Women’s Visions of the future

Women’s Visions of the Future

Where no man has gone before

Published in Elle

Imagine …. a world where men can breast-feed babies as well as women; where babies gestate in tanks and have three mothers of either sex appointed to them when they are born; where adolescents experience a traditional a rite of passage, spending time alone in the wilderness and choosing their own names and deciding for themselves who they want to be.

Imagine a world where young childrens’ sexual experiments are regarded indulgently as innocent play. Or where individuals can become male or female, either partner can get pregnant and the “mother” stays female only until she has finished breast-feeding and then reverts to her previous androgynous state. Or where men are the sexual slaves of women, their sole purpose to serve, entertain and sexually satisfy their owners.

Alternatively imagine a planet where colonising earth men have remodelled the indigenous population into “wives” by dressing them in “skintights” : skin suits which disguise their extra arms and three breasts. The extra-terrestrials are transformed into male fantasises of earth women with two breasts, long legs, high heels, makeup and jewellery, and are taught essential wifely functions; to cook, clean and make love. Or consider perhaps a future time on earth where the triumph of religous fundamentalism has returned women to the status of sexual chattels, exploited for their child-bearing capacity by a ruling elite who have lost the capacity to procreate.

All are alternative realities proposed by women science fiction writers, in a genre which is gradually being recognised as a fertile literary form and an inspiring way to propose radical solutions for the future of the planet.

The future is already here for computer science, which has created Artificial Reality-computerised simulations of reality, from Alice in Wonderland to engineering in Outer Space, which can be experienced by wearing specially designed eye masks and power-gloves. As men, and particularly adolescent males, increasingly dehumanise themselves with such simulated realities, perhaps it is time to take the toys from the boys and consider what kind of alternative reality we really want.

So far, let’s face it, men have made a monumental balls up of running the planet; much of it is is in toxic shock, a lot of it at war or on the verge of war. Despite the fact that there is enough food for all many people are starving, many more are deprived of basic necessities. And that’s only now, the current prognosis for the future if things continue as they are, doesn’t bear contemplation.

For a brief halcyonic period in 1990 it began to look as if sanity was possible, the Berlin Wall had finally been torn down, Eastern Europe was liberated, the Soviet Union showed a human face. The emergence of Gorbachev suggested that visionaries were possible even within the current world system.

Until they found another war to fight; weapons manufacture became legitimate again. The armies whose role we had begun to question, even to reduce, rediscovered their virility. The boys got out their toys back. However legitimate the cause in conventional political terms, militarism is never going to change the course of world history. And nothing less is necessary if the human race is going to survive.

Radical change is essential; men must give up the reins of power before it is too late. If men can claim that brute strength gives them the right to rule the planet, surely the infinitely more advanced capacity for giving life rather than destroying it should give women some say. “But we are protecting you, the women and children,” they wail. We might reply, “Who from? Only other men.” …

If women’s priorities are not given precedence pretty soon, there won’t be any planet left to fight over. But where are the visionaries, the blueprints for the future? Contemporary literature is sadly lacking in vision, post-modernism has shaken out all the old ideas but nothing new has emerged. It is time to look at women’s visions of the future and turn to the female imagination for alternatives. Women perhaps are better equipped to formulate solutions to both global and personal problems.

Women have had little opportunity to demonstrate the kind of world they might choose for themselves but their literature abounds in inspiration. Women do have their visions; there are many novels and stories of Utopian worlds and alternative societies. Most of them tend to be categorised as Science-Fiction, which is still too often regarded as a lesser form of literature, and ghettoised with spuriously spaced-out book covers.

The Other Worlds and Alternative Realities of Science-Fiction create an opportunity to speculate about the way society has to be constructed. Most Science-Fiction however, which is to say most SF written by men, has concentrated on scientific development and galactic exploration rather than the sexual construction of society, its family structures and gender roles. Even that notorious mysogynist, Kingsley Amis, wrote in an essay as early as 1960 that sexual roles and relationships were rarely questioned, “Though it may go against the grain to admit it,” he wrote, “science fiction writers are evidently satisfied with the sexual status quo.”

But as Sarah Lefanu suggests in her survey of feminist science fiction, “In the Chinks of the World Machine” (Women’s Press) “The stock conventions of science fiction-time travel, alternate worlds, entropy, relativism, the search for a unified field theory-are all powerful ways of exploring the construction of ‘woman’.”

Women’s visions of the future cover a wide spectrum. Some are near-perfect Utopias while others predict a frighteningly possible nightmare future such as that envisaged in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where women have become totally enslaved by men to act as sexual chattels and child-bearers. Doris Lessing’s visions of a post-apocalyptic future in Memoirs of a Survivor and The Four Gated City are equally chilling. Others like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Fay Weldon’s latest satire, Darcy’s Utopia, present a grim present reality but glorious-often hilarious- possibilities for the future.

Feminist Utopias often have similar characteristics, based on righting the perceived wrongs of traditionally male dominated society. They are usually communally based with only a very loose, non-authoritarian kind of government, and demonstrate great concern for health and the environment.

But the most crucial difference between men’s and women’s Utopias is that women writers are acutely aware of the significance of the social and sexual construction of society, and often deal in great detail with alternative domestic arrangements, sexual behaviour, birth, reproduction and child care. It is here where these futuristic ideas intersect most forcefully with our own world. The visionaries offer positive alternatives, carefully worked out arrangements for a fairer society.

Not surprisingly they are often worlds without men, typified by the delightful novel, Herland, one of the earliest female Utopias, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915. Gilman believed that women’s experience, both in their nurturing roles as mothers and their traditional exclusion from power made them well-equipped to initiate social change.

Many of the key elements in Herland re-appear in later novels – single sex society, parthenogenesis (virgin birth), communal child care and so forth. In Herland, a community of women geographically isolated from the rest of the world, motherhood and child-raising is considered the responsibility of the entire community, and not just individuals. Motherhood is regarded as an elevated and privileged state; child-rearing is a highly honoured profession.

The private mother-child relationship, instead of being isolated in the home, becomes a model for a more humane caring society, whose main purpose is “making the best kind of people” through education; such consensus results in a high level of cooperation and a peaceful, well-ordered society.

After the Herland babies are born, the natural mothers stay with them for the first year or two, nursing the babies with plenty of time to enjoy the experience. Then the children become the responsibility of those specially trained to care for and educate them, though the birth mothers usually continue to be closely involved. The children live in houses and gardens specially designed for play and safety, while adults balance private and communal living with two rooms each for sleeping or entertaining, but with most meals taken together in communal houses.

One of the most influential and revolutionary books which heralded the second wave of feminism at the beginning of the Seventies was Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectics of Sex. Firestone focussed on the same essential theme, identifying women’s capacity as child bearers as their greatest handicap and insisting that until this function could be separated from child-rearing, women would continue to be at a fundamental disadvantage. As Sarah Lefanu puts it, “Who looks after the children in our brave new world” is the central question.”

Firestone proposed that women should be freed from child-bearing through technology and that children should become the responsibility of society as a whole, both men and women, and raised communally. Her more extreme ideas – in particular that reproduction could be completely eliminated by advanced technology, have been broadly rejected by most subsequent feminist writing which has leaned more towards the celebration of nature and women’s miraculous capacity for birth than trying to eliminate it. However Firestone’s conviction that equal responsibility for children is central to any fair future society has remained a central theme for subsequent writers.

Another great futurist favourite is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (written in 1976, it is the book about which the Women’s Press still gets more letters than any other.) Piercy’s Utopian future, crossed into by Connie, a poor Mexican-American woman, is a fully realised world complete in every detail from food supplies to children’s toys and death rituals.

Piercy also employs technology to equalise the reproduction process; in Mattapoisett, babies gestate in tanks and receive three appointed mothers of either sex when they are born. Both sexes can breast-feed if they choose, and there are no gender roles based on child-rearing. When the children are young they all live together and most activities continue to be communal, but as adults everyone is entitled their own personal space as well. Adolescents go through a rite of passage, spending time alone in the wilderness and choosing their own names – sometimes experimenting with a selection before deciding who they want to be. Old people remain fully integrated, teaching children their skills. “We believe old people and children are kin,” explains Luciente, Connie’s guide to Mattapoisett, “There’s more space at both ends of life. That closeness to birth and to death makes a common concern with big questions and basic patterns.”

Acclaimed writer Ursula Le Guin believes strongly that one of the functions of SF should be exploring alternative possibilities. She says, “You know – what if..?… You can try things out. And although there is a lot of depressing science fiction it is innately a hopeful kind of fiction because you are saying there will be a future. It will be different, it may be depressing but it will change.”

In The Left Hand of Darkness she creates Gethen, a world without gender, whose inhabitants experience sexuality on a cyclical basis. Most of the time they are sexless, and not until they have engaged in foreplay does their sexual physiology develop. Individuals can become male or female and thus either partner can get pregnant.

This has interesting implications for the structure of the society which is not divided according to gender based roles. The “mother” stays female only until she has finished breast-feeding and then reverts to her previous androgynous state. Anyone can become a parent and the community caters for this factor in its social and work structures. “My first dim thought for the book,” explains Le Guin, “was how to build a warless society, and that sort of met up with feminism.”

Le Guin believes in the positive influence of having babies and its advantage to a woman writer; these are important elements of human experience that women need to explore. “There is no more subversive act than the act of writing from a woman’s experience of life using a woman’s judgement,” she writes. According to “our chief macho dodo writer,” (Norman Mailer we presume), “the one thing a writer needs to have is balls.” Perhaps, suggests Le Guin, one thing a writer needs is babies. She believes that such a switch in emphasis would help society change its focus from violence and death to love and birth.

“It’s a question of posing alternative realities,” according to Fay Weldon, who makes no bones about her conviction that women would make a much better job of running the world- well, better than the men anyway. In her most recent novel, Darcy’s Utopia, she proposes a new world order in which love and sex are abundant, school is optional, television is banned and parenthood is strictly restricted .

The decision to have children is taken away from the parents and left to an ad-hoc committee of neighbours, who must decide whether the prospective parents are not so much capable of loving a baby, as of being worthy of a baby’s love.””Parents will be carefully selected,” writes Weldon, “being in short supply children will grow up in a world which loves and admires them and finds them interesting, and doesn’t herd them together in schools to get them out of the way, dunk them in front of obscene videos to keep them quiet.”

In Joanna Russ’s novel, The Female Man, the female characters experience a spectrum of alternative worlds, all varying in their sexual politics. They intersect between them, sampling other realities and different aspects of their own female status. At one extreme men become sexual objects in a teasing role reversal; they are kept at home, where they serve drinks, look decorative – it’s usually warm enough for them to walk around naked -and the house computer can be programmed to tell them when to sleep or wake. Women are the active sexual partners, making love to and possessing their men.

Or there is the all-female land of Whileaway. Here the women bear children at about thirty; one biological parent bears the child, the “other mother” contributes her ovum. Childbirth is an opportunity to relax, slow down, and pursue other interests. Large “families” have a number of children between them in a communal nursery. Basic necessities, like food, shelter and cleanliness, are not the mother’s concern- she just enjoys a totally indulgent playtime for a few years with the baby. But at the age of four the children are taken away and brought up together, educated and cared for in groups of five. At puberty they are turned loose, ready to travel and explore with the right to food and lodging wherever they go; independent individuals who will soon join another kinship system of their own.

Many of these Utopian ideals are wildly improbable or tongue-in-cheek, but there have of course been numerous examples of Utopian communities (most latterly the thousands of hippie communes set up in the Seventies) that have thrived even within a hostile world. Most of them, inevitably, were set up by visionary men, such as Robert Owen and Wilhelm Reich, though they were often run on principles of communality, equality and sexual freedom that anticipated and in many cases stimulated feminist ideas.

Women’s fictional brave new worlds are often separatist; the only way to imagine a world not run by men seems to be to eliminate them altogether. Technically speaking of course it is possible- advances in genetic engineering, test tube babies, in vitro fertilisation and sperm bank storage make it theoretically possible for women to produce children without men. And men who assume that women would behave as they have by abusing their power might expect women to exploit such a position.

Men are frightened of women’s power; in “The Feminists”, a pulp SF novel published in 1971, author Parley J Cooper predicts a terrifying future in 1992 of a world run by women. He envisions a race of domineering, repressive Amazons who keep men for breeding purposes only. “To be a man is a sin. To take a woman is a crime.” screams the cover blurb.

Although ironically it is women’s capacity for procreation which has led to inequality, it is also this capacity that makes men fearful. Until men are included in such life-giving positive experiences, they will continue to be afraid of women’s power. If men traditionally raised children it would be regarded as a immensely privileged and skilled task. As indeed it should be. Women’s capacity for birth should not entitle them to exclusive rights over children, but it should ensure that their voice and visions are heard.

Children are our future, and all all else follows from that. The future of our country and our planet depends on what we do now and this crucially means how we treat our children, how we love, nurture and feed them, protect them from pollution, educate and train them. Perhaps with more women in power such essentials might be treated as the priorities they are. And the clear insanity of spending money on weapons of destruction instead of food for babies will become obvious to all.

Once that is acknowledged men and women can work together to improve the planet, and “make better human beings” to use Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s phrase. Until men realise this fundamental truth, women must show them. The planet will not survive until more of us are motivated by the survival of all. Men have to be able to believe that society can be run on the basis of such communal aims. Their lack of vision has failed us and we need to look beyond.
And women too must be prepared to relinquish their power and share the responsibility of children. In Woman on the Edge of Time, Connie initially condemns men’s involvement in reproduction and child-rearing, “These women thought they had won, but they had abandoned to men the last refuge of women. What was special about being a woman here? They had given it all up, they had let men steal from them the last remnants of ancient power, those sealed in blood and in milk.” Gradually she comes to realise that by sharing such a privilege everyone benefits and humankind can realise its full potential. We gave birth to you. Trust us.