James Tiptree Jr.’s novelette “The Women Men Don’t See” has not gotten any less relevant or interesting since 1973 — at least that’s my impression.
Our narrator is some middle aged d00d who seems to work for the government. He has crashed with a Maya pilot and two plain women, mother and daughter. With the mother, Ruth Parson, he crosses the bay, a mangrove swamp, for freshwater. It’s a first-person present tense narration, even though he’s situated in the future recalling the narrative. It keeps the reader a little off-kilter, much like he is in this sweltering jungle, with an injury, and on painkillers. His descriptions of the plane, the weather, and the environment are precise — he understands everything around him except the women, naturally.
There’s no romance, no on-screen sex. There’s tension but any love plot coughs and sputters before dying out. It’s a slow burn before anything explicitly SF happens, and we get wonderful and loaded dialog sequences. Ruth is pretty much inscrutable to our narrator, Don Fenton. She’s a career woman, also working for the gov’t with some considerable security clearance. Don makes a lot out her single life, raising a daughter alone, who is presumed to be getting impregnated by the Maya pilot while they are hoofing it through the swamp. They represent to Don the unconventional modern narrative for women as a result of women’s lib.
The story is very pessimistic about second wave feminism.
What’s wrong with her? Well, what’s wrong with any furtively unconventional middle-aged woman with an empty bed. And a security clearance. An old habit of mind remarks unkindly that Mrs. Parsons represents what is known as the classic penetration target.
” — so much more opportunity now.” Her voice trails off.
“Hurrah for women’s lib, eh?”
“The lib?” Impatiently she leans forward and tugs the scrape straight. “Oh, that’s doomed.”
The apocalyptic word jars my attention.
“What do you mean, doomed?”
She glances at me as if I weren’t hanging straight either and says vaguely, “Oh…”
“Come on, why doomed? Didn’t they get that equal rights bill?”
“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like — like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”
And is any of this incorrect? Don brings up the doomed ERA amendment — the clueless sod. And look at what’s happening to Planned Parenthood these days, The big victory that i know of from the era is the Roe v. Wade decision, and what has that really done? Just given the anti-choicers a concrete system to bash at. What good is the legal right to abortion when medicare stops covering it? We are currently in an astounding reactionary backlash; the violence against women has not ceased. Women still have no rights that men don’t sanction, though this power depends on their self-victimization and blindness for it to work. Even a perceived cultural advancement or general consciousness expansion is met with a counter wave of exploitative media, it happened in the 80s and it’s happening now. White nationalists have co-opted the Hugo board to keep SF in the pulpy grease pits of their liking; literary fiction continues to hump on a realism even more stylistically conservative than many of the best loved 19th century novels. These folks want art to be trash rather than let marginals advance the field.
The real story in this narration, which culminates in Ruth’s choices, is totally beyond Don’s grasp. Even he, a pretty decent fellow as far as they go, condescending but not lecherous, is lost when mastery over the facts and the material world doesn’t come easily. He cant or wont see why Ruth feels as she does, why a white middle class USen woman would pronounce feminism doomed, bc he still cant or wont see his own role in a constructed system that devalues women.
“What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”
When Don and Ruth are awakened by a mysterious light one night, he thinks it’s guerrillas doing revolutionary activity. The real guerrilla activity is happening next to him, and with every woman trying to get along in this patriarchal world. And under the grinding hetero-patriarchal white supremacist capitalist system, who doesn’t think of abandoning this world from time to time, or perhaps more often?
Okay so this entry’s title only really applies to the Tiptree story, but Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella “The New Atlantis” touches on gender and is overall an interesting projection from 1975 on a post-capitalist Portland OR — i didn’t think it could get worse!
The government is corporatized and controls everything, even people’s leisure time, via bloated unions. Surveillance is everywhere. There’s talk of a continent rising from the sea. Our narrator Belle, a concert violist, comes home to find her husband has returned from prison. Simon is a theoretical scientist who has made a breakthrough in renewable energy — much clandestine activity follows.
Belle’s narration, actually her writings in a notebook, is immersive and full of casual world building — so many funny proper nouns! They say dystopia is a matter of perspective, namely that of the proletariate, but Belle’s middle class experience renders this world of discipline and punish in scarcity with a resigned tone. Here she is returning from Gresham to Portland on foot (the bus has typically broken down):
Then we had to get out and walk on into Gresham, because they had decided that the best thing for us all to do was to get onto the Greater Portland Area Public Transit Lines, since there had been so many breakdowns that the charter bus company didn’t have any more buses to send out to pick us up. The walk was wet, and rather dull, except when we passed the Cold Mountain Commune. They have a wall around it keep out unauthorized persons, and a big neon sign out front saying COLD MOUNTAIN COMMUNE and there were some people in authentic jeans and ponchos by the highway selling macrame belts and sandcast candles and soybean bread to the tourists. In Gresham, I took to 4:40 GPARPTL Superjet Flyer train to Burnside and East 230th, and then transferred to the shuttlebus, but it had boiler trouble, so I didn’t’ reach the downtown transfer point until ten after eight, and the buses go on a once-an-hour schedule at 8:00, so I got a meatless hamburger at the Longhorn Inch-Thick Steak House Dinerette and caught the nine o’clock bus and got home about ten. When I let myself into the apartment I flipped the switch to turn on the lights, but there still weren’t any. There had been a power outage in West Portland for three weeks. So I went feeling about for the candles in the dark, and it was a minute or so before I noticed that somebody was lying on my bed.
The use of border fences is a motif, launched by a depressing description of the wilderness park from which Belle is returning.
Intercut with Belle’s prosaic narrative are long runs of prose in block quote print. This consciousness is a much more poetic performance:
The planets, however… We began to remember the planets. They had suffered certain changes both of appearance and of course. At certain times of the year Mars would reverse its direction and go backward through the stars. Venus had been brighter rand less bright as she went through her phases of crescent, full, and wane. Mercury had shuddered like a skidding drop of rain on the sky flushed with daybreak. The light we now watched had that erratic, trembling quality. We saw it, unmistakably, change direction and go backward. It then grew smaller and fainter; blinked — an eclipse? — and slowly disappeared.
The most intriguing aspect of this dystopia is the fact that married couples such as Belle and Simon are illegal. Belle is at one point threatened with arrest by a fed for conspiracy to form a nuclear family. She reads a mass market novel in which the couple find solace in non-manogamous group sex (doesn’t sound so bad!). What’s up with this State assault on family values? Is this the end game of the liberal culture wars (there is mention of a resistance group called the “Neo-Birch” society)?
What’s happened is that capitalism has turned on its value of limitless reproduction and the privileging of heterosexuality it sustains: it has taken measures to prevent population growth, to keep the number of consumers low. Of course this is still patriarchal — the police see it fit to control women’s movements and behavior by force rather than, say, distribute free birth control.
What could the second narration be? The denizens of the New Atlantis, rising out of the ocean? Or a product of Belle’s imagination, the final place for hope of a better world/future?
A look at what post-capitalism could be like. Unfortunately, from our current perspective, post-capitalism looks like more of the same, and more and more. Climate change, consumerism, and exploitation of the global south marches on, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon. It’s almost even more scary.