Upon its publication in 1972, Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was hailed as the first novel of the women’s liberation movement. On the eve of the novel’s latest reissue almost fifty years later, Shulman sat down with Public Seminar executive editor Claire Potter to discuss how a book born out of a consciousness-raising group became a bestseller.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alix Kates Shulman [AKS]: In 1968, the first national demonstration of the women’s liberation movement took place on September seventh in Atlantic City. It was the protest against the Miss America Pageant. And as we were marching for hours and hours carrying placards that said things like “All women are beautiful” and “Freedom for women,” it suddenly struck me that the Miss America Pageant, with its beauty standards and racism and judgment by men, was a beauty contest, the same as those happening all over America on prom night.
It was then, while I was marching, that I had this inspiration to write a novel about a white middle class Midwestern girl who was a prom queen, and all of the oppression that she would live through from childhood through, well, the end of the novel.
When I wrote the book, I thought I was writing it for the dozen people in my consciousness-raising group, because I thought nobody else would get the jokes. But by the time the book came out, which was several years later, the women’s liberation movement had spread so widely through the country. So many people had gone through consciousness-raising that they were eager to read about women’s experience from a feminist point of view, which hadn’t been done or hadn’t much been done before that. So, it became a bestseller.
I was so grateful to the movement that when I got my first royalty check, I handed out donations to all of the journals, the feminist journals, that had published me. These feminist journals had names like Up From Under, Off Our Backs, Women: A Journal of Liberation. It was a whole new breed of journal. One of them named their new electric typewriter, bought with my donation, for my heroine, Sasha Davis!
CP: Sasha doesn’t really name what is happening to her as sexual assault. I think one of the things the novel does so well is to show her trying to navigate the situation.
AKS: In the opening scene, when her husband rapes her, I think the word rape does appear. But of course marital rape was not illegal at that time. It took a feminist named Laura X months and years and really a lifetime of going state to state to get marital rape and date rape illegal. When I was a kid, if a boy or a man was accused of rape, the only way to get a conviction was if there were two witnesses. It’s still the case that the person who’s raped is put on trial as much as the person who does the raping. And a lot of people won’t even report it because they know they’re going to be put through the ringer.
The term sexual harassment wasn’t invented until years after I published the novel. But that doesn’t mean that sexual harassment wasn’t happening. So of course, while Sasha experienced it she couldn’t name it. But she’s in such situations over and over again. And I must say here, that the way I’m describing it doesn’t in any way reveal that this is in many ways a comic novel.
When [Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen] came out, there was a dispute among readers, between those who thought the book was hilarious (and I think those were the thousands of feminists, the women’s liberation activists, who existed at that time) and those who found it a tragedy. They couldn’t bear the thought that people thought the book was funny.
There is a big difference between the way it was viewed and received in 1972 when it first came out and the way it’s received today. Today, young feminists who review it or who respond to it do think that it’s very funny and very angry, and think that it will arouse people to go right out and smash the patriarchy. That wasn’t the reception in 1972. It was either very funny or very sad, traumatic.
But one of the most common responses — unfortunately for me because it included reviewers’ responses — was incomprehension. That, or this girl is a slut. Well, no, a pushover was the word at that time, the New York Times review said, This angry little book, the narrator is a pushover.
CP: One of the things that I was struck by on this reading was that Sasha is not a victim in this book but she uses her sexuality to try and find her way.
AKS: Absolutely. She gets into situations that she cannot control at first, but then she tries to get out of them by using her sexuality, by using her wits, by lying. And one of the things she uses is tears. It’s very clear that this is a tactic to save her from a really bad situation. But an unperceptive reader would see that she’s crying, that means she’s a victim. No, that wasn’t it at all.
CP: But there’s also something kind of poignant about that because lies, tears, there’s nothing she has at her command that will actually allow her to fight it or make it stop.
AKS: Yes, she learns that. And why is that? Because he, whoever he is, in whichever scene we’re talking about, is big and strong and perhaps willing to use violence. He has that power.
One of my real pleasures in writing the book was to come up with quotations by revered writers — men, of course — who write about or for women, like Dr. Benjamin Spock, the bestselling childcare guru. In the chapter when Sasha is a mother and housewife, she reads Dr. Spock saying all these incredibly sexist things. For example, he always refers to the baby as he. So I made both of the babies in my book she. And I sprinkled recipes through the book after Sasha gets married. Nowadays, lots of books have recipes in them. But in those days you would never dream of having recipes or diapers in a book because that would get it panned. The literary establishment was entirely male and there was an agreement that novels portraying women’s domesticity were not serious.
CP: Certainly for Sasha’s trajectory throughout the book, her whole goal is to be married and have children and have everything all tied up by the time she’s 25. And then, of course, what she learns is, once that is done, nobody cares about you. So, it’s like we’re all ex-prom queens.
AKS: We were playing around with a lot of titles, and “Memoirs of a Prom Queen” came up. And when I put in the Ex, it was to indicate that being a prom queen was the high point of her life, and from then on, it was downhill.
CP: When this book came out, abortion was still illegal. A number of people have commented on the scene in which Sasha has an abortion, which you really spend a lot of time on. You reveal the ugliness of it, Sasha’s grief over it.
AKS: In my book, I wanted to hit on every important female experience, as we had in our consciousness-raising groups. And one of our most important tasks was to get abortion made legal.
So, the scene in the book of Sasha’s abortion — which is illegal, kind of horrible, in the kitchen of a medical student who is the friend of her husband — that scene is full of all of his misogynistic comments as he’s performing the abortion. He’s saying, oh, what a nice tight little twat you’ve got.
But then she goes home and she goes into labor, and it was a horrifying thing. My idea writing it was to show that one reason for legalizing abortion would be so it could be done safely. This wasn’t safe for Sasha, she started hemorrhaging and had to be taken to a hospital.
CP: I also thought her shock at what was coming out of her was a particularly poignant moment because here’s a woman who was so sexually experienced and so sexually active and somehow it escaped her that at two months, something was going to come out that looked like a tiny baby.
AKS: Exactly. She’s so shocked when she sees the fetus with a human head. But that wouldn’t in any way have changed her desire to have the abortion. Everyone I’ve ever known who has had an abortion — and there are many, most of my friends, my mother, me, I mean, everyone — they never regretted it, never for a second regretted it, even though when it was illegal, it was a dangerous, scary, expensive, fraught choice. And when it was finally made legal, it became the opposite. It became safe, not expensive, and not even fraught. It was each woman’s right to choose. What a relief! But, of course, the people who are against abortion, the anti-choice movement, don’t see it that way at all.
CP: Obviously, this is a book that speaks very powerfully to the #MeToo movement. It reminds young women that they’re not the first people to have raised these issues and there are elders to call on to really think these things through with.
AKS: I think that the #MeToo movement is a latter day kind of consciousness-raising. Back in 1969, the first speak-out of the women’s liberation movement was a speak-out on abortion, during the time that abortion was illegal. It took place in a church. Women got up and publicly spoke about their own abortions, breaking a very serious taboo. And then women went on TV, on radio and spoke about their abortions, whereas before that, they had been silent. That is one of the things that made the laws change: consciousness raising and the speak-outs. It took those small groups of women openly discussing the taboo subjects of their lives — abortion, rape, sexual harassment — in public. That is what #MeToo did too.
CP: I think one of the things the novel does so beautifully is illustrate at length that women were objects. And that was really sort of one of the central insights of feminism that you can really see in everybody who was writing at the time, the realization that women aren’t people, they’re objects.
AKS: Exactly. And that is why I thought that the beauty pageant, the prom queen contest would be so powerful, because there you are up there on stage parading before the male judges. What are you but an object?
CP: As a reader who had read it as a teenager and now is reading it as a 61-year-old college professor, I actually had the same feeling, which is I’m horrified and I want her to win because she wants to win. She doesn’t know it’s horrible. Not yet.
AS: Because she wants it so much. She learns at a very early age that that is the one thing that might give her some power: being a beautiful object of men’s desire and lust. And at a certain point, that power has to fade. That’s why by the end, it’s all over for her until, in my next novel, Burning Questions, in comes the feminist movement.
Claire Potter is co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar and Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.
Alix Kates Shulman is a political activist, feminist, teacher, and award-winning writer. You can read more about her work on her website.