Friday, May 16, 2014

Feminism and Romance Authors: Survey Results

Thanks to RNFF readers who answered my call for suggestions and advice about a survey I was crafting, a survey designed to explore romance authors views about identity and feminism. Thanks to your input, I was able to design and administer said survey for the first time earlier this month to attendees of the NECRWA "Let Your Imagination Take Flight" annual conference. I've been tallying and ruminating over the completed surveys, and am pleased to be able to share some raw data from the study with RNFF readers, as well as some preliminary thoughts about what that data may mean.

Approximately 170 writers attended the conference. Surveys were distributed to all attendees via the conference tote bag, given out to attendees at registration. 37 completed surveys were returned to the box at the registration desk, for a response rate of about 21%. A few folks asked for more time; I'm expecting to receive one or two more surveys on Sunday, at the next NECRWA monthly meeting.

The first page of the survey asked respondents to supply demographic information, the raw data from which is listed below. The majority of respondents identified themselves as female, white, heterosexual, and had grown up in the Northeast, all fairly expected results. 75% of the respondents reported family incomes of at $50,000 or higher; given that attendees had to pay between $199 and $229 to register, it's perhaps not surprising to find income levels on the higher rather than the lower end of the spectrum.

The only result that I found somewhat surprising was the education level of respondents. Every respondent had at least attended some undergraduate college; 19, or over 50%, had completed a graduate degree. Romance authors, at least those attending the NECRWA conference, have education levels far higher than the American population as a whole.


1. What is your age?
18-25: 0
26-35: 4
36-45: 5
45-55: 14
55-65: 11
over 65: 3

2. In what part of the U.S. did you grow up?
Northeast: 28
South: 3
Midwest: 3
Southwest: 1
West: 0
I did not grow up in the United States: 2
One person added: all over

3. What is your race? (choose all that apply)
White: 31
Black or African-American: 1
Asian or Pacific Islander: 1
Native American/American Indian: 0
      1 mixed (unspecified)
      1 White & Asian or Pacific Islander
      1 blank
      1 “human”

4. What is your sexual orientation?
Heterosexual: 34
Homosexual: 1
Bisexual: 1
I describe myself in a different way (please specify): 0
Blank: 1

5. Are you yourself of Hispanic or Latino descent, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or some other Latin American background?
                          YES: 0     NO: 37

6. What gender do you identify as?
Female: 37
Male: 0
I describe myself in a different way (please specify): 0

7. What is the highest level of education you have reached?
Some high school: 0
Completed high school: 0
Some undergraduate college: 6
Completed undergraduate college: 8
Some graduate school: 4
Completed a graduate degree: 19

9. What is your average yearly family income?
Under $10,000: 0
$10,000-$25,000: 1
$25,000-$50,000: 4
$50,000-$100,000: 11
Over $100,000: 17
Blank: 4

The next set of questions asked about respondents' publishing experiences. I wondered if published authors had a greater or lesser investment in feminism than unpublished ones? Did authors who self-published have stronger feminist leanings than their less entrepreneurial colleagues? What about authors whose publishing contributed a significant amount to their overall family income?

I'm not sure it's possible to suggest any answers to these questions yet, given the small pool of respondents. But here is the data, FYI:


8. Have you published your romance fiction?
             YES: 15   NO: 18   BLANK: 4
(but all 4 blanks went on to check boxes below, though…)

If yes, in what format(s)? (check all that apply):
Self-published: 3
Published with an e-book publisher: 2
Published with a print-book publisher: 4
Multiple: 9
      2 who published in all three formats
      7 who published in 2 of the 3 formats

Blank: 1

10. What percentage of your yearly family income comes from your romance writing?

     0%: 19 (16 b/c they haven’t published yet; 3 who have been published)
     0-25%: 10
     25%-50%: 4
     50%-100%: 0 

One interesting fact: the 4 respondents who reported that between 25-50% of their yearly family income came from their romance writing all both self-published AND published with print publishers.

The second page of the survey was designed to explore respondents' views about feminism and identity. Many of the questions were open-ended, meaning that it is difficult to give quantitative summaries of answers. For the more open-ended questions, I've report on common patterns or themes.


Huffington Post poll results 2013
1. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I consider myself very much a feminist: 23
I consider myself somewhat feminist: 4
I do not consider myself as either a feminist or not a feminist: 8
I consider myself more of a non-feminist than a feminist: 1
I do not consider myself a feminist at all: 0

The majority of respondents self-identified as somewhat or very much a feminist (over 70%), a higher number than I had anticipated. I'm curious to administer the survey in other parts of the country, to see if romance authors in more politically conservative areas identify more or less strongly with feminism as do those in the liberal northeast.

3. How do you define feminism?

9 respondents left this question blank, including 3 who had checked off "I consider myself very much a feminist" in response to question 1. One respondent wrote "Couldn't answer if I tried."

Of those who did response to this question, 18 used the words "equal" or "equality" in their definitions.
     One simply wrote "Equality"
      5 referred to equality for women without mentioning to whom they were equal (i.e, made no mention of males or men)
      7 wrote more specifically of women's equality with men
      3 wrote of equality between "genders"
      1 wrote of equality between "sexes"
      1 respondent (as part of a longer definition), wrote "It [feminism] is not to disadvantage men. It promotes equality for women and men"

Respondents who wrote of "equal" or "equality" discussed many different aspects of equality, including:
      Social changes
      Public life
      Freedom of choice
      Political, social, and economic
      Intellectual ability
      Health/body issues

Many used the word "belief" to describe feminism; fewer used the word "promote" or "movement," suggesting that feminism is something one does, as well as something one believes. 

6 respondents focused not on issues of equality, but on a pro-woman stance:
     • "empowering women to reach for happiness and success in all areas of life"
     • "the belief that women can do what they want... what works for their life. Full time work. Full time motherhood. Some combination thereof."
     • "A feminist is someone who values the innate qualities of women and seeks fair treatment of both sexes"

Definitions that did not fall within either of these two categories:
   •  "A worldview that supports the reality that women must rescue themselves and others from 'benign' and abusive forms of sexism"
    • "Feminism is a step forward in humanism. As a feminist one does not discriminate due to gender. Further, as a humanist, one does not discriminate against someone because of race, religion, or anything else"
    •  "over the top pro woman"
     • "A woman with a chip on their shoulder who thinks men are out to get them and the world is unfair"
     •"GIRLS RULE. MEN are okay too. Everyone is okay."

4. Where/from whom did you learn this definition of feminism? (NOTE: several respondents checked off more than one box)

Family member: 7
Friend(s): 9 (one write-in specified “writer’s critique group”)
Popular media (magazines, TV, newspaper, etc.): 9
School: 10
Other (please specify)
     Self: 8
     Unspecified: 2
     Life: 2
     Independent research: 1
     “inherent sense of equality”: 1
     “interacting with intelligent, engaged people & reading their work: 1
     “too long ago to remember: 1
Blank: 4 (with one note, “None! Where have I been?” and one “Everywhere”)

5. If you do consider yourself a feminist, have you ever felt that your feminist ideals were in conflict with your romance writing?

N/A or Blank: 9
Do not write romance: 1
No (even though they checked off “I do not consider myself as either a feminist or not a feminist): 2
No: 19
• “No! I don’t write anything I wouldn’t want to live through”
• “Not at all! I think it’s a feminist exercise—stories for, by, and about women finding love and happiness”
• “No, I write romance because I am a feminist”
• “No. Wrote a paper in college bout how romance novels were feminist”
• “Maybe I should but I don’t. I have not deeply investigated that idea”

YES: 4
• “Not with the writing, but in terms of getting some of it published”
• “Yes, sometimes. At others, I feel romance is the best format for exploring female agency”
• “My romance writing twists convention, so I make sure there is not conflict. However, I am learning to write in the context of a formula that is counter to feminism in some respects”
• I don’t like the covers on many romance novels—usually those where a submissive/adoring female is draped over a strong muscular man”

6. Has an editor, agent, or fellow author ever advised you to change your writing in ways that made it seem (to you) less feminist?

YES: 7    NO: 25     BLANK: 1   N/A: 1

“Not yet”: 1
Do not write romance: 1
“To make it more feminist”: 1

One of the No’s wrote: “my editor is very feminist (maybe why she acquired my work?). My heroines are doctors, lawyers, engineers and CEOs."

Comments from those who wrote “yes”:
• “Yes, often”
• “YES—mostly editors, asking for more alpha male behavior that my female characters should/would not tolerate”
• “Perhaps. I was advised to take out a subplot on overcoming a past with domestic violence as irrelevant/unnecessary, where to me that was a big part of the character’s growth/arc. And she triumphed in the end, too, becoming so strong and loving and self-actualized”
• “Yes—but it isn’t important because I didn’t/wouldn’t do it”
• “Yes. So I went with a different agent or editor or publisher”
• “Yes. Fellow author has suggested that feminism is irrelevant in life and in novels”

7. If a romance author openly declares her/himself to be a feminist, do you think that she/he is likely to alienate potential readers? Why or why not?

No: 4
No additional comments

Yes: 5
• “Yes. Many people still perceive feminists to be angry man-haters”
• “Yes. Feminism is misunderstood. Also some feminist activists are contemptuous of popular culture and alienate those whoa re ignorant of actual feminism”
• “Yes. Because art is for entertainment, first and foremost, and the reader should not feel like he/she needs to intellectualize the story. Political views have to be separate in so much as they are not a necessity to enjoying the story, but that the infusion of views (which should be integrated in the author) is integrated in the story, and the story retains its entertainment value”
• “Yes, because the right-win radio crowd has really ruined the term with their talk of “feminazi.” They are listened to more than I would like to admit.

Maybe/Perhaps: 15

• Several commented that an author might lose some readers, but gain others: “Maybe some because of different perceptions and misperceptions about feminisms. Others would find it very appealing (e.g. all my friends)
• Several referred to how the author declares her feminist identity: “It really depends on the way she defines her version of feminism. The term is too open to interpretation to make a hard and fast judgment”; “If [in] strident terms, yes. Otherwise no”; “Does she simply defend her rights as a woman? Or does she attack/demean others who disagree?”
• Several focused on readers: “Depends on who their market is”; “Educated, thoughtful readers want more balance in partnerships. There are readers that feel more comfortable in outmoded stereotypes or who have been brainwashed into ‘submitting’ to male partners who would resist”
• “I think the answer to that may be ‘it’s a regional thing’”
• “Any author taking any stance or opinion in public risks alienating someone!”

Blank: 1

8. Some romance authors argue that romance as a genre, because it focuses on women’s experiences, is by its very nature feminist. Others argue that because romance privileges the romantic relationship over other aspects of a person’s life, the genre as a whole is not feminist. Do you consider romance as a genre to be inherently feminist or not? Why?

YES: 7
“Overall, I do. A fulfilled emotional life would seem to be a desirable goal for anyone, male or female”
• “Very much feminist because it usually, today, shows the woman to be in equal relationship to her partner—exploring different ways to do that and live a full life.”
• “Yes, inherently feminist. Concerned with women’s individual lives, quest for finding another person who values them”
• “Yes, inherently feminist, though it has had its missteps. It’s still an amazing dialogue among women”
• “It’s feminist in that it’s written by women for women. But even men need romance in their lives”
• “In the very broad definition of feminism, romance writing focuses on the romance relationship which is an important part of every woman’s life. There is simply not enough time in the scope of the novel to include very element of a woman’s life”
•Relationships are important to everyone. It is okay to prioritize them in writing. It is also just good storytelling”

• “It is certainly an ideal vehicle for feminism, but I don’t think the genre as a whole is feminist, and not just because there is no common definition of feminism with regard to romance”
• “I think it can go either way”
• “Neither. If the author is true to the characters and story, it is about the transformative power of love—not about gender”
• “Neither. Why must things be either/or? Feminism is not a yes/ho, it’s a belief, a conviction”
• “Intelligently-written romance can be positive and feminist. Too much category romance remains in outmoded, sexist clichés and is not feminist”
• “The romance genre is inherently feminist because it gives women access to publishing. Anti-feminist because what we write often promotes stereotypes”
• “Romance is not in itself feminist or non-feminist; the presentation makes it so”
• “I don’t believe romance is any more feminist or not feminist than SF or mysteries or action adventure”

NO: 7
• “No, not inherently because there are elements within the genre that are conservative. I think there is a strain of patriarchy in the genre”
• “I don’t think of it as related to feminism in any way”
• “No. I don’t think women’s rights are a women-only issue. Men have mothers and sisters and daughters”??
• “No. Men read and write romance. Women read and write ‘male’ topic novels”
• “No! I’ve known many men—some homosexual, some not, who enjoy romance novels. I think they cater to all markets, I just think we perceive it to be a genre women read when the don’t have a significant other”
• “Not feminist; realistic”

It's getting late here in survey-analysis land, so I'll just leave you with the data, and look forward to hearing your thoughts about what it all means, as well as future directions this research project might take.

Photo/Illustration Credits:
Education pie chart: Common Knowledge
Feminism identity chart: Ida Ellen Bach blog, from information from the Huffington Post
Whiteboard feminism definitions: State Press Magazine
Rebecca West: Science in Our World

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Here's a funny story. When I taught 8th grade, this happened in every class every year. I always had a review day before a test. To make it interesting, I would break class into 2 teams for a review game and winning team got 5 extra points on test. I usually had 2 boys or 2 girls be captain to pick out the teams. At the beginning of year, the boys would insist on doing boys against girls. I always said that wouldn't be fair because the girls are smarter. Then they would insist. Of course, they lost. Next time, they demanded a re-match. Same results. No complaints when I made either 2 boys or 2 girls captains. Several times during the year, classes would be shortened for one reason or another. I would say since the period is short, let's just do boys against girls. The boys protested wasn't fair because the girls were smarter. LOL