One thing I really haven’t done enough as part of writing this blog (apart from, um, posting more often) is read more short stories. I also wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time reading the feminist science fictions of the 60s and 70s, when women were entering what was still very much a male-dominated genre in larger numbers and making it their own. So I’m hoping to cover both bases here by starting with “When it Changed” by Joanna Russ.
Published in 1972, the story gives us a glimpse of a society run by women that is neither a utopia nor a patriarchy-in-reverse. The story is set on the planet Whileaway – a colony of Earth where all the men were wiped out by a plague 30 generations ago. The women were left to establish a complex, slowly industrialising society and fight for the survival of their species through a combination of scientific breakthroughs and a determination not to allow ‘nature’ – whether in the form of the dangerous beasts that roam the forests above the 48th parallel, or the once-assumed requirements for biological reproduction – get the better of them.
Now, six centuries later, Janet and her wife Katy are part of a welcoming party that sets out to greet the first ship to arrive from Earth since the colony was abandoned hundreds of years ago. It’s a moment for which their society had thought itself ‘intellectually prepared’. For the first time in centuries, men have come to Whileaway.
I’ve never read anything by Joanna Russ before, but I was struck right away by the sense of inevitability in her description of the descent of both sides – the men from Earth and the women of Whileaway – into the old pattern of domination.
This wasn’t for lack of resistance on the part of Russ’ protagonists, who are all examples of the fact that qualities such as aggression, bravado, fierceness, seriousness and silence are innate to neither gender, and, away from the warping influence of the patriarchy, can belong to women as much as men. To the women, the bodies and mannerisms of the men – the comparative gaudiness of their clothing, the freedom with which their taller, broader bodies impose upon their space – are alien and more than a little ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the men’s blatant confidence in their own sexual appeal, newly arrived as they are on a planet of women who must surely be ‘missing something’ in their relationships with one another. Yet somehow it is the men who are able to more fully dehumanise Janet and Katy, and to make them ‘feel small.’
“Where are all your people?”
No matter what the women tell them about their society’s achievements, the men are unable to perceive Whileaway as anything but a ‘great tragedy’. They are frank about the purpose of their mission – to ‘use’ the women to deplete a gene pool damaged by radiation – but without any men to speak to, they are unable to recognise the encounter with the women of Whileaway as what it is – a meeting in which it is they who are inadequate representatives for their planet. The women’s words – of cautious welcome, of explanation, of determination to develop their society at their own pace – fall on deaf ears. Without any men to speak to, any official business cannot have begun – and, as we learn later, it is, in the end, settled by the fact that one side has ‘the big guns’ while the other has none.
The story is pessimistic about anything like a clean slate in showing this fraught encounter between the sexes – one that nearly ends in the death of the leader of the men, and ends instead in a sense of foreboding. Janet ‘has fought three duels, all of them kills’ – but she is terrified of the prospect of one day living in a society where she and her daughters are ‘cheated of their full humanity’, and robbed of their own achievements. Janet’s physical strength and fighting skills, her influence with the President of Whileaway, the privilege that she and her wife enjoy on a planet where the majority spend much of their lives working on farms… all of those things make her a mere oddity, a joke, to the men, for whom the punchline lies in the fact that surely either she or Katy must ‘play the man’ in their relationship.
“Take my life but don’t take away the meaning of my life.”
Janet’s words, in one of the closing lines of the story, are an expression of her fears for a future patriarchy that has been hitherto absent from Whileaway. It is this absence, she knows, that has allowed her and Katy and their daughters to grow up as full human beings. Janet is proud of her duels, the brilliant science of her and Katy’s ancestors, Yuriko’s forthrightness, Katy’s fearless driving. Yet none of those things are recognised as accomplishments by the men, who see the women as lacking in all the ways that matter. They do not dress as well as the women on Earth. And most importantly, they do not vie for their attraction, or reward their posturing with any signs of an attraction of their own.
If ‘When it Changed’ is a story about the way that the structures of language can be used to stunt and dominate, then it is also a story haunted by empty words that cannot be trusted.
The men speak repeatedly of the ‘re-establishment of sexual equality on Earth’. Russ’s repetition of the phrase reiterates the fact that the concept of equality means less than nothing when it is an equality in name only… when a group of (presumably?) white men is considered to be an adequate representation of the Earth’s ‘people’, and when ‘nature’ is considered to be the explanation for a world warped by multiple and intersecting hierarchies of oppression.
In the encounter between the men and the women of Whileaway, only the former consider themselves, and only themselves, to be fully and simply people. Across this gap of dehumanisation, neither equality nor true connection are possible. ‘Sexual equality’, ‘exchange of ideas’… these are shown to be just words, and when said to mask the reality of oppression, they hang dead in the air.