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Women and Utopias

The following discussion of women and utopias in fiction and
non-fiction took place on WMST-L in March 2002.  Also of interest may
be an earlier discussion entitled Feminist Utopian Fiction. For more
WMST-L files available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Sat, 2 Mar 2002 15:54:55 -0500
From: ckoppelman @ NOTES.CC.SUNYSB.EDU
I am developing a course on Women and Utopias.  It is my intention to look
at  both history and literary examples.  Has anyone taught such a course?
or are there specific books, short stories or articles you would suggest?
I've used Herland by C.P. Gilman, and discussed the Oneida community in
other courses, but more contemporary examples would be welcomed.
Theoretically by the end of the semester students should be in a position
to understand (and write a paper on) what a realistic utopian existence
would mean.
CKoppelman  @  notes.cc.sunysb.edu
Date: Sat, 2 Mar 2002 16:47:55 -0500
From: Joan Korenman <jskor @ UMBC.EDU>
One book not to miss is Marge Piercy's _Woman on the Edge of Time_.
I think it was written in the mid '70s.  It presents both a utopia
and a dystopia.  Though the book is now more than a quarter century
old, students still find it compelling.  A more recent book by Piercy
that to some degree also considers utopian ideas is _He, She, and It_
(1991).  I'm a big fan of both of these books, though I think _Woman
on the Edge of Time_ might be more appropriate for your course.


Joan Korenman                  jskor  @  umbc.edu
U. of Md. Baltimore County     http://www.umbc.edu/cwit/
Baltimore, MD 21250  USA       http://www.umbc.edu/wmst/

The only person to have everything done by Friday is Robinson Crusoe
Date: Sat, 2 Mar 2002 19:34:06 -0500
From: jeff bridges <3bridges @ bellsouth.net>
A realistic utopian existence would be neither realistic nor utopian.
That's why representations of Utopia are so outstandingly bo-ring.  In
almost 100% of known cases,  if I am not mistaken,  utopian experiments
which are able to survive degenerate into authoritarian systems.  During
the '60's,  for example,  the concept of acid fascism was much bruited
about.  A historical variant of a common fate of religious and socially
utopian experiments.
jeff bridges <3bridges  @  bellsouth.net>
Date: Sun, 3 Mar 2002 08:36:06 -0600
From: Mev Miller <wplp @ WINTERNET.COM>
For a contemporary example, have a look at

Circles of Power: Shifting Dynamics in a Lesbian-centered community
LaVerne Gagehabib & Barbara Summerhawk
New Victoria Publishers, 2000
isbn 1892281139

it's an amazing example of oral history, interview, community/personal
reflection/ community in change -- connected to lesbian politics and
vision and experimentation with alternative community living etc.
about a community that has survived and thrived for over 25 years. - in
southern oregon
also connected tot he publishing of WomanSpirit magazine

it's a great contemporary example...and very readable (although it also
has some academic merit as I recall one of the writers was doing this as
part of academic reesearch)


Women's Presses Library Project
...keeping women's words in circulation
Mev Miller, Project Coordinator
1483 Laurel Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55104-6737

651-646-1153 /fax

wplp  @  winternet.com
Date: Sun, 3 Mar 2002 15:52:09 -0500
From: Frances DiSalvo <fjdisalvo @ HOTMAIL.COM>
Subject: Women and Utopia
Dear all,
Jeff Bridges has a point, albeit with a pessimistic attitude:  "utopian
experiments which are able to survive degenerate into authoritarian
systems."  The greater question to ask, however, is:  Why do many societies
seem to fall back on a hierarchical, usually patriarchal, system?

Obviously, (surprise, Jeff Bridges!) looking at feminist utopias in terms of
how it informs the current set of experiences for women (in the US?) is
immeasurably valuable.  For instance, it may be helpful to look at Monique
Wittig's *Le Guerilleres* from the standpoint of a world without binarisms,
or *The Left Hand of Darkness* by Ursula K. LeGuinn for a take on an
androgenous world.  *Herland* by C.P. Gilman, as suggested by Joan, is also
a great work for looking at a version of matriarchy.  I am in the midst of
publishing on this very subject, and would  love to share.  (Wittig's work
may be too advanced for beginning undergrads...)

Frances DiSalvo
Teachers College, Columbia University, NY NY
fjdisalvo  @  hotmail.com
Date: Sun, 3 Mar 2002 17:46:02 -0500
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai @ SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Starting in the 1970s feminist scholars (I among them) have given
substantial attention to the subject of women and utopias. Courses on
women's utopias have been taught all over the country for the last few
decades.  I myself have taught such a course many times.

By now there is a large secondary letter, various bibliographies, etc.,
readily available.  Any library research will turn up key works. There has
also been an enormous increase in  utopian fiction by women, so that just
selecting readings, even by women only, is a challenge, let alone trying to
set those works in a larger historical and literary context.

But there is a problem when C. Koppelman writes:

"Theoretically by the end of the semester students should be in a position
to understand (and write a paper on) what a realistic utopian existence
would mean."

Whether a "realistic utopia" is possible or a contradiction in terms is a
highly debated issue, and has been for generations. . .  It's not just women
and male writers of utopian fiction who have taken all sorts of positions on
these issues (as the existence of eu- and dystopias sometimes written in
response  specific previously-published eutopias indicates--e.g., the many
dozens of pro and con works written after Bellamy's "Looking Backward" was
published in 1888), but also many political scientists, philosophers, and
other scholars.

Thus, the notion that students after one course can come up with a solution
or description of a 'realistic utopia" seems highly dubious.  Some might
consider Ayn Rand's "Anthem" a "realistic utopia" (a dystopia, of course,
but that's the point); it's certainly far less fantastic than, say, "The Kin
of Ata," or "The Wanderground." And since fundamental principles would be
involved of the sort people have been arguing about for thousands of years,
again it seems highly unlikely students could or should be expected to
resolve these after a few months of reading.

My point in teaching such courses was always to explore the issues, visions,
problems, possibilities, contradictions, techniques, etc., of this vast
literature, never to get students to adhere to any particular vision,
realistic or otherwise.  Some of the works that are most appealing are so
precisely because they rely heavily on  fantasy and imagination that
transcend "realism," and some of the most heated objections are directed  to
those very same features.  It's a rich field and a wonderful area to teach,
because it is immensely broad and varied.


daphne.patai  @  spanport.umass.edu
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 2002 08:07:04 -0500
From: "Donna M. Bickford" <dbi6066u @ POSTOFFICE.URI.EDU>
Subject: Women & Utopia
Before her death, Dr. Dana Shugar taught both a graduate and undergraduate
course in Women/Utopia at the University of Rhode Island.  Her approach was
to frame the reading of utopian novels with the feminist scholarship that
was current at the time.  So, for example, we read Piercy's *Woman on the
Edge of Time* along with Chesler's *Women & Madness*.  We read Wittig's
*Les Guillieres" (sp?) with Cixous and Irigaray.  We read Hoissan's
*Sultana's Dream* with some of Jeffrey's work on purdah.  It was a useful
approach and a great course.  We began the course with some theoretical
explorations of what a "utopia" actually is (or is intended to be).

Dr. Shugar's own book which blends work on lesbian communities, utopian
impulses in social change, and textual criticism (*Separatism*) was well
reviewed and is a fabulous resource.

Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D.
dbi6066u  @  postoffice.uri.edu
University of Rhode Island
Women's Studies Program
Roosevelt Hall, #315
Kingston, RI 02881
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 2002 08:57:33 -0500
From: Meryl Altman <maltman @ DEPAUW.EDU>
Subject: Re: Women & Utopia
Yes. I've always thought utopian writing was less about revolution than about
reform -- which I don't mean pejoratively, but as an attempt to make a concrete
difference at the time by playing out hopes and fears and dreams and changing
people's minds. . So reading utopias later shows a tremendous amount about the
political movements they came out of, activist contexts at the time. .
_Herland_ is a great way to teach about (some) nineteenth-century feminist
views of female sexuality, for example (esp. if compared to Bellamy's _Looking
Backward_) -- ...
Sorry if this has already been said, I'm too swamped to read every post right
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 2002 09:32:24 -0500
From: hagolem <hagolem @ C4.NET>
Subject: Re: Women & Utopia
Part of what I was doing in WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME was to try to make
concrete many of the ideas that were current in the women's movement and
other movements for social change of the time.  Not only Chesler, but
Shulamith Firestone would obviously go with WOET as well as a book by a
woman anthropologist about the Pawnee nation which had a huge impact on my
thinking.  I think it was called The Lost World.  and I intentionally did
not create a perfect static society, but one that was still at war and full
of political disagreement.

marge piercy hagolem  @  c4.net
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 2002 10:02:47 -0700
From: Marilyn Grotzky <mgrotzky @ carbon.cudenver.edu>
Brook Farm was one experiment.  I believe the Alcott family was involved,
which might add interest.

The novel Woman on the Edge of Time does a nice job of presenting a utopia
and a dystopia and the decisions involved in each.  It brings up lots of
interesting discussion points.  If you haven't read it, there's a
contemporary story framing the utopian part of the plot, so that the utopia
is not immediately apparent.  The book is by Marge Piercy.

Marilyn Grotzky
Auraria Library
Denver, CO
mgrotzky  @  carbon.cudenver.edu
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 2002 18:25:56 -0600
From: Jennifer L Brockman <lilacdaisy @ JUNO.COM>
There is a book entitled Feminist Utopias, edited by Frances Bartkowski,
that might be of some help to you.  It is a comparative study of utopian
fiction.  Included are the works of nine women writers from the US,
France, and Canada.  Here is the complete bibliographical information:

Bartkowski, Frances, ed.  Feminist Utopias.  Lincoln, Nebraska:
University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

I hope this is helpful.  Have a great day!

~ Jennifer Brockman
lilacdaisy  @  juno.com

Caminante, no hay puentes, se have puentes al andar
(Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks)
--- Gloria Anzaldua
Date: Fri, 8 Mar 2002 09:06:37 -0800
From: Phillipa Kafka <pkafka @ LVCM.COM>
If you wish to expand your syllabus beyond Western material only, E. M.
Broner's Weave of Women, 1973.  (Novel about women from various countries
who attempt to found a utopian commune in Israel).

I also second Donna Bickford's mention of a short feminist utopian work by a
Bengali Muslim, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein.  Sultana's Dream (1905) about
Ladyland is sad, satirical, sarcastic,  and hilarious.  The Feminist Press
republished it in 1988, along with other works of Hossain's.

Dr. Phillipa Kafka
Professor Emerita
Kean University
pkafka  @  lvcm.com
Date: Fri, 8 Mar 2002 12:32:46 -0500
From: hagolem <hagolem @ C4.NET>
At 09:06 AM 3/8/2002 -0800, you wrote:
>If you wish to expand your syllabus beyond Western material only, E. M.
>Broner's Weave of Women, 1973.  (Novel about women from various countries
>who attempt to found a utopian commune in Israel).

Esther Broner is American, lives in NYC.

mp hagolem  @  c4.net
Date: Fri, 8 Mar 2002 19:02:29 -0800
From: Phillipa Kafka <pkafka @ LVCM.COM>
A Weave of Women is a  brilliant satire written by an American Jewish woman,
Esther Messerman Broner (b. 1930) about the establishment by women from
around the world of a communal home in Israel and the women's unsuccessful
struggles in a variety of ways with the Israeli authorities.  It would
expand students' concepts of utopias beyond U.S. American/Western culture,
since this utopia exposes traditional cultural constraints against women in
Israel, as well as tragic elements in Palestinian and Israeli relationships.

Suniti Namjoshi (b. 1946), an Indian lesbian feminist  writer who now lives
in England has also written a complex utopia/dystopia, The Mothers of Maya

 Dr. Phillipa Kafka
Professor Emerita
Kean University
pkafka  @  lvcm.com

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