Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Swastika Night and Women

Katherine Burdekin largely wrote fantasy or speculative fiction. She graduated from Cheltenham Ladies' College. As Martha Vicinus points out in Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, attending that particular boarding school signaled that a young woman ranked high on the class ladder. Tradesman's daughters could not get entrance, no matter how rich. Attending meant something, as going to Eton did. In Burdekin's case, her education served her--and us-- well. 

Cheltenham Ladies' College: Begun in the nineteenth century, it was built in a Gothic style.

Burdekin was highly intelligent and wished to attend Oxford, which by that point had woman's colleges, but her father would not allow it. She married, went to Australia, had  two daughters, and fairly quickly left her husband, moving back to England in 1823. She lived with her sister in Minack Head, Cornwall, until meeting and setting up housekeeping nearby with a female partner in 1926. Great credit goes to scholar Daphne Patai for unearthing Burdekin's identity and doing research on her very private life. 

Katherine Burdekin

Burdekin knew the Woolfs but was not part of their circle. Her politics and theirs, however, were similar. 

Clearly a student of Nazi rhetoric, in a literature more available in the 1930s than now, Burdekin picked up on the ridiculous romanticizing of the Nazi soldier as Teutonic Knight. She also zoomed in on Hitler's claim that his would be a thousand-year reich. In her novel, Germany has achieved partial world domination: the planet is divided between the Nazis and a far-flung Japanese Empire. All of Europe is firmly in Nazi hands.

The story begins 700 years into the thousand-year Reich. Although told from a male point of view, it soon turns to the women. In a parody of Hitler's desire to put females back in the home solely to serve as the breeders of his hyper-masculine soldier elite, Burdekin exaggerates the subjection of Nazi women. The women we encounter in Germany--and who are representative now of women across Europe--are small, ugly, stupid, degenerated, and illiterate. Their heads are shaven, and they are kept herded in barbed-wire camps, a clear allusion to the already flourishing Nazi concentration camps. Women are incessantly taught that their life's purpose is to align their wills with male wills, to obey men, and to have male babies. 

There is no rape, because rape would presuppose a woman having a mind of her own. Instead a woman who is raped must quickly understand that because a man wanted to rape her, she must have wanted the rape as well. After all, his desires are necessarily her desires. All of this is explained with dead-pan seriousness. Male babies are taken from the women at 18 months, before they can have any memories of their mothers, so that they can be brought up in a wholly masculine environment and not be polluted by exposure to the female. This is another exaggeration of Nazi policy.

Soon after the novel opens, women are herded into a Nazi "church," shaped like a swastika, for their monthly indoctrination visit. Hitler is now worshipped as a god, depicted as seven feet tall with golden hair and a golden beard. He is said to have "exploded" from the head of God the Thunderer and so never was in any way polluted by contact with a woman.

This particular edition shows Hitler reimagined as a blond Norse God. As can be seen, Burdekin published under a male pen name.

The woman cry in the church. The men think this arises from fear of being in a male domain, but as we later learn, it comes from an ancestral, barely understood mourning for all they have lost. 

Burdekin says that women are partly responsible for their fate in this new world, because for far too long they made it their goal to align with male desire.  In words that are relevant to today's world, the narrative clearly and cogently summarizes women's problems:

There are two things women have never had which men have had, of a developing and encouraging nature. One is sexual invulnerability and the other is pride in their sex, which is the humblest boy’s birthright. And yet, until they can get back those two things, which they lost when they committed their crime and accepted men’s idea of their inferiority, they can never develop their little remaining spark of self-hood and life.

Further, the text posits that what is missing from women is

 a soulpower which would come from being themselves, from being women. Men would never want to force them [rape them, if women had soulpower]. It would be unthinkable, impossible.

Burdekin is not afraid to imagine a female subjugation in which male society is entirely homosocial and homoerotic, as well as hyper-masculinized. Homosexuality is tolerated, as who can men love, respect, and think beautiful but other men? Woman are far too degraded. They are animals to rape and impregnate.

The book does not do well in terms of language respecting animals, though I can't imagine a person as humane in outlook as Burdekin meaning to denigrate or call down harm on other living creatures. However, her tendency to describe women as little less than beasts, dogs, or livestock tends to rob animals of their dignity.

In a comic touch, the women are told they have to bear more girl babies. They are not told why, but we learn it is because they have so wholly aligned themselves with male desire that they are having far too many male babies for the human race to continue. More women are needed as breeding material. However, the women are so full of self loathing that they simply decide they must have misheard the directive. 

There's little plot to spoil, but  I'd like to go back to Burdekin's analysis of the plight of women. Then in my next blog I will discuss other aspects of the novel, such as violence, its influence on 1984, and its writing style.

Burdekin's women of the Nazi future are almost comically oppressed. But how much is it exaggeration, and how much is it underlying reality, with the veil ripped off, of our times?  Three works of literature happened to run in front of me recently that illustrate Burdekin is not much exaggerating. The first is Bret Harte's "The Luck of the Roaring Camp." In this story's roaring camp, there is but one woman, Cherokee Sal, whose name suggests a mixed race. She is a prostitute who gets pregnant and gives birth to an infant boy. Of her death, we learn this:

Within an hour she had climbed, as it were, that rugged road that led to the stars, and so passed out of Roaring Camp, its sin and shame forever. I do not think that the announcement disturbed them much, except in speculation as to the fate of the child.
"The Luck of the Roaring Camp:" Who needs women when we have men? 

Getting rid of the sole woman--creating an all male environment like that of Burdekin's Nazi empire--eradicates "sin and shame forever" from this camp of vagabonds and thieves! (This eradication is supposedly of sexual sin, but read the words!) Women is the sole problem! Of course, they are not much bothered by her death: was she even human to them? But in this newly liberated all male world, the little boy can flourish from birth without the polluting influence of a woman. Women's insignificance is further emphasized by this: Stumpy and his ass, who feeds the child her milk, are all it takes to raise the child:

 “Me and that ass,” he would say, “has been father and mother to him!"

That quote is particularly striking. We may condemn Burdekin for equating her women to animals, but it is a common trope. An ass can do as well at parenting as a woman. What also strikes me is that I was read this story in elementary school (no doubt in some bowdlerized version) as an amusing piece of folktale Americana. The misogyny was completely lost on me, as on my female teacher--and so it is passed on, like a virus we can't see. (Of course, the child Luck does die--so perhaps they did need a woman?)

The second work is Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, a book my mother gave when I was 12, as she thought I would enjoy it as much as she did. Since I figured out the twist early on, I didn't, but I did imbibe another dose of misogyny, this is form of a woman abasing herself and abandoning her moral compass to wrap herself around and stand by her man. Her husband Max's confession that he is a murderer who shot his first wife, Rebecca, through the heart, does not horrify her, but brings them closer! Why? Because it means she can have his love! He really didn't love Rebecca! And not only does it occur to her that she has only his side of the story, of course told to make himself look like the victim, but she is vigorously in favor of erasing Rebecca's story and truth itself in defense of patriarchy: 

 Rebecca is dead. She can't speak, she can't bear witness.

In a morally coherent world, that might be a problem. But not here. Rebecca annoyed--dared to assert equal power to her husband as well as bodily autonomy--so she deserves to die.  Rather than be concerned that this man--monster??--she has married killed another woman for taunting him about bearing another man's child (think about that--and the murder is justified as commensurate to Rebecca's "evil!")--the new wife wants to cover up the murder:

Nobody saw you that night. You had  gone to bed. They can't prove anything. 

 This woman, as much as any abject shaven headed woman in Swastika Night, has been brainwashed to support a violent patriarchy in which a man is justified in killing an uppity woman--and as his new woman, the wife aligns herself immediately and unquestioningly to defend him, even though he is guilty. I was given this at an impressionable age as a great romance novel.

Finally, for the first time, I read a long short story by Harold Brodkey called "Innocence." A more recent work, it still illustrates the extent to which women have been deformed by a desire to please and serve men. It is told entirely from a male point of view, in first person, and is about a male, a college student, bringing a beautiful young woman to her first orgasm. She has already had sex--she is not virgin territory, but she has never enjoyed sex before. This man therefore has the opportunity to lay claim to dominance over her body by being the first to offer her true sexual satisfaction. He can master her that way. And while we might say it is thoughtful of him to be so concerned about her orgasm, it is clearly in service of his own ego needs. But that is almost beside the point. What is striking is the pathetic abjection and abasement of the woman who comes to his room. At first she says "damn" when she realizes he is naked under his sheet and wants sex, then immediately  and compliantly begins to unbutton her blouse. The narrator says:

I was amazed that she was so docile; and then I saw that is was maybe partly that she didn't want to risk saying no to me--she didn't want me to be hurt and difficult, she didn't want me to explode; she had a kind of hope of making me happy so that I'd then appreciate her and be happy with her and let her know me

Compare the above to Burdekin's quote: What men have and women lack

 is pride in their sex, which is the humblest boy’s birthright. And yet, until they can get back [what] ... they lost when they committed their crime and accepted men’s idea of their inferiority, they can never develop their little remaining spark of self-hood and life.

Burdekin exactly, in Swastika Night, exactly describes the woman Brodkey describes. As with all dystopia, we are in the present moment--or were until very recently.

 Burdekin says that to achieve equality women need to first, learn to love themselves as themselves, fully as women, not as appendages of men or as inferior men or wannabe men or men pleasers. One could argue that in our society, many women (certainly not all), are coming closer to that ideal. #Metoo showed that many women are no longer identifying with the aggressor or making excuses for predatory and unwelcome male behavior. Women are no longer keeping silent or accepting the male overwriting of our experience. This is fueling a backlash, as some men--as with Dr. Ford's allegations about Kavanaugh--take the gloves off and say they don't care. It's stunning that Republican congressmen could both say they believe Dr. Ford, and yet dismiss her testimony as not mattering when it came to a decision about a Supreme Court appointment. One wonders what will happen, as patriarchy is premised on a trade-off--women give up certain rights to men in return for protection. If men are openly abdicating on that protection, why should women relinquish power to them?

This leads to Burdekin's second point. The other attribute women have never had that men do is  "is sexual invulnerability." We are still subject to control through rape and impregnation--and in some parts of the world through genital mutilation.  Prostitution is another component of this vulnerability. Burdekin implies we can get beyond this if we develop our integrity as women. If we come across as and are fully accepted as equals, men won't think of raping and violating us. This may or may not be true, but at this time in history, it seems as if men, losing control of women as they more own their womanhood, may be doubling down on bodily control. This domination is threatened through denial of birth control and abortion laws that have far more to do with controlling women's bodies than caring for infant lives. Whether this is a rearguard action in a lost cause is yet to be seen.

And complicating all this is that in our society and the future Nazi empire, men's bodies are also vulnerable.  But more next time. 



  1. Swastika Night is remarkable: it anticipates books of the 1980s like Suzy McKee Charnas's trilogy -- an allegorical prophetic war about women going to war with men. Not at all like your usual Virago or Persephone book. There's another interpretation of Rebecca: DuMaurier identifies with Rebecca and is showing herself how the nameless heroine never has a chance to develop an identity; she is enslaved by her employer and now her husband, homeless.

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