Suffering a Suffragist: An 1880s Romance

When Nursing Clio put out the call for the Romancing Clio series, I searched Goodreads for historical romance novels in my field and was surprised to find eighty-two suffrage-themed romance novels, including one set in Texas, my specialty. Bobbi Smith’s The Lady and the Texan looked like an enjoyable romp about Amanda Taylor, a young woman from Texas “who could ride and shoot with the best of the boys,” and whose father sent her “back East for a more refined education.”1 On the cover, Amanda wears a corseted dress and a cameo on a black velvet choker that no one would dare wear in the actual Texas heat. Her love interest, Jack Logan, wears a vest with no shirt underneath, which would certainly leave him with some interesting tan lines. It looked like a fun read. I originally wasn’t concerned that the book was written in 1997, but this was probably a mistake. While Smith attempts to subvert some common tropes, romance novels have improved in their coverage of race and sex in the last twenty years, and this book shows its age.

In the cover for The Lady and the Texan, the love interest wears a vest with no shirt underneath, which would certainly leave him with some interesting tan lines. (Courtesy Ebay)

When Amanda is expelled from school for her suffrage and temperance activism (Amanda is in all the movements), her father sends his ex–Confederate Army buddy and former Texas Ranger Jack to see her safely home to Texas. Jack quit the Rangers after a devilish woman (literally, her criminal name is El Diablo) seduced and stabbed him nearly to death, and as a result, he doesn’t trust women. He initially meets Amanda at a saloon where she and other activists are destroying liquor bottles with axes. Smith’s main characters are a familiar pair: two decent people who don’t want to admit they’re into each other. The fact that Jack is a generation older than Amanda never seems to be an issue.

Despite the tropes embodied in the two main characters, several others made the book worth the read. Cody is both the best bounty hunter in Texas and a woman. When a band of outlaws escapes from prison and begins hunting the Texas Rangers who put them there (including Jack), Cody resolves to find the bandits before they find Jack, who is unaware of the plot.

My absolute favorite character is an older woman, Eileen, who Amanda’s grandmother hires to be her chaperone. After arriving in Texas, Eileen, Amanda, and Jack discover that Amanda’s father has been critically injured in an attack on the stage line he owns by a different set of bandits. (There are lots of bandits in Smith’s West Texas). Amanda, determined to keep the family business running until her father recovers, takes control of the business. There are three different damsel-in-distress scenes, but Smith subverts expectations by ensuring that a woman participates in saving the damsel, Amanda, each time. First, on the trio’s voyage by ship to Galveston, their fellow passenger, an abusive husband named Micah, attacks Amanda after she encourages his wife to leave him. Eileen picks up a china bowl, breaks it over Micah’s head, and then runs from the cabin to get help. Go Eileen! In another, the villain plotting against the stage line is revealed, and he responds by pointing a gun at Amanda’s head, while Jack points a gun at him. All of a sudden, a chair slides across the room at the villain, forcing him to stumble and allowing Jack to save Amanda. Again, our girl Eileen was the force behind the sliding chair. The final damsel scene is particularly fun. Amanda and Eileen stage a temperance march on a local bar to give cover to the bounty hunters, Cody and her husband Luke, so they can arrest the outlaw brothers, Willy and Hank, who are hunting Jack. As Eileen and Amanda gleefully smash liquor bottles, Cody arrests Willy, but Hank grabs Amanda, who ends up with a gun pointed to her head in a standoff for the second time in a couple of days. (It is amazing that she doesn’t have a nervous breakdown from the rough couple of weeks covered in the book!) The outlaw Willy then tries Cody: “Because she was a woman, he believed he could overpower her. But he’d never dealt with Cody Jameson Majors before.”2 Cody kills Willy. Jack shows up, and he and Luke kill Hank. Everyone lives happily ever after – it is a romance novel, after all. Some tropes do not go unchallenged: in the end, all three female main characters are married (Eileen even falls for Amanda’s dad!) and two of them, Cody and Amanda, are pregnant.

Disappointingly, the few times Amanda actually thinks about the suffrage movement while in Texas, she pictures it back East. She never gives thought to starting a movement in Texas, despite the facts that western states were the first to grant women the right to vote and that Texas became one of the few southern states to ratify the 19th Amendment.3

While it is an enjoyable read, the book also has problems that cannot be overlooked. Determined to run the line for her father, Amanda practices shooting, only to be frustrated by what a poor shot she is. Jack teaches her to draw in a “smooth motion … and then shoot from the hip,” which is incredibly bad advice in reality.4 (Shooting from the hip only works at a very close range, and it is clear that Amanda’s practice targets are across a field from her.) However, giddy from her now-successful shooting, Amanda and Jack have sex for the first time. The scene includes Jack discovering her intact hymen and concluding that she was a virgin, because apparently biology works differently in the world of my otherwise enjoyable, lighthearted read.

Further, Jack’s backstory is the Lost Cause in a nutshell. Smith writes that Jack’s “youth had been an idyllic time, growing up at Riverwood Plantation surrounded by a loving family. But then the war had come and the life he’d known had been destroyed forever.”5 Jack served in the Confederate Army with Amanda’s dad. During the war, Jack’s father and brothers, whom Smith describes as “perfect gentlemen,” all died. Smith manages to have a main character raised on a slave labor plantation and fight in the Confederate army without ever mentioning slavery. Further, the one black character, Isaac, works for Amanda’s dad and is a trusted employee who remains loyal even after other employees quit rather than work for a woman. Isaac and his parents left the deep South for Kansas after emancipation and then moved to Texas. In reality, many freedmen in Texas left as part of the Exoduster movement in the late 1870s, but very few of the so-called Texodusters returned.6

Native Americans get particularly poor coverage. When Jack, Amanda, and Eileen arrive in Galveston, the conversation is cringeworthy:

“What about Indians? Will I get to see any?” Eileen asked almost excitedly. Both Amanda and Jack gave her startled looks. “Why would you want to?” Amanda asked. “I don’t think you really want to see any Indians, at least not in West Texas,” Jack told her. “If the Comanche are close enough that you can see them, it’s a pretty sure bet that you won’t be seeing much of anything else, ever again.” “Oh.” Eileen looked frightened. “The Comanche are deadly. They’ll kill anyone who gets in their way. They’re so bloodthirsty that sometimes they kill just for the pleasure of it,” he explained. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t see any or hear of any while you’re in Texas.”7

The only other mention of Native Americans is Jack’s friend and world-class tracker, Stalking Ghost, who typifies the “noble savage” myth. Stalking Ghost is able to track the bandits who attacked Amanda’s dad over a rocky path where the Anglo sheriff lost the trail. Stalking Ghost barely speaks, only shows up when Jack needs help, and then vanishes again, usually out a window.

The troubling depictions of characters of color do not end there. Bounty hunter Cody goes undercover as Armita, a singer (never a prostitute, Smith makes clear) in a brothel: “With her hair dyed black and her skin darkened, she looked every bit the sultry, seductive temptress.”8 The idea that women with darker skin or features are sexually lascivious is a troubling trope, common in anti-Mexican racism.9

While this was an enjoyable read overall, I won’t be diving into more of Smith’s work. Racist stereotypes and caricatures permeate her writing. With this in mind, I returned to my Goodreads list and began to look for other historical romance novels without these issues.Then, due to a controversy over the response of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) to accusations of racism, fellow Twitter users began posting lists of romance novels without these disturbing racial stereotypes and tropes. Courtney Milan’s series The Brothers Sinister, including The Suffragette Scandal, is next on my list, and not just because I’m a suffrage historian (though I admit it helps). It looks like I’ll still get a suffrage romance novel with carriages and corsets but without the troubling tropes, and I’m looking forward to it. Now if only she’d write one set in Texas ….

Notes

  1. Back cover of Bobbi Smith, The Lady and the Texan (New York City: Leisure Books, 1997). Return to text.
  2. Smith, 390. Return to text.
  3. Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868–1914 (New York: New York University Press, 2004); Handbook of Texas Online, A. Elizabeth Taylor, rev. by Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, “ WOMAN SUFFRAGE,” accessed February 8, 2020.Return to text.
  4. Smith, 257–258. Return to text.
  5. Smith, 66. Return to text.
  6. Handbook of Texas Online, Peggy Hardman, “EXODUS OF 1879,” accessed December 31, 2019.Return to text.
  7. Smith, 131. Return to text.
  8. Smith, 195. Return to text.
  9. For more on anti-Mexican racism, especially in Texas, see William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 52–56. Return to text.

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