Ladies Day: Not what I’d expect from Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch’s social satires often veer into the sexist. He’s also extremely cynical. That made Bloch’s optimistic 1968 feminist novella, LADIES DAY (which I have as part of a double book with This Crowded Earth) a surprise — I’d have expected something closer to The Feminists.

Dale Barton, the protagonist, wakes up San Francisco and soon realizes things have changed — my god, there’s a woman over there wearing pants, smoking a cigar and showing tattoos! I imagine Bloch was shooting for the most unfeminine image he could think of, but it is amusing how well he foresaw changes in women’s styles; he later makes clear, though, that this is a working-class thing and well-bred women still dress like girly girls.

A woman, assuming Dale is a hooker, picks him up for a night of sex, which is illegal without a permit. The following morning the cops pick them both up; Dale is immediately red-flagged as a person of interest, for reasons he doesn’t understand. Eventually it sinks in that he’s 200 years in the future, courtesy of suspended animation (a successful attempt to cure his terminal illness). While he was gone, WW III broke out, and it was nasty. By the time it was over, casualties were huge, and most of them were men. Women outnumbering men three to one, they took over. They’ve completely rewritten history so that Cleopatra is now more important than Mark Antony, and Martha Washington and Abigail Adams are the real geniuses behind the American Revolution. This mirrors the way women’s contributions are often written out of history, though I don’t think Bloch meant it that way.

In the new world kids are raised in creches, there are no armies and tech research is carefully controlled; one man later describes it as keeping it to a level humans can actually control instead of vice versa. Lee, the psychiatrist who works with David (one of the rare times Bloch has anything nice to see about the profession), candidly admits it’s not utopian, but defends the problems (breeding permits for instance), as necessary until people are ready to handle a traditional family structure without getting messed up (e.g., no longer defining relationships by military metaphors like “the battle of the sexes”). While that kind of rationale in fiction (or real life often enough) is usually a mask for tyranny, here they really do intend it as a temporary measure.

Complicating things: the renegades, men and some women who want the days of patriarchy back. And with them, war: one renegade gripes to Dale that the U.S. could have won the war and taken the world under its control if the damn women hadn’t opted for peace. Johnny, the U.S. president’s husband, describes the renegades as wanting to go back to the good old days when some idiot who doesn’t know how to drive could drive a car at 100 MPH as recklessly as they wanted. Johnny adamantly opposes going back to the old days, if only because the world’s at peace. He also sees matriarchy as a good deal for men, living as comfortable and free as the stereotype of a housewife in the 1950s.

Both renegades and the government want Dale’s help. He remembers the old days of patriarchy; he can tell them how much better a world at peace is, or he can declare that the world has gone down the tubes and needs to return to the good times of male dominance. Mother Hood, the current president, has scheduled a prime time speech for him; the renegades threaten to kill him if he doesn’t spin things their way.

As he’s complicating what to do, Johnny throws in a twist: men are still in charge. They write the speeches. They put ideas into their spouses’ heads (again this reverses 1960s stereotypes of how wives manipulated husbands). They’re the brains, the women are just the hands doing their bidding.

Dale, who’s in love with Lee, sides with the government and almost dies. In the aftermath the government rounds up the renegades and Lee delivers a speech Dale supposedly wrote. Dale realizes that contrary to Johnny’s beliefs, the women still run things, they just keep the men happy with the illusion of being the man behind the women. If Dale spills the beans, perhaps he can start a new renegade movement, getting back to the way things were. Instead he decides men have had their chance, why not let the women try? And eventually, he hopes, swing the pendulum back to true equality. So he lies to Johnny about the speech and Lee, who already loves him, realizes she can trust him too.

I think that’s part of why I like it. I’ve seen futures of this sort that assume equality can’t happen: men will never accept it, or women will just abuse their power. Maybe Bloch was overly optimistic, but like fluff, optimism in fiction is nice sometimes.

#SFWApro. Cover art is uncredited, rights to images remain with current holders.

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Filed under Reading, Undead sexist cliches

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