I first read Zoe Fairbairns’ novel Benefits when I was in college, only a few years after it had been published. It was riveting, stunning and very much a snapshot of the modern 1970s feminist movement.
Since then, from time to time, I tried to find a copy of the book — which was harder than I anticipated. I finally purchased my own copy this month and was able to re-read it .
My response in the new century was mixed. The story remained as interesting as it did the first time around. However, the character development was more stilted than I remembered.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great book and worth reading. In fact, I think every woman should read it if only to understand how precious our bodies are and how little we should trust a government that wants to control them. However, readers must get ready for a static feminism (which in itself is an oxymoron).
The story itself remains compelling. In Benefits, the British government from the 1970s through the new millennium tries to “manage” its women using many of the typical tools of government: money, policy, social stigma. A few strong personalities get involved and bring about chilling changes.
First, women are encouraged to leave their schools and jobs and have children, and the government will pay the women "benefits," money taken out of the general coffers (and ultimately is a tax removed from paychecks to be given to those who do not receive paychecks). Unfortunately, the government thinks the “wrong rats” are having children and steps in again to control and encourage behavior with money and government policy. Finally, the government uses money and policy to require the implanting of permanent birth control devices, which may be removed only by the government. (To do otherwise is to risk one’s life and body, women are told.) Finally, doctors don’t have to rely on women’s bodies anymore to prevent pregnancy — with catastrophic results.
The men in the government making these decision evolve and adapt. The women, on the other hand, do not. In the real world, we can see how women have fought and evolved and kept themselves in "the game," sometimes even evolving "the game." It's not equal, and I don't know if it ever will be. Every time I get a mammogram, I think the procedure would be vastly different if men had to get them — my point being that many things would be different if men experienced them the way women did.
But back to the book. While men in this book grow, women never evolved beyond the mid-1970s. According to the author, feminists are static creatures who cannot rally around a leader, who cannot agree on a single idea, who cannot even have a meeting unless everyone agrees. The women in this tale congregate in an old abandoned high-rise they turn into a commune, and the commune and its people never change. It’s a utopian society in which individuals in massive numbers agree to live by these chaotic rules.
The egalitarian co-op sans leader was very real in my undergraduate years, and I saw it work effectively in my school's women’s studies program. The school required a department head, and while the women didn’t implement a hierarchy, they “appointed” a “leader” who would fulfill that need of the university. This was one of many ways they adapted.
The feminists in Benefits did not evolve or adapt. They continued to do the same things year after year, generation after generation. Young feminists, teenagers young enough to be the first generation’s daughters (or granddaughters, maybe) were exactly the same as their foremothers. This static behavior is unrealistic and detrimental to the cause — not to mention that the next generation always bucks, as was evident in a particular mother-daughter relationship featured in the book. Having every woman agree to a single structure, live harmoniously in a huge commune and have the next generations rise through the ranks without a single iota of change or conflict was even more eerie than the results of the government’s womb control.
I still recommend the book, and I will ask my local library to include a copy or few on the shelves. (They’ve purchased books I’ve suggested in the past, so odds are good there might be a copy for you to borrow soon.) However, some parts of it are dated — and while it might be a regular occurrence of mainstream men’s science fiction, it seems a disappointment for feminist science fiction. I hope to find other fem sci fi that goes against this grain.
Do other readers of science fiction find this a universal issue throughout the genre, where later readings of beloved science fiction stories suffer in modern light?