- "The Superwoman" and Other Writings by Miriam Michelson
This collection of writings by Miriam Michelson, including the novella "The Superwoman" and other journalistic and fiction pieces selected and introduced by Lori Harrison-Kahan, continues the important work of unburying writings by women from the undeserved literary graveyards they persistently were condemned to until the last few decades. These writings have genuine historical interest, firstly in portraying women's and other issues of social justice from the turn of the twentieth century, and secondly as a self-portrait of Miriam Michelson herself, as a "new woman" realizing new opportunities and hence new selfhood.
But Michelson's works of fiction themselves warrant resurrection. "The Superwoman" is really interesting. Like Charlotte Gilman's well-known Herland, which, however, it slightly antedates, "The Superwoman" imagines a remote space where women rule. But Gilman (whom Michelson covers in some of the journalistic pieces) writes an ideological program that verges into science fiction, positing a world with no men and parthenogenic reproduction. Michelson's story has psychological depth that keeps closer to naturalism: Men are members of society, and reproduction works in the normal way. The focus is more on the experience of the characters than on the society's structure, which Michelson, in nuanced ways, investigates as to how gender hierarchy frames and penetrates those who are governed by it. De Toqueville's Democracy in America explores how democratic structures remold every aspect of social experience. Michelson's story similarly explores and exposes how gender hierarchy affects its subjects in subtle attitudes and assumptions as well as in structural ways. Neither Herland nor "The Superwoman" presents an egalitarian utopia. Both retain gender hierarchy but reverse it, so that women are in command and privileged. Women are the "stronger sex"—the first sex, not the second—in a thought experiment that Michelson carries farther than Gilman into questions of sexuality, aesthetics—what is feminine beauty?—manners, social roles and their psychological meanings.
Welburn, the male protagonist of "The Superwoman," is a smug super-rich jerk; swept overboard from a fancy-schmancy cruise, he lands on a matriarchal island, [End Page 231] and his first impressions register the difference in what "femininity" means in these altered circumstances. On board, he had been assessing possible wife candidates according to various market calculations: One option is the devoted domestic servant; the other, the exciting femme fatale—two contradictory and core images that figure largely in psychoanalytic discourses subsequent to Michelson. On the island, he finds the woman he wakes up to discordant, even repulsive—not feminine:
The folds of the single garment wrapped about her left bare an arm and shoulder massively strong yet shapely; legs sinewy and to him unbeautiful … he turned from her in distaste; she was too big for a woman, too calm, too arrogantly poised. She made him feel weak, effeminate—doubtless, he reminded himself, because he was ill. But he closed his eyes to shut her out.(p. 61)
Our very bodily responses and attractions are exposed as cultural, not mere nature, in accordance with late twentieth-century feminist analyses. This cultural body is confirmed when our hero comes to love Gurtha, the island woman, who now seems beautiful and appealing: "The sun beat upon her golden lashes … it sought the gold in the soft brown of her wet unbound hair and dazzled him" (p. 104). But culture proves harder to surpass. The story registers the small gestures that establish and create gender relations:
She looked down upon her bare feet in the sand, bare and strong and finely formed. He got down on his knees and took them between his palms and dusted the creamy sand from them. … Then he fastened on her sandals ….(ibid.)
This is a gender reversal of male attending female, totally unthinkable to Welburn (such a Jamesian name) and to Michelson's readers, but exposed here precisely as gender role. The changed relations between the sexes is persistently figured in these subtle ways: the importance of dress to gender identification...