Imagine There's No Gender: The Long History of Feminist Utopian Literature

From Wonder Woman to Shulamith Firestone to Joanna Russ, visions of societies run by women or absent of gender altogether have existed for almost a century.
DC Comics

"There is not even a utopian feminist literature in existence," radical feminist Shulamith Firestone declared in her 1970 classic The Dialectic of Sex. The remark positions Firestone as an isolated visionary, dreaming lonely revolutionary dreams upon a mountaintop that few afterwards, and none before, could scale.

It's an image that has in large part come to define her. Susan Faludi's recent, lovely biography in The New Yorker, for example, presents Firestone as a woman ahead of her time, emphasizing the bitter isolation and disillusionment of her later years. Of Firestone's memorial service following her death in 2012, Faludi writes, "It was hard to say which moment the mourners were there to mark: the passing of Firestone or that of a whole generation of feminists who had been unable to thrive in the world they had done so much to create." Firestone was the first to look upon the future, and as a result, she doomed herself to wander out of time.

I don't want to deny the truth of that view of Firestone, or its power. I cried while reading Faludi's article. But I think there are also less lonely, more connected ways to look at Firestone's achievement.

To start, I'd point out that Firestone's claim that there was no utopian feminist literature in existence in 1970 was a considerable exaggeration. To pick only a couple of the best-known examples, in 1915 Charlotte Perkins Gilman serialized Herland, a vision of female utopia with asexual reproduction and no conflict or war. William Marston's Wonder Woman comics of the 1940s featured Paradise Island, a matriarchal all-female community of peace, loving submission, bondage, and giant space kangaroos.

Firestone, then, was not creating a tradition of utopian feminist literature; rather, she was working in that tradition. The Dialectic of Sex can be seen not (merely) as groundbreaking, but as a summation and continuation of feminist utopian imaginings.

For Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, that feminist utopian imagining is based on a two-part argument. First, gender difference (or "sex class") is rooted in biology. It is, furthermore, at the basis of all inequity, including economic exploitation and racial prejudice—she sees racist society as a kind of Fruedian oppressive patriarchal household, with blacks treated as infantilized children. Radical feminists, therefore—and, in her view, everybody who wants an equal society—"are talking about changing a fundamental biological condition." As a result, feminist revolution is deeply, almost unimaginably radical. "If there were a another word more all-embracing than revolution, we would use it."

So how will this uber-revolution be brought about? In the tradition of that radical tech-utopian Marx, Firestone hopes that advances in science can change material conditions enough to make equity possible. Cybernetics will eliminate the need for work; new reproductive technologies will eliminate the need for giving birth ("Pregnancy is barbaric...the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species").

Once we have eliminated both manual labor and female labor, in Firestone's vision, society can be reformed and the bourgeois family eliminated. Rather than living in nuclear units, people can live in larger households of 10 or so, where childcare can be spread around to all—and where children need not be age segregated and kept in forced immaturity for years. Moreover, Firestone argues, without the tyranny of biological reproduction, monogamy and even the incest taboo will be unnecessary, and can be abandoned ("Relations with children would include as much genital sex as the child was capable of—probably considerably more than we now believe"). Eroticism and intimacy and joy could then suffuse the entire culture, rather than being restricted to the cramped, circumscribed realm of romantic love. She concludes, "all relationships would be based on love alone, uncorrupted by objective dependencies and the resulting class inequalities."

Obviously, when you advocate for the end of pregnancy and the incest taboo, you are going to freak people out. Many people used Firesteone's speculations then (and still will use them now, I'm sure) to marginalize her work and thought.

But the truth is, these ideas are not especially marginal. In the first place they are (as Brian Attebery notes in Decoding Science Fiction) a rethinking of mostly male-penned paranoid dystopias like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which tinkering with reproduction and the nuclear family leads to irrational de-individualized nightmare feminine hives.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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