Playing with the Big Boys: (Alternate) History in Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose"


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 frightened 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.  Broken." (241)

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 be identified.

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 practices-- changed.

"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 again. (241)

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 flush... (242)

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 mentioning.

 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, (¹)  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"). (²)

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.

August, 1999
©2000 L.Timmel Duchamp


(¹) 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)

(²) 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, 1993).

Works Cited

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 20 (1959):195-216.

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, April, 2000.

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