Utopianism and Feminist Utopianism

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Joanna Russ, born in 1937 and died in 2011, was born in New York.
Studying science in a college, she met the world of literature, then she turned
herself to feminist science fiction in which she would combine her knowledge
about science and her belief about women’s equality.  Sarah LeFanu declared that Russ was the “the
single most important woman writer of science fiction” (173). According to
Russ, “Science fiction is a natural in a way for any kind of radical thought.
Because it is about things that have not happened and do not happen. It’s
usually placed in future, but not always. It is very fruitful if you want to
present to concerns of a marginal group because you do it in a world where
things are different” (Delany and Russ 29).

The turbulent period, lasted during the late 1960s and early 1970s,
“significantly awakended subversive utopianism” (Moylan 10). Moylan also states
that utopia becomes a powerful tool in order to oppose to the permanent system
“by forging visions of what is not yet realized either in theory or practice.
In generating such figures of hope, utopia contributes to the open space of
opposition” (1–2). He goes on saying:

As much as those uprisings, coded around the year 1968 but springing
from the oppositions of the 1950s and the late 1940s, might have been defeated
by state suppression or contained by ideological reduction to individual
narcissism, hip-capitalism, or even ‘Clean for Gene McCarthy’ reformism,
their spirit survived in a continuing activism that marked a return to the
human agenda of the categories of cooperation, equality, mutual aid,
liberation, ecological wisdom, and peaceful and creative living. This revived
longing for the not yet realized potential of the human community was expressed
in many ways in the emerging oppositional culture of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Therefore, the 1970s were tumultuous time, and characterized by
rejection of commitment to the absolute truths blended with strict norms. After
John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the era witnessed the student protests of the
1968s, and the anti-Vietnam war campaigns. Moreover, patriarchal social
structure was also shattered by the footsteps of feminism, women’s movement and
civil rights movement. Therefore, the monotonic social structure of the 1960s
turned out to be polyphonic structure.

In The Female Man, Joanna, the contemporary women narrator,
changes into “a female man” rising up against the imposed gender roles: “I had
just changed into a man, me, Joanna. I mean a female man, of course; my body
and soul were exactly the same. So, there’s me also” (5). She declares that she
doesn’t need to be accepted by others because she embraces herself, “For years I have been saying Let me in, Love
me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over” (140; emphasis in original).

Russ states that science
fiction gained its independence from male oppression in the 1970s because up to
that time both women and men had to look at the genre from male perspective.
However, the revolutionary era- the 1970s- enabled women to prove themselves in
the era. Moreover, they found a chance to deal with the main problem: women’s
place in the society. Thus, science fiction was revolutionary in the 1970s
because it provided feminist writers a chance to create a world where men’s
dominance was over, and society was free of inequalities. Russ, in “What Can a
Heroine Do?” states that science fiction broadened impacts of feminism by
erasing male dominance in the era:

Science fiction, political fiction, parable, allegory, exemplum–all
carry a heavier intellectual freight (and self-consciously so) than we are used
to. All are didactic. All imply that human problems are collective, as well as
individual, and take these problems to be spiritual, social, perceptive, or
cognitive …. I would go even farther and say that science fiction, political
fiction (when successful), and the modes (if not the content) of much medieval
fiction all provide myths for this dealing with the kinds of experiences we are
actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which
only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.

Not surprisingly, Russ influenced the development of science fiction not
only with her stories but also with her reviews and essays. Her essays “What
Can a Heroine Do? Or, Why Women Can’t Write” (1972), “The Image of Women in
Science Fiction” (1974), and “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (1975)
are very influential in the field of feminist science fiction. As a feminist
writer, she treated these issues in her works. Similarly, in The Female Man,
Russ builds a structure based on women’s problems, and she successfully
challenges discourse of patriarchy. The roots of the story has originated in
“When It Changed.” It was published in Harlan Ellison’s  Again, Dangerous Visions  (1972).

Russ gained feminist awareness in a conference held in 1969 at Cornell
University where Russ was an instructor. In the conference, there were some
important figures such as Betty Friedan and Kate Millett. For Russ, after
reaching consciousness about feminism, the things were really hard because she
felt hatred for those who claimed dominance over women for years, and she
wondered if she could live with that anger. (Perry 291). She also notes that
she wrote The Female Man because of her anger. She also states that the anger she felt made her more
energized, and she adds that the story came “right out of her guts.”

Russ completed her novel in 1971, but could publish it four years later
because the novel was rejected by many publishers as Russ states they didn’t
like “this sort of
self-pitying whine.” She adds that another publisher rejected the book saying,
“We published one already.” I think it was Les Guérillères. I had read Les
Guérillères by then” (Perry 296). When the book was finally published in
1975, it took a lot of attention because Russ successfully intermingled
different worlds with parody. The book brings four protagonists, Joanna,
Jeannine, Janet, and Jael, into the forefront. Despite these four protagonists
are identical, they are from different periods. Russ wants her readers to see
the fact that society constructs gender, sexuality and personality.

The novel includes both science fictional and utopian characteristics in
itself. In the following pages, I will examine the novel in the light of
feminist aspects.  In this part, I will
deal with the utopian elements of the novel. Readers have been given four Js
and four worlds between which the characters travel and communicate with each
other. With different backgrounds and life styles, these characters sometimes
fail to understand the world where they are 
visitors. However, having parallel worlds makes the things much more
complicated, and this notion is not ordinary for utopia. According to Anne
Cranny-Francis in Feminist Fiction, when Thomas More’s Utopia has
been taken into consideration, in a standard utopian text, there is just one
“traveller” travelling between different worlds (Cranny-Francis 112). However,
having four characters and four worlds at once, creates a different schema to
follow. To
begin with, readers see Joanna as a feminist woman living in the 1970s; then in
a period before the World War II; in a utopic female world of Whileaway; and in
a dystopic future world in which women and men are in a continuous war.

Janet, a resident of Whileaway, visits Joanna’s and Jeannine’s
respectively. Joanna is in a world which is similar to the world of 1960s, on the other
hand Jeannine, a domestic young woman, lives in the 1930s’ world where Great
Depression still lasts, generation seems to be lost, and WWII did not start
She is forced to get married with any man because in order to prove her
femininity she needs to give birth according to the social norms dictated on
Janet, the visitor, comes from a utopic world of Whileaway, in which women
enjoy being free from sexual and psychological harassment of patriarchy living
in a one-gendered female society. Janet believes that men in Whileaway died of
a plague nearly 900 years ago. Whileaway women utilizes highly advanced technology,
they never spend anything in vain. Everything is done with a purpose. Women
have wives and children. Therefore, in the novel women enjoy different kinds of
sexuality. After giving birth to a child, women in Whileaway enjoy being a
mother spending time with their children for a few years. This process is likened
to “a vacation” by Janet. The children in Whileaway has one biological mother
and the other mother. In Whileaway, it is believed that early states in
children’s lives are crucially important:

On Whileaway they have a saying: When
the mother and child are separated they both howl, the child because it is
separated from the mother, the mother because she has to go back to work. …
Little Whileawayans are to their mothers both sulk and swank, fun and profit,
pleasure and contemplation, a show of expensiveness, a slowing-down of life, an
opportunity to pursue whatever interests the women have been forced to neglect
previously, and the only leisure they have ever had, or will have again until
old age. (49)

In Whileaaway, it is believed that a child’s spiritual needs bear become
more of an issue than physical needs. Therefore; “Food, cleanliness, and
shelter are not the mother’s business; Whileawayans say with a straight face
that she must be free to attend to the child’s “finer spiritual
needs.” Then they go off by themselves and roar” (Russ 50).

By eliminating men in Whileaway, Russ also creates a world in which
women cannot be evaluated compared to men’s norms and expectations. This is
why, Janet fails to adopt herself to the worlds she visits. Joanna takes Janet
to a party where women and men are together. While men were trying to flirt
with Janet, she finds this situation irritating, and feels humiliated by men’s
behaviors. When she is asked to spend a night, she finds herself fighting with
a man, and takes the revenge of all women by winning the fight.

In Janet’s harmonious society, everything cannot be seen from
rose-tinted glasses. Though the society is free from racial and sexual
discrimination, occasionally women may fight and kill one another. Jael, who is
from Womanland, claims that the plague is a big lie, “I know. … Whileaway’s
plague is a big lie. Your ancestors lied about it. It was I who gave you your
‘plague,’ my dear, about which you can now pietize and moralize to your heart’s
content; I, I, I, I am the plague” (211). Jael lives in a separated world, men
living in Manland and women living in Womanland in which Jael says there is “the war between Us and Them, (163)
which is 40 years old. In terms of technology, when compared to Womanlanders,
“Manlanders have more opportunities but since there are no women in their
world, they buy infants from Womanlanders. These infants have something in
common: they are all baby-boys (167). When these boys grow up, if they fail to
perform the “necessities” manhood, they are forced to have an operation to be a
woman. The ones who refuse the operation experience half change. Surgical interventions start at the age
of sixteen:

One out of seven fails early and makes the full change; one out of seven
fails later and (refusing surgery) makes only half a change: artists,
illusionists, impressionists of femininity who keep their genitalia but who
grow slim, grow languid, grow emotional and feminine, all this the effect of
spirit only. Five out of seven Manlanders make it; these are “real-men.” The
others are “the changed” or “the half-changed.” All real-men like the changed;
some real-men like the half-changed; none of the real-men like real-men, for
that would be abnormal. Nobody asks the changed or half-changed what they like.

 On the contrary, in Jael’s world,
since there are no men, they prefer men robots similar to Jael’s Davy whom Davy
calls, “The most beautiful man in the world” (185).

 “Stay, Davy.” This is one of the
key words that the house “understands”; the central computer will transmit a pattern
of signals to the implants in his brain and he will stretch out obediently on
his mattress; when I say to the main computer “Sleep,” Davy will sleep. You
have already seen what else happens. He’s a lovely limb of the house. The
original germ-plasm was chimpanzee, I think, but none of the behavior is
organically controlled any more. (191-192)

With these different worlds, Russ aims to show the possible problems
with satire. However, readers cannot feel comfortable with both with the
female-gendered world of Whileaway and the separated world of Womanland because
in all these worlds there is different kind of oppression whether they are
utopias or dystopias. Therefore, even utopias include totalitarian aspects. In
the introduction part of his essay, “Utopia and Totalitarianism,” Frederic
Rouvillois writes;

 The most blatant utopias, with
their obsession to rehabilte man and condemn him to happiness, do indeed reveal
traits that we habitually attribute to totalitarian systems. In the other hand,
totalitarian systems- Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist or Chinese Socialism- even
when they don’t acknowledge the connection, invariably remind us of utopias,
whose goals, mottoes, and means they appropriate. … The proximity is too
frequent to be accidental. Utopia and totalitarianism are both engaged in a
mirroring game, tirelessly sending the same image back and forth as if utopia
were nothing more than the premonition of totalitarianism and totalitarianism
the tragic execution of the utopian dream. Only the distance that separates a
dream from its realization seems to stand between the two. (n.p.)

Despite the fact that Whileaway is called a utopia, it is also
reflection of totalitarian regyme as well. There are some stricts rules which
must be obeyed by everybody living in Whileaway. To give an example, everywomen
in Whileaway must give birth to a child at the age of thirty. Children should
be under the observation of the biological mother until the age of five, after
that they are sent to away to take education. 

In terms of physical force, everybody must contribute to the society by
working, so there is no option for being unemployed. As Rouvillois states,
“Utopias never tire of reiterating that the citizen’s body belongs to the
collective” (….).
Similarly, in Whileaway, if one fails to contribute to the society, she has to
be killed.  Every step they have to take
is controlled by the society, which makes the utopia resemble dystopia.  They are physically flawless. In order to
carry out missions they are given, the differences among the individuals have
been eliminated. This situation reminds readers of the Totalitarian regimes. To
give an example, in WWII Hitler’s aim was almost the same. Hitler wanted to
practice eugenics for the sake of his concept of “ideal man.” Bammer points out: “As
Freud laid out his vision of utopia as a state in which everything would be
orderly, rational, and communally purposeful, he paid a last tribute to the
very ideals of the German Enlightenment that Nazism would for all time pervert.”
(19) Therefore, the message that Russ wants to convey is that despite its
perfection, in every utopia, there is a piece of totalitarianism, which should
be traced by the readers carefully. In “Towards an Open-Ended Utopia” (1984)
Bülent Somay writes that 1960s and 1970s were the years known to be
totalitarian, during those years, people were into dystopian fiction rather
than utopian fiction:

Anti-utopia was a reaction against the “perfection” and passiveness of
the utopias. All the utopias, written until the 20th century, were describing the worlds ruled by
dictatorship. Only the government members would be chosen from the educated
minorities, instead of rich ones. When it was witness by the people in real
life at the beginning of the century, a minority arose supporting “the most
powerful one” all the time. That was the moment when utopia became just a
nightmare. (12)

Fed up with the suppression and oppression they faced, women writers
turned to the scope of dystopia. Similarly, Russ combined both the trace of
utopia dystopia in her work. In the novel, it is stated that the utopian world,
Whileaway, has been built a long struggle. After Jael confessing the truth
lying behind the myths of the plague which is told to have wiped out all the men
from Whileaway, it is underlined that after a long-war between men and women,
Whileaway was built:

Let me give you something to carry away with you, friend: that “plague”
you talk of is a lie. I know. The world-lines around you are not so different
from yours or mine or theirs and there is no plague in any of them, not any of
them. Whileaway’s plague is a big lie. Your ancestors lied about it. It is I
who gave you your “plague,” my dear, about which you can now pietize and
moralize to your heart’s content; I, I, I, I am the plague, Janet Evason. I and
the war I fought built your world for you, I and those like me, we gave you a thousand
years of peace and love and the Whileawayan flowers nourish themselves on the
bones of the men we have slain. (205)

This situation makes both Whileaway and Womanland equally important.
Whileaway and Womanland has experienced nearly the same chronical events.
Whileaway, despite its pure perfection, is static, there is no possibility for
a change. The dystopic world, Womanland, paves way for the utopic world,
Whileaway. In Womanland, women struggle for a better world for themselves. But
in Whileaway, since the world is utopic, there is no possibility for a change,
which makes it an “end condition” (Bammer 17). Jael brings hope for salvation
for other women in a world where;

Men succeed.
Women get married.

Men fail.
Women get married.

Men enter
monasteries. Women get married.

Men start
wars. Women get married.

Men stop
them. Women get married.

Dull, dull.

After meeting Jael, Jeannine and Joanna experiences a kind of
transformation. Joanna, who was a passive woman, describes herself with these
words now:

I’m a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater; I don’t
consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss; I crack
their joints with these filthy ghoul’s claws and standing on one foot like a
de-clawed cat, rake at your feeble efforts to save yourselves with my taloned
hinder feet: my matted hair, my filthy skin, my big fat plaques of green bloody
teeth. (7.1.8)

For these
women, Jael is the one who they call “our savior,” and makes them go beyond the
borders, break the rules, stop living according to the expectations of others:

Goodbye to Janet, whom we don’t believe in and whom we deride but who is
in secret our savior from utter despair, who appears Heaven-high in our dreams
with a mountain under each arm and the ocean in her pocket, Janet who comes
from the place where the labia of sky and horizon kiss each other so that
Whileawayans call it The Door and know that all legendary things come
therefrom. Radiant as the day, the Might-be of our dreams, living as she does
in a blessedness none of us will ever know, she is nonetheless Everywoman (206).

 Joanna who “likes to be Jael,”
(205) feels the need for a change, and as it is stated in this quotation, she
sounds like Jael. Jael states that despite coming from different time and
place, they are the same woman: We started the same. … We ought to be
equally long-lived but we won’t be. We ought to be equally healthy but we’re
not. … We ought to think alike and feel alike and act alike, but of course we
don’t. … I can hardly believe that I am looking at three other myselves”
(155-156). Joanna adds that they are not just three women, they are everywoman
because everywoman encounters the same problems, and they demand their freedom.

In the final part of the book, these four Js come together: the
narrator, Joanna, who bears the same name with the writer of the book: Joanna
Russ, therefore, Joanna and her three alter-egos take the responsibility of
changing society, and act. The narrator, directly, asks the women to find
themselves in the book and struggle for a better future free from patriarchal
norms and oppression because Everywoman has the potential to be a strong figure
such as Jael. Therefore, “this little daughter book” becomes a path to the

Go, little book, trot through Texas and Vermont and Alaska and Maryland
and Washington and Florida and Canada and England and France; bob a curtsey at
the shrines of Friedan, Millet, Greer, Firestone, and all the rest; behave yourself
in people’s living rooms, neither looking ostentatious on the coffee table nor
failing to persuade due to the dullness of your style  …  Live
merrily, little daughter-book, even if I can’t and we can’t; recite yourself to
all who will listen; stay hopeful and wise. Wash your face and take your place
in the Library of Congress, for all books end up there eventually, both little
and big. Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned 
…  Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do
not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers’ laps and punch the readers’

Rejoice, little book!
For on that day, we will be free.  (9.7.29)




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