World Without Men

The wisdom and weirdness of feminist utopian novels…

few years ago, if you were entirely too online, you probably ran across the hashtags #killallmen or #banmen. These ironic signoffs have mostly run their course in feminist circles, but they’re still frequently referenced by the alt-right (a group well-known for their robust appreciation of irony, respect for edgy humor, and reading comprehension) as a symbol of an evil feminist tendency: one that wishes, quite seriously, to wipe all men from the face of the earth. However, most feminists are, and always have been, content to leave the obliteration of men to mere words. It may come as a shock to the alt-right, wallowing in their imagined oppression, but we monstrous feminists of the 21st century aren’t actually planning to snap our gauntleted fingers and disappear half the human species. At best, #killallmen and its variants have only meant “kill toxic masculinity”; at worst, they’ve been employed as toothless jokes, mean-spirited but ultimately impotent expressions of frustration.

This particular joke or thought experiment has a much older history than we might realize. The late 19th and early 20th century saw the sudden flowering of feminist utopian novels in which male humans, for the most part, do not appear. Some feminist utopias were composed in direct reaction to utopian fiction penned by men, particularly Edward Bellamy’s hugely popular utopian novel Looking Backward (1888). Bellamy’s book imagined a glorious socialist future in which all societal ills had been addressed and all false hierarchies overturned… other than racism and the oppression of women.* But the roots of the feminist tendency in utopian fiction go back further than any reaction to Bellamy. The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), Christine de Pizan’s catalog of the intellectual contributions of women imagined as a city, is a clear precursor to feminist utopia, as is Millennium Hall (1762), a placid novel about a commune of women, and also the riotously funny satire Man’s Rights; or, how would you like it? (1870). What all feminist utopias have in common—from the scattered early works, to the sudden explosion in the late 19th–early 20th century, to the smaller-scale but extraordinary reimagining of the genre that happened in the 1970s—is a commitment to imagining worlds in which women are treated with the full human respect they deserve.

Sometimes, this respect is found through the mysterious and unmourned disappearance of men, at other times, through tongue-in-cheek depictions of civilizations in which men are the ones who experience oppression. (Paging Dr. Jordan Peterson; your fantasy is here). But these first two kinds of utopias are never “serious”, in that they aren’t truly, literally planning a future in which men disappear or become the oppressed class. Only in some of the later utopias of the 70s and beyond did feminist writers tend to depict a third, possibly even achievable kind of utopia, based on the premise that gender hierarchy and other false social structures can be overcome.

The early feminist utopian novels are not really intended as prophesies or blueprints. (Most female-only utopias reproduce through parthenogenesis, which, while fun to think about, is not exactly a practical reproductive strategy for human beings.) The purpose of early feminist utopias is usually to convince, through satire, drama, or earnest polemic, that the oppression women face is 1) real and 2) desperately needs to be eliminated for the betterment of all humankind. As Lady Florence Dixie explains in the preface to her novel Gloriana, or a dream of the revolution of 1900 (published 1890), her book has “but one object…to speak of evils which DO exist, to study facts which it is a crime to neglect, to sketch an artificial position—the creation of laws false to Nature—unparalleled for injustice and hardship.”

Many feminist utopias take aim at whichever arguments for women’s “natural” inferiority happen to be popular at the time, showing that their purportedly logical conclusions are “false to Nature” and also laughably silly. When it comes to the claim that men deserve to dominate women because of their greater physical strength and larger brains, a character in Begum Rokheya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905) casually counters, “A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race… An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has.” Likewise, the satire Man’s Rights cheekily turns (still-popular) scientific arguments on their heads:

“Woman has phrenologically a larger organ of language than man. Now, what does this teach us? It teaches us this (and it ought to teach every man the same truth): that woman is the natural orator; that it is she who should be the lecturer, the speech-maker, the orator, and not man. It teaches us that women as senators and representatives, as lecturers and orators, are where they belong, where Nature intended they should be. It teaches us more than this: that, as man has smaller language than woman, his sphere is the domestic; is the quiet, the silent, the unobtrusive; is one of silent influences, not public and demonstrative like that of woman.”

Stop clutching your pearls, gents: this is of course not a serious argument for men’s natural inferiority and women’s political domination, as #killallmen is not a serious argument for men’s destruction. This is merely to show, by amusing counterexample, that assumptions about women’s natural inferiority based on phrenology (or evolutionary psychology, phrenology’s dull descendant) are ridiculous. These decisions about how men and women “must” have evolved, and what jobs they are thereby suited for, can be argued in practically any direction based on the so-called evidence.

However, many feminist utopian novels, especially of the 19th century variety, contend with full sincerity that women are naturally superior to men in a few particular respects: morality, orderliness, virtue. This stems from a popular myth in Western bourgeois society, which ossified into the Victorian image of “the angel in the house.” The lavishly praised (and intellectually emaciated) “angel in the house” served her husband and her children by acting as their patient, adoring, self-effacing moral guardian. It was such a pervasive and damaging trope that Virginia Woolf said in 1931, reflecting on the women writers of her generation, that “killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” The female utopians who preceded Woolf chose not to kill the angel in the house, however, but to bring her outside, and let her manage civilization.

The “angels outside the house” that make up the citizenry of most early feminist utopias are peaceful, happy, physically healthy, and devoted to the cultivation of children, the natural world, and their own talents. Following the classic utopian genre convention of the narrator-stranger who miraculously falls into a perfect society, the angels-outside-the-house always patiently, if pedantically,** guide the stranger around and explain how their sewage system works. In Herland (1915), a group of male adventurers stumbles upon a legendary female-only utopia. “Everything was beauty, order, perfect cleanness, and the pleasantest sense of home over it all.” The women of Herland are short-haired, physically strong, and wear practical clothing, but in addition to these aesthetic and gender-role reversals, they have also evolved to a state of pristine morality. They reproduce parthenogenetically, and are so cleanly Victorian that they don’t even have sex with each other. The narrator remarks admiringly:

Their religion, you see, was maternal; and their ethics, based on the full perception of evolution, showed the principle of growth and the beauty of wise culture. They had no theory of the essential opposition of good and evil; life to them was growth; their pleasure was in growing, and their duty also.

Every element of Herland is harmonious, from the ethics to the trees to the outfits. Everyone is as happy, fit, and relaxed as a woman in a vacation destination commercial. Life is somewhat dull, but that’s part of the fantasy of utopia: the reader gets to imagine a world in which all major problems have been magically solved, and in feminist utopias, women get to imagine a world in which they are completely free from masculine control and harassment.

The world of Mizora (Mizora, 1890) is also all-female, and similarly pleasant and luxuriant: “Wealth was everywhere and abundant. The climate as delightful as the most fastidious could desire. The products of the orchards and gardens surpassed description.” In Ladyland (the country visited in Sultana’s Dream), homes are almost indistinguishable from gardens. The protagonist marvels: “The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke nor any chimney either in the kitchen—it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire.” The lack of fire and smoke in Ladyland is significant: in all of these utopias mentioned above, the beauty and abundance and orderliness is not solely due to women’s (ostensible) superior morality, but to considerable scientific improvements.

These “angels outside the house,” for all their 19th century moral and sexual repression, break Victorian convention by being entirely liberated as workers, intellectuals, artists, and scientists. The thesis in these novels is the same: if women are allowed to fully participate in society, and explore their mental talents without hindrance (in many feminist utopias, old and new, this means “without the presence of men”) then we would witness the birth not only of superior governmental and educational structures, but also of labor-saving science. Ladyland possesses abundant gardens and doesn’t burn coal because women in female-only universities “were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun.” These technologies (carbon-neutral, I might add) power Ladyland’s entire civilization and also can be used to control the weather. In Man’s Rights we see “a wondrous machine that could cook, wash, and iron for hundreds of people at once” and in Mizora, we learn that “toil was unknown; the toil that we know, menial, degrading and harassing. Science had been the magician that had done away all that. Science, so formidable and austere to our untutored minds, had been gracious to those fair beings and opened the door to nature’s most occult secrets.” This is a central tenet of socialist scientific utopianism—when everyone is freed from wage labor and from the bigotry that blights their opportunities, then everyone who wants to can pursue science, and as a result technology will advance exponentially, creating further gains in labor-saving devices which will free up even more time to pursue scientific advancement. Stephen Jay Gould once wrote: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Socialist scientific utopianism imagines the sort of would we would have if those talented people didn’t slave away and die after all, but were allowed to contribute to human civilization.

There is of course a darker side to the worship of limitless growth and scientific advancement if it happens to be coupled with the conviction of superior morality, which is another reason we shouldn’t misread older feminist utopias as literal policy guides. Older feminist utopias, as products of their time, are quite enthusiastic about eugenics. Theories of social hygiene common to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century held that every bad trait could be bred out of a population, and that certain traits were, of course, “naturally” more desirable than others.

This failure to engage with, in Lady Dixie’s terms, “the creation of laws false to Nature” means that most of the early feminist utopias have a significant race problem. All of the women in Mizora are blonde and blue-eyed; Herland, despite being located in Africa, contains only women of “Aryan stock” who, the narrator assures us, are still “white,” despite being “somewhat darker than our northern races because of their constant exposure to sun and air.” Sultana’s Dream is one of the few older feminist utopias I could find that was written by a woman of color and/or included women of color; in most, the lush beauty and peace of the landscape is calmly predicated on white supremacy and eco-fascism. (This tendency is hauntingly referenced in N.K. Jemisin’s recent dystopian novel The Stone Sky (2017), which describes the history of an ancient, lovely, technologically advanced eco-utopia which, as it turns out, is wholly reliant on the horrific exploitation of a racial minority.)

Illustration by Tiffany Pai

Many of the older feminist utopias sound like delightful fantasies until you learn the price of their equality, which, being based on 19th century values, isn’t anything like equality at all. In Mizora, girls born with genetic defects are eliminated; in New Amazonia (1889) the mentally ill are poisoned. Due to its extra-heavy embrace of eugenics and surprisingly dark ending, New Amazonia is a particularly curious example of feminist utopian literature, and a harbinger of later developments to come. New Amazonia’s stranger-narrator is an Englishwoman who finds herself magically transported to the feminist utopian future. She’s accompanied by an Englishman of her own time, “the Honourable Augustus Fitz-Musicus,” a vain, self-satisfied blowhard who refuses to accept or understand the reality and the rules of the feminist future. For the most part, the Honorable Augustus serves as comic relief and ironic juxtaposition, but in the end, the seven-foot tall, entirely blonde residents of New Amazonia decide that his stubborn misogyny must be a symptom of insanity. The New Amazonians decide that he must be euthanized, causing the narrator to leave utopia with the Honorable Augustus. She does not decide, in fact, to kill one man, let alone all men. The utopian fantasy of life without men, or where women dominate men, is after all just a fantasy: the reality of the actual violence that would need to occur in order for such a world to exist ends up breaking the dream, and souring the joke.

Margaret Atwood tells us that “every dystopia contains a little utopia, and every utopia contains a little dystopia.” She coined a term for this interlocking tendency: ustopia. The ending of New Amazonia brings out the dystopia inherent in utopia; and The End of This Day’s Business (composed in the mid-1930s, not published until 1989) is an even better example. Written by the communist feminist Katharine Burdekin as fascism metastasized across Europe, The End of this Day’s Business imagined the death of fascism, and what came after. Burdekin wrote of an internationalist communism that was initially gender-equal, but in time the men grew to resent it, especially when women began to dominate leadership positions. Since the rise in masculinist power and violence was closely linked with a resurgent fascism, the women had no choice but to overthrow the men. “They were the Lords of Creation,” the protagonist Grania explains. “And if they hadn’t turned themselves into Lords of Destruction they might have kept their place.” Much of the book is devoted to Grania attempting to explain the history and cruel structure of their world to her son, Neil. But poor Neil barely understands: in this civilization, men are the ones who are intellectually cut off, told they are hyper-emotional—subject to “male unreason” —and taught to be ashamed of their bodies. The End of This Day’s Business isn’t a satire, and there’s nothing funny or pleasant about it. Grania, who is herself both physically and emotionally gender-nonconforming according to the standards of her society, has grown exhausted with what she calls “this cold and reasonable female tyranny.” She lives in a global utopia of peace and plenty, and yet she can’t endure it as long as it’s based on strict, oppressive gender roles.

The End of this Day’s Business accomplishes a two-fold mission. First, in the classic feminist utopian mode, it illuminates through ironic reversal how women’s minds have been starved and mutilated to the point where they believe they can’t do hard intellectual work, and are therefore assumed to be less intelligent than men as a matter of biology. As Grania tells her son:

[S]upposing…the infant psyche…is debarred by its sex from knowledge, skill and responsibility, all human joy, in fact, then it becomes yet more ashamed of its sex, more starved, more dulled in the brain, and shrinks from even the thought of those things which as a healthy human being it should be striving for all its life. If I were to say to you, now Neil come along and I’ll teach you to pilot an airplane, or manage a power station as your Mother does, or I’ll put you up next year as a representative on the Salisbury Council, you’d think me quite mad. Men couldn’t do any of those, you’d say. It’s not men’s work.

We see arguments made today that women drop out of STEM fields simply because women are biologically unsuited for science and mathematics, not because they commonly face harassment, presumptions of incompetence, and lack of support if they should become mothers. Brain studies are passed around showing that the male brain and the female brain are simply, fundamentally different, as if adult brains only represent a perfect state of nature and have never been shaped by experience. Grania, occupying an uneasy territory between genders, is aware of the way men’s intelligence is deliberately manipulated and limited, and how damaging it is to be told “women are naturally like this, men are like that.” Neil would probably have been as fully capable and intelligent as his mother, if he’d had the training and the support. And that leads into the second great achievement of The End of This Day’s Business: after making a powerful ironic argument in favor of women’s equality, it breaks feminist utopian convention by daring to take its female-dominated world literally, with full moral seriousness. What would #OppressAllMen look like? It would be, in fact, terrible. A world where one gender dominates another, with no room for fluidity or free expression, is not a world we feminists would actually want.

The End of This Day’s Business isn’t the only story of its kind. There’s also the full-blown dystopian novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin “The Matter of Seggri” (1994) in which the women of a planet outnumber the men sixteen to one, and the men are trapped within a rigid set of hypermasculine behavioral norms. Many of the sub-stories contained within “The Matter of Seggri” describe the men’s loneliness, isolation, and misery, their desire for equality and love. (Of the most painful of these sub-stories, Le Guin said, “I have seldom disliked a story so much as I wrote it.”) Along similar lines, the dystopian novel The Power (2016) by Naomi Alderman gives us a scenario in which all women suddenly gain the ability to shoot lightning from their fingers, and therefore become the dominant gender. I recommend this book to pretty much every woman I meet; I think it perfectly captures first the feminist utopian impulse of “wouldn’t it be satisfying if the tables were turned” (#ZapAllMen), and then, with aching realness, explores how awful that reversed gender oppression would be. Alderman makes it quite clear that, contra the Victorian morality of the early feminist utopias, women are not inherently more moral then men; we just have fewer opportunities to oppress. Should we suddenly become stronger than men, we would be just as despotic as they are, in both violent and subtle ways. The Power ends with a female character using the language of evolutionary psychology to explain why men are simply, naturally, the lesser sex, and deserve their lower status.

In the 1970s, the new wave of feminist utopian novels tended to ask what would happen if women weren’t angels or tyrants, but simply allowed to live as people. Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) presents another women-only utopia in one of its four interconnected storylines. Russ’s novel is a masterpiece of experimental psychological fiction, less about the reality of a world without men, and much more about the exploration of what it might be like to exist as a fully-realized female person. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)—also a psychological novel in many respects—features a utopia that may represent a genuinely possible future, or may be the fantasy of Connie Ramos, an impoverished and abused woman who has been unjustly confined in a mental institution. The racially diverse community of Mattapoisett that Connie Ramos visits—possibly in time-traveling reality, possibly just in her dreams—is a communal paradise of socialist gender equality. There are still people who consider themselves “male” or “female”, but everyone uses a gender-neutral pronoun “per” (derived from “person”), and there are no defined gender roles or gendered norms of appearance. Connie initially thinks of her guide Luciente as a man, partly because “Luciente spoke, she moved with that air of brisk unselfconscious authority Connie associated with men. Luciente sat down, taking up more space than women ever did.” In some ways, Luciente resembles the confident, short-haired, athletic women of Herland, but some people in her society are more conventionally feminine by our standards, while others are more conventionally masculine. Anyone in Luciente’s Mattapoisett and in other associated communities can weep openly when they’re sad; if they choose to raise children then they’re called “mothers”, regardless of gender. All persons are encouraged to pursue whichever studies excite them, to learn and grow communally. They have advanced technology, but also strong and evolving ethical standards, worked out in meetings and struggle sessions. It is, in short, a nearly ideal socialist-anarchist society, complete with all the minor resentments and personal dramas and treacly annoyances that one would expect of even the most advanced civilization.

Many early feminist utopias including Gloriana, New Amazonia, and Sultana’s Dream are framed as dreams, but by refusing to definitively state if Connie is crazy or not, Piercy argues for a possible realization of her vision. The older feminist utopias were effectively only dreams, flourishing out of frustration and despair, not meant to be taken literally. Woman on the Edge of Time, however, can be read as a possible intimation of things to come. By abolishing the tyranny of gender, while simultaneously allowing everyone to practice whatever gendered behavior suits them, Piercy also hits upon what a real feminist utopia can look like—not like the unrealizable and (frankly undesirable) fantasy of a world without men, or a world where women dominate men, but a community in which no Einstein lives and dies in cotton fields, or is limited by sexual harassment, constant undermining, and unsupported parenthood.

A future utopian society need not copy Piercy’s model exactly, and there is no sense in which Woman on the Edge of Time is intended as some sort of rigid roadmap. But the novel opens up the possibility of feminist utopia as more than an empty wish. Ursula K. Le Guin too wrote a number of utopias that can be called feminist, mostly in the sense that men and women enjoy unquestioned full equality. But Le Guin examined utopia further in her spectacular essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be” (1983), in which she attempts to imagine a civilization that isn’t just gender-equal, but also based on more feminine modes of being. Even approaching this concept is difficult, and as she writes, she has to examine and reject masculine assumptions along the way:

Non-European, non-euclidean, non-masculinist: they are all negative definitions, which is all right, but tiresome; and the last is unsatisfactory, as it might be taken to mean that the utopia I’m trying to approach could only be imagined by women—which is possible—or only inhabited by women—which is intolerable. Perhaps the word I need is yin…What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.

“Yin” in Le Guin’s terms and in Taoist terms doesn’t mean feminine in some gender-essentializing sense (women are like this, men are like that), but refers to tendencies that have long been associated with (and dismissed) as feminine. The ability to cry, and to comfort, and to empathize rather than resort to heated violence. These are not “women’s qualities” in any natural or biological sense; they are everybody’s qualities. Le Guin openly does not desire a utopia inhabited only by women—it would be “intolerable”. But she wants yin to finally have its day. A society based on these principles would resemble Grania’s hopes in The End of this Day’s Business, when she tries to picture what would come after the end of the world unfairly controlled by women. “[T]here would be at last the classless society without sex-antagonism, and we don’t know at all what it would be like. Only right, somehow. Not emotional and cruel. Not reasonable and dull. Happy, we suppose, and nearer to the full feeling of God.”

So then #NotAllUtopias want to #KillAllMen, and in fact, none of them really, seriously, literally do. The worlds-without-men—or without men’s equality—represent a symbolic negative, while the worlds with gender equality represent the possibly achievable. One type is written out of anger, despair, and a desire for recognition; the other is written from hope, as an earnest working-out of what could be. All utopias, regardless of these categories, are small and bounded, difficult to reach. Mattapoisett in Woman on the Edge of Time is either a dream or a vision of 2137; The End of this Day’s Business takes place in the year 6250; Herland is found in an undiscovered region of Africa; most of the other utopian novels are dreams. Utopia is always a difficult place to find. Usually the narrator slips through the gap in realities, observes, and returns home to a lesser place. But it isn’t impossible to imagine that we could someday reach a more yin-heavy world, if it would, probably, be an ambiguous utopia (which is the subtitle of Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed) or a constantly evolving and sometimes frustrating place like Piercy’s Mattapoisett.

One of the common mistakes that liberal critics of utopian fiction tend to make is to smugly point out that utopia is, by definition, impossible. (The term, as coined by Thomas More, means “no place”.) As Adam Gopnik says of utopias in The New Yorker, “The sensible lesson one might draw…is that the human condition is one in which the distribution of bad and good is forever in flux, and so any blueprint of perfection is doomed to failure.” (The sensible lesson one might draw from liberalism is that the distribution of human freedom under capitalism is forever unequal, so mere fiddly adjustments to the status quo are doomed to immiserate millions of people forever). Any utopia that, like the early feminist utopias, operates on the ground of complete moral certitude and a belief in rigid gender identities is, naturally, doomed, which is why it’s rather good that the early feminist utopias can’t work and weren’t intended as literal blueprints. Women are not, in fact, naturally more moral and virtuous than men. We’re quite capable of equivalent horrors, as Naomi Alderman shows us in The Power—we just aren’t usually in positions where we can exercise as much murderous authority.

This is why it’s so repellant when liberals praise women for rising to the top echelons of the military industrial complex: the gender of the person who tortures a captive is utterly irrelevant. We didn’t slay the angel in the house just to replace her with a lady CIA officer in a flak jacket, cool shades, and a cattle prod. But by examining the promise of some of the 70s feminist utopias, with their emphasis on gender-equality, gender-fluidity, and principles of kindness and nurturing that have too long been considered the exclusive domain of women, we may start to imagine a future that is possibly more than a dream, even as it originates from the realm of fiction. As Marge Piercy once wrote: “it is by imagining what we truly desire that we begin to go there.”

*Bellamy did end up writing a second and much less popular novel, Equality, in which he attempted to address both gender and race (unsuccessfully, according to most critics.

**Pedantry is not unique to feminist utopia. It’s a charming and nigh-unbearable convention of many early utopian works.

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