical romance novels with Avon throughout her career. The combination of the popular series format for genre romance and the mainstream publishing house makes her books a good point of reference for mass marketed Gilded Age romances. The first novel in the trilogy, “Duchess by Design”, includes an author’s note in which Rodale explains that she chose this time period to showcase strong characters fighting for basic human rights, like the right to vote. Rodale comments that these activist heroes and heroines are the characters she wanted to write a happily ever after for (Rodale). This parallels how modern feminist readers are also fighting for women’s rights. The implication of a happily ever after in fiction encourages the continued pursuit of these real-life goals.
The novel, like historical suffragette fiction, also incorporates plot elements based directly on fact. The heroine, a self-made dressmaker in 1895 New York City, makes the controversial decision to feature pockets in her designs. This was a representation of the real-life practical dress movement championed by turn of the century feminists, and the novel features real excerpts from contemporary newspaper articles about the revolution of women’s pockets (Rodale). Furthermore, secondary characters in the novel champion other social issues like environmental concerns and the use of aviary products in the fashion industry. This subplot is directly inspired from real Audubon Societies formed beginning in 1896. Modern sustainability ethics criticizing fast fashion demonstrate relatable parallels to this historical movement for modern readers. In an interview with Entertainment magazine, Rodale reveals she switched from Regency romances to Gilded Age stories because the time period featured elements like women’s clubs dedicated to supporting other women, suffrage, and progressive ideas that were more “the spirit of now” (Lenker). The “spirit of now” refers to the feminist context the book was published in and exemplifies the intentional effort of authors to situate their fiction in this political moment.
The differences between historical suffrage fiction novels and modern Gilded Age romances represent their respective feminist contexts relative to the expectations of achievable women’s rights. Historical books strongly feature the theme of heroines sacrificing in some way in order to achieve of their external goal: the vote. The vote is what defines the necessary happily ever after for these characters; romantic love is desired but considered a secondary component of a satisfying ending. In Robins’ “The Convert”, the heroine doesn’t yield to the temptation of married life and motherhood but instead sacrifices domestic roles to dedicate herself to her cause. The hero is still the integral provider of her happily ever after; as a politician he is uniquely able to make her quest for the vote a reality (Robins). Sacrifice in this way is a common theme throughout suffrage romance novels. Most heroines reject the domestic roles traditionally assigned to them because they are too limiting to their independence (Park). This theme in romance novels reflects the feminist culture of the time. Women had to prioritize the vote as their key mission as the first step to a complete reform.
Modern historical romances have a different perspective on what a woman’s happily ever can be that reflects the ideals of fourth wave feminism. Voted as the number one suffrage-inspired romance novel on Goodreads, Courtney Milan’s “The Suffragette Scandal” was published in 2014 and reflects a popular choice within the genre. The novel features an independent woman who owns and operates her own feminist newspaper in 1877, early in the British suffrage movement. Unlike Regency romances that prioritize titles as a desirable trait, her marriage to the hero (a Viscount) is one of the main conflicts because of his noble status. In the end, it is the hero who makes sacrifices to make the marriage dynamic non-limiting for the heroine. She is able to pursue her feminist independent goals freely even while happily married because he chooses to give up aspects of the traditional noble lifestyle (Milan). Never is the heroine expected to give up career aspirations for the success of the romantic plot, however in “The Suffragette Scandal” the hero does relinquish his personal career goals and sells his metallurgy forge to relocate to the heroine’s residence (Milan). This difference of sacrifice on the part of the hero rather than heroine is consistent in other Gilded Age novels. This reflects more modern notions of feminism in which women expect to have it all: a thriving career and a fulfilling domestic life. It also shows how modern feminists don’t limit the movement for women’s equality to female participants but call on male allies to use their privilege to further social causes (Abrahams).
The modern rise of fourth wave feminism has called out problematic aspects of gender dynamics that have lingered for too long in society and popular culture. Conversations about professional equality and respect and autonomy in more intimate personal relationships have spilled over into the publishing world of genre romance. In response, authors have stepped back from traditional Regency stories that inherently feature rich, socially privileged, white males and heroines devoted to marriage. Instead, drawing inspiration from the original movement of suffrage fiction, modern authors have chosen to write in the Gilded Age that allows them to create stories more aligned with political feminist discourse. The historical setting reduces the power of the titles heroes and puts heroines in a position to be more career oriented and active in feminist movements, symbolized primarily through suffrage themes.
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