Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about the future. The details are different, but we should remember that today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances.
Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.
Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.
The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.
Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.
Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor, has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today.
He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)
The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.
Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)
Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women.
In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.
Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19.
But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.
Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories.
Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp
The Decades Project 2020
In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries.
The most recent choices for the project are
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)