Today, we tackle what is hands-down the most barmy book selected for our Halloween YA Book Club: Daughters of Eve. Originally published in 1979, it's about a girls-only extracurricular club co-opted by an ominous radical feminist, who encourages them to RISE UP. It is really something.
You see, Daughters of Eve is an elite service organization (think National Beta Club, but strictly for the ladies) with a local chapter run by art teacher Irene Stark, recently relocated from Chicago. Sounds pretty chill, right? Well, apparently Modesta, Michigan is stuck in a time warp where women are barely allowed part-time jobs. And Irene, you see, has arrived in her new home ready to blow the local patriarchy sky-high after being passed over for an assistant principal position in a pretty blatantly discriminatory manner. Her internal monologue includes gems like, "Robert Morrell or David Brewer, it made no difference. One man was like another," and "The hatred rose within her, thick and stifling. So many long years, wasted!"
And so Daughters of Eve quickly evolves from community service outfit to consciousness-raising circle to vigilante mob. As one does! Jia Tolentino and I read updated copies of this amazing artifact from the women's lib era and boy, we had THOUGHTS.
Jia: So, this town has descended into full-on Gender Retrograde and the actions of the men are incredibly disturbing, even for 1979, which I didn't know the book was written in till the end. (I was fooled by the publisher's terrible, very sporadic "contemporary" updates, like where one of the characters' brothers compares a girl [who his brother dumped and he immediately tried to RAPE] to "a Google search" where you just have to try different stuff in the search bar and then suddenly you get what you're looking for.)
I was not expecting the plot to be this crazy. I flagged every page that I said WHAT THE FUCK at and I have like 35 pages flagged.
Kelly: Every gripe from the girls was 100% legit, I felt like. There's Kristy, who's allowed zero extracurriculars because her dumb brothers can't be bothered to babysit her brother or put their damn dishes in the sink. There's Jane, whose dad is an abusive monster. The local high school treats the girls' sports program like a joke—there are barely any teams, and those that exist are given zero resources.
Jia: The girls were legit. Question: did you think, in the context of either 1979 or today, that the teacher was reasonable, or was meant to be? Or is she meant to be a caricature, a horrorshow feminist?
Kelly: I think she's written to be twisted. I peeked at the Q&A with Lois Duncan at the end, and she was originally going to write a book about a church youth group with a "fanatical, charismatic" Sunday school teacher. But she knew the fundamentalists would shit bricks, so she changed it around. I guess in 1979 feminists just made really convenient figures of disruptive menace.
Jia: And the men, too. The men, again, are absolute monsters. It's like a Thelma & Louise situation where the guy is so monstrous that you're like YEAH! KILL EM.
Kelly: Yeah—in the end, when Jane brains her abusive father with a frying pan, were we supposed to consider that a horrible crime? Were we supposed to see it as this manipulative adult having led these girls to the dark side? Because I'm not exactly weeping for that guy.
Jia: I was very like, "GO JANE KILL HIM HARDER." One thing that was interesting in the Q&A was Duncan saying feminists think the book is anti-feminist, and anti-feminists think the book is too feminist. And I think that sounds about right. Like, the men are monsters and the feminist exemplar is also a monster.
Kelly: I do think the book functions as kind of a consciousness-raising circle for teenaged girls!
Jia: Oh yeah, for sure. It's almost didactic, their sisterhood interactions: they're very slowly walking themselves through thoughts like, "Why CAN'T we have the right to choose," "Why COULDN'T I go to college if I wanted to," etc. And it's a clear indicator of the book's priorities that the hottest, most popular girl is also the most feminist and assured.
And of course I take the side of the monster feminist. Like the part where they pull two-timing, disgusting, horny Peter into the woods and put him in a dress and carve SLUT onto his head…
Kelly: I think that setup, though—the airing of grievances combined with the monster feminist teacher—ultimately ends up being very #NOTALLMEN. Here is an actual passage from the book:
"Irene was saying men want to hang on to the whip, and Ann said, 'Not all men.' How can you know that, Ann? Dave isn't your husband yet. You haven't had anything to disagree about. When you do, maybe you'll see another side of him." "No way," Ann said crisply. "You're just bitter."
Jia: Yeah!!! They do it a couple more times, too, literally use the phrase "not all men."
Kelly: And I loved it when Ann's dad told her the abortion was her decision to make.
Jia: Yeah, that part was wonderful. Not all men in this book are bad!
Kelly: But it's interesting that it's her dad who gets to say it, rather than her mom or another woman. And also, sisterhood here ends up being this malevolent force. Which I guess it sometimes is... IF YOU'RE THE PATRIARCHY.
I did find it interesting as a portrayal of the way teachers/coaches/leaders can assemble these feral packs of teens by treating them as adults.
Jia: Right, and it's also interesting that the teens go feral while also being the most (the only?) reasonable characters in the book. They are caught between this incredibly terrible world of men who are basically all controlling, violent, dismissive and their only ideological ally, a woman who advocates exclusively for violence, as well.
Kelly: I guess you can read it as anti-feminist, or you can read it as a call for better feminist role models. Like, what if Kristy's mom had stepped up?
Jia: Yeah, man, the moms in this story. They don't get a lot of options. Like how Jane's mom is very meekly like, "I'll leave before he kills me, just give me another year."
Kelly: Yeah. Bleak.
Jia: Also don't get me wrong, I think the teacher is a bad character for 2014 but a GREAT character for 1979. And like, even if this was real—if there was a small town where women were violently taken up by feminist rage after a lifetime of aggressive physically and emotionally abuse—I would certainly be all for it.
Kelly: Can I also just say that as much as I loved this book, I LOATHED the depiction of Laura?
Jia: The easy, insecure fat girl.
Kelly: It made me so mad. She falls for Peter's line of bullshit when he's just using her for sex, and then he stands her up for homecoming, and then Kristy's OTHER brother Niles turns up thinking she'll be an easy lay. It's a tough line to walk, being true to the fact that high school isn't a bed of roses if you're a fat girl. But this sad, pathetic story just made me furious, because it tells fat girls this is just what you can expect. She literally tries to kill herself! HEY, HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS: I was chunky and I went to the prom three times. SO THERE.
On the bright side, I think part of the reason it made my mouth fill with bile is that in 2014, we've kind of got that narrative on the run,
Jia: Yeah, the girls' brains are good but the character boxes they tick off are not very nuanced.
One thing I did like about Laura and the other girls was that they didn't think sex was a big deal. They were high school girls who were making sexual mistakes but it was fine, it was chill. Which is real. And by mistakes I mean, they were not recognizing or speaking up about the way guys were using them.
This book is just the pure distilled nightmare situation of a social environment where literally everything is defined by antiquated gender roles that just keep getting stronger, and stronger, and stronger.
Kelly: It's like Salem's Lot but with dudes instead of vampires.
Jia: It's almost like, if gender violence is the pre-set, the horror movie happens automatically: you get these fairly rudimentary characters and then all hell breaks loose as a matter of social math.
Kelly: I also liked Tammy's premonitions, and how her whole family was just like "Sure." But it was interesting that was the only paranormal part of the book. I was expecting literal witchcraft. But instead there's just sisterhood as witchcraft.
Jia: The act of female solidarity. That's it. That's all that is needed to totally wreck the town. It's also a nice touch that it's called Daughters of Eve. EVE'S REVENGE.
And Irene is really valuable to the girls, regardless of her unhinged qualities. Getting Ann into art school, coaxing the confession about the domestic abuse out of Jane. She basically talks Ann into an abortion (but I guess Ann talks herself out of it in the end?).
Kelly: I like at the end, which is very abrupt and ambiguous, Irene has been promoted.
Jia: That postscript is great, when here you find out where all the girls ended up. Madison is a "fashion model." And Jane is a psychiatric patient! OMG.
Kelly: Poor Jane. Jane gets a raw deal.
Jia: Jane gets the worst deal. Her parts were so sad.
But I love that it closes with the kicker, too, that Irene is still there. Fourth year of the Daughters of Eve. They've been winning some and losing some, but they're OUT THERE. Just fucking up shit.
Kelly: Do you think this book feels relevant AT ALL to #teenstoday?
Jia: You know, I think places like Jezebel actually serve as the sort of consciousness raising Daughters of Eve group for teens today.
Kelly: Today the Daughters of Eve would email us and we'd put the sports program at their high school on blast.
Jia. Exactly. Teenagers today wouldn't have to slowly, slowly walk themselves through the realization that women should be allowed to have careers.
But, that being said, there is something really important about this, I think, in that you get reminded how absolutely insane things were for women just 50 years ago. Which I forget all the time. I was reading this while my boyfriend was beside me in bed reading Men Explain Things to Me, and I was like "Yeah, shit's different."
Kelly: I think really extreme examples help you back into the broader realizations. You realize it was so different even when your mom was growing up, and you start thinking about how it all links up with your life, etc.
Jia: Oh, totally. And one thing about YA—no matter what era it's written or set in, if it's by a writer with a complicated enough stance, it'll always relate. The same basic issues of sex, independence, friendship, wanting to be accepted, wanting to be pretty, wanting to meet boys, wanting to do it on your own terms, the slow intrusion of the actual messiness of life—that's always there and will always be relatable.
Kelly: I think the beauty of a book like this is that it's so compellingly bonkers that there's still a reason for kids to read it.
Jia: I would recommend this as pool reading for ANY teen I knew. Or, like, any person. It's pretty great.
Kelly: They pick it up for the thrills and chills, but it gets in their brains.
Jia: It's extremely, overtly political but also like a horror soap.
Kelly: It's just a fucking live wire.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.