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A Retro Write: Yes We Can! Our favorite Activist Heroines

originally published on February 3, 2017

Women have a long history of standing up for their beliefs, and there are great romance novels starring heroines doing just that. American and British suffragettes (or suffragists), Civil Rights activists, lawyers, writers, organizers, and military rebels – you’ll find all of them here, and more. Let these ladies inspire you to fight for your beliefs, whatever they happen to be.

Caroline Russomanno:

Erica Johnson – Unfinished Business by Karyn Langhorne

Erica, a teacher, is tired of seeing funding diverted away from the neediest and most vulnerable. She protests at the hero’s (a Southern Republican senator’s) press conference and is dragged out by police. This book is set during the W. Bush administration and Erica is a strong reminder that black activists have been working continuously, even when out of the media spotlight. Our review of the book is here.


Frederica “Free” Marshall –  The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

Free is an independent, intelligent, capable businesswoman whose newspaper, the Women’s Free Press, helps support suffrage causes. Free is an activist but also a realist – she knows the progress she makes is likely to be incremental, and may not even pay off in her lifetime, but it’s an essential stepping stone she trusts future women to build on. Our DIK review of this book is here.


Sofronia Wallis – Let It Shine by Alyssa Cole

I haven’t had the chance to read this yet, but I downloaded it immediately after finding it while researching this post. From the blurb:

Sofronia Wallis knows that proper Black women don’t court trouble by upending the status quo, but it’s 1961 and the Civil Rights movement is in full swing. Sofie’s spent half her life being prim, proper, and reserved—as if that could bring her mother back—but the nonviolent protests happening across the South bring out her inner agitator.

This short story can be bought on its own here, or as part of the anthology The Brightest Day here. Reviews for both are stellar.


Other recommendations from AAR staff:

Keira Soleore:
I recommend Daughters of a Nation, an American historical romance anthology about black suffragettes. (Our review is here.) Three of the stories are set in the 1800s and one in the 1900s. I really liked two of them, and although the premises of the other two were interesting, they weren’t quite as well written. In my opinion, this is a unique book in a historical context and one that deserves a mention.

Madeline Asher – In the Morning Sun (1868) by Lena Hart

Having lost her beloved James Blakemore to the Civil War, Madeline’s ready to follow her other passion. She moves from her home in Philadelphia to Nebraska to educate and enlist the freedmen to vote. But James isn’t dead, and she runs into him in that tiny town and they learn how difficult it is to be a biracial couple there.

Mary Frances Harper – The Washerwomen’s War (1881) by Piper Huguley

Mary, the young daughter of the famous poet suffragette Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, is invited to take a month off from being a student at Milford College to teach adult women at the Atlanta Female Baptist Seminary. There, she comes face-to-face with Gabriel Harmon, a minster whom she’d refused to marry when they’d met before. The two get deeply involved in the washerwomen’s uprising and demand for fair wages.

Sarah Webster – A Radiant Soul (1881) by Kianna Alexander (1881)

Sarah is a dedicated pastry chef at a hotel in Wyoming Territory. She meets Owen Markham when she returns home to Fayetteville, North Carolina. He’s involved fighting for equal voting rights for black men. Their relationship has to allow for them both to be activists while doing their day jobs.

Bertha Hines – Let Us Dream (1917) by Alyssa Cole

Bertha owns a successful cabaret in Harlem. In her spare time, she teaches classes on the rights of citizens, civics, and politics for the marginalized African American women of New York City. Enter Amir Chowdhury, an illegal Muslim immigrant from Bengal, India, who jumped a British ship to settle in America. Little did he realize that he’d be treated like an alien and have to hide from immigration officials. He gets involved in activism for immigration reform. The two struggle with acceptance for their bi-racial relationship.


Shannon Dyer:

Jane Forrester – Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

In Necessary Lies, a young social worker fights the sterilization laws that were still in place in the early 1970s. She visits various poor families, and becomes very close to a young woman who suffers seizures and who is facing the threat of becoming sterilized. It’s a horrifying look into disability-themed history, specifically in North Carolina, but this happened in various places around the world.


Maggie Boyd:

Bailey O’Neal – Someone to Believe In by Kathryn Shay

Mark Twain famously said, “Familiarity breeds contempt – and children.” He makes a good point that close proximity often has us either at each other’s throats or in each other’s arms. That’s true for Bailey O’Neal and Senator Clay Wainwright, who have spent years battling in the public spotlight over how best to handle the issues of gangs and gang violence. Bailey is someone who takes her battle for social justice personally since she lost a sister to gang issues and is determined to see these kids get a chance. Her activism has led her to be imprisoned but also to achieve more than she ever dreamed of. Clay has fought hard on the side of law and order, determined to see gang members treated as the criminals they are. When Clay and Bailey serve together on a committee and get to know each other, they move slowly from enemies, to friends to lovers.  In her review of Someone to Believe In, Lea Hensley sums up what made this novel great for her: “Upfront, let me say that this is my favorite type of contemporary romance – a story centered primarily on the romantic relationship between two mature individuals with little to no suspense lurking in the background.”


Helen Carlisle – Blue Skies Tomorrow by Sarah Sundin

Most women I know are quiet activists who keep society running while getting little credit for it. Helen Carlisle perfectly personifies that type of heroine. The setting is WWII and Helen is involved in everything from the Red Cross, Women’s Club, Ladies’ Circle, to the Junior Red Cross. She does blood drives and bond drives and feels plenty busy enough. But when she gets the chance to work at a legal office in Port Charles, Chicago, she jumps at the chance in order to escape a tough situation at home. She thinks the job will be boring but when she finds herself in the middle of the Port Charles Mutiny court case, it turns out to be anything but that. What I loved about Helen was that she wasn’t a crusader so much for a particular cause as she is an endless worker for social justice in all different areas. Like many of us, she works hard to make her little corner of the world a better, brighter place.


Lise Dupree – Changes by Pamela Nowak

Lise Dupree is a librarian in 1860s Omaha, well aware that her position might well be lost to her if people learned of her mixed race, part Sioux heritage. When attorney  Zach Spencer asks for her help in dealing with research on an Indian Rights case, she soon finds that she will need to make a decision about what is more important to her: maintaining her quiet life in the shadows or fighting for what she believes in. Referencing the real life events of the Sioux Uprising and the Trial of Standing Bear, this richly historical romance shows the difficulty of being treated as a stranger and second class citizen in your own land.


Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist of the Hunger Games trilogy. A quiet girl who just wants to feed her family she is thrust into the limelight when her twelve year-old sister is chosen for the teen death match, The Hunger Games. Volunteering in her place puts Katniss in the spotlight throughout this vicious entertainment but when she starts to play the game on her own terms she ignites the spark of rebellion that will lead her nation to civil war. It’s a great series on the dangers of fascism and love and life in dark times. Our review is here.


Kristen Donnelly:
Caroline Gerrard – The Bellator Saga by Cecilia London

In The Bellator Saga, Caroline Gerrard is a lot of things; a wife, a mother, a widow, a Congresswoman, a First Lady, but the reason this series is on this list is that she is a freedom fighter. When America is slowly immersed into a dystopian reality with a despotic regime in control, Caroline suits up. Fusing her sense of service and her fierce conviction that it is not just our right to question our leaders in a democracy, but is indeed our responsibility, she (and her super hot silver fox of a husband, Jack McIntyre) leads a resistance movement to reclaim America. My DIK review for the 5th book in the series, Rhapsody, can be found here, and keep your eyes peeled for my review of the 6th and final book, Triumph, releasing February 6th.


Dabney Grinnan:

Caledonia Rivers – Vanquished by Hope Tarr

I’ve always been drawn to suffragette stories. It’s hard to believe – okay, maybe not so hard – that women had to lay their bodies on the line in order to make the UK government give them the right to vote. Caledonia Rivers is a suffragette for whom nothing is more important than securing a voice for her sex. She is willing to give up everything – including the man she loves – in order to pursue her goal. She’s inspiring and believable. Our review is here.


Lulu Davies – His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty

Lulu is part of the English Air Transport Auxiliary that flew planes for Great Britain in WWII. These female pilots flew Royal Air Force planes and received–unheard of at the time and non-existent for American WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots)–equal pay for equal work. By the end of the war, female ATA pilots had flown almost every kind of British aircraft.

Lulu pushes the Air Force and her lover, the wonderful medic Joe, to see her and her peers as capable as men in war. She’s unwilling to settle even when it costs her heart. His Very Own Girl is my favorite romance set in WWII. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What are your favorite activist stories of passionate, motivated, and engaged heroines? Share with us in the comments!

~ Caroline Russomanno


(Please note that links are provided for ebook editions of these titles.  Some may be available only from Amazon; where no link is given, an ebook is not available from that retailer.)

List of Links for AAR Loves

Interested in finding more books AAR Loves..?

Check out these posts:

Yes We Can! Our Favourite Activist Heroines

Romances featuring Refugee Heroines

Romancing it Royally – Some of our favourite royal romances

AAR Loves… Historical Romances featuring scientist heroines

AAR Loves… Romances featuring music and musicians

AAR Loves… Romances featuring realistic parent/child relationships

AAR Loves… Partners to Lovers romances – Part One (Military, law enforcement etc.)

AAR Loves… Partners to Lovers romances – Part Two

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