The Traditions in English


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Toward a Feminist Utopia: Women’s Same-Sex Communities, Real and Imagined


Women have long imagined developing same-sex communities that would offer a respite from the systemic discrimination of patriarchy. For Medieval women, the convent offered an alternative to a life spent toiling in the fields or dying in childbirth. Indeed, during the so-called Dark Ages, monasteries and convents often served as the only beacons of literacy and learning for the culture. In the late Middle Ages, Christine de Pisan's 1405 City of Ladies offers perhaps the first conception of a feminist utopia, a city populated by great women from history, who argue for the elevation of the gender. (This work is referenced in the anthology on page 15, but not included because it was originally written in French, Le Livre de la Cité des Femmes.) Christine even goes so far as to reclaim such potentially problematic figures as Medea, whom she praises for her knowledge of herbs, neglecting to mention her infanticide. A contemporary of Joan of Arc, Christine de Pisan benefited from her father’s insistence that she be educated.

Unlike the fanciful, purely imaginary nature of Christine de Pisan’s enclave of worthy women, later feminists would conjure more literal utopian experiments. For example, in the eighteenth century, Sarah Scott, a first-generation bluestocking feminist, seems to have taken Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, in which Astell proposes what she calls “A Religious Retirement” (NALW1 263), to heart. Scott explored a more realized community in her novel Millennium Hall. In the novel, two traveling men happen upon the bucolic haven, akin to a church of England convent, in which upper-class ladies escape the tribulations of forced marriage and other forms of gendered oppression to live together in a Christian community. There they performed good works and created an alternative economy to benefit the wards and peasants of the area. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary: a Fiction, the heroine enacts a similar experiment on her Estate .The Millennium Hall experiment resembles the egalitarian haven Dorothea envisions in George Eliot’s nineteenth-century novel Middlemarch., though Scott’s is a decidedly more gendered vision, extending the social experiments she and other bluestocking feminists were implementing in their own lives. Of course, these social experiments were not restricted to feminist imaginings, as the experimental communities of Wilfred Owen in Britain and the Oneida Colony in the United States attest.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman structured her utopian novel Herland much like Scott’s. Three explorers hear rumors about an isolated land populated solely by parthogenically-reproducing women and set out to find the mythical land. What they happen upon is (unlike Scott’s vision) a classless, agrarian, and peaceful society.

Women’s colleges had also begun to emerge in the nineteenth century. These female seminaries were in some ways as much a modern equivalent to the medieval convent as a center of female learning. Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke, and later female poets were graduates, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Bishop from Vassar, and Sylvia Plath from Smith, which she fictionalizes in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Virginia Woolf imagines the sense of community that such an environment would create in her short story “A Woman’s College from Outside” (NALW2 231), though tellingly, the main character, a stand-in for Woolf herself, is on the outside looking in, as she, like all women of her class, was educated at home.

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