By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Feminists did not turn to writing utopias as a way of accomplishing activist aims. They did so more because it gave them space to explore real gender issues and to think through fundamental questions in gender relations. How do the utopias deal with gender relations?
Different Feminist Movements
There was a first wave of feminism at the end of the 19th century that focused on suffrage and other legal rights—the right to vote and the right to own property, mostly. A second wave, which started in the 1950s and is still going on today, focuses on making gender equality more a part of our cultural values, looking at issues like work-life balance and equal pay for equal work.
And then there’s the third wave, which started in the 1980s and focuses on the inclusion of minority and lesbian women and provides very deep challenges to the way we see sex, gender, and sexuality.
The 1970s was the decade right in the middle of the second and third waves, with their contradictory momentums. The equality-based feminist activism of the second wave was already well established, while the major writings of the third wave hadn’t yet been published but were being drafted. Definitions of feminism were multiplying.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Philosophy and Gender Issues
Understandably, any genre, including science fiction—maybe especially utopian or dystopian—gets a big boost from complicated philosophical moments like these. After all, science fiction is the perfect place to explore different approaches to a problem. So, why not the problem of gender relations?
One can argue that it may be hard to explore feminists concerns maybe because science fiction is a male genre and men don’t care nearly as much about gender as women do. This sort of an argument however is riddled with problems.
Feminism and Science Fiction
The relationship between feminism and science fiction is clearly a complex one. Of course, men care about gender, although it’s true that they haven’t written nearly as much gender theory as women have. It’s also true that, even though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many to be the very first science fiction novel, science fiction has been dominated by male writers. It’s also true that that started to change after the 1970s.
Virginia Kidd, Ursula Le Guin’s literary agent, did a study of women in science fiction, and she found that in the mid-1970s, about one out of every 30 writers in the genre was a woman. In 1999, it was one in every three. One might wonder what’s so attractive about science fiction for women writers. Two things come to mind—thought experiments and new readers.
Learn more about first fully achieved science fiction novel.
The Thought Experiment
The thought experiment is a technique used in lots of science fiction stories where you come up with a scenario in order to play out the possible consequences of a new technology or new way of thinking, for example, new technologies around childbearing. What would happen if we had technology that allowed men to bear children? How would that change gender relationships? What if childbearing was moved out of the human body entirely and relegated to a lab?
And then they are other questions too. What if children were raised communally instead of in nuclear families, where one parent, often the mother, becomes the primary caregiver? What if humans had the potential to change from male to female and back again, so they could have different gender identities and different relationships to childbearing?
All these thought experiments have been done in science fiction, with characters and settings and conflicts and political intrigues that allow writers—and their readers—to think through fundamental questions in gender relations. And if those thought experiments posit the creation of whole new societies, we entered the world of utopia or dystopia, depending on the results of the experiment.
Learn more about utopian literature.
The New Readers
The other reason science fiction is attractive to women writers—readers. Because science fiction was dominated by male writers and readers until the 1970s, it included lots of readers who wouldn’t pick up a feminist mainstream novel but would read pretty much any kind of science fiction novel. It was a space where women writers could reach a new audience—an audience interested in science and tech, interested in thought experiments of various kinds.
Feminism was—and still is—a whole set of complex, inter-related ideas, and individual writers can’t always say in a straightforward way “I’m a feminist,” or “I’m writing a feminist story.” Yet, science fiction as a genre was favored by feminist authors. They gave up the narrative momentum of dystopia, with its spectacular conflicts and dark threats, in favor of the more static and didactic form of utopia—a world that allows them to explore, create and experiment, on their own terms.
Common Questions about Science Fiction and Feminism
The second wave of feminism was about making gender equality more a part of our cultural values, looking at issues like work-life balance and equal pay for equal work.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many to be the very first science fiction novel.
The thought experiment is a technique used in lots of science fiction stories where you come up with a scenario in order to play out the possible consequences of a new technology or new way of thinking.