Unless there is a movement, you can’t really be a liberated woman. You can’t do it alone.– Alix Kates Shulman
Alix Kates Shulman is an American feminist activist and novelist who is most well-known for her 1972 novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. The novel is regarded as one of the first major works of fiction to emerge from the Women’s Liberation movement.
Born in Ohio in 1932, Shulman grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Cleveland. Shulman recalls the environment she grew up in expected women to value their looks and aspire to marriage and family. However, reading Emerson in her senior year of high school led Shulman to question if she wanted to lead a life of truth or repose. Emerson’s provocation had a great impact on Shulman and helped confirm her viewpoint in life, to lead a life of truth.
Shulman moved to New York City when she was 20 to study for her postgraduate degree in philosophy at Columbia University. Following this, she married her first husband and began her career as an encyclopedia editor, but left when she became pregnant.
In 1967, Shulman was married with two children and heard the New York Radical Women on the radio. Even though the idea of the systematic oppression of women, which the group was discussing, wasn’t new to Shulman, it was the first time that she’d heard her frustration and anger vocalised by other women. The New York Radical Women gave Shulman a new purpose, and she became a feminist activist from there on.
Shulman was already experienced in activism: she had protested the Vietnam War and marched for Civil Rights in the 1960s. In the Women’s Liberation Movement, she was one of the key organisers of iconic demonstrations in the movement, including the 1968 protest of the Miss America Pageant. Shulman also took part in the Ladies Home Journal sit-in and the Redstockings abortion speak-outs.
In 1969, Shulman wrote ‘A Marriage Agreement’ proposing how men and women could split domestic labour in the home – the agreement included everything from chores to more pleasurable labour, like reading to one’s children at bedtime. In writing ‘A Marriage Agreement’, Shulman had been influenced by ‘The Politics of Housework’, a satirical piece by Pat Mainardi, detailing all the ways her partner avoided domestic labour. Shulman’s essay was met with controversy: it was reprinted on the cover of Life Magazine and Norman Mailer attacked the ideas within ‘A Marriage Agreement’.
‘A Marriage Agreement’ is still relevant today, arguing that domestic labour is just as valuable as traditional paid employment and that the only way to overthrow the oppression of traditional gender roles is to equally split labour in the home. Shulman also saw the positive effect equally dividing labour in the home would have on children.
In 1972, Shulman’s debut adult novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was published. Praised as a pioneering novel of second-wave feminism, Shulman’s inspiration came from protesting the 1968 Miss America Pageant, the first major demonstration of the women’s liberation movement which called out patriarchal beauty standards.
The novel follows Sasha Davis from her childhood to early motherhood and demonstrates the double-bind that women were caught in in the 1950s and 1960s therefore showing how vital the consciousness-raising of second-wave feminism was. The protagonist, Sasha, faces sexual harassment, misogyny, and marital rape, as well as everyday sexism, and is valued for her beauty above all else. Shulman didn’t make the male characters villains in Sasha’s story; she portrayed them as typical to emphasise how systematic women’s oppression was.
By the time the novel was published, the feminist movement was more widespread than it had been in 1968. As a result, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen had an eager audience waiting for it when it was released and has sold over a million copies since 1972.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was reissued in 2019, bringing Shulman’s work to a new generation of feminists. To date, Shulman has published 14 books, including an award-winning memoir Drinking The Rain. Shulman has also written biographies of anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman.
A committed activist and feminist, Shulman continues to protest the status quo: she worked with the Occupy movement women’s cacus in the 2000s and took part in the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018. Shulman has also had an illustrious academic career, teaching at universities across the United States, including New York University and Yale University.
©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include An Interview with Alix Kate Shulman by Bella Book // The 1972 Book that Raised America’s Consciousness is Back, Vanity Fair// Alix Kates Shulman, Jewish Women’s Archive.