The Gingham Road
Is there any genre in which the reader can’t confidently expect to find strong, resourceful female characters? Fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers and police procedurals — strong women, drawn with lesser or greater skill depending on the ability of the writer, are all through them. That is an enormous and refreshing change from when I started out as a science fiction reader in 19mumblemumble – well, it was before Twitter was invented, I can tell you that!
But it occurs to me that there is a sub-genre where strong women are rarely seen, and that’s the post-apocalyptic novel, the current archetype of which is Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. That novel is about a man and a boy who, in an America devastated by some unspecified apocalypse, go on the road in a quest for survival. And what about the boy’s mother? Well, she killed herself because she couldn’t take the horror any longer.
A lesser-known entry in the same genre is World Made By Hand, by James Howard Kunstler. It’s billed as a novel of America’s post-oil future, and that’s an important topic on which Kunstler has written cogent non-fiction. But, in his post-oil world, the female characters are basically breeders in metaphorical if not literal gingham dresses (for an extended discussion, see world-made-by-hand).
I can think of counter-examples, the most noticeable being Suzy McKee Charnas’s series The Holdfast Chronicles, in which the strength of the women is shown in their surviving an ultra-oppressive post-apocalyptic patriarchy. But the general assumption of post-apocalyptic literature, even when the apocalypse is of the partial sort portrayed in World Made By Hand, is that whatever culture dominates after the big crash will be a patriarchy, in which all the strength resides in the men and women are marginalised.
Am I reading the wrong books? Are there fine post-apocalyptic novels with strong female protagonists? Or does women’s strength and agency crucially depend on a functioning industrial society in which, for example, the ready availability of effective contraception underpins women’s reproductive freedom?
If you’ve got examples of strong women in such novels, please let me know in the comments – because I’d really hate the Cormac McCarthys and James Howard Kunstlers to have the last word.