The Woman Question and the Real-World Impact of ‘Looking Backward’


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

Looking Backward was written by Edward Bellamy and imagines a utopia in which people live equally irrespective of gender. This book had a major impact in the real-world and led to debates and political activism, especially among feminists and women activists. This book gave women a chance to think about how their lives could be in the future, and it was somewhat successful.

An image of a woman holding a sign which reads: '"I fight like a girl for my rights".
Edward Bellamy brought women’s issues into his fiction. (Image: kiwiofmischief/Shutterstock)

Women and Children Aren’t Forgotten in Bellamy’s Utopia

For most of Edward Bellamy’s novel, Julian and Dr. Leete talk about men. The men of the Industrial Army, the men in politics who are elected not by the populace at large but by the alumni in their chosen profession. But eventually, the time comes for Julian to ask a question crucial to the novel’s popularity in 1888, when the Woman Question had to be addressed by anyone interested in activism: what about the women? 

Dr. Leete explains. Women are part of the Industrial Army too, but it’s a different Industrial Army, segregated from the men’s army, but run in the same way, with leaders elected by the alumni up to and including a female general-in-chief, except to be eligible for the highest office, a woman must be both a wife and a mother.

Julian is astonished and asks if the woman leaves the Industrial Army upon marriage. And the answer of course is no. Then Julian asks about credit cards for women. Dr. Leete astonishes Julian further when he tells him that women also have credit cards with the same amount of money as men. Julian understands the significance by saying that wives are in no way dependent on their husbands for maintenance. 

The doctor also tells Julian that no person should be dependent for the means of support upon another. This would be shocking to the moral sense as well as indefensible to any rational social theory. And that goes for children too, who also have their own credit card from the common stock.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Bellamy and Feminism in Looking Backward

An image of a futuristic utopian city.
In Bellamy’s utopia, women have separate professional streams within the Industrial Army. (Image: Topinambur/Shutterstock)

The place of women in Bellamy’s future would surely have been much discussed in Bellamy Clubs since there was a lot of overlap between political activists and feminists. Bellamy himself was well known as a male feminist.

From a 21st-century perspective, he’s pretty conservative in his vision of the women of the future, who have separate professional streams within the Industrial Army, meaning they aren’t eligible for the head position—President of the United States.

And although Dr. Leete talks about the importance of women in the Industrial Army, they aren’t featured. In fact, Julian’s love, Edith, is depicted to be mostly shopping, arranging flowers, listening to music or sermons through the musical telephone, and coming on to Juliana.

Learn more about Swift, Voltaire, and utopian satire.

The Avoidance of Basic Feminist Change

But Bellamy’s avoidance of radical feminist change in his utopian vision may have been very well calculated. Just like feminists today, 19th-century feminists had lots of different ideas about women’s rights. Bellamy opens up his utopia for women readers by including some form of equality for women, like payment for domestic work and childrearing. 

But he also leaves plenty of space for feminists to discuss within Bellamy Clubs. Through these clubs, women try to understand how to handle some of their most pressing issues like temperance, women’s health, and also women’s fashion in the future, as it is really hard for women to lead active lives while wearing Victorian wardrobes.

Learn more about Samuel Delany and the heterotopia.

The Impact of Looking Backward on Other Writers

In a 1930s survey of prominent thinkers, Looking Backward was regularly listed as being among the most important works of the previous 50 years. Some people actually placed it only behind Das Kapital in terms of its influence. 

A sketchbook with a words-have-power quote and a cup of coffee and glasses.
Other utopian writers were moved by Looking Backward. (Image: Marekuliasz/Shutterstock)

Other utopian writers read and were moved by the novel. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for example, joined a Bellamy Club in 1890 and would go on to write Herland in 1915. 

William Morris, a British writer and social activist, reviewed Looking Backward in 1890. It was a rather unfavorable review, but he did go on to write News from Nowhere, a clear response to Bellamy’s novel, in which the protagonist, named William Guest instead of Julian West, also awakens in a utopian future. For Morris, utopia would happen in the pastoral rather than the urban and would be organic rather than industrialized.

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The Comparison of Bellamy’s Utopia with Today’s America 

It’s certainly hard to read Looking Backward and say that this novel had a tremendous real-world impact. In fact, few if any of the utopian ideals Bellamy imagined have come to pass in the ways he imagined. 

In  21st-century America, there is no free universal education, efficient and equitable distribution of goods and resources to citizens, beautification of all public spaces, retractable public umbrellas, or replacement of money by credit cards. The last one is kind of true, but not in the way Bellamy meant.

But still, did this novel have an impact? Does it still? Young people reading this novel over a century after its publication find it interesting and relevant, especially the conversations Julian and Dr. Leete have about income and wealth disparity. Actually, the literature points up some of the issues that need to be considered and addressed in imagining a better future.

Common Questions about the Woman Question and the Real-World Impact of Looking Backward

Q: How were women elected in Bellamy’s utopia?

Utopia in Edward Bellamy‘s book also dealt with the Woman Question. Women, just like men, were elected by the alumni in their profession. They were in a different Industrial Army to the men’s army, but it was run in the same way.

Q: Which writers were influenced by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward?

Many writers were influenced by Edward Bellamy‘s Looking Backward. One of them was Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She joined a Bellamy Book Club in 1890 and wrote her novel Herland in 1915. Another follower was William Morris, a British writer, who wrote News From Nowhere in 1890.

Q: What form of equality do women have in Looking Backward?

Edward Bellamy opens up his utopia for women readers by including some form of equality for women, like payment for domestic work and childrearing.

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