“A woman’s place”. The phrase brings to mind the old sexist philosophy that “a woman’s place is in the home”. The Women’s Liberation movement siezed this cliché and spun it around, asserting that a woman’s place was wherever she damned well pleased. This novella was written in 1955, just before the beginning of the second wave of feminism, where domestic roles were challenged and the fight for equality was taken up.
The story opens in space – in a lifeboat from a wrecked spaceship, hurtling its way toward Earth. Two of the capsule’s occupants, Sam Eade and Lieutenant Harper discover something peculiar about this Earth they’re barreling toward. The third crewmember, Miss Kitty, was making use of the lifeboat’s sleeping quarters. Miss Kitty’s real name is Katheryn Kitteredge, but she keeps the nickname “Miss Kitty” so as not to intimidate the men in her successful and considerable professional life.
From their vantage point in the lifeboat they could see that Earth was slightly geographically different. They could not establish communications with Earth. The men guess that in the warp drive catastrophe that wrecked their own ship, the lifeboat was flung into a parallel universe. The Earth they are approaching is not the Earth they knew.
As they enter the atmosphere and get a closer look at the planet, they quickly discover that there’s not a hint of civilization to be had. All the famous landmarks, the cities, the lights, none of it exist. On this parallel Earth, primates had never evolved.
They locate a good place to touch their damaged lifeboat down – a place we would describe as “a little west of the Mississippi” – and set up camp. Miss Kitty soon takes a leadership role, making use of the local resources for sustenance, while the men are happy to live off the stores in the lifeboat for the first few weeks, more interested in tinkering with the non-functioning warp motor they had taken with them from the ship. Their theory was to hook the warp drive up to the radio in an attempt to send radio signals back into their home universe and establish communications.
They had landed in the autumn season, with winter approaching. Miss Kitty realized that even if the winter is mild, at least their sleeping arrangements would have to change, with her sleeping in the lifeboat’s quarters and the two men sleeping outside. They decide to build a cabin. The men are again distracted, spending more time trying to find a better way to do the work than actually doing the work, while Miss Kitty plans ahead, finding her thoughts wandering into the “traditional” domestic domain of making a home out of a house. In the “Old Universe”, these were things she might have bristled against, but here, they are a necessity if not for survival, then for maintaining some sort of sanity. Certainly, of the three of them, she is the most competent at home-making.
In her foraging, Miss Kitty discovers a wealth of food sources nearby. Lots of edible vegetation, nuts and berries, some wild turkeys, and even some wild honey. She realizes that a store would have to be built up for weathering the winter. The men, however, are still more interested in their tinkering.
The men are still trying to find a way to get back to “Old Earth”. Miss Kitty is slowly resigning herself to the realization that they aren’t getting back. This is their new home. Being a feminist, she finds the situation rather ironic that she is at once the serious survivalist and the domestic homemaker, while the men busy themselves with other things.
Miss Kitty eventually convinces them that they won’t get anywhere with their tinkerings until the Spring, and the men set to work making their crude cabin more liveable by building more living space onto it before winter sets in.
For the men, the rather immediate realization that multi-verses do in fact exist brings about the slower realization (with Miss Kitty’s help) that even if they could get their idea to work, making contact with the right universe is pretty much a luck-of-the-draw thing, with the chances being potentially millions to one against finding the right combination.
An attempt by Miss Kitty to have them realize the hopelessness of their task backfires and instead makes the men more determined than ever to make their contraption work.
Miss Kitty has by now grown comfortable with the thought that this is their new home. What at first seemed a primitive place where existence would be rough was revealing itself instead to be a kind of paradise where all their needs could be met.
As Miss Kitty’s thoughts dwell on making a home on this new planet, she also considers the futility of her own endeavours if they don’t leave the planet. If all three of them are to die there, their existence is essentially meaningless. What’s the difference if they die ten years from now, next week, or right now?
While contemplating the beauty of the planet they were on, and the thought that it seemed a shame for this rugged utopia to go unappreciated by man, she finds herself entertaining an “Adam and Eve” scenario – the plausibility of populating a planet. She reviews her knowledge of genetics and recessive genes, and the problems associated with close-relative breeding… and she discovers “her place” as a woman.
…and that takes us to just halfway through the story! The rest, you’ll have to discover for yourself by reading “A Woman’s Place”.
The story at points shows a remarkable depth of concepts that we’re studying today, such as warp drives and the concept of shortening the distance between two points by folding space, multiverse theory and so on. The story is told entirely from the perspective of Miss Kitty, and the narrative takes her on a contemplative exploration through ideas of traditions, feminism, what she expects of herself and of others, gender roles, and the “proper role” for a woman. While strong with themes of feminism, some modern feminists might view the story’s resolution a bit distasteful. Some might find it insightful, and others might find it empowering. It depends on your own perspective.
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction May 1955, research has not produced evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. At 27 pages, it’s a roughly 40-minute read, a good lunchtime diversion that will leave you thinking.