To celebrate Lois Duncan’s life and literature, I went to the library to re-read some of her classics, including Gallows Hill, Don’t Look Behind You, and
Daughters of Eve. I was curious to see if they were as great and suspenseful as I remember.
Daughters of Eve was published in 1979 and reminds me of a twisted The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The group of girls being influenced by an older teacher/mentor are a group of ten high school juniors and seniors in Modesta, Michigan, a town that seems to be in a bit of a 1950s time loop, in which women exist only to serve the men — in the opening scenes, Ruth Grange has to rush home to take care of the cooking and cleaning of the house and the care for her younger brother, because her parents are working to save money for her two older brothers’ college funds, while the older brothers in question don’t left a finger to help around the house. Many of the girls have mothers who are subservient to their husbands; or worse, in the case of Jane Rheardon, whose father regularly beats her mother. The name of the town is a reference to modesty, after all, which is how all of the men seem to want the women and girls to live.
The Daughters of Eve, the girls’ club that only has ten members who are pledged to a “spirit of sisterhood — and to the warmth of friendship. I promise to do my best — as a member of the Daughters of Eve — to follow the code of loyalty, love and service — laid out for womankind since time’s beginning — and to divulge to no one words spoken in confidence — within this sacred circle.” All of that sounds pretty great, and the book begins with the girls inducting three new members, Ruth, Jane, and Laura Snow, who is overweight and who the new advisor, Irene Stark, wants included in the club. During their first meetings, one of the girls, Tammy Carncross, gets a premonition of candles dripping with blood and runs out of the meeting, after telling the girls that something terrible is going to happen with the girls this year! Tammy provides the backstory that she gets premonitions and that’s totally normal, even her parents trust her visions. So there’s that.
As the girls meet and attend classes, we find out that each of the girls is somehow a victim to a man — Ruth is a slave to her brothers, Jane’s father hits her mother, Fran Schneider is competing in a science competition that is always won by a boy, Ann Whitten is in love with a local farmer who wants to marry her, which means she wouldn’t go off to college, Kelly Johnson’s parents are getting divorced because her father is having an affair, Paula Brummell is an athlete in a school that spends all of their money on boys sports, Bambi Ellis is a gorgeous model whose boyfriend is pressuring her to have sex, and when Bambi refuses to “put out”, the boy picks up Laura Snow and uses her for sex.
Irene Stark tells the girls that it is indeed a man’s world.
Irene shares a story about a friend that she had who was dating a coach that she taught with at her previous school; her friend got her masters degree to become an assistant principal, but when it came time to hire a new principal, the coach was hired — because after all, what man wants to date a woman who makes more money than him? Spoiler alert — Irene is the friend! Shock! Awe! After she was passed over for the job, she took the teaching job at Modesta and takes it upon herself to let the girls know how terrible men are.
Some of the points that Irene makes are still topical. At one point, one of the girls says, “Not all men“:
“There have been a lot of women in this country who have been sleeping,” Irene Stark said quietly. The low, strong voice broke though the chatter and brought sudden silence as the girls turned to stare at their sponsor, startled by the intensity of her expression. “Like Ruth’s mother, these are nice women, quiet gentle women, who have grown from being dutiful daughters to being dutiful wives and mothers. They’ve laid themselves out flat for men to walk on, because all their lives they’ve been led to believe that this is what women are supposed to do. Back in seventeen seventy-six, when patriots were demanding a Declaration of Independence, John Adams’s wife, Abigail, wrote to him in Philadelphia saying, ‘Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.’ Adams wrote back to her, calling her ‘saucy,’ and saying, ‘Depend upon it we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.’ Times may have changed in many ways, but human nature hasn’t. Today’s men feel exactly the same way. They’re afraid to let the whip slip from their hands.”
“Not all men,” Ann said frowning. “Dave isn’t like that, and neither is my father.”
Ann, you ignorant slut.
Slowly, Irene influences the girls in ways that turns them against the men in their lives. When Ann tells Irene that she is going to marry Dave the Farmer, Irene gets Ann accepted to art school. The Daughters of Eve hold a fundraiser for money for the athletic department and tell the principal that the money can only be used for a girls soccer team. When Laura finds out that Peter has been using her for sex and has no intention of dating her, she takes a handful of sleeping pills; the girls blindfold him and shave off all of his hair. When Fran’s science experiment is passed over for a male student, the girls destroy the boy’s experiment and the science teacher’s classroom — despite the fact that Fran would have been disqualified because she was using mice in her experiment. Kelly’s father leaves her mother for another woman, which turns her very angry towards all men. Laura recovers from her overdose and moves away from the school.
Tammy realizes that the premonition that she had in the beginning of the year is about Irene and all of the negative feelings towards men she has brought out in the girls — her father was the science teacher whose room was destroyed. She confronts Irene, who tells her that all men deserve to be punished for the wrongs that they have committed against women, and Tammy quits the Daughters of Eve.
In the final chapter, Jane returns home from Irene’s apartment, where she’s been staying while her mother is in the hospital. Her father is at the house and interrogates her about where she’s been. Jane tells him that she knows that he hits her mother, which he denies. She tells him that the Daughters of Eve has ways of making men pay for what they’ve done, and he tells her that he’s going to report Irene to the authorities and make Jane quit the club. He then tells her to go to the kitchen to make him dinner. Jane goes to the kitchen, picks up her mother’s cast iron skillet, returns to the living room, where she realizes everything reflects her father — there are no traces of her mother in the room. She picks up the skillet and smashes it with all of her strength on to the top of her father’s head.
The book ends with an update on the girls three years later. Most of the girls are either in college or are housewives — Ann married Dave and didn’t go to the art school Irene picked out for her. Fran, Tammy, and Kelly are attending a university, Ann, Ruth, and Laura are housewives with children, and Paula and Bambi are working. Jane is a patient at the State Mental Hospital of Michigan. Irene Stark is the principal of Modesta High School and is still the advisor of the Daughters of Eve.
As I was reading this, I was trying to think of what the reception of this book must have been when it came out in 1979 — keep in mind that this is a book for young adults, and it has not only feminist undertones, but teenagers having sex and talking about it. At one point, Ann goes to Irene to tell her that she’s pregnant, and Irene urges her to get an abortion so she can go to art school and not throw her life away. Pretty heavy stuff for 1979, considering that in 2016 those are taboo topics for teachers. Lois Duncan had five children (three daughters and two sons) and part of me wonders if this was written with them in mind — not only to her girls but to her boys as well. There is a lot in the media lately about rape culture and the responsibility that we have to teach our boys to respect women, not just teaching our girls how to act/dress to not get unwanted attention and possibly be raped. I was thinking of the Stanford case, especially when the girls retaliated against the boy who used Laura for sex when Bambi wouldn’t have sex with him.
As Lois Duncan is known for her suspenseful books, this book falls short — Tammy’s premonitions are the only supernatural/suspenseful part of the story, so it’s almost as if she turned in the novel with its feminist message and the editor insisted on some sort of mystery so it can go on the same shelf as I Know What You Did Last Summer. I mean, look at this cover.
You win again, editors.