RETROSPECTIVE: “Friend Island” by Francis Stevens

Thursday , 4, February 2016 3 Comments

The Moth-Girl from Francis Steven’s “The Citadel of Fear”

In this short story published in All-Story Weekly in 1918, Gertrude Barrows Bennett depicts an imaginary future where women have become the “world’s ruling sex”. If the story hadn’t spoken of an “elder time when woman’s superiority to man had not been so long recognized”, I would have been inclined to say that this was an alternate reality story; the ascendant women in this tale still brush their long hair with their side-combs even as they swagger like tough guys, patronize men, make all manner of sexist remarks putting men down, and run the ships and machines that commerce depends upon. And though they work like “real” men, and swear like “real” men, they don’t drink like them. No, they sit in tea shops waiting for supplicating men to buy them macaroons.

As such, the story comes off as more of a prank than any kind of “serious” attempt at science fiction. While I don’t know what the author intended… it seems possible to me that she had an idea for a story that she wanted to submit. But as she went about setting it down, she was so overcome with irritation for typical tropes and shticks involving women in adventure fiction of her day, she decided to flip the script in order to give men a taste of their own medicine. So she kept her story more or less intact, but swapped sex roles wholesale for the entire world and made the male characters the butt of the sort of treatment she despised.

This type of speculation is invariably wrong for a lot of reasons, but if that is a reasonable characterization of what’s going on with the story, then this is the earliest example I know of where a woman expressed frustration with science fiction being an old boys club. By that, I don’t mean that she wasn’t treated professionally by the magazine editors or treated as anything other than a first-class creator by her peers. (A. Merritt, the supreme fantasy “genius” of her day, was a fan of her works, after all.) But there were clearly aspects of the nascent weird fiction scene of that irked her enough that she gave voice to her irritation right out of the gate in her career.

It was more than just the (evidently) lame female characters of adventure stories that rubbed her the wrong way, though. It was not even the World War One equivalent of male chauvinism that had her up in arms here. If The Nightmare is any indication, she found stories where the square jawed man punches out evil and gets the girl in the end to be so tiresome that her first order of business upon entering the field was to write an adventure story where the protagonist is an inept coward that accidentally overcomes monsters and doesn’t get the girl in the end. That would change in her first novel, Citadel of Fear, where the hero ends up marrying the “mysterious woman” character in the end. But even there, it’s clear that she wanted to do something different. One character describes the climatic action scene as the protagonist “rescuing this kidnaped girl of his — or she rescuing him, it seems to be a toss-up which.”

But in “Friend Island”, this sort of equalization is not to be found. If she was coyly subverting adventure tropes before, here she is outright steamrollering them. At first it might seem to be that way merely for comedic value as with this bit:

If it hadn’t been for just one little event that showed up the — the mannishness of him, in a way I couldn’t abide, I reckon he’d be keepin’ house for me this minute.

But by the end of the tale, it’s another thing entirely:

Through mists of time I have enviously eyed wild voyagings of sea rovers who roved and spun their yarns before the stronger sex came into its own, and ousted man from his heroic pedestal. I have followed — across the printed page — the wanderings of Odysseus. Before Gulliver I have burned the incense of tranced attention; and with reverent awe considered the history of one Munchausen, a baron. But alas, these were only men!

In what field is not woman our subtle superior?

That’s either a masterful punchline or else a declaration of war on heroic male characters. Given her other stories that were published at about the same time, I expect the latter really is the case. Many a true word is spoken in jest, after all. And in 1918 no less than today, the impulse underlying feminism is more about the diminishment of men than it is the elevation of women. It cannot abide classically heroic men, even in stories.

One thing that stands out about this bit of satire is that while women and men have exchanged caricatures of their traditional roles, the nature of the problems to be overcome if flipped as well. Sure there’s a man in distress for the heroine to rescue and so forth. But the obstacle was not some diabolical threat that required a violent solution. The “menace” here was more of a misunderstanding. And the solution to the problem required a sort of emotional intelligence rather than strength, daring, and bravado. It was that supposed deficiency in men that really created the peril in the story. And even though the women are masculinized in this setting, their superiority is still based on a stereotypically feminine trait!

Whether that’s a flaw in the conception of the piece or something that makes the goring of this particular ox more delicious, I couldn’t tell you. But while it’s clear that the frustration with adventure clichés goes back a good deal further than many people would think, it’s also true that Bennett’s editor was not threatened by this and liked it well enough to pay for it. What does this mean for the narrative? That depends on how many nasty letters got published in response to this! In any case, this is definitely another one of those “why didn’t anyone tell me about this” stories. As many words get spilled on the topic of women in science fiction these days, it surprises me that the name Francis Stevens doesn’t come up more often.

  • Aeoli Pera says:

    The problem with most such female-dominant worlds is that they are DUMB.

    I can easily imagine a world or two where women run things, simply by magnifying some traits they actually possess. This is because I’m on the bottom end of American society, where this has always been the case (simply due to greater male variation: more losers here). Managers at Wal-Mart are women because they are far smarter and more responsible and driven than the men who work at Wal-Mart.

    Hell, if not for the fact that women are desperately unhappy being on top, then I would argue we are already halfway into a female-dominant world. Physical strength is already a non-issue for most “work”.

    All this strong woman = pseudo-man business is just a pathetic lack of imagination.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      I mention this because all SFF is, to some extent or another, an exercise in counterfactual simulation (great term I just learned). One starts with an interesting premise like “planets are the new countries” and then fills in the details explaining how this works.

      Using this as the example, we’re assuming “women run things”. Then we work our way from B to A. Why are women running things? Well, it must be the case that they have the talents that are necessary to rule in this universe. What sort of universe would that be? And on and on.

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