Fri
Oct 14 2011 3:00pm

Reading Joanna Russ — On Strike Against God (1980)

On Strike Against God: A Lesbian Love Story by Joanna RussOn Strike Against God: A Lesbian Love Story was a short realist novel — really more a novella than anything, as it barely tops out over one hundred pages — published by Out & Out Press in 1980, reprinted by The Crossing Press in 1985, and reprinted once more by The Women’s Press in 1987. (It is no longer in print, though.) On Strike Against God also has the distinction of being Russ’s final novel; from here on out, it’s great short fiction collections and brilliant nonfiction. (You can check out my coverage of her previous books in the Reading Joanna Russ tag.)

The book follows a middle-aged woman academic, Esther, through her development as a feminist and her uncovering of her latent lesbian sexuality. It’s a book that condenses the experience of many women in the sixties and seventies who began life trying to fit the box of heterosexual “successful” woman with marriage and a career not-better than her husband’s, and who finally had enough and realized they’d been hiding from themselves for a long time. As such, it’s a didactic book, in the sense that it has quite a lot to say about feminism and radicalism, as well as sex. (In fact, it’s the most sexually explicit book in Russ’s oeuvre; The Female Man comes close, but isn’t quite as descriptive.)

The title is a reference to a shirtwaist makers’ strike in 1909-1910, where thousands of women went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions. Critics of their day, including a magistrate, charged them with rebellion against god and nature — one decried them as being “on strike against God.” That’s the background of the text, and background is very important within the text — Esther’s focus on the background of names is another example, her awareness of the resonance of words and words’ prior use; their allusions, more or less. Allusion and outside textual reference are common in On Strike Against God, since Esther’s an English teacher and a published academic. There are many quotes and literary references Russ employs that aren’t available for her use in her speculative texts; they add richness to the realism and help build a convincing mental-narrative for Esther. (It helps that Russ mirrors Esther in many ways, career-wise; she knows her stuff when it comes to textual criticism.)

In many ways, On Strike Against God hardly feels like fiction at all. It’s easy to see Esther as a person writing a memoir, especially at the end, when she begins directly addressing all the “you(s)” out there, all of the women who know or don’t know or will know about the truth. That feels quite a lot like Russ’s break from the narrative in The Two of Them, or like the ode from Russ to her own book at the end of The Female Man. Is it Esther speaking through the pages, or is it Russ, or are Russ and Esther a bit like Hunter Thompson and Raoul Duke — alternate identities, a fictional remove from reality to allow an anecdote to become an exemplar? Hard to say. The “speaking to the reader” bit is a common textual ploy in Russ’s work; one that’s effective, generally, especially after a long text in which the reader becomes deeply identified with the narrative, like On Strike Against God. The difference is that it’s used to rip the reader out of the narrative in The Two of Them, whereas here it’s an organic part of the narrative; it flows easily out of Esther’s direct address to the reader.

Esther’s directed narrative also makes for a book full of fantastic quotes, though the story itself doesn’t stick with me much — Esther’s addresses to herself and the reader are often more engaging than the story of her romance with Jean, though that is moving in its own way. For example, one long paragraph is worth quoting in full for the effect:

“That not all men are piggy, only some; that not all men belittle me, only some; that not all men get mad if you won’t let them play Chivalry, only some; that not all men write books in which women are idiots, only most; that not all men pull rank on me, only some; that not all men pinch their secretaries’ asses, only some; that not all men make obscene remarks to me in the street, only some; that not all men make more money than I do, only some; that not all men make more money than all women, only most; that not all men are rapists, only some; that not all men are promiscuous killers, only some; that not all men control Congress, the Presidency, the police, the army, industry, agriculture, law, science, medicine, architecture, and local government, only some.

I sat down on the lawn and wept.” (32-33)

Esther’s realization as she narrates this to herself is one of horror and resignation: that she doesn’t hate men, she isn’t a man-hater as people will accuse, but that some men, actually quite a lot of men, participate knowingly or unknowingly in the objectification, abuse and degradation of women as a sector of society. How can she accuse them, though, as she tried at the party before giving up to go sob on the lawn? It’s like the scene in the bar, when she’s trying to play the part that the male academic expects because she thinks she must learn how to pick up men (after all, that’s what her psychoanalyst told her for some long time) — she tries so very hard to allow him to talk about his work without mentioning that she, too, has been published in the same journals, that she, too, knows what he’s talking about, that she too is a professional and has a brain. Of course, she slips at the self-effacement, because it’s just too damn hard to pretend to be something she isn’t, when what she is, is a strong, intelligent, capable career academic.

(An aside: I would love to say that the field just Isn’t Like This anymore, but I would be lying. It’s better, certainly. But it’s still Like That, despite the efforts of generations of women from before Russ up to now fighting their way into the world of the ivory towers.)

It is shortly after that scene, Esther’s breakdown after having been verbally attacked and belittled one time too many by a male academic threatened by her sheer existence, that Jean and Esther are having a conversation about being feminist, about being “radicalized,” in which the most-often quoted part of this book comes up.

“Oh, Esther, I don’t want to be a feminist. I don’t enjoy it. It’s no fun.”

“I know,” I said. “I don’t either.” People think you decide to be “radical,” for God’s sake, like deciding to be a librarian or a ship’s chandler. You “make up your mind,” you “commit yourself.” (Sounds like a mental hospital, doesn’t it?)

I said, "Don’t worry, we could be buried together and have engraved on our tombstone the awful truth, which some day somebody will understand:

WE WUZ PUSHED.” (37)

And there we are. That’s the part of the book that will freeze you cold, if it speaks to you, if you are one of these folks who saw what can’t be unseen, and once you’ve seen it, well. It’s not like making up your mind. It’s unavoidable. Russ has a way of telling the truth, the capital T-R-U-T-H, that is like no-one else; part of why her nonfiction is so unbelievably riveting, I suspect.

The treatment of human emotions, sex, and sexuality in this book are all interesting and “realistic,” though not always flattering — there’s a lot of bad, awkward, uncomfortable sex that eventually becomes fun, silly, goofy sex. The scene with Jean and Esther sitting on the couch having tea stark naked is honestly hilarious and believable, as are the little details Russ captures, like the nervousness of the first lesbian encounter for these women together, the clumsiness of it, the fear of not being able to have an orgasm and of looking ridiculous and of seeming old or stupid. Or, Esther pulling the curtains first before Jean comes over, and Jean catching that little preparation with a sly acknowledgement. It’s the little things that Russ conveys that make this book so real that it feels, as I’ve said, like memoir and not fiction. (Of course, that’s what makes Russ such a brilliant writer — she sees the details beyond the obvious and puts together just the right picture to communicate thoroughly and economically what she wants to say.)

On Strike Against God isn’t the most memorable of her works; it’s not the most inventive, certainly. What it is: it’s eminently quotable, and it captures quite a lot of authentic emotion, which is valuable fictionally and personally. It’s often said that though writers lie to people for a living, there is always deep truth behind the stories. Russ is a master of putting the truth in fiction, from her SF to her realist work, and On Strike Against God is filled to the brim with honesty. That’s what makes it a worthwhile read, as a part of the overall tapestry of her work, though it’s not one of my favorites.

The next book, while I’ve reviewed it once before, I will be writing another post on, because I think it deserves one: How to Suppress Women’s Writing, the text that I honestly think every single freshman composition student should have to read, and everyone else besides. In it, Russ condenses many of the arguments she has Esther make offhandedly in her textual references in On Strike Against God, plus a whole hell of a lot more. But, more on that when we get there.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

3 comments
Elisabeth Kushner
1. ElsKushner
I found this book in college, in the mid-80's, and though there were things about it that I found odd and dated (her therapist told her to pick up men? Wow, they used to do that??) it didn't really matter, because the important things in it-- the feelings and the little gestures (like the curtains) were so amazing and smart and even funny. And that "WE WUZ PUSHED" part, yeah, I remember that hitting me like a physical shock. I've never forgotten it.
BeauW
2. BeauW
What I remember most was, as a writer, being absulutely shocked (lit up) by the shear perfection of the prose.
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
@ElsKushner

Russ is so often funny, in so many ways. (Also, I reacted to the therapist descriptions with the same horrified "ugh!")

@BeauW

Yes, absolutely. Russ had precision like nobody else.

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