My day job right now has me looking through lots of records—many primary sources—on the ways heteronormative gender roles were constructed and enforced during the midcentury decades. Looking back at the rigid structure our collective grandmothers were expected to squeeze into, and the lack of rights they had within it, is both sobering and enraging (especially considering how many people apparently want us to return to that “traditional” era).
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how those constricting expectations stunted or prevented personal and professional growth of those who were supposed to be content raising children and doing laundry—and the emotional growth of those who benefitted from all that free labor. And how power and economic imbalance between binary genders prevented change for so long. But Kelly Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons offers one solution for the frustrated housewife: turn into a dragon. If your husband protests, eat him.
In April 1955, hundreds of thousands of women did just that, including Alex’s beloved aunt Marla. Alex’s mother, on the other hand, stayed human and wedged firmly in her role as a housewife, and all but erased Marla from existence in the aftermath that including adopting Marla’s toddler daughter, Beatrice. But Alex remembers, and she sees, too, the ways her mother, a brilliant mathematician, is limited by the increased social rigidity that follows the mass dragoning. After her mother dies, a teenage Alex finds that rigidity immediately transferred to her as she takes over caring for Beatrice and running a household, with her burgeoning skills as a mathematician dismissed by her father as unnecessary to find a husband. As Alex carves her own desperate path, she finds herself relating uncomfortably to both her mother and Marla, and realizes women haven’t stopped turning into dragons—they’re just quieter about it now.
When Women Were Dragons is told in the style of a bit of a memoir intercut with historical context. Alex’s experience is sandwiched between summaries of the dragonings, the reaction of the public, the theories on where the dragons actually went after taking to the sky. The mayo on that metaphorical bread is brief sections of letters, segments from speeches and Congressional hearings, police reports, and other contemporary documentation. In some ways, particularly in the beginning, I found this structure to slow down the story, and longed for more of Alex’s own experience. By the end, I appreciated Barnhill’s approach; this isn’t just about Alex, after all, so much as it is about one woman’s experience navigating a world in flux.
Also, without those long sections of summary, we would never hear the accounts of women taking back their place in the world in often delightful (if violent) ways. Take the women in abusive relationships suddenly not being physically smaller than their abuser. Or the workers of a phone company who, after years of being victimized by their lecherous boss, collectively dragoned, destroying the building and eating their boss.
I know who I’d eat.
There’s anger burning hot and steady beneath the undercurrent of these anecdotes, seen up close in the way Marla is diminished by her idle and alcoholic husband, and the way Alex’s mother is all but ignored by her philandering father until she’s not there to perform her expected role anymore. The quiet rage of continuously being diminished, being undercut, being kept down, and then chided—by both men and women—for not enjoying that small existence is told in small moments and minute betrayals of expression that might happen with fictional characters but is all too close to reality.
The diminishment that led to the mass dragoning hasn’t vanished in the aftermath of When Woman Were Dragons; nor has it disappeared from our current and nonfictional world. But as When Women Were Dragons reminds us, all it takes for the marginalized to correct an imbalance is to band together and take up the space they deserve. Perhaps we can’t do that with teeth and claws and literal fire, but it’s a timely lesson nonetheless.