The Flame and the Flower, published by Avon Books in 1972, is widely considered the first modern romance novel*. I was thinking about how many blog posts I have read — recently — that feature a reader who wants to try the romance genre, and picks up Woodiwiss. Not because she wants to begin at the beginning of the genre, but as representative of what romance is today. Or how many articles in mainstream media refer to romances as “bodice rippers”, a term used by the publishing industry in 1972 to distinguish the new romance genre from the gothic novel.
I don’t mean to offer a Whig view of the genre’s history – that anything newer must be better. I make no claim about the relative literary merits of Woodiwiss versus the supposed “glorious present” of Roberts, Kleypas and Quinn. It’s just so odd to me that folks could think a mass market, pop culture phenomenon has not changed with the culture and the reading and buying public. If you wanted to get into video games, would you look for PONG?
So I came up with a totally nonexhaustive and idiosyncratic list of things that were different in 1972.
When the genre was born …
- Contraception for unmarried people was a felony in many states (this changed that year, thanks to Eisenstadt v. Baird).
- Abortion was illegal in most states (this changed in 1973, thanks to Roe v. Wade).
- Marital rape was not a crime (South Dakota criminalized it in 1975, and other states followed).
- Women college students could not take certain courses reserved for men, such as criminal justice. (Title IX in 1972 addressed this.)
- There were no athletic scholarships — and often no collegiate sports, period — for women. (Title IX again)
- Homosexuality was identified as a mental disorder in the DSM-II (the diagnosis was not totally expunged until 1986).
- Most medical and law schools limited the number of women admitted to 15 or fewer per school (Title IX again).
- No fault divorce did not exist in most states (divorce laws have historically been some of the most punitive for women).
- We had no ADA, which meant women with disabilities could legally be discriminated against, for example, by refusing to hire or firing a qualified employee because of her disability.
- Employers could legally refuse to hire, or fire, pregnant persons or persons thought likely to become pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed in 1978).
- A woman’s prior sexual history and past conduct was openly considered fair game, regardless of its relevance to the case, in a defense against rape (rape shield laws were a few years away yet).
- It was legal to refuse to extend credit to a person on the basis of her race, marital status, sex, or age. It was common for creditors to count a man’s salary at 100% and a woman’s at 75%, for example, and for stores to refuse to issue independent credit cards to married women. (This changed thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974).
Cars looked like this:
Fashion looked like this:
There was no such thing as a personal computer, cell phone, or internet. Romance novelists probably used these:
Pong, the very first home video game, was introduced:
In 1974, anthropologist Sherry Ortner published her classic “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”, still anthologized in most women’s studies textbooks, and often taught by yours truly. In it, she argues that women are seen as closer to nature than men, and somewhat lesser, or more ambiguously situated, in terms of their active participation in production, history, consciousness, etc. Ortner’s style of argument is typical of high theory in the heyday of the Second Wave, and therefore problematic, but given its date of publication, I thought I would throw it in here. Perhaps romance novels, like women, are seen as endlessly reproductive, not creative or conscious, rerunning on mindless iterations of a formula outside of time?
But if so much about our world has changed since 1972 — 39 years ago – isn’t it possible romance novels and their readers have, too?
*Regular readers will know, given my reviews of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and my several posts that refer approvingly to Pam Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel, which identifies Pamela as a romance, as well as the fact that I am currently working on a romance project with a colleague in the English dept who writes on sensation novels of the 18th century, this is not my personal view.