The utopian feminist movement that began in the 1970s does not include a lot of straight-up utopias with a visitor finding a new society, and reporting it back with a mix of earnest admiration and satire. This new kind of utopia has a rather guarded optimism. It’s also not at all static. Instead, it includes plenty of dangers and conflicts; the same ones that made dystopia so much more viable in the 20th century.
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
One of the most discussed utopias of the ’70s is Ursula Le Guin’s famous 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, which has a great subtitle, An Ambiguous Utopia. That’s actually an excellent description for most of the critically acclaimed feminist utopias of the period. They imagine a better world, distanced by time and/or place. But something always happens.
Sometimes the better place is deeply disrupted, even destroyed, by the very visitors who are giving us information about it. Sometimes the better place has a dark underpinning, as we saw in H. G. Well’s The Time Machine or Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
Sometimes the better place is only one of a number of possible futures, maybe the least likely one. Thus, there are a lot of ways to attenuate a utopian vision, and the feminist utopians of the 1970s, tried most of them.
The Resurgence of Utopian Feminist Literature
The feminist utopian resurgence includes great variety and a lot of really great titles. Apart from Ursula Le Guin, there were radical feminists like Joanna Russ and Monique Wittig, writing feminist separatist utopias like The Female Man and Les Guérillères. More moderate feminists like Marge Piercy, in He, She, and It, explores a romance between a woman and a cyborg.
And this trend continues into the 1980s, with utopian work by feminist writers such as linguist Suzette Haden Elgin in her Native Tongue series, where linguists rule the world—but still have a lot of gender inequity. Then there is Joan Slonczewski and her marvelous A Door into Ocean, where aquatic purple women take pacifism to an extreme when attacked by militants.
Learn more about where women belong in an ideal society.
Exploration of Relationships in Utopias
Lots of science fiction writers explored utopian potentials—the much-studied ones like Pamela Sargent and Sherri Tepper, who both wrote separatist utopias—The Shore of Women and The Gate to Women’s Country respectively. But also the more popular and less critically acclaimed ones, like Vonda McIntyre in her Starfarers series. It is wonderful in its explorations of various relationship configurations on a human colonization spaceship.
Then there is this specific type of utopian move that we’ve seen before—the feminist separatist utopia, a society without men—and two very different ways it has been used for feminist ends. A good example of this is James Tiptree Jr.’s novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read? from 1976, and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man from 1975.
James Tiptree Jr.
James Tiptree Jr. is actually the pen name of Alice Sheldon who also wrote under the pen name Raccoona Sheldon, and who started publishing science fiction in 1967.
Tiptree won several science fiction awards and was, understandably, unwilling to give interviews, since she kept her identity as a woman strictly secret. She did, however, write a lot of letters as Tip, including to fellow science fiction writers, Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin.
Learn more about utopian thought and sexual politics.
Joanna Russ’s The Female Man is quite complex—partly because it’s a novel rather than a story, but also because, as a radical feminist, Russ was deeply invested in writing fiction likely to challenge readers’ assumptions about the world as well as about the very nature of narrative.
Russ was also a very complicated critic who wrote tons of literary criticism as well as many highly acclaimed works of science fiction. She wrote, for example, about the feminist separatist utopias of the 1970s, finding many common features.
A communal, relatively classless lifestyle, an absence of crime, a relative lack of government, a diffusion of parenting across society, a focus on ecology, and a sense of sexual permissiveness. She wrote,
The point of the permissiveness is not to break taboos but to separate sexuality from questions of ownership, reproduction, and social structure.
Joanna Russ and Tiptree
Russ believed that science fiction was supposed to be didactic, that women should fully acknowledge the gender discrimination they faced, and should not hesitate to write from a place of anger. She and James Tiptree Jr. wrote each other many letters, arguing about how feminism should work. Tip once, famously, wrote to Russ:
Do you imagine that anyone with half a functional neuron can read your work and not have his fingers smoked by the bitter, multi-layered anger in it? It smells and smolders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode.
Russ was okay with that. She thought anger at injustice should smolder, should burn the reader just a bit. And she was very well regarded by others in the field.
Samuel Delany called Russ “one of the finest—and most necessary—writers of American fiction.” American fiction, not just science fiction.
Feminism and Utopia
Monique Wittig, the French feminist who wrote Les Guérillères, a novel about women fighting the Battle of the Sexes through military means, called The Female Man “a literary war machine” although there is no literal war in Russ’s novel.
These utopia’s however just scratch the surface. It does give us a sense of some of the variety one can find in that movement. There’s a sense of great possibility, inflected with realism, a sense of powerful activism inflected with philosophy.
And perhaps most notably, there’s a sense that feminism is a really complicated set of ideas and that utopia is an equally complicated genre that’s perfect for playing out those ideas in ways that are hopefully just as interesting and provocative to female and male readers.
Common Questions about the Utopian Feminist literature
Starfarers series explores various relationship configurations on a human colonization spaceship.
James Tiptree Jr. is actually the pen name of Alice Sheldon who also wrote under the pen name Raccoona Sheldon. She wrote the critically acclaimed feminist utopia Houston, Houston, Do You Read?
Monique Wittig called The Female Man “a literary war machine” although there is no literal war in Russ’s novel.