November 24, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
We are all approaching Thanksgiving battered and bruised, wondering
how we are going to choke down our turkey and stuffing as our throats
constrict with remorse and grief. We wanted this to be a real
thanksgiving; but in the end we could not save ourselves, our country,
or the world from another four years of George W. Bush and his gang.
But we can still find things to be thankful for. I am always thankful
for the friendship and support of all my fellow-DUers; and this
year I would like to thank them for their generosity as well. For
it is thanks to one of my fellow DUers - a woman named Lisa who
is lucky enough to be living in Canada right now - that I have been
able to distract myself from the very, very, very bad news coming
out of Iraq this week by reading some quality fiction penned by
one of America's foremost women of letters.
Yes, from my description you must know I can be speaking of none
other than legendary prose stylist and towering intellectual giant
Lynne Cheney, the woman who has done for the National Endowment
of the Humanities what our army just did for Fallujah.
Years before she rode into Washington on her white horse, six-shooters
loaded with righteous indignation, to clear the varmints out, Mrs.
Cheney amused herself by writing fiction. Sadly, most of it has
been languishing in obscurity; her novels are out of print, and
her official biography at whitehouse.gov, which mentions many of
the books she's written in support of her intellectual-cleansing
project, omits any mention of her distinguished career as a novelist.
But true devotees of Mrs. Cheney's work have at least rescued one
of her novels from the remainder bin of history.
This would be Sisters, published in 1981 by Signet as part
of their New American Century - I'm sorry, New American Library
imprint. After disappearing without a trace, the book made headlines
briefly when its publishers considered re-issuing it once Cheney
rose to her current Olympian heights. Alas, Cheney convinced them
to reconsider, claiming the novel was "not her best work."
Not being familiar with the rest of Mrs. Cheney's oeuvre
I am in no position to judge; however, Mrs. Cheney's embarrassment
probably had more to do with the book's content than with any imperfections
of style or form. Sisters includes a storyline involving
a love affair between the protagonist's sister and her former schoolmarm
- a topic hardly liable to endear Mrs. Cheney to the cadre of religious-right
fanatics who now own her husband's miserable carcass.
Actually, the religious right would be no more pleased with the
heterosexual plot line. Though decidedly not a lesbian, the novel's
protagonist, Sophie Dymond, is meant to be a thoroughly liberated
woman. On her way to becoming the owner of a large publishing empire,
Sophie has, among other things, run away from her convent school
with an acting troupe, spent several years in a menage a trois
with her first husband and her lover, divorced said first husband
in order to marry said lover, and become a dedicated user and tireless
advocate of contraception.
I say "meant to be" because, though it grieves me to report this,
the impression you would get of this novel from reading about it
in the papers is woefully inaccurate. Sisters is not, in
fact, a "racy" novel. Nor is it, as the blurb writers would have
you believe, "the novel of a strong and beautiful woman who broke
all the rules of the American frontier." The most valuable thing
this book has to offer us is an answer to an important question:
how could a career woman like Lynne Cheney, who has benefited so
much from the feminist movement that was an integral part of that
"liberal agenda" constantly menacing us from the direction of Massachusetts,
allow herself to be made the tool of a radical right-wing movement
that seeks to bundle women like her back into the kitchen?
You can see the answer all over Sisters, which acknowledges
its debt to feminist scholarship and then proceeds to showcase Lynne
Cheney's extreme discomfort with most of the implications of the
In Sisters, Cheney betrays herself as simultaneously fascinated
and threatened by all the aspects of the women's liberation movement
that threatened the system into which she had married. In the end,
the 'bad' elements of feminism - lesbianism, militancy, solidarity
across class and cultural distinctions, and anti-capitalism - are
contained and neutralized by the plot, which punishes and silences
the sister who was tempted by such things, and rewards the sister
who knows that she should demand nothing more than the freedom to
realize her own personal (hetero)sexual liberation and professional
As with all guilty pleasures - and doing a hatchet job on your
enemy's mediocre novel is one of the guiltiest pleasures I know
- it is important to indulge responsibly; and so I must begin by
giving the bride of the devil her due. For what it is, Sisters
is really not that bad. Despite the grandiose claims of breaking
"bold new ground" that you can find on the back cover, Sisters
is a fairly typical Western/romance, in which a feisty heroine finds
love, danger, and adventure on the American frontier.
It follows generic formulas with reassuring predictability; for
instance, as soon as we discover that Helen's widower James is dark,
handsome, imperious, brooding, and - for real - the grandson of
a Scottish baronet, it's pretty clear that at some point he will
be unlacing Sophie's bodice as her heart throbs madly beneath her
heaving alabaster bosom. In the process of trying to find out the
real story behind her sister's death, Sophie manages to put herself
in danger fairly often, from which she is usually rescued in the
nick of time by someone else.
Also predictably, the relationship between the settlers and the
Native Americans they are displacing is glossed over and romanticized.
There do not appear to be any Native Americans left in the Cheyenne
area, but we do know that Sophie's grandfather Joe really did faithfully
love and tenderly care for Deer Woman, Sophie's Shoshone grandmother,
so they obviously weren't, like, exterminated or anything. The writing
isn't bad enough to be entertaining, or good enough to be captivating.
It gets the job done, the "job" in this case being to provide the
reader with a couple hours of light entertainment on a plane ride
or a beach.
In 1981, when Naiad Press was just starting to open up genre fiction
to lesbian content, the same-sex romance was probably the most innovative
thing about Sisters. Nevertheless, the possibilities for
steamy sex scenes are limited by the fact that one of the lovers
is dead before the novel opens. We learn in the first chapter that
Sophie's sister Helen died a little under a year ago from a fall
down the stairs; and it doesn't take too long to figure out that
the big question will be Did She Fall, Or Was She Pushed?
However, once Sophie gets back to Cheyenne, she begins hearing
rumors about Helen's intense attachment to Amy Travers, a young
schoolteacher who taught both sisters when they were growing up.
Then, Sophie discovers a copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream
inscribed by Amy Travers "To my Helena, my dearest lover." So now
we have a second unanswered question: Did They, Or Didn't They?
In search of answers, Sophie gets to know the people Helen spent
her life with. Unlike Sophie, who is most comfortable being the
lone woman in a man's world, Helen was always woman-identified,
and dedicated much of her energy and emotion to the causes embraced
by the nascent women's community emerging on the frontier. Like
Amy Travers, Helen was involved in the Women's Christian Temperance
Union, and was also committed to protecting the rights of individual
homesteaders against the encroachments of the big cattle ranchers.
Though Sophie is initially sympathetic to the homesteaders, it
is always obvious - to the discerning reader, if not to her - that
in the end she will be brought around to the side of the cattle
barons. They are ably represented by the handsome, charismatic,
chivalrous and aristocratic James, whereas the only homesteader
we ever meet is Zack Wilson, the drunken, abusive, thieving, and
in all other ways thoroughly demonized common-law husband of an
ex-prostitute named Baby.
Since Zack attempts to rape Sophie the second time we meet him,
and since Baby has a bad habit of sticking her small children in
the rattler-infested root cellar so she can run off and whore around,
we're obviously not meant to feel too bad when we find out
that the cattle barons' hired thugs have just lynched both of them.
Yes, I said lynched. Did you know there was a double lynching
in this novel? No, of course not, because all anyone ever talks
about is the lesbian angle. Most of this country's problems, if
you'll pardon the digression, can be traced back to the fact that
our culture is obsessed with sex and utterly ignorant about class.
So it's naturally much more scandalous and embarrassing for
Lynne to be representing same-sex romance than it is for her to
be tacitly condoning the lynching of the little guy at the hands
of big capital.
The alleged "dirty bits" of this novel - more on those later -
are already floating around on the Iinternet; but for my money there's
nothing dirtier James the cattle baron(et)'s explanation of why
the capitalists must and should squeeze out the individuals who
are trying to establish a foothold on the frontier:
"The people who are coming here now, do we want them putting
up their shacks on every hundred-and-sixty acre parcel? And
shacks are all they'll ever have, because a hundred and sixty
acres isn't enough to get a man beyond a bare subsistence. Or
do we want the big ranches and the wealth they can bring, the
plenty which makes a city like Cheyenne possible? ... We have
to keep it like it is, don't you see? If the Wilsons of the
world triumph, we'll be ruined forever." (64)
Later on, James formulates the same position in more abstact terms
akin to the ones that Lynne must often have heard whispered lovingly
from Dick's own sweet lips:
"If you do this, Sophie, you must try not to become so caught
up in the circumstances of individuals that you forget the larger
questions. I saw that happen with Helen. She would get so involved
with the hardships of a single person, she would condemn a whole
system, a whole way of life, without ever paying due to its
positive achievements." (68)
In other words, Helen's compassion for Baby's predicament led
her to make the fatal error of assuming that there was something
wrong with capitalism and the patriarchy. In fact, there's nothing
wrong with capitalism, which has done away with all those nasty
old class distinctions belonging to the "titled aristocracy" from
which James has descended, and established a new meritocracy where
the cream naturally rises to the top unless those dadblasted government
regulations get in the way:
"And in a fair fight, the people I'm talking about [i.e., the
naturally meritorious cattle barons who also happen to have
started out with a hundred times as much capital as the individual
homesteaders, but I digress] will triumph over the Wilsons every
time. What I object to is having the rules of the struggle altered
in Wilson's favor. That's what happens when Eastern newspapers
trumpet to the world how villainous the big cattle owners are
and then Eastern politicians follow mindlessly along, passing
laws and issuing decrees harmful to the big ranchers. Or, right
here in the territory, take the juries. They render verdicts
on the basis of how much or how little a man owns rather than
on the basis of justice...At the very least, no one should be
too indignant if we alter our strategy to meet the new rules."
So, since things like investigative reporting, the legislative
process, and the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers are hurting
this beautiful meritocracy, it's only right and natural that the
big cattle barons should go around lynching people like Zack Wilson:
"A jury would have found them innocent, and they were
guilty. That's why this sort of thing has to happen. There'll
never be an end to rustling and thieving if we don't put an
end to it." (201)
Take out all the Bible-beating, and you can fit the entire Bush
agenda into James's sweet nothings. Capital must grow at the expense
of everything else. If government, the justice system, or the media
interfere, you make your own truth and your own laws. It's perfectly
acceptable to protect your own economic interests by killing people.
Any individual who threatens capital's right to own the land or
rule the world gets strung up from the nearest tree.
And that's the way it has to be, or we wouldn't get to have nice
things like the Cheyenne opera house and fancy dresses and the lovely
home that Sophie will inherit once she talks herself out of her
nagging scruples about James's politics. "He'd defended lynching,
rule by vigilante - she knew that was wrong," Sophie agonizes
for about thirty seconds before deciding to go ahead and marry him
anyway. "Would she want him if she could sway him on every point?
Probably not. It sounded dreadfully dull" (213-214).
Liberated though she is, Sophie cannot be seduced into making
the mistakes Helen made; Sophie is turned off by virtually everything
that mattered to her sister. This certainly includes Amy Travers,
who without being overtly demonized is nevertheless rendered alien,
cold, and vaguely unwholesome. On their first meeting, after Amy
has just saved Baby's two children and Sophie herself from a brace
of rattlers, Sophie becomes mesmerized by Amy's hands:
Except for their size, they looked almost like a child's hands,
the nails neatly trimmed ovals, pink and pliable-looking; the
knuckles not protruding, but intstead making a slight dimpling
in the soft flesh. The skin had a marblelike smoothness, but
one knew the slightest touch would make an indentation in the
pillowy softness. Sophie was reminded of a statue, The Rape
of the Sabines, she thought it was called. The ravisher
is lifting his victim to carry her off, and his fingers sink
into the yielding flesh of her thigh. (60)
Amy's creepily impressionable and nearly boneless flesh suggests
some kind of deficiency - a lack of 'grit' or 'moral fiber', or
of any kind of interior structure that would perhaps have given
her the stamina necessary to resist her impulses. At the same time,
the comparison to the statue suggests inhuman rigidity, while simultaneously
casting her as both ravisher and ravished.
When Sophie discovers Amy's letters to Helen - which have become
part of a morbid "shrine" Amy has set up to Helen's memory, of which
the central feature is an enormous wreath made out of Helen's hair
- they confirm her sense that Amy was the ravisher. The relationship
appears to have started when Helen was still one of Amy's students,
and Amy was trying to get Helen to abandon her husband and children
and run away with her shortly before Helen's death. Significantly,
there are no letters from Helen to Amy. When it comes to representing
Helen's desires, the novel is virtually silent.
The rigidity is underscored when Sophie attends a meeting of the
Women's Christian Temperance Union over which Amy presides. Sophie
is horrified to discover that in addition to preaching temperance,
these women are also fanatically devoted to - of all things - abstinence.
Specifically, they are teaching the women of the prairie that they
have "the right to refuse their husbands" and thus protect themselves
from the physical and emotional drain of constant pregnancy and
Sophie is totally down with preventing pregnancy - she travels
with her own little box of birth control stashed away in her luggage
- but is dismayed to discover that these women reject contraception
as unnatural, largely because they reject the idea of women as sexual
beings. From their point of view, sex is something men do to
women, and it's impossible that any natural woman would want to
have sex unless it was "transfigured by the possibility of generation."
By making Amy part of a feminist community that refuses to acknowledge
female sexuality, Cheney accomplishes two important things. First,
she aligns the only representation of women's activism in her novel
with the most hard-line, least defensible strain of sex-negative
feminism that came out of the 1970s, which supposedly took the position
that all sex was rape. Writing at the beginning of the backlash,
Cheney uses this straw (wo)man the same way conservative critics
would go on to use it for decades: to represent feminism as authoritarian,
extremist, anti-sex, anti-human nature, and anti-freedom. The message
is clear: it's all right to draw on your own reserves of scrappiness
and determination to liberate yourself; but once you join
an organized attempt to liberate other women, you become a shrill
ideologue embarked on a crusade to police everyone's lives and ruin
sex for everyone. In the process, you find yourself becoming a lesbian
and undermining capitalism; and we know that from there it's but
a hop, skip and a jump to leaving your husband, killing your children,
and practicing witchcraft.
Second, because Amy and Helen's relationship unfolds in the context
of a community that defines women as spiritual beings untainted
by carnal lust, Sophie's sister never has to actually become a lesbian.
Same-sex relationships become just another way in which the feminist
movement persuades women to repress their sexuality. Lydia
Swerdlove, one of the women Sophie encounters at the WCTU, explains
to her that Amy and Helen's affair belongs to a tradition of "passionate
friendship" which includes love but excludes sex: "The flame they
nurture has no heat or smoke. It's a sublime kind of ardor" (144).
Listening to this claptrap, Sophie gets to feel superior to these
poor repressed and deluded women while also reassuring herself that
her own sister never actually did the deed with Amy Travers:
Oh, doubtless, such convictions dictated limits one could not
go beyond without destroying the myth. There could be no tearing
off one's clothes and lustily hopping into bed, not if one would
preserve the love-religion. But the loving words and the warm
embrace were permitted, and the kiss before sleep, the arousal
gentle enough so that its nature would not have to be acknowledged.
Sure, Lynne. You keep telling yourself that.
To be fair, Lynne's not the only writer in the world who evidently
finds it impossible to imagine sex without Dick. Sylvia Plath's
novel The Bell Jar suggests that all lesbians really do is
"lie around and hug;" and a host of other writers have joined the
two of them in trying to neutralize lesbianism by desexualizing
it. The failure of imagination on the part of all the men and male-identified
women who can't imagine "what two women do in bed," coupled with
the ridiculous modern assumption that none of our forebears really
knew anything about sex, provides pretty solid support for those
who would prefer to read lesbian history as the history of best-friendship.
And indeed, since this misconception allowed lesbians to conduct
their relationships right under the noses of their fathers, brothers,
and husbands, they had no reason to debunk it until economic and
social changes made it easier for women to live without men. Expedient
as it was, however, the "passionate friendship" cover story unfortunately
allows those so inclined to deny lesbian sexuality a history, which
in turn makes it easier for the Christian right to represent homosexuality
as a modern perversion, a momentary historical aberration that will
be dispensed with as soon as we get God back in the White House
where He belongs.
Having denied Helen her sexuality, Cheney punishes her further
by diminishing her politics. Most of the "damsel in distress" incidents
are part of the economic plot; once Sophie gets a reputation for
being both nosy and pro-homesteader, the other cattle barons begin
a campaign of harassment which begins with a bag of dead prairie
dogs being thrown through Helen's window (oddly, this leads directly
to the novel's one and only sex scene) and ends with two elaborate
attempts to assassinate her.
All this leads Sophie to suspect that Helen might have been rubbed
out by the cattle barons over her support for the homesteaders;
but when she finally has a chance to confront the barons' hired
detective (after a shootout in the Cheyenne opera house ends with
her dropping the giant chandelier on him), he has never even heard
of Helen. "What Helen had been doing hadn't mattered to these men"
(181), Sophie laments. Helen's activism was doubly meaningless since
it was a) wasted on trash like the Wilsons and b) utterly irrelevant
to the cattle barons she was trying to undermine.
Cheney uses the solution to the mystery plot to put even more
distance between her winsomely apolitical heterosexual heroine and
the doomed lesbian activist. Turns out that Helen's death was actually
precipitated by her obsession with finding their mother, Julia,
who abandoned them both when they were little. As Sophie discovers
very suddenly in the last 30 pages, she and Helen are only half
sisters; they have the same mother but two different fathers. Helen's
father was Julia's husband, but Sophie's father was a family friend
by the name of Paul Bellavance.
Unfortunately, Paul and Julia fell in love before anyone told them
that they had the same father. See, despite Joe's great love for
Deer Woman, he was big enough to share her with his best buddy Emile
Bellavance, and Sophie's mother Julia was actually Emile's child,
not Joe's; and Paul is Emile's son by his wife, now the wacky Widow
Bellavance. So Joe is not really Sophie's grandfather, Helen is
not really Sophie's sister, and the reason Helen ended up at the
bottom of the staircase is that Sophie's father Paul got so nervous
about the prospect of Helen finding out that Sophie's parents were
half-siblings that he went over to her house to have an argument
with her, at the top of the stairs because where else would you
do it, and somehow during the argument Helen lost her balance.
If you're scratching your head and staring at that paragraph going,
"Huh? Wha? Who are all these people, and where the hell did they
come from?", then you are now enjoying the experience that any reader
would have upon reaching that point in the novel.
After spending two hundred pages setting up the lesbian plot and
the homesteader plot, Cheney sweeps both of them into the trash
and whips up this incest plot out of nowhere. It's almost completely
unprepared, and as a resolution to the mystery, it's pretty fucking
lame. As a way of containing the threat represented by Helen's sexual
and political orientations, however, it works like a dream: both
plots turn out to be red herrings, so neither Helen's lesbianism
nor her activism ultimately matters. Helen can rest in peace, and
Sophie - protected from the taint of lesbianism now that her biological
relationship to Helen has been weakened - can marry James and live
happily ever after.
The resolution frees Sophie from a recurring nightmare she's been
having since Helen's death, which is part of a generalized fear
of being confronted with Helen's mangled body:
When she had learned Helen had died, she had been plagued for
months by an unreasoning terror she would encounter her corpse
somewhere. It made no sense at all. She was in New York. Helen
had died in Wyoming. And yet she was possessed by a fear of
finding her body lying in the entryway of her brownstone in
New York or thrown on the floor of her office, its limbs at
odd angles, like a huge discarded doll's. (4-5)
You don't have to be Freud - or even Gilbert and Gubar - to work
this out. Cheney's liberated heroine can't enjoy the spaces that
represent her own sexual and economic independence (her single woman's
pad and her workplace) because both are haunted by the specter of
the 'dangerous' feminists who made them possible - the lesbians,
the activists, the suffragettes who smashed windows, the social
reformers who understood the connection between the preservation
of the nuclear family and the dominance of capitalism. Sophie's
investigation of Helen's death is an attempt to exorcise this ghost;
and thanks to Cheney's last-minute plot twist, it works.
So this is Lynne Cheney's version of a happy ending: the protagonist
is rescued from lesbianism and anticapitalism when incest steps
in to save the day.
Yes, yes, yes, I hear you say. This lit crit bullshit
is all very well, but this novel is supposed to have sex in it.
Where's the sex? Come on! I just put myself through this whole boring
Marxist analysis, now make with the steamy sex scenes before I cancel
Well, there are no lesbian sex scenes. The 'lesbians' in this
novel don't have sex, remember; they're just passionate friends
who maybe give each other a goodnight kiss once in a while. Sophie
and James do get to have sex, once. After the aforementioned prairie-dog-tossing
incident, Sophie is so turned on by James's rushing to her aid that
she asks him to spend the night with her. Here's how Cheney describes
their night of passion:
She got up and went to him, kneeling on the carpet by his chair.
They were both still, and she could hear her heart pounding,
but at the same time she was seized with a strange sense of
unreality. She felt insubstantial as a ghost, as though this
were not she kneeling beside this man, wanting him, but someone
she was dreaming. He turned to her, leaned down, and put his
hand gently on the side of her face. "You are extraordinarily
beautiful," he said quietly. They kissed, and then she lay with
him in the firelight, unmindful of the past, unmindful of anything
except this moment, this man, and herself. (88)
And evidently unmindful of the salacious desires of her readers,
because that's all the steam there is.
At the end of the day, folks, Lynne Cheney is just not about sex;
she's all about the money and the power. Specifically, this novel
about how the smart thing for a woman to do is to get her hands
on as much money and power as she can have without exposing herself
to the dangers that threaten all the women who challenge the capitalist/patriarchal
system. Sophie sums it all up a few pages after she's done having
sex with her cattle baron:
Sophie pondered a moment why she had been able to remain a
member of polite society despite having violated so many of
its rules, and she decided the reason was her position. As head
of Dymond Publications, she could impose her will on others,
and as long as she could do that, the world could not entirely
cast her down with its opinions. An insight came to her: this
is what men have always known. This is why they can behave privately
in ways that violate the public morality and not be ruined.
Because they have power. (115)
This is what men have always known; well, this is what Lynne's
man has always known, that's for damn sure. You can behave privately
in ways that violate the public morality and not be ruined as
long as you have power.
It doesn't matter how medieval public morality gets; if you have
power, you can have as much sex and birth control and, what the
hell, abortion as you want. It's only the poor women who are stuck
having sex they didn't agree to and carrying pregnancies they didn't
It doesn't matter how much homophobia your husband and his cronies
promote in the public sphere; if you have power, your daughter can
be as lesbian as she wants to be and nobody can do a thing to her.
Everyone else's lesbian daughter had better head north to Canada.
If your husband has power, he can rob the taxpayers blind 365 days
a year; if your husband is an African-American male who gets caught
shoplifting in Detroit, he's off to one of our many fine maximum
If you're part of the elite, you can do whatever you want; sex,
murder, theft, drugs, drunk driving, who cares. Crime and punishment
are for the little people - the petty thief, the small-time whore.
And for women like Helen, who turn their back on privilege out of
compassion for those who don't have it.
So this is your choice, as a liberated woman: you marry the capitalist
and don the cloak of privilege and power that will protect you from
those who want to punish your sexual transgressions, or you fight
to end the system that protects the powerful at the expense of the
poor, and you end up in a mangled heap at the bottom of the stairs.
For Lynne, evidently, it was a no-brainer. Once you're Mrs. Cheney,
you don't have to care what the religious right gets up to, or worry
about the fact that they are working to take away many of the freedoms
that are dear to your heart. You'll always be able to violate the
public morality, because you're married to the power.
So, I'm sorry there wasn't more sex; but from my point of view,
this novel has plenty of dirt. The story this novel tells
about money and power is as sick and twisted as anyone could hope
Ironically, Sisters is dedicated both to Lynne's mother
and grandmothers and to her daughters, who "are running toward the
future." The future her husband was just beginning to build was
going to hit every other lesbian in this country like a brick wall;
but I suppose she figured Mary would just breeze on through.
Not that you would know from the dedication, or the novel, that
Mary Cheney is a lesbian. Her mother Lynne managed to write this
entire novel without using the word "lesbian" once.
The Plaid Adder's demented lesbian ravings have been delighting
an equally demented lesbian online audience since 1996. More of
the lesbian same can be found at the Adder's Lair of the Lesbian
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