Interview with Alix Kates Shulman By Jennifer Baumgardner, with Alice Stewart and Kayla Bert
In 1972, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was published and hailed as the first novel of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It sold more than a million copies, and its author, Alix Kates Shulman, went on to write more than a dozen works of fiction, memoir, essays, and children’s literature. I first interviewed Shulman in 1993, when I was a young assistant at Ms. magazine, and we’ve remained friends ever since. At 87, Shulman is editing (with Honor Moore) the anthology Writing the Women’s Movement (Library of America, 2021). Her best-selling first novel is out in a new edition, which inspired a reason to interview Shulman again, this time with WRB interns Alice Stewart and Kayla Bert, at her loft in lower Manhattan.
Jennifer Baumgardner: What was going on in your life and in the world when you were writing Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?
Alix Kates Shulman: I found the movement in December of ’67. I was a housewife-mother. I had had a wonderful job as an encyclopedia editor, but you couldn’t be pregnant and keep your job. There was no maternity leave; you couldn’t “return” to work, because your job would have been filled by somebody else. So, there I was, at home with two little kids, keeping house and doing some freelance work, and I heard on WBAI these young women talking about a new movement: Women’s Liberation. They gave the name of a group— New York Radical Women—a telephone number, and a date and address for the meeting. I wrote it down, went to that meeting, and that was it.
I first conceived of this book at our 1968 Miss America protest. The Women’s Liberation Movement was barely a year old. As I marched, it suddenly came to me that the Miss America Pageant and the prom queen beauty contests all over America were the same. At that time, the pinnacle of female achievement was the Miss America crown. I wanted to show how being judged by men, with looks counting for so much, affected us. I think it was Ros Baxandall who said, “Every day in a woman’s life is a Miss America contest.” We were competing to get the man. Because the only legitimacy a woman had was through her man. I wanted to write a novel with a prom queen heroine, which would show the ways that women were oppressed.
JB: Were you already writing before the Women’s Movement came into your life?
AKS: I had written a couple of children’s books—largely because I had kids and was desperate for some that had positive girl characters and weren’t so sexist, which was a new word back then.
I was writing stories, too. Of course, they were rejected because they were feminist. Well, this was before the Movement, so they weren’t exactly feminist, but they were about women. The first one became the first chapter of Prom Queen, about leaving her husband. And it had the character’s name: Sasha Davis.
I was writing stories, and nothing was happening, and then suddenly the Movement started founding feminist journals. My first fictions were published in Aphra, the first feminist literary journal of the Second Wave. It’s named after Aphra Behn, a seventeenth-century writer said to be the first woman writer to earn her living writing. There was a huge push at the beginning of Women’s Liberation to re-find, reclaim, and write about so-called “lost women.” Or those just not recognized by the male literary establishment.
JB: Prom Queen has a fractured timeline. Why did you approach it that way?
AKS: There was this man I had known in the early fifties and used to beat at chess. Chess was almost exclusively a male activity; women didn’t play, but I played and beat him so he thought I was smart. I met him again at a party in ’69, and, by that time, he was an editor at a big publishing house. He said he read my story about Sasha Davis leaving her husband in Aphra and, “If you ever write a novel, I want to look at it.” I went home and made an outline for my novel. Since it was that story that attracted him, I thought, “I’ll start with that, and then flash backward from childhood on.”
My initial idea was to start every chapter with an episode at the Miss America protest, in order to indicate that it was a feminist novel. And the frame was not going to be her leaving her husband so much as twenty-four hours in Atlantic City. At about chapter three, I saw that this structure was clunky, even silly; the frame wasn’t working. I didn’t need to telegraph it as a political novel. Just let it be. I dropped the protest frame, and it was so freeing for me.
JB: The very last scene is in the beauty shop. Sasha’s getting her hair cut. She’s trying to connect to her earlier self by wearing her hair the way she did when she was named prom queen at her high school. As she’s under the dryer, she starts to panic. It’s a very bad haircut. When she gets home, her husband reacts with horror, as if she had hurt him with this bad look. Sasha says something falsely conciliatory and then goes and calls her friend, Roxanne.
AKS: The beauty shop scene is the culmination of the novel. Among other things, it’s about how it’s a fool’s errand to try to look like what you used to look like. It’s absurd, and it doesn’t work. It was very important to me that the book end with some intimation of the Movement, but nothing overt, so I ended the book on a woman’s name: Roxanne, Sasha’s best friend.
I struggled with how to end it. I know for some young women, who didn’t have children and a wandering husband, like Sasha, that was not a satisfying ending.
JB: It’s very subtle and very packed with meaning. Did your editor understand it right away, that it was like Nora slamming the door?
AKS: Yes, exactly! Sasha picks up the phone and calls Roxanne. If you’re a perceptive reader, you know that means she’s going to say, “Can I come and stay with you? I’m leaving.” Because that also happens earlier in the novel, when Sasha leaves her first husband.
It’s a prescient #MeToo novel, too, because she—poor, little Sasha—is oppressed by so many guys trying to get into her pants, whether it’s rape or other kinds of sexual assault or, in the work context, a quid pro quo. To me, looking back at it, it’s a catalog of everything that was going on then and lots that is still going on now. Some things are different. Virginity is no longer required in high school, for instance, but there’s still massive slut-shaming.
JB: That strict box around virginity and being desirable has been reconstituted for this generation in a way that looks like sexual freedom, but it’s really like enforced exhibitionism—being coercively asked to send nudes, being expected to know how to do things from a weird porn menu.
Let’s talk about tone: the book describes marital rape, date rape, abortion, and harassment, but Sasha laughs a lot of it off. She has her eyes on the prize: having a big life. The language of today, a time when we’re finally taking harassment more seriously, is often about trauma and PTSD and interactions making you “feel weird.” Where Prom Queen was once perceived as an angry novel, Sasha might now be perceived as not sufficiently understanding that she was violated.
AKS: Right, well, first of all, this novel presents a pre-feminist world. Second, I wanted it to be a comic novel. This book was written out of my rage—feminist rage, which I’m so happy to see has been revived! My approach, as a writer, was to see it all ironically. I thought, when I wrote it, that only the ten people in my consciousness-raising group would get the humor, but it turned out that, by the time it was published, hundreds of thousands of people had gone through consciousness-raising just in a couple of years. And they wanted an interpretation of their experience that was feminist.
In terms of Sasha’s reaction to rape and harassment: Sasha has her goal, which is to experience life as fully as she can without getting trapped, without getting a reputation, without being ignored, without being thrown on the garbage heap. She uses whatever assets she has to make her way through this maze of oppression that is waiting for her at every turn. She thinks, “If I just get through this, then it’ll be okay.” But no, at the next turn, there it is again, oppression in another form. “I’ll get through this, and it’ll be okay.” She avoids victimization by not letting it wreck her. That’s her strength. And she goes onto the next self-appointed task. I see it as funny that Sasha—who is not me the writer, only the narrator and the protagonist—thinks she can escape the bad treatment if she gets the right man, or if she gets the abortion, or if she doesn’t let whatever’s happening mess up her life.
Actually, we in consciousness-raising were not stopped by all the horrible things that happened to us, either. We got together, we discovered problems that each of us thought were “just me.” We were all faking orgasms. I mean, it was everybody! And that made us laugh like crazy, to discover that we were all faking orgasms. Within the Movement, these things that we named—these ways that we were mistreated—were grist for our mill. They let us know what we had to go out and change. We felt empowered by all this knowledge, not traumatized by it. I’m not saying people weren’t traumatized by their experience, though that wasn’t a term we had. We were just like, “Oh, that guy mistreated her? Let’s go and picket his house.” It was fun. One of the things about the early Women’s Liberation Movement that gets lost now is how much fun it was. We laughed so much!
In the early Movement, the point of consciousness-raising was to make women understand that all of this experience that they just took as a given was oppression. I don’t think women nowadays need to learn that they’re oppressed. Everybody knows it. It’s true that, for decades, because of the backlash, women would say, “I’m not a feminist” even though they benefited from and approved of the changes that the Movement made. But now, suddenly—since Trump’s election—feminism is not a dirty word.
JB: I think the shift came before Trump. By 2013, a critical mass of people felt invited in, like they could be themselves and be a feminist, and started using the term. In 2014, Beyoncé famously performed at the Video Music Awards with FEMINIST in huge letters behind her. That was a big tipping point.
AKS: Well, of course there’s going to be a great variety in geography, ethnicity, age, race, and all kinds of differences. This is a huge country with a huge population. But if you can get more than a million women to march the day after Trump’s inauguration, to me, that marks a change. So that’s why I say Trump. I’m sure that it was a gradual continuum. I mean, there were always some women who proudly called themselves feminist—like us.
Kayla Bert: It actually bothers me when people use the word “feminist” loosely. Do you feel that way?
AKS: Yes, but it’s certainly better than being anti-feminist.
JB: Are you saying, Kayla, that there is a superficial consumerist variation, and that’s less meaningful?
Alice Stewart: Right. It’s cool to call yourself a feminist, but many people won’t take in what it means and execute it in their daily lives. Feminism means changing your actions and interactions, not just slapping it on a t-shirt and calling it a day.
AKS: I agree. But words do change, and, eventually, the meaning of a word can become so diluted that people have to use a new word to describe what they’re talking about. And maybe “feminism” will become one of those words; it will have to be replaced by something that you would both like. “Intersectional feminism” has kind of replaced plain feminism, but that’s a mouthful. People do make new words, so don’t worry if it has a problem.
JB: Say a little bit more about a reemergence of feminist rage. What’s the function of rage, to you, within the feminist movement?
AKS: It’s organizing, because rage is a very powerful emotion. You cannot dismiss it, you cannot put it down. And when other people see they have the same [rage] about the same thing, a movement explodes. I think it usually starts with an outrage, that people are doing this, that people are getting treated like this.
JB: What is the role of literature in a movement?
AKS: It’s very important, because literature—I mean fiction—recreates emotions, and you can reach people who might not be interested in reading an argument. I recently wrote a column in Lit Hub about books that made me a feminist novelist. One was Richard Wright’s Native Son; it was so clearly a political novel. Back in 1969, in America, fiction and politics did not go together. Politics were considered toxic to art. But Richard Wright wrote a political novel that was also very moving and very important. That gave me permission to write a political novel without feeling that I was going to be trashed by the male literary establishment. Well, of course, I was wrong about that.
JB: Art is truth-telling, but politics often has an agenda. I am thinking of politics in terms of propaganda in our hyper-polarized society.
AKS: I don’t mean anything like electoral politics. To me politics is power relations. In my novel, I was describing power relations between men and women, and that’s why I think of it as political. The power relations between men and women are so disparate, and how is a group that lacks the power supposed to respond? The novel narrates one way: by trying to make the best of each situation you can without getting killed. And then, in my next novel, organizing.
JB: One of your gifts must be being attuned to the things that are going to resonate with the largest number of people. The fact that the first radical feminist action would be at the Miss America pageant is so savvy, because everybody’s watching it on network TV.
AKS: Carol Hanisch came up with the idea. Yeah, it was brilliant. It wasn’t the first action, but it was the first to get national coverage. We had a lot of actions before that, like W.I.T.C.H., a small consciousness-raising group which I belonged to, hexed Wall Street.
JB: Witches have come back. There’s a whole spate of books coming out this fall—The Witches Are Coming, Hexing the Patriarchy, etc., podcasts like “The World Needs a Witch.”
AKS: Back then, West Coast feminists had a spiritual witchy group that embraced Wicca. We in New York were just political witches. Witches represented a certain kind of male oppression—burning!—in the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and that’s why the group W.I.T.C.H. took that name.
JB: Everything with feminism right now—the surging rage, the witches— does it feel familiar?
AKS: The rage of #MeToo reminds me of consciousness-raising. I think it’s a latter-day, Internet version. Consciousness-raising was done in small groups of women, maybe a dozen members, all over the country, and it was a huge organizing tool for the Women’s Movement.
Speak-outs were the public face of consciousness-raising. The first speak-out was put on by Redstockings on abortion, in 1969. People broke the taboo and spoke about abortion publicly for the first time. Then there was a speak-out on rape, then there was a speak-out in ’75 on sexual harassment—when the term was invented. I think that #MeToo, in that it is on the Internet, is the public face of a taboo subject. It has had a huge effect, as every one of those speak-outs did. As consciousness-raising did.
When I think of today’s movement, I applaud it. I just applaud it in every way. Each generation is born to a certain set of tasks, that’s the limit of their horizon. People born after that horizon has been seen and those tasks accomplished have a different set of tasks ahead of them. They see a different horizon. So, I look to younger feminists for help in my understanding. They see further than I could see when I was their age, much further, and I look to them to see how to expand my own horizon. I’m just thrilled that the movement is reborn. Whatever form it takes isn’t for me to judge. It’s for me to learn from.
Jennifer Baumgardner is the editor in chief of the Women’s Review of Books.