The Single Mother and the Law: Romance novels making room for female voices in patriarchal spaces

Publishes as Michelle Douglas, also a PhD Candidate (University of Newcastle, Australia)
Session 6.3 Power and Patriarchy

Abstract:  Single mothers are routinely subjected to scorn and censure from the media and political discourse, often dismiss as conniving welfare queens and a drain on society.  Research proves these images are fundamentally false.  However the biases these representations generate expose single mothers to potentially punitive measures.  Nowhere is this mor starkly reflected than within the patriarchal structure of the law.  The law has been a primarily male province/space.  Feminists in law and literature studies are demanding the inclusion of texts in law and literature courses that represent woman and her particular demands upon the law.  [Douglas’s] paper argues that romance novels have the potential to forge such as space for the female voice.

Douglas references a group of 12 single title contemporary romance novels for her doctorate.  In eight of the novels, the heroine is confronted with a custody battle, or more specifically, the threat of a custody battle.  The corpus was not chosen with this theme in mind, it was coincidental, but as Janet Fink notes: “[romance fiction] takes the specific problems faced by women in a male-dominated world and explores possibilities for change and resolution”. This paper explores how these novels portray the injustices rife in the legal system, revealing an apparatus designed to promote male interests, often at the expense of women, and in doing so, how they are issuing a challenge that protests against the current status quo.

Law and women: 

  • Sigma of single motherhood can threaten the family unit mother has created for herself
  • Law fails women
  • justice system is set up by men, fails by not telling detail
  • Eg abuse, rape etc

Shelter Mountain (Virgin River #2) – Robyn Carr (2007)

[note:  this is one of the examples from the 12 books being studied]

For the second time in a year a woman arrives in the small town of Virgin River trying to escape the past.

John “Preacher” Middleton is about to close the bar when a young woman and her three-year-old son come in out of a wet October night. A marine who has seen his share of pain, Preacher knows a crisis when he sees one—the woman is covered in bruises. He wants to protect them, and he wants to punish whoever did this to her, but he knows immediately that this inclination to protect is something much more. Paige Lassiter has stirred up emotions in this gentle giant of a man—emotions that he has never allowed himself to feel.

But when Paige’s ex-husband turns up in Virgin River, Preacher knows his own future hangs in the balance. And if there’s one thing in the marines’ motto of Semper Fidelis—always faithful—has taught him, it’s that some things are worth fighting for.

This is the 2nd book in a series set in a town populated by former marines, who have set up a protective environment.  The book is a protest against the law:

  • Heroine is a battered woman on the run
  • A violent man’s access to his child is more important that the mother’s life
  • A restraining order provides an abuser with the victim’s address
  • Law is impotent to protect her:
  • Stakes are high for the heroine – Heroine is urged to use/trust the law to resolve the issue with her husband
  • Consequences for the heroine: husband finds and beats her, he gets a light sentence, and she’s told to “watch her back”.
  • When the legal system proves ineffective (again) the heroine’s new community moves to save her
  • It takes a vigilante group of hardened military men to save her, not the law
  • Reader investment in the idea of justice, even if it means going outside the law
  • The author generates empathy for the concept of going outside the law for the sake of justice

Overall there is a subtext is that if the law were efficient & fair, ordinary citizens wouldn’t have to move outside its parameters to keep people safe. There’s an idea of justice. The heroine is forced to endure hardships that an unfair legal system inflicts.

Romance novels depict women as being autonomous with rich lives beyond men, and can provide a tool into better understanding the struggles of women.

Women are subject of narrative rather than object.  The hypermasculine men are all nurturers in this case.

HOWEVER, even though the author has created a female focused story, the power still belongs with men, they are the ones who save the day (even though it is outside the male dominated legal system).

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