• Elis Angelico

Why do I Write Romance? The Answer is Simple: Gloria Steinem.

My freshman year in high school was difficult. I’d moved from Pennsylvania to Northville, Michigan, an affluent suburb of Detroit that had the distinction of being named the snobbiest in the state a few decades after my graduation. I am white, like 90% of the population of Northville, but was born in Brazil to a mother who had no interest in chocolate chip cookies or prom and spoke with an accent. Her “otherness” was enough to warrant being told to “go back to your own country”. These factors, plus my social awkwardness, acne, and low-self esteem, made me an outsider at my new school.

My only friends were sisters who lived in a neighboring city and used their grandmother’s address to attend Northville’s better schools. It was in their home that I stumbled upon my first romance novel. After picking up one, a Johanna Lindsey title, I was addicted.

Splayed on the floor, usually with a cigarette in one hand, I would speed read through rogue gentlemen giving virgin maidens their first orgasms and guaranteed happily ever afters. They were always virgins. There were always orgasms, albeit usually subtly implied and not directly named. And the endings were always happy. For a girl who felt out of place in the world, romance truly made me feel better.

Not as feared as drugs or sex, reading romance illicted enough disdain that the books had to be sought out in secret, smuggled in with stealth, and read without a whisper. To do otherwise was to risk contempt. My first experience with this reality came outside the safety of my friends’ home. Upon seeing the heaving bosom on the cover of my novel, a stranger rolled their eyes and commented that romance was trash. I carried that embarrassment with me and it’s what kept me from assuming the mantle of romance writer for more than twenty years—until Gloria Steinem told me it was okay.

When I graduated from high school I stopped reading romance. Romance wasn't for adults. I wouldn’t do so again until I visited New York City in May 2018. That’s when I checked for events at The Strand and decided to attend the discussion “Feminists Take on the Romance Genre”.

This event was the first time I had ever heard anyone question why romance was so ridiculed. Could it be that books by womxn, about womxn’s pleasure, for womxn* enrage the patriarchy far more than any valid intellectual critique? My answer was a resounding yes. I realized that I’d denied myself romance because of sexism.

Some of the most successful historical romance authors sat on the panel that evening (Sarah Maclean, Julia Quinn, Maya Rodale, Eloisa James—a #romancesowhite gathering that The Strand seems committed to not repeating) but the superstar who garnered my attention was in the audience. Gloria Steinem.

I didn’t notice her presence until I was in an interminable line to get the book I’d bought (in exchange for entrance) signed. A womxn, much younger than myself, noted that someone in particular was the cause for the delay. I looked at the direction she was pointing and immediately realized who it was. Gloria Steinem.

I had never seen her in person, nor read any of her many books, nor identified as a feminist for most of my life and nonetheless I knew it was her. That’s how much her existence matters. I took several grainy cell phone pictures of her from a distance (observation, she’s wildly gorgeous) but didn’t muster up the strength to approach her personally. It was Gloria Steinem!

The young womxn continued to complain and I hushed her. “Don’t you know? That’s Gloria Steinem,” I chastised. She gave me a blank look and in that moment I knew I was 1) old and 2) free to write romance.

I’m self publishing my first romance novella, Courageous Lovers, almost two years after that encounter. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t given up my passion of reading romance because of external judgement. Too bad it took Gloria Steinem showing up for romance for me to think it was okay too. But limiting ourselves to live up to others expectations and demands and preconceived notions happens to the best of us, often without us even realizing it so I try to be gentle with myself. What I couldn’t do then, I do now.

I’ve been warned that some readers will hate the heroine of Courageous Lovers because she doesn’t want children and she doesn’t sacrifice what’s best for her to please others. I want everyone to love my book but I’m okay with those who don’t. I’m willing to risk others’ disapproval in the pursuit of writing the characters I believe in (rarely virgins, explicitly orgasming and making their own happy endings). I love being a feminist romance writer and can only hope that I’m lucky enough to touch and inspire other readers.

(*thoughts on representing gender complexity with language)

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