Feminist utopias

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw many feminist utopias that portrayed a society run by women: by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Irene Clyde, former New Zealand prime minister Julius Vogel, and the influential Bangladeshi author Begum Rokeya.

Begum Rokeya
Md. kamrul hasan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ideological battles around the time of women’s suffrage are enraging in retrospect. They probably were at the time, too. One tool in the rhetorical arsenal of feminist campaigners and thinkers was the utopian novel.

Say you’re concerned that voting women would lead to anarchy, matriarchal dictatorship, or social collapse. Feminist utopias explored the possibilities, stripped of reactionary alarmism, with optimism and a dose of satire.

Perhaps the most famous feminist utopia is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. Published in 1915, it posited an all-female society in a hidden valley. Three men in a biplane fly into the valley and are confronted with a country free of gender roles, conflict, and war. Hijinks ensue. Today Gilman is best known for her fantastic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” another feminist classic that examined the ways in which 19th century medicine failed, and oppressed, women.

Irene Clyde was a non-binary (possibly transgender) lawyer from Britain who, in 1909, wrote a utopia about another hidden society – this one in a kind of parallel time and place. The protagonist of Beatrice the Sixteenth, a female doctor, slides into the society from a camel’s kick, and discovers (like the men in the biplane) that traditional gender roles are non-existent there. The country – Armeria – is utopian in some aspects (everyone is vegetarian), but also has slaves and war with neighbouring kingdoms.

Julius Vogel was New Zealand’s first Jewish prime minister, and also its first science-fiction author. (The New Zealand sci fi awards are known as the Vogel Awards in his honour.) His sci-fi was Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny, written in 1889. Pros: New Zealand is run by women, which was quite prophetic because by the actual year 2000 New Zealand was actually run by women (with a female head of state, prime minister, Speaker of the House, and Chief Justice). Cons: it’s a dreadful romantic potboiler of a novel, with large swathes taken up by the intrigues of Reginald Paramatta, a villainous Australian cad.

My personal favourite feminist utopia is Sultana’s Dream, a 1905 story by Bangladeshi author Begum Rokeya. This utopia inverts men’s and women’s roles as a way of shedding light on purdah, segregation of the sexes – and at the same time demolishing such hoary old lies as “men’s brains are bigger than women’s, therefore they are smarter.” Rokeya is a prominent figure in Bangladesh’s women’s rights movement: she founded schools and pushed for better women’s education through groups like the Islamic Women’s Association. Today a university, a public holiday, and a national award are named after her.

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