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.

But Firestone's vision is not only a reaction to anti-feminist dystopias. It's also, as I said, part of a separate feminist tradition. Here, for example, is Ursula K. Le Guin from The Left Hand of Darkness, describing a society of hermaphrodites in which, to paraphrase Firestone's words, not only male privilege, but the sex distinction itself is eliminated:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be..."tied down to childbearing," implies that no one is quite so thoroughly "tied down" here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be—psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else.

And here's Joanna Russ in The Female Man imagining an interview between earth men and a woman from a future all-female society:

MC: ...Don't you want men to return to Whileaway, Miss Evason?

JE: Why?

ME: One sex is half a species, Miss Evason. I am quoting (and he cited a famous anthropologist). Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?

JE (with massive dignity and complete naturalness): Huh?

MC: I said: Do you want to banish sex from Whilewaway? Sex, family, love erotic attraction—call it what you like—we all know that your peope are competent and intelligent individuals, but do you think that's enough? Surely you have the intellectual knowledge of biology in other species to know what I'm talking about.

JE: I'm married. I have two children. What the devil do you mean?

Le Guin's novel was published in 1969, the year before Dialectic of Sex; Firestone probably hadn't read it when she wrote her own book. Russ' novel The Female Man, was written in 1971, and it seems quite possible that she had read Firestone's work.

But I don't think it matters that much who did or did not influence whom. What does matter is that Firestone wasn't some kind of mad visionary. Or if she was a mad visionary, she wasn't the only one. Susan Faludi quotes Kate Millett as saying, "I was taking on the obvious male chauvinists. Shulie was taking on the whole ball of wax. What she was doing was much more dangerous." Which may well be true—but there were clearly other writers at the time (and earlier) who were also trying to take on the whole ball of wax, and reimagine society from reproduction and family on up.

Giving Firestone a context makes her, in some ways, less radical, or at least less unique. But I think it also can make her more relevant. Her dreams weren't just her own dreams. Her brilliant blending of Marx and feminism, in which she sees women's labor as the prototype of all labor—that becomes not just a singular insight, but part of a conversation in which writers like Le Guin and Russ and Gillman and Marston were actively trying to figure out how biological difference is linked to oppression, and what changing that would mean. Her Freudian insistence that straight sex is not normal sex, and her argument for "polymorphous perversity" was part of the long, fruitful conversation between feminism and queer thinkers. Firestone's feminist utopia was also a queer utopia, and has only gained in relevance as queer politics and feminist politics have become more intertwined.

It's true that Firestone was a visionary; it's true that, for all her analysis of the past and present, much of her energy was focused on the future. But I don't think that cuts her off from her own time, or from ours. Looking forward is, on the contrary, one of the main ways we interact with the present. In life, after writing her book, Firestone lost connection with her movement and her peers. Seeing her in the context of feminist science-fiction is one way to give her back her sisters.