Can Romance Novels Be Feminist? Well, Actually ...

by Maya Rodale
Feng Li/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Most people know them as bodice rippers, trashy books, and literary porn, but romance novels may actually be the most pro-feminist books you're not reading. Romance novels — unlike most other literature — always put women in a starring role, reward their rule-breaking, and guarantee their sexual pleasure. These are the books where women can lean in, fall in love and live happily ever after. (Never thought about it like that, eh?)

Fans have declared August to be Read a Romance Month. Nearly 100 authors are sharing their reasons to celebrate romance and encouraging readers to pick up one of these “trashy” books without shame or guilt, and instead revel in the pleasure of an uplifting and empowering story. It’s also a chance to check out how the genre has changed from the early days of overbearing alpha heroes, simpering heroines, and “forced seduction.” The modern romance heroine is feisty and independent and the modern hero makes sure the heroine always comes first after she says "yes." Their happily-ever-after is a relationship that is a true partnership.

Intrigued? Good. In honor of Read a Romance Month, here are nine romance authors sharing their favorite feminist romance novel. They'd know best, right?

1. Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas

Click here to buy.

"This novel has one of the most unique and intense heroines I’ve ever read. Bryony Asquith is a doctor in an age when women weren’t doctors. She has a passion for her work, and a single-minded focus that takes her into a much bigger world than most women of her class and time would’ve experienced. She’s utterly fearless, independent and brilliant, and totally unconventional. Her rejection of social expectations sets her apart from almost every other historical heroine I’ve read, and if that doesn’t make a great feminist heroine, I don’t know what does.”

—Kristan Higgins, author of In Your Dreams

2. The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

Click here to buy.

"I can't think of a more feminist romance novel than The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. The Victorian-era heroine, Frederica 'Free' Marshall is not only a suffragette, but the publisher of a newspaper written by women, for women, and about women. Her hero, Edward Clark, is a blackmailer and forger — as devoted to his cynicism as Free is to her ideals. But what's most irresistible about this brilliant romance is that these two intellectual opposites don't spend the story trying to get the better of each other. Instead, they push one another to be their best."

—Tessa Dare, author of Say Yes to the Marquess

3. The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

Click here to buy.

“The best romances are the ones where heroines take control of their lives and their worlds to achieve their goals. The heroine of The Raven Prince is a widow who — in need of a job and without many prospects as a woman in the 1700s — becomes secretary to the dark and terrifying Earl of Swartingham. She quickly discovers that the job isn't the only thing she wants. The result is a tremendously sexy, tremendously empowering love story that will have you buying everything Hoyt has written.”

—Sarah MacLean, author of Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover

4. Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer

Click here to buy.

"How many heroines have the guts to hold a gun on the hero? And to use it? Mary Challoner does. When that dissolute rake, the Marquis of Vidal, attempts to spirit her silly sister off to France, Mary intervenes, and shows the jaded Vidal that women are much more than playthings — even if it means putting a bullet into him in the process. Sensible, strong-willed, and thoroughly competent, Mary Challoner is the very model of the modern major romance heroine. Not only is Devil's Cub great fun in its own right (who doesn't like to see a rake tamed?) but it paved the way for such later romance classics as Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels."

—Lauren Willig, author of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

5. Cry No More by Linda Howard

Click here to buy.

"A fab romance novel I have read and re-read is Cry No More by Linda Howard, a classic! The heroine, Milla, is determined to find her son who was kidnapped years ago. Everyone else has given up, but she perseveres. This type of love, determination, and loyalty is key. When the hero comes into her life, he's as dangerous as the people she's tracking, hot as sin, and Milla handles him with a kick-ass attitude I adore."

—Jennifer Probst, author of Searching for Perfect

6. The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne

Click here to buy.

"The heroine, Justine DeCabrillac, has survived war, heartbreak, disillusionment, and betrayal, and yet she finds the courage to love and trust again. Without surrendering an iota of her resourcefulness, brilliance, or independence, she forges a partnership with a man worthy of her respect and loyalty. Moreover, she does so in a manner that's both historically credible, given her egalitarian French politics, and romantically convincing. All heroine, all woman, all the time."

—Grace Burrows, author of The Traitor

7. Naked In Death by Nora Roberts (Writing as J.D. Robb)

Click here to buy

"I find the heroine, Eve, to be one of the most amazing female leads out there. She is strong in spirit and body and soul and her life doesn't hinge on Roarke but is certainly enhanced by it."

—Jill Shalvis, author of It's In His Kiss

8. The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

Click here to buy.

"My favorite feminist romances were the so-called 'bodice rippers' of the late 1970s and early 1980s — the early works of Kathleen Woodiwiss, Joanna Lindsey, Laurie McBain, etc. The heroes in these books had all the money, all the power — the heroines none. Yet what happened? She always won. Her courage, brains, and determination trumped the poor hero’s macho brawn every time. Great feminist fantasy."

—Susan Elizabeth Phillips, author of Heroes Are My Weakness

9. Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex

Click here to buy

"Elizabeth Essex's Almost a Scandal is about a woman whose family has served in the British Navy for time immemorial. So when her younger brother is assigned to report for his first duty — and he runs away instead — she takes his spot to uphold the family honor. It has all the best of 'girl takes on boys duties' that you can imagine."

—Courtney Milan, author of The Suffragette Scandal