The Book That Radicalized Feminists Across the Country Is Back

Alix Kates Shulman. Photo: Sara Krulwich

Alix Kates Shulman had been a radical feminist in New York City for several years when her novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, hit shelves in 1972. At that point, the women’s movement had spread far beyond the coastal cities and onto the covers of mainstream magazines, not to mention the Senate floor. Without mentioning politics at all, Prom Queen laid out a case for revolution, following Sasha, one white, Midwestern girl in the 1950s, from her repressive girlhood to the lonely, mind-numbing churn of early motherhood. It describes what were then hush-hush experiences in unflinching detail: sexual double standards, spousal rape, workplace harassment, illegal abortion, and the particular middle-class female experience of falling in love with ideas in college, only to realize your ambition was always meant to be funneled into husband-hunting. Despite sniffy reviews — a New York Times writer called it “an angry little book” — Prom Queen became an instant best seller and a feminist classic.

I picked up the novel as a young teenager, in the thick of the “You go, girl!” late-’90s. It was the first time I truly realized that girls hadn’t always been told that they could do or be anything, or that, for a certain type of woman, her youth and beauty were time-bombs ticking down to her eventual fate as a domestic matron. Rereading Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, which is being reissued this week by Picador, it took on a whole new resonance now that we’re in the middle of another wave of gender consciousness and activism. I spoke to Shulman in her Chelsea loft over wine and Milano cookies about what’s changed in the nearly five decades since readers fiercely identified with Sasha, and what hasn’t.

When I first read this book in the ’90s, I remember thinking, “Thank God I don’t have to deal with any of this, things are so much better now!” But this time around, all I could see were the similarities to the present day. For instance, the main character Sasha’s constant sexual tug-of-war in the backseat of her high-school boyfriend Joey’s car. They could have had a wonderful romance, and yet it was ruined because he was told he needed to go as far as possible, and she was told she needed to guard her virginity at all costs. It sort of reminded me of the Aziz Ansari incident: men as pursuers, women as gatekeepers. 

I wanted so much to depict what bad high-school sex was like, when you have that conflict where you’re each expected to do different things. Like the fact that he promises to get it over with in the backseat as quickly as possible. He didn’t even remove her underpants. How are you possibly going to have good sex when you have to do it really fast and you can’t even get naked?

I also had this moment of like, “Poor Sasha but also poor Joey.” Men need liberation, too!
I definitely didn’t want to make the men the villains. That was a very conscious choice. I wanted them all to be caught in a trap, to be confused and mystified, too. The only true villain in the book is Jan, the meat chef [who sexually harasses Sasha at her waitressing job and makes her work life hell until she agrees to go on a date with him].

Yeah, but the meat chef was probably a Joey back in the day, struggling with women in the backseat, and then he metastasized into this monster because no one ever told him, “That’s not how you’re supposed to act.”
Yes, and Jan did stop pushing Sasha to have sex when she started crying. Sasha pulls out a lot of techniques in order to avoid the sex in the car after their date.

You’ve said that Sasha’s life is heavily based on your life in the suburbs of Ohio. Were you a prom queen, too?
No, although I was a popular girl. My inspiration for the novel came when I was marching around in the 1968 Miss America pageant protest. The proms all over the country were essentially like beauty pageants. They were these contests where women were judged mainly for their looks. I remember the “slam books” from junior high, where people would pass around notebooks and write: Who had the prettiest legs, who has the best nose, who has the best bosom? Body objectification is so strange! It’s like, who has the best kidney?

But at a certain point, [youthful beauty] is over. I was lucky, because at about the time it would have been over for me, I became a writer, which is much more interesting to me than trying to be attractive.

Shulman marching in the Miss America protest. Photo: Courtesy of Alix Kates Shulman.

What did your life look like by the time you were writing Prom Queen?
I was 34 years old and married to my second husband, and I had two kids. I had become a feminist at my first meeting in the East Village in December 1967, when I heard about New York Radical Women on the radio. So by 1968 I was going to meetings all the time. I’d had a job I loved, which was as an encyclopedia editor. But I had to leave when I got pregnant, as soon as I started to show. There was no such thing as maternity leave. So I was home, and I had to do something, because my career, my worldly life was over. So I started writing.

Did you have any sense before Prom Queen came out that the book was going to hit a nerve?
I had no idea. I thought I was writing it for the ten people in my women’s group. But by the time it came out in ’72, the feminist movement had taken off and people were hungry to have their own experience viewed through a feminist lens. There were great nonfiction books explaining our feminist take — Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett — but fiction is different. It’s emotional. Prom Queen was the hottest galley around, and the heads of the publishing houses, who were all men, had no idea why. They didn’t get it at all. And not everyone understood that the book was supposed to be funny.

Yeah, it’s darkly comic. There’s that moment in the book when Sasha tries to leave her first husband and he responds by forcing himself on her, and she just starts laughing. Like, “This is horrible, but this is also so absurd. I pity you.”
Sardonic humor is a response to the feeling that there’s nothing to be done. This is the way it is, you can’t do anything, so you might as well laugh. The alternative is rage and of course there’s lots of rage in Prom Queen, too, but that isn’t going to get it done, either, absent a feminist movement. And it’s definitely a pre-movement book.

Right, you see all the reasons why you need feminism, but you don’t see feminism itself.
Exactly. The book ends around the time the feminist movement begins [in the mid-’60s]. It’s a consciousness-raising novel. There’s so much of #MeToo in this novel, so much description of unacceptable behavior toward women even from quote-unquote innocent men — men who don’t know they’re not supposed to do that.

And Sasha didn’t really have the opportunity to say “me too,” because she wasn’t close to any women around her. She’s sort of dealing with this all on her own.
Well that, of course, was the major thing that changed in our lives the minute we became feminists. “Sisterhood is powerful” sounds sentimental now, but it was a very revolutionary idea. Though Sasha does have [her college friend] Roxanne.

Right, she’s the one who, when Sasha complains about her bad marriage, tells her, “This doesn’t have to be your fate. You can just leave. You can get a job.” Is Roxanne the stealth feminist character of the book?
There are things she does that look like feminism. She puts raw eggs instead of hard-boiled eggs in her husband’s lunchbox, and she does a lot of other little subversive things to protest her societal position. But again, unless there is a movement, you can’t really be a liberated woman. You can’t do it alone.

Let’s talk about some of Sasha’s good sex. The first time she really seems to enjoy a sexual experience is with her married college professor. Do you see that relationship differently now that professors sleeping with their students is more widely seen as an abuse of power and a creepy thing to do?
I thought he was a creep back when I was writing it, too. I remember writing about him looking at her and crushing a pencil between his teeth — you can see him as the predator in that scene. And even though she asks him, “Are you seducible?” I didn’t think that at that time such a man would possibly say no. Nowadays, I think he should have said no. What I’m judging more is his behavior, not hers.

Of course, why wouldn’t she have a crush on him?
Oh yeah, he knew everything, and she knew nothing. And don’t we all have crushes on our professors? She is finally getting some good sex, and she’s trying to make it on her terms, but of course it’s a given — as it is for every single predicament she finds herself in — that she can’t really win.

The through line of the book is really these double binds that women were constantly put in, pre-feminism. The broader sense is always: Sasha can’t win.
Oh, Nona. That’s how we all felt, all the time!

The Book That Radicalized Feminists Across the U.S. Is Back