BiblioBitch: When She Woke
What struck me most about Hillary Jordan’s latest novel, When She Woke, was how, had it been released 10 or 15 years ago, it might have read as a vision of the future as unlikely as The Handmaid’s Tale or as space-age as Woman on The Edge of Time. However, after the vicious War on Women waged during 2012, this book serves instead as an all-too-accurate warning of what may come to pass if women don’t keep fighting the GOP and religious conservatives for their rights. Envisioning a United States much closer to reality than the dystopias depicted in other feminist sci-fi, where Jordan’s America differs from true life is that Roe v. Wade has been overturned.
The book's protagonist, 25-year-old Hannah, lives in Texas, which—along with 40 other states—has outlawed abortion completely. An epidemic of STIs has left many women infertile and has presented conservative and religious leaders with the perfect excuse to condemn extramarital sex and abortion, and pass "Sanctity of Life" laws. Jordan’s choice of language almost directly mirrors real-life bills introduced by Republicans, such as the 2009 Sanctity of Human Life Act. Add to this the fact that Texan women’s reproductive rights really are heavily under threat due to the recent decision to withdraw federal funding from Planned Parenthood, and the book starts to seem less and less like fiction.
There are still sci-fi elements to the novel, though. When Hannah has an illegal abortion, her punishment is not imprisonment or death, but "melachroming," a process whereby her DNA is altered to color her permanently red, to denote her crime—echoing the use of red to highlight and shame women in The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale. Hannah’s release into society means instant ostracization, constant threats and probably death as she becomes part of the untouchable Chrome underclass. Hannah starts her life as a Chrome in a halfway house (which has strong echoes of the C19th Magadelene houses for "‘fallen women"), where we see the heavily religious owners take sadistic satisfaction in tormenting their charges. The most shocking scene is where the women are forced to make dolls of their unborn children, "nursing" them and begging their forgiveness for aborting them. As the women inevitably break down, their "enlightener" stands above them and booms “That is how God feels when you abort one of His beloved children!.” Thankfully, Hannah manages to escape the mental abuse of the house, alongside her one ally, Kayla, and this is where her journey to forge a new life really begins.
The value of books such as When She Woke is to take antichoice rhetoric and make it a reality—to force those who would deny women reproductive rights to really look at the consequences of what they’re pushing for. If you think that’s something abortion foes have already considered, you might think again after watching this video, in which protestors outside a clinic are asked what the penalty for abortion should be if, as they wish, the procedure is made illegal. (Sample answer: "I don't know...I never really thought about that.") And Jordan doesn’t write in a way that presumes a solely left-wing, feminist-savvy audience—indeed, she employs right-wing rhetoric (“Here she was, being rescued by a socialist, feminist, lesbian, baby-killing foreign terrorist) which may be a deliberate tactic to reach out to a more conservative audience.
The character of Hannah takes her religion seriously, and Jordan is careful never to attack Christianity outright, instead training her lens on the warping of religion to further antiwoman agendas (“My God is a God of infinite wisdom…[not] this pissed-off, macho God,” declares one character). Ambitious as it may be, perhaps Jordan is trying a new tactic by widening her aim to include an audience susceptible to antichoice myths. And this may not be entirely off base—we have evidence to show that not every anti-choicer lives those beliefs in their personal lives. Jordan’s book is also valuable in pointing out that criminalizing abortion will never prevent it from happening, but will simply force it underground.
When She Woke is by no means a groundbreaking book—as the author admits, it owes a massive debt to The Scarlet Letter, and also borrows heavily from previous feminist sci-fi in both plot and style. Hannah’s friendship with Kayla mirrors Offred and Moira’s strong bond in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the nod to lesbianism in the story echoing of Moira "educating" her naïve friend about the wonders of loving women. The book also has similar themes to The Misconceiver, which was written in 1997 but spookily predicted that Roe v. Wade would be overturned in 2011. (And fine, it wasn’t, but the GOP sure gave it their best shot the following year.) However, When She Woke stands alone by going straight to the horse’s mouth and telling the story of the women who defy an oppressive state to access abortion, and who live to tell the tale. And that is the voice that is most often missing from the debate.
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