I think one of the reasons people are hesitant to read women's fiction is because it might be romance, and I have discovered romance makes people uncomfortable. I really think this is part of the reason there are so many YA writers because the hints at a beginning love are there, the fun crush phase, first kisses, and the like, and because lots of people get nervous that in reading this lovely heart warming story, there is going to be descriptions including words like bulging and heaving and bodice.
The Romance Writers of America organization defines women's fiction as, "a commercial novel about a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships with others, and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship."People like romance, and women's fiction typically has some elements of romance in it. The difference, however, is that the primary function of women's fiction is the journey of the woman, on her own. It is about self discovery and empowerment and realizing who she is, and sometimes that involves love, but not primarily. It often addresses issues the character faces in her role as a mom, wife, career woman, sibling and friend, and the character is usually in her mid-20's or older.
I would argue that most of Jane Austen's books are actually women's fiction, as well as Little Women, because most of the character development takes place in a woman who is at the end of her teens if she is still in them at all. In fact, I'd bet that if you go through some of your favorite books that you have read, you will discover they fit the parameters of women's fiction quite well.
Do you read women's fiction? Did you realize that maybe you do more than you thought? Do you have a favorite book/move in this genre?