Book Review: The Power

9780670919963The Power is Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel, and it won the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  Science fiction novels don’t normally appeal to me, but the complex gender dynamics and dystopian vision of a gender-switched future sounded interesting, so I read it on holiday and found it a fascinating read. Firstly, it’s well-written, which is obviously what you’d expect from a Professor of Creative Writing; but more than that, it’s able to switch between subtle and tub-thumping, creating a web of complicated and unexpected threads of a speculative future. Other dystopias by feminist writers (Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter spring to mind) are more of a blunt instrument, I think; The Power responds to some of the concerns of the twenty-first century in a way which is not fixed but shifts throughout the novel. Entertainingly, the novel is framed by letters from a (fictional) male author to ‘Naomi Alderman’ asking what she thinks of this novel which purports to tell a ‘new’ version of women’s rise to power; her advice, at the end, is that it’s hard to believe men were ever that strong, and that perhaps, to avoid being pigeonholed as ‘men’s literature’, he might consider using a female pseudonym.

Power corrupts. We are all increasingly aware of this, and politics, social and cultural structures,and everything that builds up most societies is based on patriarchal power, 4000the understanding from time immemorial that men are stronger physically and therefore men have the power; the threat of violence towards women, if not actually violence, underlies the patriarchy. What happens if women have a power which makes them more of a threat? At first, it’s a few teenage girls realising that they have a tingling sensation which becomes greater as they become angry (at men who attack them or their family): there is a direct correlation in the novel between the development of women’s power and their ill-treatment at the hands of men. These pubescent girls begin to realise they can do harm with this power, and from there it grows. The novel traces the development of this female power across the world, as women learn to fight back.

Like all good sci-fi, The Power gives a reason for this electricity (a liquid called Guardian Angel which was put in drinking water during WW2, and became part of the water cycle, intended to protect humans from gas attacks, but with an unintended consequence for women only), but the reason is almost irrelevant (though it does indicate the potential dangers of chemical alterations to the human body). The point is that young women develop a ‘skein’ across their collarbones which is the source of their electrical power which can maim or kill (or light candles, or tickle). Older women’s power can be ignited by younger women, and it becomes clear that ‘the power’ is metaphorical: in the early stages of the book, it seems a feminist trope, an indication of a much needed redress of the balance of power. The growth of female power is accompanied by the development Power-190x300of other social structures, however: despite attempts by masculine powers to repress or control it, women slowly gain political power, in one case setting up a women-only state, or developing a matriarchal religion. These developments are told through the stories of particular figures in different situations across the world, and thrown into relief by the story of a young man, Tunde, whose videos of early electrical attacks go viral and make him a sought-after reporter. At first the women see him as on their side; later, as his fear grows, it becomes startlingly clear to the reader how the balance of power has shifted completely, with men in fear of their lives.

The three main female characters indicate the ways in which individual situations contribute to a global reversal of power, building up slowly until it is an unstoppable tide. Allie has escaped (and killed) her abusive foster-father when the power came upon her, and she reinvents herself as a female prophet, with her own religion of female power. Margot is an American mayor looking for ways to advance her career in a male-dominated, inhospitable political environment, and Roxy is the daughter of a London gangland leader whose mother is murdered in front of her. They s-a3152730912b99a5f04ff88260dbb596194430deall have reasons for using power to their own ends, and at first it’s easy to sympathise when girls who have been victims of male power find their own strength and fight back. Quickly, though, it becomes extreme; and although little here has not been seen in the world before with the gender roles reversed – men are afraid to go out at night, men are considered to be dependent on women, men are inferior, etc – nonetheless it is shocking. And what is perhaps most shocking is the way that this approach explodes myths. Women have to be strong because they need to protect their children, the new argument goes; men aren’t really necessary. Men aren’t built for strength and speed, women are: the ultimate message of the novel is not that men and women are different, but that they are, ultimately, the same – they are corruptible. Power goes to women’s heads in the novel, just as men have been drunk on it for millennia, abusing and repressing women simply because they can.


Book Review: The Trouble with Women

flemingThis is a book which succinctly summarises – and satirises – what everyone who’s studied nineteenth-century history or literature knows: a woman can’t be a genius, because that’s a man’s job, and besides, she’s too hysterical. Women are bound by their biology, with brains too small to think and bodies to weak to work, so it’s no wonder they had to leave everything to men (well, except the light, untaxing work of cleaning, childcare and running a household).

It’s a cliché of teaching nineteenth-century literature and culture that ‘the Woman Question’ is a focal point (and a popular essay topic for students). There is much talk about how women were restricted to ‘the domestic sphere’ (represented by the picture on the cover, left); how they weren’t encouraged to be educated, to write or paint, to have careers or, basically, to do anything that ‘ought’ to be Man’s Work. Of course, one also ends up spending time carefully explaining that not all women were uneducated; that some women could and did write and publish, or paint, or pursue careers, even if they weren’t the norm. Nonetheless, every now and again one comes across something which reminds us just how women were viewed historically, such as Ruskin’s comment in Of Queen’s Gardens:

[Woman’s] intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation.

Ruskin wasn’t unusually sexist, in my view, and was supportive of some women writers and painters; he is expressing a common view here (though he comes in for some flak concerning his wedding night in the book). Famously, Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation.’ And it was a common view of doctors that if a woman studied too much, her uterus would shrivel up, and consequently she would become mad and unable to have children (that is, she would be no use at all).


All these ideas are drawn together in the delightful cartoons of Jacky Fleming’s book, and with the combination of the words and pictures these ideas are rendered even dafter than before. As Fleming writes, she was inspired by Darwin’s ‘proof’ that women were intellectually inferior:

His evidence was this: that if you wrote two lists, one of eminent men, and the other of eminent women, the list of men was longer. It’s an experiment you might like to try at home.  It was his contrtrouble_with_women_jacky_fleming_square_peg_01ibution to making gender inequality look normal, and inspired me to write a book in response – exactly what women have been doing for centuries. The body of work referred to as The Woman Question, or if you go back to the Middle Ages the Querelles des Femmes, has a format which often goes like this: a man writes (with wit) about why education is wasted on women who are fickle, lascivious, money-grabbing lightweights incapable of thinking rationally. Then a woman gets very angry, and writes something in response (also with wit). She then gets showered with abuse or ridicule. I didn’t realise, until I’d done a lot of research, that The Trouble with Women fits into such a long tradition.

Such gender questions have a long and troubled history, then, and perhaps not as much as changed as we like to think. By satirising it, though, Fleming is putting misogynistic views in the right place: the butt of jokes. I shared this book with some of my colleagues yesterday and there was much laughter, as well as a few nods of agreement. While we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to speak for the voiceless women of the past, Fleming slyly suggests that perhaps women weren’t as helpless as history makes them appear, and she invites the reader to think about those women whose lives were confined to a bubble of domesticity, through which they could only watch clever men with large beards pontificate about why women weren’t that bright, really.

I’m exhausted after writing that, so I think I shall have to go and lie down on the chaise longue and weep hysterically for a while now, before recommencing my domestic duties.



Women Reading

The Artist's Wife 1933 Henry Lamb 1883-1960 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1934 have a particular fondness for paintings of women reading. I suppose this is because I spend so much time reading – and I like images that have a woman, alone, comfortable, engrossed in a book, ignoring whatever is going on around her (including the artist painting her). I love this 1933 painting by Henry Lamb (left), The Artist’s Wife, for this reason. I’ve just discovered the Tate’s Album facility, in which you can create your own digital exhibition drawing on their collection, so I decided to do one of pictures of women reading. There are quite a few, it turns out (although, of course, many from other collections, too). You can look at my album here. The range of images is fascinating – because, after all, women reading is a historically complex, socially-inflected topic. For centuries women were only encouraged to read the Bible, and, presumably, recipe books – that is, when they were literate enough to read anything, and many of the images I’ve chosen show a woman simply holding, or even near, a book, which at least indicates her ability to read. After all, why teach women to read when they could just memorise a few chunks of improving verses or household advice manuals? Although Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice that

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent liCandlemas Day circa 1901 Marianne Stokes 1855-1927 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1977”

nonetheless there remained a strong suspicion that women, with their tendency to hysteria, emotional outbursts and rather weak minds, were much better off not reading novels, which might drive them over the edge. The psychological consequences of reading fiction were potentially severe, leading women to expect romance and excitement, alongside an increased tendency to swoon at the sight of a man. In fact, well into the nineteenth century there was a view that reading as part of learning could, if taken to extremes, be very bad for a woman’s mental and physical health; it would take all the blood from her womb (thus rendering her infertile) and move it to her head (thus making her insane). It would – apparently – also give her cold feet. I read a lot, and I do always have cold feet, but things seem otherwise well.

The moral panic about women’s reading – whether they should, and if so what they should – provides the context to these images of women reading. Many of them, unsurprisingly, show a woman reading in a devotional context. These are often the most sombre, beautiful images, showing a religious devotion which is pictured as sacred as well as pictureMary Wollstonecraft (Mrs William Godwin) circa 1790-1 John Opie 1761-1807 Purchased 1884 One of my favourites of these is Marianne Stokes, Candlemas Day (1901), which shows a very pious-looking girl, totally focused, reading by candlelight. Appropriately, another name for Candlemas is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and this young lady looks very virginal indeed.

Another good reason for a woman to be reading, historically, was to share a (morally improving, no doubt) story with her children. That’s another good reason to educate women; so they can teach their offspring. Some of these are ghastly cloying images, such as Arthur Boyd Houghton’s Mother and Children Reading, but others, such as Harrington Mann’s The Fairytale, are less morally improving and more appealing. These domestic reasons for women reading are historically accurate, I suppose, but there are more interesting paintings, in my view: I was surprised by the number of eighteenth century women pictured with a book in their hand, or tucked under their arm.

Some of the women in the paintings are writers, and are thus depicted with a book to indicate their position as such. Robert Southey may have written to Charlotte Bronte that:

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she Lady on a Sofa c.1910 Harold Gilman 1876-1919 Purchased 1948 engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called,  & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity”

but  literature – both writing and reading it – has, luckily, often been the business of a woman’s life, and many of the paintings reflect that. I love the famous Opie picture of Mary Wollstonecraft, looking up from her book severely but with just a tiny twinkle in her eye.

The late nineteenThe Reading Girl 1886-7 Théodore Roussel 1847-1926 Presented by Mrs Walter Herriot and Miss R. Herriot in memory of the artist 1927 and early twentieth centuries clearly took it for granted that women might read as a pastime – but, interestingly, they increasingly abandoned their books in aesthetic langour. There are a lot of books put aside in this period, such as Harold Gilman’s Lady on a Sofa (1910) and Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919). The reading woman, then, becomes a much more appealing subject for male painters, as an aesthetic object to be looked at – presumably because while she is reading, she’s not paying attention to who is watching. I’m particularly struck – not in a good way – by Theodore Roussel’s The Reading Girl (1886-7) – after all, we all read like that, don’t we? Who needs clothes to enjoy a book? Perhaps most appealing, then, is Gwen John’s sober depiction of A Lady Reading (1909-11), in which a young woman stands alone, so engrossed in her book she doesn’t even sit on the nearby chair. I understand that absorption, and the painting speaks much more to reading women than the male gaze.

A Lady Reading 1909-11 Gwen John 1876-1939 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917


Power-dressing or window-dressing?

Dress, cardigan, boots...

Dress, cardigan, boots…

I don’t think much about what I wear to work. I tend to wear dresses, boots and cardigans most of the time, whether I’m giving a lecture, attending a meeting, going to the pub or cooking dinner – and when I started doing my PhD I noticed that the dresses-boots-and-cardigan uniform  was one adopted by a lot of female academics. (I generally save my more obviously vintage dresses for outside work, though). Since I’m not someone who tends to wear very casual clothes anyway, I mostly have the same wardrobe for all occasions, and that’s fine. Or is it?

A recent article in the Guardian , entitled ‘Why do academics dress so badly? (Answer: they are too happy)’ referred mainly to the sartorial choices of male academics, in their tweed jackets and mismatched shirts, trousers and (maybe) ties. A follow-up article, ‘Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed’ looked at the perils and pitfalls of being a woman in academia: judged for making an effort, and judged for not making an effort, torn between wanting to choose clothes one likes or being put in the position of appearing too ‘try-hard’ or too ‘glamorous’ to be taken seriously. Because, of course, society makes judgments about women’s appearances and clothing choices that we’d never make about men (who are, presumably, too high-minded to think about clothes).  Although these articles related specifically to academia, this is a society-wide problem: a man can always wear a suit, but for a woman her choices seem to be much more inflected with meaning, and thus much more complicated. It’s not just men who make these judgments, either: women are as likely, if not more so, to judge another woman for her clothes.

Where I work, everyone’s pretty relaxed: the articles I’ve read recently on the bullying culture in academia is not one I’ve experienced, or can even imagine, at least in the part of the university I work in. When it comes to clothes there is, perhaps, a slight tendency for the women to dress more smartly than the men (though there are exceptions), but after all, as long as we behave professionally and work hard, what does it matter? Certainly no one ever has (or would) comment on my hair (long and usually a bit untidy), makeup or clothes in the way that clearly other women academics have experienced. It certainly hasn’t ever occurred to me that someone would question my authority on my subject because of how I look, but the articles make it clear that in fact in order to be taken seriously in many workplaces, a woman has to be as unobtrusively dressed as possible – too masculine and she is overtly trying to take over; too feminine and she’s a bit silly and girly. When I was younger I read in women’s magazines about ‘dressing for the job you want not the job you have’, which would present some interesting sartorial clashes for many (actually I have the job I want!) but of course the implication is that the smarter the suit, the more impeccably you hide your inconvenient femaleness, the better you’ll do at work.

Do our students even care? I always thought students didn’t really pay any attention to how their lecturers looked, though I was proved wrong when one started asking me about what brand of foundation I wear (I don’t wear foundation), but I still thought – and think – that how we dress is up to the individual and shouldn’t really matter. Like Virginia Woolf (and many others), I think the clothes we wear do signal how we feel about ourselves and the image we want to project to the outside world – I’m not saying clothes aren’t important (as anyone who’s seen my wardrobe will testify). I realise this is different in the environment in which I work where we have freedom to dress, within reason, as we choose (when I left my previous, non-academic job, I donated all my much-hated suits to charity and haven’t looked back) but no matter where you work it does seem that women’s choices are always more complex and consequently more considered because we’re not men. And that’s a shame, and a waste of good research time too.