Why Women Should Read Historical Romance

woman reading bookThree blog posts I’ve read this summer have given me some insight into why women should read historical romance and/or fiction, and not just because I happen to love the genre.

One was a review of a Western novel in which the reviewer, who obviously doesn’t read a lot of historical romance, was shocked by restrictions placed on women of the time period. I guess she was expecting contemporary characters in period dress, but the author took her work more seriously than that.

The second was The Hard Won Ground, Rose Anderson’s Fourth of July blog post where she reminisced about her family’s long connection to American history and how the women were right there with the men, settling the frontier and opening the West. As she correctly points out, men rode or drove wagons west. Women walked. (So much for the “weaker” sex.)

covered wagonFinally, when I read Sara Robinson’s article entitled “Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control and Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About It 100 Years From Now”, the three threads coalesced in my mind.

Robinson points out the revolutionary nature of modern, reliable, and effective methods of birth control. She ranks contraception as one of the three most important innovations of the 20th century. The others are the integrated circuit, which led to the computer revolution, and the space racing culminating in the moon landing, mankind’s first steps outside the bounds of earth. I’d never thought about it before, but she’s right. The pill changed everything for women. Without it there would have been no sexual revolution and possibly no feminist gains. Birth control gives women the freedom men have always had, and levels the playing field. After thousands of years, men are losing control of women and some are freaking out about it. This is one reason why the Taliban, for instance, cannot bear the thought of educated girls. The very idea upsets their male-centered world view. (I encourage everyone to read the original article. It’s brilliant.)

In Technopoly, Neil Postman wrote that “technological change isn’t addictive or subtractive, it’s ecological.” We need no further proof of that than the onslaught of change we’ve seen since the computer revolution began.

But no change has been more profound, or at least has the potential to be, than the advent of reliable birth control. For centuries, no for millennia, women have been slaves to their biology. And men took advantage of the fact to keep women under control, reserving privileges like voting and inheritance for themselves. Women still earn less than men, even for the same work, even though we are now as well-educated as they are. Even female CEO’s make less than their male counterparts, and that’s the top of the food chain!

We should not forget what life used to be like for our female ancestors, lest the hard-won gains we’ve made be taken from us. As George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I get that not everyone likes historical novels, perhaps because a realistically depicted woman of the past cannot be the kind of modern kick-ass character so popular now. (Don’t get me wrong, I love that kind of heroine, like Katniss Everdean of The Hunger Games.) I also suspect one reason why steampunk romance is popular is because you can have a kick-ass heroine in a corset with a deadly ray gun in her reticule. The best of both worlds. But steampunk is science fiction, not based on real life.

Reading a historical novel now and again is an easy way to remember the past. Outside of women’s studies programs, most history books and classes don’t really deal with women’s issues. It’s not spelled “his” story for nothing!

Historical novels are a pain-free way of reminding us how important the changes of the last fifty years really are. We learn where we’ve been and why we don’t want to go back!

Am I on the right track here? Let me know what you think.


PS. Everyone who comments in August will be entered in my monthly drawing for a $15 Starbucks gift card.

42 thoughts on “Why Women Should Read Historical Romance

  1. I totally agree with your idea that readers, mostly women, should get a slight notion of what certain periods in mankind history were about before commenting on what they read. I have an example from arguments some readers of my Shadows of the Past, paranormal romance brought forth. The events, in the part of the story that occur in Middle Ages Britain, display, partly, nuns, monastery life, faith. The readers complained there was too much mention of religion – though it wasn’t- and that I am pushing people to religion. Totally untrue. Medieval period in Europe was dominated by religion in all its forms of manifestation. A brief look over the history of those times would have made it clear for them

    • Carmen, you are absolutely right that the Medieval period was dominated by religion. The Church was one of the pillars of the community and held great sway over both the ruling class and the peasantry. I believe many countries used church law instead of the kind of common law we have today in the US, though I could be wrong about that. It’s so important to understand the period and the forces that influenced it, not just the clothing styles.

  2. Great post, Linda. I love to read historical fiction and would some day love to write one set in India…there is so much material to choose from and some of those women were totally ‘kickass’! 😉

    • Adite, I’d love to see you write a historical romance set in India. It’s such a fascinating country. M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions is one of my favorite historical novels.

  3. Very good article and more woman need to learn and understand what our female relatives had to do and live. As a genealogist I learned a lot of about female relatives of the past. But I also know that my materal grandmother, who was 16 when she married her husband who was 32 in 1914. She was having a baby every 2 years and asked the doctor what she could do to prevent it and he told her, Ma’am I can tell a man but I am forbidden to tell a woman. My mother is number 11 of 13. The last was bron when my grandmother was a few months from being 45 and he was 61. He died at 69 and left her widowed with at least 6 children still at home to raise. She never married again and lived to be 90. I will say that her brother-in-law approached her after the death of his wife and offered her marriage, which was Biblical (and he was a minister) and she told him, “I don’t need no darn man to tell me what to do!”

    • Kathy, that’s a horrible story when the doctor wouldn’t tell your poor grandma what to do. A perfect example of why we need birth control. I can certainly see why widows didn’t want to remarry in those days!

      Genealogy is fascinating, isn’t it? Wish I had time to pursue mine again.

      Thanks for leaving a comment.

  4. I agree with you 100%. If we don’t read historical fiction and history, we will have a hard time understanding the world today and might indeed get suckered into moving backwards.

    • You’re right, Teresa. We’ve seen it happening in our own country in the last 20 years. When the Great Recession came, our leaders should have known to follow FDR’s playbook during the Great Depression, but no, they forgot their history.

  5. I agree. I love Historical Romance for what it is. And it does remind me of how easy I have it compared to the women of those periods who had no time to themselves, or weren’t allowed to think for themselves. I also like reading them because, though women were restricted, it was a simpler time. The most important thing then was working as a team/family.

    • Yes, just navigating through everyday life was so much more difficult. There are so many labor saving devices today, and clothes are easy to get into, unlike some periods where everything had to be done up at the back. It took a village just to keep things going.

  6. Thanks for mentioning my 4th of July post! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    You’re so right about the importance of women knowing where we come from. they all should know the rough, nearly impossible road we’ve traveled just to get to this point. Historical romance is a fine place to start. Done right, writing the hard-won ground is such an important undertaking. There’s a whole generation of young women and girls who have no idea.

    There’s also a despicable trend brewing that seeks to undermine what we’ve gained and brainwash our younger females into thinking they should accept less, be less. Even slurs have a decidedly anti-female slant, as if association with the feminine is a bad thing. Not bashing the work of other authors here, but works like Twilight and 50 Shades have cast a sorry example for young women. As a mother this bothers me. It’s not ok to be manipulated into sex. It’s not ok to want to kill yourself because your boyfriend broke up with you. I appreciate that some authors are taking the opposite route and writing inspiring and empowering stories about women and girls. In history there were many pioneering women who just said no and lived as any man might to the best the law would allow. There are other who took to the streets and demanded better. I’d like to see more romances featuring suffragettes!

    There’s an international blog action day coming up and authors might use their celebrity and get on board. The theme this year is inequality. It should be good. I’m in. Come join us, Linda. 🙂 http://blogactionday.org/about-us/

  7. Excellent article! And I totally agree. I write both historical and time travel romances. In my straight historicals, the heroines are always women who are trying to buck the restraints placed on them in their Victorian time period. One is an Irish immigrant, who disguises herself as a man to fight in the Confederate Army, while another is fighting to be accepted into medical school. Another is a feature magazine writer who longs to write serious stories for a big city paper like the men do.

    But I’ve done my research and all of my heroines are based on real women from the pages of history. For the modern reader, I think you have to remain realistic, but still base heroines on women who long to be more than their time period permits for readers to identify with.

    • Good points, Susan. There were a surprising number of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in wars like the Civil War. And when Jack Rackham’s pirate ship was taken by the English navy, the only two pirates who acquitted themselves well in the fight were Anne Bonny and Mary Read! The men were too drunk!

  8. I was at my local Starbucks one evening and another regular customer was there chatting with her boyfriend, also a regular, and another male. This young (21-22 YO) female is adorably cute, very vivacious, etc. I heard her say ‘we had a civil war? When did America have a civil war?’ OMG! You could have picked me up off the floor. The person I was with looked up and whispered ‘hope she’s really good in bed.’ My comment back was ‘and sterile.’

    What happened to our educational system? It’s no wonder someone gave a bad review to my historical western novel. Whoever it was had no understanding that women did as their fathers told them or what a husband’s place was in the household.

    As a child, I knew my great-grandfather (born in the mid 1800’s). The rules were very strict. I was not to bother him. Naturally at the time, I had no clue as to why, other than he was old. It wasn’t until I was in my teens and he was gone that I discovered his life and his role in the family and the community. (He lived past 100.) And as much as I would have loved to have interviewed him, he would not have given me five minutes of time because I was a female.

    We just need to keep reminding ourselves as the Virginia Slim commercial used to spout, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

    • LOL, Elizabeth. I wonder about the educational system, too. But you live in the South, right? The Civil War, pardon me, the War of Northern Aggression, has long been a Sore Subject south of the Mason Dixon line. My husband is from the Deep South, and I was surprised by his reaction to Ken Burns’s documentary. The DH kept insisting the war had nothing to do with slavery, but state’s rights. That’s what he was taught in school. I’m still not what those “state’s rights” were beyond the right to own slaves and carry them into the Western territories.

      Too bad you didn’t get to know your great-grandfather. I bet he had some great stories to tell, if he’d just opened up. And we have come a long way!

  9. Plain facts, if more young women would pick up historical novels they might actually have an idea of what their mothers, grandmothers and so on did on a daily basis. We have it so easy! Wonder how long our generation of 20 and 30 year olds would last if planted 100 years ago? I am guessing not long..
    Love historical novels for lots of reasons but history is the best one. It amazes me at the time and effort that is put into doing research for each and every book. Tip my hat to all of you and please continue on.

    • We do have it easy, Charlotte. Did you ever watch The 1900 House or another of those shows on PBS? It’s amazing to see how difficult housework was just 100 years ago and how long it took! When I was a kid, we had an old washing machine with a wringer and I remember turning the crank to squeeze the water out of the clothing. My mom had a more modern dryer, thank goodness, but often hung sheets on the line to dry in the sun. They always smelled so good and fresh.

      I think the history is the best part of historical romance, too. Glad to find a reader who agrees!

  10. Wonderful post. And absolutely true. Women did break out when they started saying no to sex and having babies. Men had no such restrictions ever. It’s probably why I like science fiction and fantasy so much…there are a lot of women in charge…LOL!

    I also love the occasional historic romance novel to remind me of where we’ve been. Then again, there is a lot of history packed into just one. I remember a night of Trivial Pursuit where the question was ‘What was the Battle of Hastings?’ At that point, my partner looked at me so forlorn as she didn’t have a clue what that meant and certainly not when it was. From my reading of The Wolf and the Dove, I knew it was when William of Normandy raided England and took the throne from the Saxon King, Harold in 1066. I teased them a little saying it must of happened in WWII, knowing that the guys would bet on their win.

    All smiles fell when I said that in 1066, William of Normandy started a conquest for England and landed close to the Saxon village of Hastings where he was met by King Harold. Harold lost the battle and William became king thus ending the reign of the Saxons. Then I sweetly asked them if they wanted to know any more as it was period of time that I’d studied extensively. My husband-to-be who already had a BA in History, asked me where I learned this. I floored them all and said, a romance novel.

    Needless to say, they never doubted my historical knowledge again. Especially if I’d read a historical romance on the subject. LOL!

  11. I love this blog, Linda. You are so right. I think that historical novels, whether romance or just fiction, should be required reading for all young women and not just because I write them. We need to remember where we came from and what we’ve gained. Life was hard for us. They call us the ‘weaker’ sex but we aren’t now nor were we then, but the young people of today don’t know. Cannot fathom what it was like for our ancestors just 200, 100 even 50 years ago. Life was ever so much different for women. Birth control gave us power, like we’d never had before and we’ve come to wield it, though we still have gains to be made. Our daughters and granddaughters will never have to live like our mothers and grandmothers did before us.

  12. (Outlander spoiler alert ahead – if you haven’t read it ignore this comment) Great blog post,and I can definitely relate. I held back from reading Outlander for years, primarily because I didn’t believe it could possibly be *that* good. The friend who pushed me to finally read it said she was curious about my reaction to a certain scene, but she wouldn’t tell me which one. She said I would know it when I saw it. I deduced it was the beating scene, and I told her it didn’t bother me. Another friend of hers (who I don’t know) had found the scene so objectionable that she wouldn’t read anything else by that author. I think if you’re going to read historical fiction, you’ve got to take the good and the bad of history. Yes, men beat their wives back then. Yes, it was accepted and even expected. Of course, in today’s 50-shades culture I was shocked someone would be that upset by that relatively tame scene, but to each her own. One other trend I’ve noticed is that books I’ve seen lately set during the Civil War are set up north or out west to skirt the slavery issue. I don’t know the answer to that porcupine, but I feel writing about the Confederacy is just not done right now. Frankly, I don’t know how you write about pre-CW south and be sensitive to the race issue. I’m glad my current focus is contemporary. (I’m also enjoying the Starz adaptation of Outlander, so I’m glad I gave in and read it.)

    • Lily, I was one of the readers who objected to the spanking scenes in Outlander, though the torture scene at the end was the reason I never continued the series. Later, Emma Holly came to speak to my RWA group about erotic romance and mentioned that Outlander was a classic BDSM novel. A light went off in my head and I realized why I didn’t like it. However common, and legal, it was for a man to beat his wife, I’m still not comfortable with that. It’s also why I never read 50 Shades. I am so not into BDSM. But as my high school English teacher used to say, “To each his own. That’s why we have chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.” Glad you’re enjoying the Starz adaptation. It’s getting a lot of positive buzz.

      Writing about the Confederacy is tricky. I have an idea for a post-Civil War romance set in Texas, and I picked a county that had very few slaves–it was mostly ranch country–so that wouldn’t be an issue. I’m not sure how to deal with that porcupine either.

      • I think my confusion over the other woman was that she liked 50 Shades, which I find to be contradictory. If you aren’t into BDSM or power exchange games, then I can see why you might object to scenes in that book. It remains a fact that there was a good bit of spousal discipline in the past, and it’s something you rarely see mentioned in historicals. I haven’t decided if I want to continue past the first book. There are plenty of indies to support, and the traditionally published books tend to cost more. 🙂

        • Lily, I do see the contradiction in objecting to Outlander and then liking 50 Shades. And your point about lack of spousal discipline in historicals is valid, but I think that’s one area where historical authors can bow to modern sensibilities. We want our heroes to be gentlemen, after all. 😉

          The rest of the Outlander series can be found at the library.

  13. Very good points. You know the old saw about those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history being destined to repeat them. I can see it happening right now. Too many people have forgotten or never learned.

  14. I also enjoy reading historical novels. They give me a look into the past and a new appreciation of what I now have–although it would be lovely to have servants around to do my bidding. LOL With my luck, I’d more likely be one of the servants.
    I was born long enough ago to recall helping my mother do the laundry. The washing machine had one function–wash clothes and household cottons and linens. That part was powered by an electric motor. The rest was by hand with a hand-operated wringer attached to one side. You fed wet clothes, etc. between the two rollers of the wringer, caught them on the other side, and dropped them into a tub of rinse water. When my parents bought their first automatic washer, we all stood around and gaped at the wonderful new machine as it pre-washed, washed, rinsed, and spun clothes partially dry.
    We had an icebox, not refrigerator, with a drip pan underneath to catch water from the melting ice in the top compartment. The iceman would come around on a regular schedule. He had large blocks of ice, packed in sawdust (no refrigeration in those days) in the back of his truck. He usually attracted a bunch of children, including me. If he was in a good mood, he’d chip off a fat sliver of ice for each one before hefting a block of ice onto his shoulder to deliver to the housewife. Of course he carried it into the kitchen and set it in the icebox.
    BTW, to show how things change, when I began teaching in 1956, all female teachers wore dresses or skirts and blouses and certainly stockings. In 1958, I was the first female at the elementary school where I taught to wear a pant suit.

    • Barbara, I remember the old wringer washing machines. They weren’t easy to use and could be dangerous. My mom got her hand caught in the wringer more than once. (And yes, that’s where that saying comes from.)

      Good on you for being a pantsuit pioneer! I think it was the 1960s miniskirts that made pantsuits really acceptable. I remember a male teacher saying he’d rather see girls in pants in his class than the bare legs in miniskirts.

  15. I love reading historical romance. Because of the restrictions placed on women it can create very interesting conflicts. And…I agree about birth control.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jeanine. The societal restrictions are good for conflict, esp. the arranged marriage, which works well in a historical setting, but often seems really contrived in a contemporary.

  16. I’m a day late, but I only just found your post, an excellent, thought-provoking one, too. I write 1880s Americana, and though the people are quite modern, they are basically Victorians, with all the social mores that go along with that categorization. I try to create independent women for the time, without making them seem anachronistic. It’s a fine line to walk, being historically accurate while making my heroines a little different, so they stand out enough to catch the hero’s notice. Again, great post. Thanks.

    • It is a fine line, Sydney, but I think it’s a little easier in the later Victorian period. Women were thinking for themselves and carving out some new freedoms they didn’t have in earlier times.

  17. You had me right up to here: But steampunk is science fiction, not based on real life.

    That’s when I gasped and clutched my chest as though having a heart attack.

    This is a common misnomer which is dragging the reputation of speculative fiction down. in fact, women should be reading speculative fiction for many of the same reasons you pointed out for historical romance.

    Speculative fiction isn’t based on history, but it is based on real life. Characters must respond consistent with how readers expect them to respond, and the issues are many of the same ones current society faces. In fact, speculative fiction has long been known to be a vehicle for dealing with issues that are too sensitive to be rationally discussed ‘in real life’ by placing them in another context that highlights the absurdity of the issue.

    Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is fantasy, so I guess it’s not based on real life. But wait – it deals with the real life issue of racism through the device of speciesism. Ender’s Game (science fiction) dealt with the issues of war and fear and dehumanising the enemy (among others than I can’t recall right now) with a big focus on morality and the idea of does the end justify the means.

    • Ciara, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I certainly didn’t mean to disrespect or misrepresent steampunk. I adore reading it. My point was that it isn’t history as it was lived, but rather an extrapolation on what might have been, if the technology and society had developed differently. Minus the vampires, werewolves and zombies, of course. (At least I didn’t mislabel it as fantasy, as some people have done, and insist that fantasy characters are an integral element.)

      You make an excellent point about why women should read spec fiction, as well. The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist classic. Gene Roddenberry addressed many a social issue in Star Trek, in ways that wouldn’t have been so readily received had he used a contemporary setting.

      In fact, if you’d like to write a blog on Why Women Should Read Speculative Fiction, I’d be delighted to post it!

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