A Forgotten Feminist Novel About the Creative Power of Rage

Norma Jean the Termite Queen
Detail from a 1980s edition of Norma Jean The Termite Queen

Over the past year, from the Women’s March on Washington to the birth of the #MeToo movement, female anger has been in the air. Ijeoma Oluo writes in Elle, “You have no idea how angry we are.” Katha Pollitt has an essay in The Nation with one of the most telling headlines in recent memory: “We Are Living Through the Moment When Women Unleash Decades of Pent-Up Anger.

Remembering history helps us to parse the present, and it follows that women struggling to process these “decades of pent-up anger” can find apt reading material in the feminist fiction of the 1970s.

In her article “Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory,” Gayle Greene writes, “All writers are concerned with memory.” According to Greene, “Memory is especially important to anyone who cares about change, for forgetting dooms us to repetition; and it is of particular importance to feminists.”

As Greene points out, the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s were acutely aware that despite the whiff of revolution in the air, many elements of daily life stayed stagnant. Namely, once even the most ideologically liberated women became mothers, it seemed they were being asked to travel back in time. Why weren’t radical new ideas about equality reshaping middle-class American family life?

“One of the painful facts about the struggle for emancipation is that we have to keep starting it over again.”

Greene focuses on Sheila Ballantyne’s incendiary 1975 novel Norma Jean the Termite Queen. Norma Jean is an art-historian-turned-stay-at-home-mother, fibrillating with frustration. The book opens with the bored and angry Norma Jean testifying against her husband and children in an imaginary court; she reads the crime section of the newspaper and relates to the murderers; she studies the Egyptian Book of the Dead. She remembers how she went from being a young woman excited to start a family to feeling stuck in her stultifying role as a suburban housewife: “The feelings of fury had their genesis somewhere around here; how can I say just which event marked the turning point?” Greene calls Norma Jean’s “adjustment to the housewife role” a “homicide against the first and original self.” At a certain point, even Norma Jean’s under-evolved husband admits to himself, “It’s uncivilized to ask a person to waste her education, her talent.” He can tell she’s angry. But, he adds, she should be able to wait. Wait for what?

Eventually Norma Jean finds a creative outlet, saving both her sanity and her family’s well-being. She wonders, though, how much has changed, and if her daughter’s generation will have an easier time balancing work, family, and self. Norma Jean envisions the daughter as an adult, imitating her father by coming home from work, collapsing on the couch, and yelling at…who? How exactly will it work when the little girls of the 1970s have grown up to be career women?

Pollitt points out how over the decades, many women have believed if they just kept pursuing their educations and breaking into male-dominated fields, then it would be “as though women’s liberation were a kind of conveyor belt, humming along automatically.” Lives would be better for the daughters of the second- or third-wave feminists, right? Feminism would become more intersectional and tangible changes would be made to the structures of our society, so that women could achieve, and motherhood would no longer be a liability, right?

We now know that this next generation still hasn’t sorted it all out. As Greene writes, “One of the painful facts about the struggle for emancipation is that we have to keep starting it over again. This may be true of any effort at social change: each generation seems to need to make its own errors, and kind of collective amnesia wipes out all memory of the past.”

Norma Jean channels her rage into creating something new. Forty years later, Tracee Ellis Ross puts it this way: “I like to look at anger, if channeled in the right way, as a constructive fury that can result in action.”


JSTOR Citations

Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory

By: Gayle Greene

Signs, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Winter, 1991), pp. 290-321

The University of Chicago Press

Amy Shearn

Amy Shearn is the author of the novels The Mermaid of Brooklyn (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How Far Is the Ocean from Here (Shaye Areheart/Crown, 2008), and the introduction to the novella The Little Bastard (Anchor & Plume Press, 2015). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Poets & Writers, Oprah.com, and elsewhere. Amy is the assistant editor at JSTOR Daily.

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