Dear Hillary Clinton,
When your daughter, Chelsea, mentioned in her speech at the Democratic National Convention that you both loved “Pride and Prejudice,” I was delighted and not at all surprised. Elizabeth Bennet is a superb example of a romance heroine: intelligent, articulate, independent and wonderfully imperfect. She is also an incredibly unconventional character for her time, placing a high value on her own happiness, insisting that others treat her with respect and marrying a man only on her terms. No wonder Darcy falls in love with her — and no wonder “Pride and Prejudice” is such a beloved romance novel.
So how disappointing it was to hear you mischaracterize “the whole romance novel industry” in a recent interview with Washington Post editorial board member Jonathan Capehart. You suggested that men and women gather abusive attitudes from reading romance novels about “women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance.”
As a romance author who has always loved the genre (and as a Wellesley graduate who has always loved and admired you), I’m glad that attitudes about women are being discussed during this incredible moment in American history. But your comment, especially pulled out of context, doesn’t represent all romance novels. It’s a misleading cliche about the genre — like so many misleading cliches about your fabulous trailblazing life.
The romance genre has undergone remarkable changes in the past 30 years. Romance readers give a variety of reasons for why they love the genre: It’s empowering, it’s an escape, it explores the complexities of relationships in ways that cause them to reflect deeply on their own lives. Incidentally, they’re the least cynical people you’ll meet, and that makes them especially wonderful — necessary, actually — in this day and age. It is never a romance novel if it condones or normalizes abuse or makes a woman less than she is.
Many of my novels are set in the Victorian era, when women were restricted in what they could wear, what they could learn, what they could earn. As idealized beings who belonged in the house, women were supposed to go from maidenhood to motherhood. They were required to be demure, virtuous and sexless, placed on a pedestal so high that their voices could never be heard.
Obviously, that definition of the ideal woman was a trap — a woman is trapped any time she lets someone else define her. And no one understands this better than you. I think that’s why you have such an extraordinary record of fighting for women’s causes. It’s only by expanding our views of what women desire, what women are and could be, that our freedom is gradually secured.
I just finished writing a romance novel inspired by a real-life woman, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who in 1873 became the first licensed female physician in Britain. (Naturally, the British Medical Association promptly changed its rules to prevent any other women from joining for the next 20 years.) But Dr. Anderson went on to become the first dean of a British medical school and also the first female mayor in England. She also married and raised a family. You would not be surprised, I’m sure, by some of the negative things that were said and written about her. But nevertheless, she persisted.
Women deserve to be recognized as multifaceted. And they have the right to be complex sexual beings and to go to work without being harassed or groped and to spend their hard-earned money on whatever kind of books they like.
Romance novels are about wholeness and the right of readers (and all women) to be accepted and loved for who they are. To achieve. To be heard. To be imperfect. To get back up on their feet after they’ve been knocked down.
During your legendary Wellesley College commencement speech in 1969, you looked into an unknown future and said, “Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it. Not now.” You headed forward fearlessly and achieved so many of your dreams, including love, marriage and family.
This is why I consider you an honorary romance heroine — no pedestal required, just a pantsuit.
Lisa Kleypas is the author of both historical romance and contemporary women’s fiction. Her upcoming novel, “Hello Stranger,” will be published in February.