This week I read for the first time ‘The Stepford Wives’ by Ira Levin (1972, my edition is 2011, published by Corsair).
In just 139 pages, Levin weaves a gripping story about Joanna Eberhart who moves with her husband and two children to the perfect suburb of Stepford, full of beautiful home-loving wives and successful husbands. Joanna is a feminist, committed to the goals of the National Organisation of Women, and an amateur photographer. She looks for like-minded women to establish a NOW chapter or to develop a women’s group, but they are all too busy waxing floors or attending to laundry.
At the centre of town life is the Men’s Association, run by ex-Disneyland employee Dale Coba and attended most nights by the town’s menfolk. The Stepford husbands are employed in the tech and chemical businesses on the nearby Route Nine. The Association building is imposing and highly secure: no women permitted.
Joanna’s husband Walter initially agrees with Joanna that the Association is outdated, but argues change can best be achieved from within. He therefore starts to attend, occasionally at first, but becomes increasingly active.
Meanwhile Joanna finds two women who, like her, do not buy into the domestic perfection of Stepford: Bobbie Markowe and Charmaine Wimperis. Like Joanna, both are recent arrivals at Stepford. The women get together for tennis at Charmaine’s – she is rich and bored and dislikes her husband. Later in the book, Charmaine confides that she and Ed are having a ‘weekend together’, which she is dreading as it will involve sex. But Ed is due at a conference the following week – ‘Thank God’ she says – so they agree to catch up then. Yet, Charmaine does not call.
When Joanna, concerned, turns up at her house, her friend has changed dramatically. The house is spotless, Charmaine is relaxed, apron-clad and smiling. She leads Joanna outside to show her beloved tennis court being turned into a putting green for her husband, Ed:
‘My God,’ Joanna said, looking at the men working on the cutter handles. ‘That’s crazy, Charmaine!’
‘Ed plays golf, he doesn’t play tennis,’ Charmaine said.
Joanna looked at her. ‘What did he do to you?’ she said. ‘Hypnotize you?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Charmaine said, smiling. ‘He’s a wonderful guy and I’m a lucky woman who ought to be grateful to him’. (Levin, 2011, p.61)
The story ratchets up to an inevitable but horrifying conclusion. Joanna is positioned as the hysterical woman, a charge so often made at women who seek to find out the truth (I was reminded of this watching an interview with environmental campaigner Erin Brokovich on Channel 4 News).
The truth of what is happening at Stepford remains elusive and I discovered through some internet searching afterwards that it is considered part of the science fiction genre.
While I had been waiting for explanation of those curious cartons that Gary Claybrook is seen unloading outside the Men’s Association near the start of the book, ultimately, I felt the more terrifying conclusion than water pollution, drugs or animatronics was that the women were simply acquiescing in patriarchy. In other words, Joanna (and Bobbie and Charmaine) is the outlier and for many of the readers of this book – published in 1972 – Stepford is more mirror than horror. The book could be read as a straight commentary on women’s struggle for liberation and the nature of backlash.
The book reminded me too of a recent Unreported World episode ‘Trump’s Housewives‘. Reporter Karishma Vyas meets her first interviewee in Modesto, California, who shows her around her family-photo and US memorabilia-filled house:
“My heart’s desire was to get married, to start a family and be at home and I took my job as a wife and as a homemaker super-serious.”
The women in the documentary are proud-homemakers, take a strongly heteronormative view of gender and sexuality and charge feminism with many of society’s ills. The irony that these women are actually living out the very feminist choice of combining motherhood and political and social activism, is not lost on the viewer.
Feminism is about enabling women to flourish in every way they wish, unobstructed by structural and cultural barriers. (It goes without saying that men should experience the same: generally through history, they have. Thus the need for feminism). Feminists can stay home raising a merry brood of children; they can fight in a boxing ring; or they can be a tree or a cardiac surgeon – or at some point choose to do all of the above. But they do so with critical awareness and with deliberate autonomy.
The real poison of patriarchy is how it turns women against each other: judging each other by different yardsticks of feminism or anti-feminism. This creates distraction and weakens focus on the collective prize: freedom, fulfilment and safety for all.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.