A stranger walks into town. The town in George N. Miller’s 1890 novel The Strike of a Sex is suffering an unusual form of labor unrest–all of the women have gone on strike. The narrator is justifiable mystified by this as he meets the men of the town who explain why the women are on strike and what the its effects are. The town is a mess, of course. With no one to cook, clean or even replace lost buttons, the lives of the men have deteriorated greatly during the two-month-long strike. What are the demands of the women, the narrator asks. Do they want the vote? The men gave them the vote after just a few days. In fact, they’ve met all of the women’s demands save one. At the end of the novel, the women parade through town to make their case, and the men vote to decide if they will meet their final demand.
They just don’t write ’em like that anymore.
The Strike of a Sex was written in the 1890’s during a time of struggle over the rights of women. It’s part of the New Woman movement which produced many novels that debated the rights of women and the institution of marriage. George Miller was at one time a member of the Oenida Community, a Utopian group that believed in communal living and complex marriage. Their membership reached over 300 at the height of the group’s 30 year lifespan. A decade after the group broke up, George Miller wrote a series of books dealing with the same question the Wife of Bath asks in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: What do women want?
George Miller keeps the answer to this question for the final pages of his book. The men of his fictional town are already taking their final vote before the narrator discovers what the final demand of the town’s women is. The Wife of Bath believes that all women want sovereignty, to be in charge of their marriage so that they can then give this control to their husbands. In her day, the late 14th century, this was a fairly forward thinking idea. George Miller’s idea of what women want is both more and less radical than the Wife of Bath’s. What the striking women of his novel want, in the end, is to control reproduction, to have children only when they want to have children. This is still a major issue in America over 100 years later.
While The Strike of a Sex by George N. Miller was successful in its day, Yale has a copy from its fourth printing, it has since been forgotten. It is not as good as other contemporary utopian/dystopian novels such as Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s Herland or even H. Rider Haggard’s She, but it does serve to remind us that as far as we have come since 1890, we haven’t come as far as we like to think. Ultimately, what is most radical about The Strike of a Sex isn’t what the women in the book want, but that they are all united in that desire. That was no more true in Mr. Miller’s day than it is in our own. And that is probably a major reason why whether or not women should have complete control over their own reproduction is still so controversial.
Full Disclosure: The photographs of the Oneida Mansion and its members come from the Oneida Community website.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in the summer of 2010. That summer I was part of an NEH program for teachers at Yale University studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One of the main reasons I applied for the program was to have access to Yale’s library where I was sure I would find all sorts of books like this one that I had heard of or read about in graduate school but never had the chance to read. In the end, I probably spent a little more time reading them than I did Chaucer, but that was fine. Our professor even encouraged it.
I remember enjoying The Strike of a Sex, though it was a very odd little book. A quick read, very preachy, but entertaining none-the-less. I can’t say that I would encourage you to go out and look for it, but should a copy land in your lap, you might find it kind of fun.