As they queued for tickets for a romance raffle, in which prizes included red roses, champagne and Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, it might have been a Mills and Boon convention. But the gathering of 200 women and a sprinkling of men at Lancaster University was firmly feminist. From young lesbians in sharp suits to tweedy married ladies in their forties, they congregated last month to talk, of all things, about romance.
What would their older sisters have thought? Only 20 years ago second-wave feminists like Germaine Greer rejected romantic love as a key instrument of male oppression. As the old slogan went, love began when you sank into his arms and it ended with your arms in his sink. The most radical feminists opted for separatist all-female communities, lesbian relationships, or celibacy.
At Lancaster they faced the hard fact that romance - literary and real-life - has defied feminist analysis and refused to fade away. Women's appetite for romantic fiction may never have been greater - and neither, perhaps, has their dissatisfaction with men. At least between the pages satisfaction is guaranteed, women muttered over tea and biscuits. Would it were so in real life.
A time, then, for a reassessment of romantic love? Among the pretty T-shirts and flowers, there were tensions. If you have always dismissed romance as but brief foreplay to domestic slavery, you do not carelessly cast off the old philosophy.
Among the most suspicious is surely Stevi Jackson, a middle-aged feminist from Strathclyde University and the conference darling. She recently rocked the academic world with the paper 'Even Feminists Fall in Love', but despite the apparent resignation in the title, Ms Jackson stopped far short of unconditional surrender to dreamy music and chocolates.
For Ms Jackson believes things are badly out of hand and that a dangerously uncritical rehabilitation of romance is under way. She lays much of the blame on the miscalculation of her sisters. Feminists, she chided, have ignored the potency of romance in their mistaken belief that it could simply be folded up and packed away 'once the illusion (of romance) was seen through'.
For Ms Jackson, revisiting romance fell far short of summary rehabilitation. But Lynn Pearce, a conference organiser, was more relaxed. 'We are still suspicious of romance, but we are taking it more seriously, as a genre and a feeling,' she said.
So romance was revisited though 40 nattily named papers, including Vicki Bartram's 'From Nubile Navety to Necrophiliac Nymph: breaking the rules of romance', Jo Stanley's 'Women pirates and men's Lust', and Sue Vice's 'Addicted to Love'.
Wendy Langford's 'Snuglet Puglet Loves to Snuggle With Snuglet Piglet: alter personalities in love relationships' attracted the largest audience and the most laughter. Her analysis of pet names used in Valentine messages showed the importance of a 'private language' in many love affairs and suggested that a sure sign of the end of an affair is the decision to stop using pet names for each other.
Ms Jackson urged the conference to step beyond an analysis of romantic literature to love in the real world. But if feminists are more comfortable with books, who can blame them? According to Dennis Marsden, a bluff, bearded Essex University sociologist, what is happening out there amounts to a 'heterosexual crisis'.
Mr Marsden told a packed workshop that he and Jean Duncombe, his colleague and real-life romantic partner, had spent the last three years studying relationship breakdowns. And a rather depressing three years it had been.
'More and more women are failing to get married or are getting divorced,' he said. 'Seven out of 10 divorces are initiated by women. Problems don't centre on who does the housework but what women see as men's failure to return emotion.'
According to Mr Marsden and Ms Duncombe, men are paralysed by the new demands for intimacy. The couple have interviewed men desperate to keep dissatisfied partners, but completely unable to change. Mr Marsden said: 'It is a really common response for men to cry in interviews. Things don't look too hopeful at the moment.'
Mr Marsden said he was not sure women knew what they wanted from men - but he knew what men wanted. 'Men just want to be left alone,' he said, admitting he sympathised with that position.
Conflicting female desires were admitted. In workshops, women said they wanted 'egalitarian, democratic and supportive' relationships but agreed that their 'deeply unsound' fantasies owed less to feminism than Mills and Boon.
The female brain may want the chore- sharing, nappy-changing man in touch with his and her feelings, but the unsound heart still longs to be swept away, wrapped in strong arms and adored forever. There was debate about whether romantic fiction was positive, providing women with the emotion men were 'too crippled' to provide, or negative, creating an emotional addiction which real relationships could never satisfy.
It is Ms Jackson's ambition to transport romance and love and women's current dissatisfaction from the private to the public sphere. It is early days, she says, but only men would think the subject too emotional for rational academic and public scrutiny.
It could prove a rather one-sided debate. No more than 12 men attended the Lancaster conference and Ms Jackson reckoned most of them were gay. With the other side so silent, what defence of men there was was left, rather fittingly, to a woman. Ms Jackson warned women to be 'careful not to conclude that everything we feel is right because we feel it. The overwhelming need for intimacy may have more to do with our continuing subordination in society than the shortcomings of men.'
What has changed about feminism is its tone. Perhaps greater confidence as well as time has made the sisters less strident. At the end of a relaxed and humorous conference, the organisers admitted they were one prize short for the raffle. There had been two book prizes: Diana: Her True Story and an academic analysis of romantic fiction. One had been stolen. It was the Princess's tale that was missing.Reuse content