She didn’t believe in God, of course. Or heaven, or hell. Holy water, incense. Prayers and blessings. But no longe could she says that there was nothing more to this life than this life. Averil had shown her there was something more. Call it the soul. Call it another dimension. Something. Not Nothing.
Rosalie Morales Kearns’s Kingdom of Women is a no-holds-barred account of a fictional world in which violence against women is routine and rampant. If this premise feels familiar, it’s because gender-based violence is a matter of fact as well as fiction. But violence and sexism are not the novel’s only concerns: if the suppression of women’s autonomy and flourishing are commonplace experiences of the real world, then the task that Kingdom of Women takes up is to imagine a world for women that challenges the immutability of patriarchal reality.
In their own way, each of the characters in the novel take matters into their own hands, fighting back against the predominance and inevitability of male entitlement. In the real world, women are indoctrinated to be kind, civil, and ethically infallible, even in the face of unrelenting sexual abuse and psycho-spiritual dehumanization. In the world of the novel, however, the women directly engage in (or else seriously consider) returning the violent favor, offering men an eye for an eye. In this way, Morales Kearns creates a fictional reprieve from the daily burdens of moral propriety that women disproportionately shoulder. Morales Kearns unapologetically creates an imaginary landscape in which the novel’s female characters can explore socially unsanctioned forms of retaliation that participate in the justice logic of vengeance. But even this is designed to raise important ethical questions about the nature of justice itself, the role of forgiveness, and the challenge of moving forward in the face of discrimination and personal devastation.
Kingdom of Women is set in America in a “slightly alternate near-future” that feels at once familiar and forward reaching. Foregoing the traditional markings of hyperbole, absurdity or fantasy that characterize many dystopian novels, Morales Kearns transports the reader to a time that is not too far off from where we are now, a time when women are ordained to the priesthood or band together to form misandrist domestic terrorist groups. Although there are no known terrorist groups comprised exclusively of women seeking to visit death and destruction upon rapists and misogynist murderers, it is sensible that such a group might exist in our collective imaginary given the increasing number of sexual assault survivors that have come forward in this #MeToo era. In the novel, many women dispense with moral restraint and social propriety, which proves immensely cathartic for female readers. But, more importantly, it allows Morales Kearns to take up questions of ethics, violence, and forgiveness that the dogma of respectability politics tends to foreclose and shut off in public discourse.
“Pick a card,” Averil said, and they both smiled at the way she sounded like an inept magician showing off a new trick.
Catharine pulled one out. Two of Swords.
Tell me about it,” Averil said. “Start with the most basic, the most obvious description of what you see.”
“A woman,” she said. If Averil wanted obvious, she would give her obvious.
“Yes. What else?”
Catharine frowned at the card. She was trained to read people’s facial expressions, body language. Shoe prints on muddy floors, dry ground, pavement. Cards had not been part of the curriculum.
“In one hand a sword. In the other hand a sword.”
Averil nodded at the poetry of it, thought of inscriptions to war goddesses, unearthed on cuneiform tablets.
Averil Parnell–the novel’s main character–is the world’s first female Catholic priest who is equal parts priest and mystic, simultaneously straddling the mystic tradition of medieval women and the patriarchal tradition of the priesthood. Through her relationship with another central character, Catharine Beck, she becomes entangled in the struggle to maintain Erda’s political autonomy, a small city-state within the United States whose population consists mostly of women of color. Erda is obviously an anti-racist feminist utopia, a perfect contrast to the white patriarchal imperialist regime that underpins the modern American empire. Admittedly, the rise and fall of a female-only egalitarian society seems trite and overdone from a literary perspective, but Erda itself is only a symbolic foil for the state of women’s rights more broadly.
Kingdom of Women is all too aware of both the failure and unsustainable nature of such a political arrangement, and while the plot of the novel is more or less structured around Erda’s demise, its central thematic preoccupations pertain to what one does when total liberation is not possible. In other words, the narrative is aware of the implausibility of the all-woman Erdan empire, and it asks instead what can be done about this failure, particularly from a spiritual perspective. Averil longs for reclusion and retreat, the quiet life of a medieval scholar—but she becomes engulfed by an obsessive affair with a predatory man, plagued by religious visions and the intrusive politics of an ecclesial bureaucracy that consistently doubts Averil’s ability to carry out her priestly responsibilities. When her superiors learn of her love affair, she is quickly dismissed, and she is pulled into the Erdan subplot in which the fragile freedom of women is more overtly and directly dramatized.
Written in the tradition of other feminist dystopian novels, Kingdom of Women makes an important contribution to this genre. But while this novel is comparable to many feminist works written in this vein, there are theological particularities that set Kingdom of Women apart from its secular counterparts. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is arguably the most famous and commercially successful work of this genre, but Kingdom of Women demonstrates that Christian fiction can also resist patriarchy, that to be a Christian woman isn’t to automatically be a handmaiden to gendered oppression and the institutions—religious or otherwise—that perpetuate it. Kingdom of Women reminds us that one mustn’t sacrifice religious devotion for the cause of women’s liberation, and indeed that one’s faith is a powerful force for resistance and, rather crucially, spiritual and existential healing.
Can Christian theology support women in their quest for emancipation? The novel is cleverly structured according to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, constituting a poetic plea to view the plight of women in terms parallel to the passion of Christ and the injustices he faced on earth. In this way, Kingdom of Women demonstrates that a feminist engagement with Christian themes and narrative is not a reworking or distortion of some pristine originalist Christian ideal—it is at the heart of the Christ story itself, and only with our perspective firmly attuned to the oppressed can we truly access a fuller understanding of the Christian story. Averil herself functions as a Christ-like figure, profoundly altering Catharine Beck’s sense of the divine, showing her that there is “something more to this life than this life” (p. 282). In Averil, we have a sort of feminist Christology: like Christ, she acts as a redeemer figure, and in her death she becomes an agent of spiritual transformation, at least for one woman.
Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns
Published by Jaded Ibis Press, 2017
Paperback, 282 pages