Playing with the Big Boys: (Alternate) History in Karen Joy
Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose"
©2000 L.Timmel Duchamp
Likely the most famous passage in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's
Own is the women-as-looking-glasses riff (excepting, perhaps, the "Chloe
liked Olivia" passage); certainly it must be the most frequently cited.
When I recently reread this passage in Carol Becker's "Male Anxiety and
the Fear of Female Authority," I made the startling discovery that it offers
a brief sketch of an alternate history, one that immediately reminded me
of another sketch of an alternate history that works on a similar, though
less radical, version of the idea.
Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing
the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice
its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still
be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown.
We should still be scratching the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton
bones and bartering flints for sheepskins or whatever simple ornament took
our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would
never have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn
their crowns or lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilised
societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action.
That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the
inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to
enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women
so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are
under women's criticism; how impossible it is for women to say to them
this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be.... For
if women begin to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks,
his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgment,
civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying
at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least
twice the size he really is? (35-36)
Woolf grants too exclusive credit here to males for cultural production,
but such hyperbole, which is no doubt offered as mere rhetorical flourish,
makes the work of her alternate history for human beings a great deal simpler.
Imagine, Woolf says, a world in which women never did X. Most alternate
histories focus on individuals and their unique, particular actions
rather than on widespread social behaviors and conventions; Woolf's alternate
history, to the contrary, centers on a particular social practice and code
of gender relations. Without a certain kind of gendered behavior,
Woolf speculates, the world would be an entirely different place: it would,
in fact, consist of swamp and jungle-- and nary a city or powerful ruler
in sight. The unfortunate corollary to this assumption is that such
particularly gendered behavior was essential for bringing humans out of
the "swamps and jungles." I suspect Woolf did not take her alternate
history seriously enough to have grasped the corollary, or she might have
decided to use another rhetorical figure instead.
Still, I find this an interesting notion-- creating an alternate
history on the basis of structural differences in gender and social relations
and the behaviors that both produce and reflect those differences.
According to the article titled Alternate Worlds by Brian Stableford
in Clute and Nicholls' Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, alternate
histories typically engage a premise in which a specific event is altered
(e.g., the Nazis winning the Second World War), or entire periods of history
are changed by time-travelers, or biological evolution itself has followed
a different trajectory.
Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" explores
an alternate history that is a subtler version of the rhetorical conceit
Woolf offers in her looking-glass riff. Alison, the protagonist of
"Game Night," has discovered she is pregnant after her lover left her.
In a reckless, self-destructive mood, she walks into a bar crowded
with men watching Monday night football, tells the bartender she's
been "used and discarded," is pregnant, and would like a glass of wine.
Her lover, she says, had refused to wear the condom she'd brought him.
"It just doesn't seem fair," she says. She asks the bartender and
the men sitting near her what they would do in her shoes. A voice
from behind Alison suggests she join the Foreign Legion. "Make new
friends. See distant places." Alison turns and finds a tall,
mysterious woman wearing an Elvis tee-shirt. Alison joins her and,
when the woman suggests that her lover might still return, reveals that
the man was already married. Alison's interlocutor then tells her
about a different world, a world in which history diverged in 1872 when
a certain Laura D. Fair first incited women to kill adulterous men, a world
in which men who commit adultery continue to be punished with death, a
world in which a sex war rages as it never has in the world Alison knows.
When her interlocutor offers to take Alison to this other world, Alison
thinks about all the cruel things her lover had said to her the last time
they met. She asks if she can come back if she doesn't like it; the
interlocutor says yes, and Alison enters the other world through the women's
room. The interlocutor, she discovers, is a man. "We don't
have women like you here now," he says.
At first glance, the premise of Fowler's alternate history fits
comfortably into the scenario of the single-individual creating a turning
point that forever changes history. Laura D. Fair, it seems, is the
pivot upon which the difference in the two histories turns. The protagonist's
interlocutor, our sole source of information about the differences, says,
"Up until 1872 the two histories are identical" (238) and then offers
the story of what happened in the protagonist's (i.e., our) world:
Mrs. Fair married four times and shot her lover and was convicted and
the conviction was overturned. She just never lectured. She
planned to. She was scheduled to speak at Platt's Hotel in San Francisco
on November 11, 1872, but a mob of some two thousand men gathered outside
the hotel and another two thousand surrounded the apartment building she
lived in. She asked for police protection, but it was refused and
she was too friGhtenedr to leave her home. Even staying where she
was proved dangerous. A few men tried to force their way inside.
She spent a terrifying night and never attempted to lecture again.
She died in poverty and obscurity. (238)
Having identified the exact place in which the history of the two worlds
diverged, the narrator drives the reader to wonder why this apparently
pivotal event happened in one world and not the other. The answer,
surprisingly, is not an explanation involving individual experience and
psychology, but one of social-- and explicitly gendered difference:
"But in another universe where the feminine force was just a little
stronger in 1872, Grover Cleveland died in office. With a scone in
his mouth and a child in New York." (237)
The difference, that is, lies not in a particular individual, but in
the relative strength of "the feminine force." The interlocutor alludes
to this "feminine force" later, in an effort to draw the protagonist, Alison,
into the alternate world:
"The universe is shaped by the struggle between two great forces.
Sometimes a small thing can tip the balance. One more woman.
Who knows?" The woman tilted her hat back with her hand. "Save
a galaxy. Make new friends. Or stay here where your heart is.
Grover Cleveland, in this other universe, "was killed by twelve
sheeted women on the White House lawn. At tea-time."(237) This,
according to the interlocutor, was the result of Laura D. Fair's telling
"women to murder the men who seduced and betrayed them." That is,
Laura D. Fair in the other universe did not die in poverty
and obscurity and utterly silenced, an emblem of the "multitudes of women
who would have been key historical figures in a world where the gender
rules were different" (Fowler, 1999); rather she incited women
to murderous, vigilante action against male philanderers. The interlocutor
quotes Mrs. Fair's prediction about the effect such vigilantism will have
on the world: "The act will strike a terror to the hearts of sensualists
and libertines" (236) and elaborates, "Mrs. Fair said that women throughout
the world would glory in the revenge exacted by American womanhood.
Overdue. Long overdue. Thousands of women heard her.
Men, too, and not all of them entirely unsympathetic."(237) Incited
by Mrs. Fair, a group of women don sheets and murder a married man who
got an invalid eleven-year-old girl pregnant. The women could not
So no one could be tried. It was an inspiring and purging operation.
It was copied in many little towns across the country. God knows,
the women had access to sheets. (237)
Grover Cleveland's assassination followed. And adulterers were
not suffered to live. And so everything-- not just gendered
"Imagine your world without a hundred years of adulterers," she said.
"The level of technology is considerably depressed. Lots of men who
didn't get to be president. Lots of passing. Although it's
illegal. Men dressing as women. Women dressing as men.
And the dress is more sexually differentiated. Codpieces are fashionable
The protagonist's first practical experience of the difference comes
when she uses the rest room that "apparently fronted the two universes."
The toilet paper was small and unusually rough. The toilet wouldn't
The interlocutor tells Alison that although football was invented in
the other universe in 1873, it was outlawed in 1950 and "no ever got paid
to play it." And they don't have Elvis. (239) And
"men are not allowed to gather and drink." (233) Alison wonders
whether men are different as a result. "Have they learned
to be honest and careful with women, since you kill them when they're not?"
The interlocutor doesn't give a direct answer, but says that
"Where I come from the men and women hardly speak to each other.
First of all, they don't speak the same language. They don't here,
either, but you don't recognize that as clearly. Where I come from
there's men's English and there's women's English. (240)
In other words, a stronger "feminine" force does not mean more
harmonious relations between men and women, but a "clearer" recognition
of the differences between them, where differences implies conflict.
The notion of a "feminine force" conjures up images of the prohibition
movement more than the suffragist (which overlapped in their constituencies),
and of a feminism based on the notion of moral superiority and difference
rather than political equality.
The interlocutor asserts that Laura D. Fair was by no means a
morally superior person, but (apparently) cynically mobilized such an attitude
prevalent among the women in her world. This stronger "feminine force"
means, according to the interlocutor, not the development of political
and social equality, but an increase in gender-warfare, which is primarily
a drag on the motor of development, as though women, collectively, are
holding onto men's shirttails, slowing down the work of Progress (besides
eliminating such major industries as professional football and Elvis).
All the differences, the interlocutor implies, are strictly negative.
If women have achieved political equality, or if they have changed the
world in any positive way, is not something the interlocutor finds worth
But then the interlocutor is a man passing as a woman (a practice
that he claims is not uncommon in his universe). We have only his
word for it-- and we know he must be biased, since the universe he describes
is highly gender-conflicted. On first reading, the discovery
that the interlocutor is male comes as a violent, Hitchcockian shock.
Our suspicions of the reason he has lured Alison into his world run
to the lurid. We can never know what, if anything, he told her is
true. We know only that Alison is naive and vulnerable and
completely unprepared for whatever faces her. The ending, especially,
makes us doubt his credibility, given the glimpse it gives us of where
her somewhat flippant naiveté takes Alison.
Though our informant is unreliable, let us nevertheless take the
bits and pieces he gives us and speculate and draw inferences as any experienced
science fiction reader can't help but do. Our informant asserts that
the imposition of a single sexual standard has held back progress in his
world because men, since 1872, have been handicapped by having to live
by the same rules women have been made to live by. I see two possible
conclusions to this assertion: that (a) a world in which the sex war extends
violence to men as well as women is a world in which Progress is held back;
or (b) a world in which women fight to make men subject to the conditions
in which they live is a world in which everyone loses, since handicapping
men is not the same as removing the handicap from women.
The interlocutor, I believe, presses conclusion (a); but the narrative,
I find, invites the reader to arrive at conclusion (b). Both conclusions
produce the following corollaries: (i) technological progress is as contingent
on social conventions and gender codes as it is on individual initiative;
(ii) women have been seriously handicapped by sexual policing; and (iii)
if men had always-- pre-1872-- been under the same handicap of sexual
policing that women have endured, modern technology probably would never
have been developed.
Historians and social commentators have often claimed that adultery
must not be tolerated in wives since a wife's adultery poses a threat to
the certainty of paternity upon which patrilineal transmission of property
depends. And yet historically, the double standard for husbands and
wives has been only a subset of the more general double standard for sexual
behavior that until recently prevailed in all European societies.
As Keith Thomas noted, in his now classic article, "The Double Standard,"
The double standard.... is the reflection of the view that men have
property in women and that the value of this property is immeasurably diminished
if the woman at any time has sexual relations with anyone other than her
husband. It may be that this only pushes our investigation back one
stage further, for the reasons for the high value set on pre-marital virginity,
on retrospective fidelity, as it were, are hard to find and they certainly
spring from something more than mere certainty of the legitimacy of children....
At all events, this attitude is to be found in many different kinds of
patriarchal society, even if it has varied in intensity according to the
social level of the persons concerned and has been weakened by some economic
circumstances and strengthened by others. (210)
Thomas observes that for centuries the treatment of women in the
English legal system chiefly sought to protect the property right of fathers
and husbands. (Some feminist legal scholars argue that US law still
seeks to do so.) "The absolute property of the woman's chastity
was vested not in the woman herself, but in her parents or her husband,"
Thomas writes of early modern England. (213) But he also
cites a passage from a speech made to the British Parliament in 1923: "Chastity
in women is a star that has guided human nature since the world began....
But I do not think that any mere man would thank us for enshrining him
in such a halo." (195) The significance of the double standard, Thomas
concludes, extended far beyond the need to protect the certain transmission
of property from one male generation to another:
The double standard, therefore, was but an aspect of a whole code of
social conduct for women which was in turn based entirely upon their place
in society in relation to men. The value set on female chastity varied
directly according to the extent to which it was considered that women's
function was a purely sexual one. (213)
"Game Night" suggests a new way to tell the story of the history
of science and technology. At the very least-- even taking the interlocutor's
conclusion at face value-- we see that the sexual double standard-- and
indeed all aspects of men's relations with women-- must be taken into account
when constructing technological and intellectual history. Men have
enjoyed a vast freedom denied to women. For most of European history
they've not been obliged to be accountable to their mates, either legally,
socially, or psychologically, since it was women, and almost never men,
whom the law has made to pay heavily for unchastity.
For women, the free exercise of sexual agency has generally been
fraught with public (legal as well as social) consequences; while for men,
the free exercise of sexual agency has carried mainly private consequences
and only relatively infrequently social or legal consequences
(shotgun weddings, adultery trials). The implication of Thomas's
argument is clear: only when women's free exercise of sexual agency is
no longer considered a matter for public judgment, only when women attain
the same unfettered degree of sexual agency that is considered natural
to men, will they be recognized as full human beings. Luce Irigaray's
essay "When the Goods Get Together" explores this very possibility.
While adultery, when revealed, has always been treated as a public
matter for women, it has typically been allowed to remain a private matter
for men. Should a recognition of the double-standard and how it has
benefited men then not be considered a not insignificant aspect of intellectual
and science history?
Fowler, with this alternate history, is making the invisible--
i.e., gendered behavior and codes, which often invisibly privilege men--
visible. Because gender has always been naturalized, the gender system,
no matter the context, is almost always underestimated. The "rational"
(i.e., gender naturalism-driven) response would be to say that gender couldn't
possibly have anything to do with technological and scientific progress.
Fowler's plausible alternate history, by de-naturalizing gender codes and
practices, argues otherwise.
Feminist thinkers like Virginia Woolf were the first to assert
that women are "outsiders" to history. And until recently, the standard
line of historians-- feminist or otherwise-- has been that a small group
of privileged males have made the Western world and its history, while
everyone else stood at the margins, taking orders and doing the dirty work
(whether killing, as in war, or laboring with one's hands, as in building
infrastructure, or bearing and raising children, as in reproducing the
labor force and patriarchal lineage). While many historians-- including
a majority of those who practice "Women's History"-- still depict women's
presence in history as chiefly that of an oppressed underclass absent from
public life and therefore interesting only in terms of local conditions
and the degree of their subordination,
a growing number have refused such a depiction, with the interesting
consequence that they have begun to find evidence of women as active, productive
agents rather than as victims or stagehands (or even, as some historians
have crudely put it, "cattle").
Lisa Jardine notes that while scholars have produced a vast amount of
research on women over the last twenty-five years, they have for the most
part been attempting to shoehorn all the new work into the standard, existing
model of European history, which has at base told one story, the story
of male subjectivity. Often the new material has not fit well with
the old, or has made the old versions of historical matters look entirely
different, so that "a once familiar event no longer makes sense."
Jardine recognizes a difference in the way she reads certain documents
now from the way she read them ten years earlier, when she simply did not
see or take in what did not make sense along traditional lines.
[W]hen the scholar of women's history adds incrementally to the fund
of knowledge of the past which is still shaped by a largely traditional
historical narrative, her work is (on the whole) accepted as providing
important extra pieces for a jigsaw which continues to relate an emerging
male identity in past time. But when her work produces an account
in which once familiar events no longer make sense, we may judge that something
more gravely disruptive of traditional history is taking place. (138)
Joan Kelly speculated in 1976 that as we learn more about women
in European history we might well discover that the shape of history might
look very different, that even the standard forms of periodization might
prove inadequate when women came to be taken into account. "Game Night"
hints that there are many other ways of telling history, that other stories
might prove as important as those that have traditionally been told, stories
emphasizing facts that have previously been ignored or elided. As
alternate histories should do, Fowler's casts a shadow on the late 19th
and early-20th century United States that invites us to ask different sorts
of questions about gender, progress, and political power. In "Game
Night's" alternate history, Grover Cleveland's adultery precluded his reelection
to the second, nonconsecutive term that he served in our history.
Until President Clinton's impeachment, the notion that punishment for adultery
could bring down a sitting president of the United States would have seemed
far-fetched. Now, of course, in light of the Clinton Impeachment,
we can entertain ourselves with an alternate history in which most US presidents
were removed from office for adultery without stretching our imaginations
unduly or worrying about plausibility.
Fowler's alternate history shows us that tolerance (or intolerance)
to adultery has always made a substantial difference to the material constitution
of our world whether we knew it or not. "Game Night" throws into
relief this particular privilege that men have enjoyed in order to show
its significance-- and to provoke us to speculate about what the difference
might have been if women had enjoyed that privilege as well.
"When I was growing up," [Alison] said, "I lived on a block with lots
of boys. Sometimes I'd come home and my knees were all scraped up
because I'd fallen or I'd taken a ball in the face or I'd gotten kicked
or punched, and I'd be crying and my mother would always say the same thing.
`You play with the big boys and you're going to get hurt,' she'd say.
Exasperated." Alison unfolded the napkin, folded it diagonally instead.
Her voice shrank. I've been so stupid." (233)
Under the influence of her mother's exasperation, Alison sees
herself as an outsider to the boys' play rather than as the participant
she actually is. And because of this (mis)representation of herself
as outside of their play, it doesn't occur to her even to try to play as
an equal, much less to negotiate a change in the rules. Her role
as an "outsider" is the filter through which she understands the game,
much as has been the case for the way in which historians have traditionally
understood the role of women in Western history. Alison, like traditional
historians, mistakes the lack of a clear representation of herself
as a player in a male-hegemonic game for a lack of actual participation.
In Alison's world, only the boys play rough, and by the boys'
own rules; in her interlocutor's world, the rules, having been contested,
are different, and the girls play as roughly as the boys. Alison
is unprepared for such a world precisely because she's not used to thinking
of herself as a player. She tells her interlocutor that she wishes
her former lover to meet with "karmic justice," but that she does not wish
to punish him herself, given the "kind of person" she is (which is not
the kind of person he is). (233)
In Alison's world, the gendered-character of the rules looks
natural; but Alison's interlocutor knows they are negotiated within the
prevailing gender system. And so should we, given the revelations
of Fowler's alternate history, in which the girls play as roughly and violently
as the boys do, and the boys, faced with the elimination of the double
standard for adultery, are forced to knuckle under to at least one of the
boys' rules traditionally naturalized as applying differentially only to
girls, a rule that the girls in Alison's world have almost always been
forced to play by.
See, for instance, Judith M. Bennett "History That Stands Still: Women's
Work in the European Past (a Review Essay)," Feminist Studies 14,
2 (Summer, 1988): 269-283. Bennett summarizes the view that women's
experience of history has been basically flat and unchanging: "Given
the endurance of women's low status as workers-- in preindustrial as well
as industrial settings, in rural as well as urban environments, in southern
as well as northern Europe-- the basic explanation must be a feature common
to the experiences of all such women, patriarchy. Subordinated privately
to the men who headed their households, women worked to benefit the household,
a cooperative venture controlled by males. Subordinated publicly
to the men who controlled political and economic structures, women worked
under circumstances determined by others." (280)
See, for instance, all of the work of Natalie Zemon Davis on early
modern France, Lisa Jardine's most recent work on early modern Britain,
Ellen E. Kittell on medieval Flanders, and Joan Wallach Scott on 19th-century
France, and for art history the work of Griselda Pollock, and for British
literary history Margaret J. M. Ezell's stunning Writing Women's Literary
History (Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press,
Carol Becker, "Male Anxiety and the Fear of Female Authority," in Carol
Becker, Zones of Contention: Essays on Art, Institutions, Gender, and
Anxiety, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1996.
Karen Joy Fowler, "Game Night at the Fox and Goose," in Black Glass,
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1998.
_____________, email to author, September 1, 1999.
Lisa Jardine, "Unpicking the Tapestry: the Scholar of Women's History
as Penelope among Her Suitors," in Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare
Historically, Routledge, London and New York, 1996.
Joan Kelly, "The Social Relations of the Sexes: Methodological Implications
of Women's History," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society
1,4 (Summer, 1976):809-23.
Brian Stableford, "Alternate Worlds," in John Clute and Peter Nicholls,
eds., The Encylopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Griffin,
New York, 1995, pp.23-25.
Keith Thomas, "The Double Standard," Journal of the History of Ideas
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
New York and London, 1957.
This essay first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction,