Monday, 19 September 2011

NZ Speculative Fiction Blogging Week: Women in Power

I'm super happy to be able to kill two birds with one stone and write a post that serves as not only a suffrage day post but also part of NZ Speculative Fiction Blogging Week. It's a snapshot of an honours research essay in progress and all my half formed ideas about the texts, so my apologies for this being so 'bitty' and the lack of conclusions - I'm not even going to make an attempt to have the paragraphs naturally flow into each other.

The topic is looking at two novels written the late nineteenth century which portray a future New Zealand in which women hold political office. I'm looking at how far these matched and related to the reality and the conceptions of gender they explore.

The two main texts (their titles link to free ebooks via the NZETC):

Julius Vogel's ‘Anno Domini 2000: Woman’s Destiny’ imagines the world in the year 2000, in which women, by common though not universal assent, are the primary holders of political office simply because they are believed to be better suited to the task. It primarily follows both the political career and romantic exploits of 23 year old Under Secretary for Home Affairs (later Imperial Prime Minister) Hilda Fitzherbert, but large sections of the novel are devoted to explorations of both political systems and technological developments. Vogel was a prime minister of New Zealand, responsible for introducing an earlier (unsuccessful) suffrage bill, and 'Anno Domini'  is widely - though inaccurately - considered to the the first NZ science fiction novel (though it was certainly one of the earliest). It received a lot of attention in the year 2000 for the accuracy of its prediction, not just in terms of women's place in society - in his introduction to the rereleased version Roger Robinson lists some of these (I would dispute some of his points, but they are still significant).

Less well known, and considerably more bizarre, is Edward Tregear's 'Hedged with Divinities' which follows the journey of a male protagonist who wakes us from a trance to find that all men (globally) have died of a plague which remains unexplained. In their absence, and in the face of the incompetence and shock of the remaining women – the socio-political institutions and the infrastructure of the country have collapsed, and Jack (the protagonist) sets about restoring the country to a functioning society. However the question of repopulation remains, and he reluctantly agrees to a mass marriage, despite his only interest being in his lover, Nelly, and at the end of the novel, as babies (both male and female) are born to his wives, he sets sail for a remote pacific island with her.

Things I am writing about, or that I've noticed, include:

The lack of a struggle or movement
One of the main things I've been looking at is how the means/pathway to womens suffrage compared with reality, and the most striking thing in Anno Domini 2000 is that there is no popular movement of substance. That's not to say that women don't face disadvantage, or that they sometimes have to act with bravery and persistence to secure and maintain their rights, but the main message is simply that society grew up, and once society reaches a certain stage of advancement some things - exclusion of women, for example, poverty for another, become thought (or people realise them as) both wrong and disadvantageous.
'Hedged with Divinities' does, however, manage to at least mention a feminist movement, in this charming little extract (Mary Lockwood is answering the question of why she didn't worry):
"Well," said Mary Lockwood, "the reason was— because I was a fool. There were many women in those days who would not marry; some from a sense of duties to others, some from delicacy of health, some from a spirit of independence, some because they would only marry for love and the right man didn't come along. None of these women were fools; I was. I was a fool because I was led away by the teachings of a clique of hysterical writers who deceived me as well as others; who preached that every bride would take to her bosom a debauched and worthless husband; that all men were selfish, all lustful, most of them brutal; that the pure ethereal wives of these men were fitted to do all things that men could do, and do them better if they had the chance. I believed these page follies; fled to the society of other women and to seclusion, to escape from the loathsome male. Now I see differently. Just as that bleeding carcase had to be skinned by you, so men have been doing our dirty work for ages. The women could eat the beef and mutton at dinner, but must not see the offal removed from the beast; they could wear the silks and laces from overseas, but need not stand lashed to the wheel of the merchantman in the bitter spray. They could sit by the warm fire, without one thought for the man working in the coalpit among the poisonous gas, where human lives are flung aside like withered leaves. Men protected us, worked for us, died for us, and we lied about them. Working women, women who in factories or as servants themselves knew labour, were grateful; but the cultured women had forgotten how to say 'Thank you!' That is why I believe that this trouble has come upon us, because we boasted our washing of babies and dusting of bedrooms against the clearers of forests and makers of railways. Now we know better—now that we have got to do it all ourselves."

The division of attributes and abilities/conceptions of gender
This is one of my main topics, about which I have pages and pages of notes I can't consolidate here. But the main thing is that in 'Anno Domini' women and men are inherently suited for different types of occupation; the main differences compared to the time of writing are what those occupations are and the status they accord women and men respectively. So you get situations where, for example, "Men seldom had much chance with juries." The central premise is that "woman has become the guiding, man the executive, force of the world". Note that this is not some dystopia reflecting the fears of the male author, but is conceived of as an equitable society.
And this is where things really get interesting in 'Hedged with Divinities'. Despite the obvious misogyny and the portrayal of women an incompetent, Tregear seems - albeit in a very confused way - to be making some moves away from a strict essentialist conception of gender. A lot of the misogyny also seems to stem from the fetishism of a (particular type of) manual labour, which isn't absent from some leftwing groups even now.

Descriptions of women 
This isn't a particularly deep point, but one thing that was really apparent to me when reading 'Anno Domini', particularly as it is generally considered a feministproto-feminist, novel, was how the female protagonist was described. For example:
In a large and handsome room in the Federal buildings, a young woman of about twenty-three years of age was seated. She was born in New Zealand. She entered the local parliament before she was twenty.* At twenty-two she was elected to the Federal Parliament, and she had now become Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs. From her earliest youth she had never failed in any intellectual exercise. Her intelligence was considered phenomenal. Her name was Hilda Richmond Fitzherbert. She was descended from families which for upwards of a century produced distinguished statesmen—a word, it should be mentioned, which includes both sexes. She was fair to look at in both face and figure. Dark violet eyes, brown hair flecked with a golden tinge, clearly cut features, and a glorious complexion made up a face artistically perfect; but these charms were what the observer least noticed. The expression of the face was by far its chief attraction, and words fail to do justice to it. There was about it a luminous intelligence, a purity, and a pathos that seemed to belong to another world. No trace of passion yet stamped it. If the love given to all humanity ever became a love devoted to one person, the expression of the features might descend from the spiritual to the passionate. Even then to human gaze it might become more fascinating. But that test had not come. As she rose from her chair you saw that she was well formed, though slight in figure and of full height.
She had violet eyes! As I commented after reading "so we had a Prime Minister who spent his spare time creating Mary Sues". But don't think men are spared:
Colonel Laurient was a tall, slender man, apparently of about thirty-five years of age. His complexion was very dark; and his silky, curly hair was almost of raven blackness. His features were small and regular, and of that sad but intellectual type common to some of the pure-bred Asiatic races. You would deem him a man who knew how to "suffer and be strong;" you would equally deem him one whom no difficulty could frighten, no obstacle baffle. You would expect to see his face light up to enjoyment not because of the prospect of ordinary pleasure, but because of affairs of exceeding gravity which called for treatment by a strong hand and subtle brain. His manner was pleasing and deferential; and he had a voice of rare harmony, over which he possessed complete control.
And here's 'Hedged with Divinities':
A bonny pair were they upon whose forms the summer leaves threw their dappled shadows. Nelly was a maiden of about eighteen years of age, with a figure in which the willowy slenderness of the girl was blending with the soft entrancing curves of developed womanhood. Masses of waved brown hair were coiled upon her well-poised head and broke into soft fluffy rings over the collar of her dress. Her face was delicately fair with the wholesome fairness of maidens of the Anglo-Celtic race; the clear eyes, calmer than blue and warmer than grey, were candid and honest, while the tender mouth was curved with smiles of pleasure and innocent happiness. Dressed in a light frock suitable for summer hours, she was fit to pose as an ideal specimen of that youthful womanhood whose presence brightens thousands of homes in the colonies of Britain.
Nor was her lover outwardly unworthy of his mate. Tall and athletic, he had the grace which comes of great strength so trained and disciplined that the muscles obey the will without effort or exertion. The fault, if any, was that the figure was too lithe and sinewy to please those accustomed to see beauty in softer and more flowing outlines. The deeply-bronzed face was fairly handsome, but the features were not so attractive as the bright fearless expression which at once caught the attention. Dauntless energy and vitality were the predominant characters of that expression, and, though softened by the circumstances of the situation, it was evident that the young man had unmistakably "a will of his own."
In case you are wondering, I do touch on how well these can be viewed as romance novels.

Race and colonial issues
My thoughts on these are very poorly formed at the moment, so I'm not going to attempt an overarching view, but there are some really interesting (/bizarre/deeply problematic things happening). Despite depicting several minorities in power or showing their abilities, Vogel seems to have largely ignored Maori issues and characters. However in Hedged with Divinities, the following is the last straw for Jack/the King after his mass marriage which he doesn't want, no really:

One of the attendants brought a message to the King that two Maori women wished to see him; and the King, anxious to receive letters from the south, and hoping that these had been the bearers of such letters through the native country, answered that they could be admitted to the room he was then in. The two women entered, and, after a few words of greeting, informed him that they were a deputation. They represented, they said, the women of the native race. They were the original owners of New Zealand. They heard that the King had taken many wives, as was the olden custom befitting great chiefs. They therefore requested that one or two of their noblest young women might be added to the number of the royal wives, and that thus the blood of an ancient race would not become extinct and sink into the ground.
Also, to quote a passage from the biography in Te Ara of Tregear:

A first result of his studies in comparative mythology and linguistics was his controversial book The Aryan Maori (1885), in which he claimed to find in Maori language, mythology and custom many remnants of an ancient Aryan heritage. He placed Maori squarely within the Indo-European language family and claimed that Maori and European shared an Aryan origin. This 'discovery' marked an intellectual turning point for Tregear. New Zealand was no longer the desolate place of his poems of the 1870s. He could now see that his adopted land had an imaginative landscape similar to England's and as ancient. Maori were no longer primitive aliens but shared with him a common if distant ancestry. The Maori world was no longer unknowable. He had cracked its code, and filled a desert land with people, history, mythology and culture which he could understand and willingly embrace. It was a feat of intellectual colonisation.

Thus I'm suggesting that to some extent this world without men is also an expression of Tregear's cultural and intellectual orphaning.

Anyway, to leave it there, despite the ticking deadlines I'm finding this really interesting. Both these novels are bizarre in places, and at times offensive, but there's a lot more going on than first meets the eye, and often not what you'd expect.

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