Imagining a World Without Men: A Survey of Feminist Utopias

 

Books discussed in this essay: Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman; 1915), The Female Man (Joanna Russ; 1975), The Gates to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988), Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy; 1976), and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). Some spoilers.

What does a world look like where women are equal to men?

Women writers have tried to imagine such a utopia. Perhaps not surprisingly, for many of them it was a world without men at all.

herlandCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland may be the earliest example of a feminist utopia. In Herland, three male explorers discover an isolated country in the South American jungle populated only by women. It is a perfect place, where women live in harmony with one another, spontaneously reproduce, and have advanced their society due to lack of conflict. The only fly in the ointment is their male visitors, who can’t help their innate sexism, but these confident women mostly just laugh them off. At first blush, Herland seems fairly ideal.

But there are problems with the all-female utopia that Gilman fails to address. For instance, the women all seem asexual, which ignores a fundamental aspect of our nature in favor of combatting the sexual objectification of women. Also, it is difficult to imagine any group of human beings living together without conflict, no matter what their gender. Still, I’d recommend Herland, a quick read, just for its historical value as an early work of feminism, even if does avoid some of the more difficult questions that are raised.

joanna-russ-the-female-manIn 1975, Joanna Russ imagined a similar utopia in The Female Man, this time an alternate world called Whileaway. However, her utopia is not so perfect. Reproduction is handled more realistically, and the women do fight among themselves, often violently. This is one of four alternate worlds Russ presents in the novel. Another, most definitely not a utopia, depicts men and women living separately in a perpetual state of war. Just as in Herland, The Female Man cannot imagine a world where men and women can live together in equality and harmony.

While I admit that I too have spent a happy hour or so imagining a world without men, it’s not practical. We must envision ways women can achieve equality while still keeping men around, if only for the very basic reason that we are one species who are all in this together–or at least, we should be. Also, many women happen to enjoy the company of men.

51I7jyZitGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sheri S. Tepper moderates this vision of a feminist utopia somewhat in The Gates to Women’s Country. In her post-apocalyptic far future, women and men mostly live separately, the women inside a beautiful walled city that hearkens back to the civilization of the ancient Greeks, the men outside the walls in barracks, constantly training for war. Only a few men are allowed inside to serve the women, carefully selected for their submissive traits.

As in the previous two novels, Tepper’s world is one in which men and women cannot live together naturally, due to the innate characteristics of men. The soldiers are basically overgrown children who perceive women as helpless objects requiring protection and impregnation with sons. The servitors are the flip side of the coin: wise, calm, strong, always in control of themselves—the “perfect men” in this women’s fantasy. However, they are not perfect by nature, but by design, and therefore they are not real.

urlA utopian vision where men and women do co-exist can be found in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. A present-day woman time-travels to the future and is shown what an egalitarian society might be like. Although men and women live together in this utopia, there is virtually no distinction between them. The time traveler sometimes cannot even tell what gender her guide is. The language has changed, as well, so that gender pronouns are no longer used. While at first glance this seems like a desirable way of achieving a perfect communal society, erasing the differences between us again defies human nature. Although our differences often inspire oppression, they are also what make us interesting, and quite possibly what enable us to innovate and adapt so well.

The utopia presented in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home imagines a future of communal living where gender differences have been preserved. This utopia is similar to the one in Woman on the Edge of Time: people live cooperatively in villages, eschewing technology and the trappings of our present-day consumerist society, pursuing their passions and strengths, moving fluidly between relationships, and governing and raising children as a group. Yet even Le Guin has a hard time envisioning such a utopia without rejecting almost all the achievements of the modern day. To be our better selves, we have to return to a more primitive version of ourselves. There is a certain attraction to this simpler life, but is it realistic? Once knowledge has been gained, once technologies have been developed, we don’t let that go. We have to build on what came before, not tear it down.

I have yet to read a utopian vision that posits equality for all and yet society continues to progress along a forward trajectory (the only thing that seems to come close may be the Star Trek universe). I would like to. For forward-thinking writers, though, it is easier–and certainly more interesting–to imagine the dystopias that might be. But that is the subject of another essay.

fwm-636x286

First Impressions: Woman on the Edge of Time

These are my first impressions after reading Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976) in February 2015. This book will be discussed in a future essay.

urlAfter bashing her niece’s pimp with a bottle, Connie Ramos is committed to a mental hospital, where she begins telepathically time traveling to a utopian future.

Published in 1976, Woman on the Edge of Time reminded me quite a lot of two other feminist speculative fiction classics of roughly the same period: The Female Man by Joanna Russ and Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. All three present idealized anarchist utopias, as well as brief depictions of a dystopian counterpart. These utopian communities are presented as environmentally conscious and sustainable, having achieved equality among the sexes and races (albeit in different ways), where the people live communally and in harmony with nature. (Of the three, I liked Le Guin’s the best, but it is the most recently published and the most fully baked, I think.) These are not novels so much as vehicles for ideas about how people could possibly be, and after reading so many of these–including a few minor versions not mentioned–I feel I’ve exhausted this narrow sub-genre. The ideas are attractive, but having moved well past the Age of Aquarius, they seem much more unworkable, relying on an idealized vision of human nature.

Of more interest in Piercy’s novel is the present-day life of Connie Ramos, who is poor, Hispanic, undereducated, mentally ill, and pretty much a victim of all our social institutions. Connie’s plight, having been committed and then subjected to heinous experiments against her will, almost make us cheer her drastic actions after she accepts that she is at war. She is at war against our systems themselves, and the deck is well stacked against her. It’s never very clear if Connie is literally time-traveling or if she is hallucinating as an escape. Given the epilogue with her medical history, I’m inclined to believe the latter, but I don’t know if that is what Piercy intended as the author. There is a lot here to chew on, but I’m not sure Piercy has assembled it into a cohesive story. She seems to be trying to say so much that nothing comes through as powerfully as she might have intended. If she had focused on Connie in the present, and scaled back all the future scenes, using them more as an indicator of Connie’s troubled psyche, this probably would have been a much more effective novel.