The Traditions in English


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

Questions for Discussion, Writing and Research

1. Unlike their counterparts of the Renaissance, who are characterized by their proximity to the court, and hence to literacy, the few medieval women writers whose work has survived are associated with the church, particularly the reclusive mystic Julian of Norwich and the iconoclastic preacher Margery Kempe. What does this shift from the medieval Catholic convent to the Renaissance royal court suggest about society in general? Does the overturning of feudalism into Renaissance Humanism benefit women as much as men? How does having a strong female monarch, such as Elizabeth I, on the throne, change conditions for women? Or does it? The term Renaissance comes from the French word for “to reawaken” and suggests a reawakening in interest in Greek and Roman antiquity. Did the Renaissance provide a similar reawakening for women? Why or why not?

2. Read Christine de Pisan’s City of Ladies and Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls (NALW2 1136). How similar is Top Girls’ council of great women advisors to de Pisan’s? How might we read Churchill’s play in relation to City of Ladies? Or, perhaps, we might read Churchill’s play as a corrective to de Pisan’s vision. What similarities do you notice? Differences?

3. In the same way that the notion of a feminist utopia has captured the imaginations of women writers throughout the ages, so has the appeal of dystopian fiction been of interest. In the contemporary period, consider Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time, a text in which an institutionalized mental patient makes contact with a time-traveling character from a future feminist utopia. Or consider the near-future theocracy Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale explores. What might a dystopian cautionary tale achieve that a utopian vision can’t?

4. How might we read Carolyn Kizer’s poem cycle “Pro Femina” (NALW2 908) as a search for a kind of feminist utopia or community?

5. Research the decidedly eccentric seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish’s (NAL1 160) utopian vision in The Blazing World. How would you characterize Cavendish’s utopian fiction along the trajectory set up between the poles established by Christine de Pisan and Caryl Churchill—as purely fanciful and imaginary, or as more applicable and experimental, along the lines of Sarah Scott or the nineteenth-century American Frances Wright?

6. Unconventional religious groups such as the Shakers enacted many of the ideas of these utopian fictions in forming their single-sex, communal, utilitarian, farming colonies in the nineteenth century. Do some research on historical sects or individuals that attempted to put such utopian experiments into practice. How effective were they? What were the problems that emerged? What do the failures of such experimental communities suggest about the inherent problems of any utopian project?

7. Though early writers (such as Christine de Pisan, in the Middle Ages, and Sir Thomas Moore, Francis Bacon, and Margaret Cavendish during the Renaissance) explored utopian visions, it was only during and after the Enlightenment period in the eighteenth century that actual experimental communities began to develop. What was it about the ideals of the Enlightenment and the political experiments of the American and French Revolutions that encouraged the increasing literalization of the utopian project?

8. Many feminist utopias, both real and imagined, had to grapple with the problem of reproduction. For instance, after a plague that wiped out the men, the women of Herland happen upon a form of asexual reproduction, while Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time creates a scientific, test-tube incubation in which no one carries the child, and each child has three parents, of both sexes, once it is born. The Shakers were celibate and resorted to adopting orphans to sustain their communities, but the sect still eventually died out. What do such solutions suggest about the relationship between women’s biological relationship to reproduction and patriarchal control?

9. The word utopia means “no-where” in Greek. What does the derivation of the word suggest about the efficacy of ever successfully enacting utopia? Or does such a question miss the point? For many of these authors, envisioning a utopia (or dystopia) provides an opportunity to critique society in a speculative and safe way. How are such visions inherently subversive to the cultures that produce them?

10. Both Christian and Greek mythologies (the bases for Western civilization) include a vision of utopia that has been lost, but which we seek to regain, Eden and Arcadia, respectively. And the fall from Eden is at the hands of a woman, Eve. How does that original myth compel women writers specifically to seek to redress Eve’s sin (one of knowledge, interestingly) through creating both real and imaginary utopias?

11. Read Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s poem “The White Women” (NALW1 1413), in which she imagines a lost female utopia from Malay legend. How does the myth echo that of the Amazons, a race of female warriors who cut off a breast to be better archers? What do you think accounts for the death of a man in the last stanza:

And none may find their dwelling. In the shade
            Primeval of the forest oaks they hide.
One of our race, lost in an awful glade,
Saw with his human eyes a wild white maid,
            And gazing, died. (31–35)

Do you see connections between Coleridge’s poem and other female utopias or myths?

12. Read Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise. In the novel, Morrison creates a multicultural haven for displaced women called the Convent founded by the mystical Consuelo. The Convent women become threatening to the neighboring all-black town of Ruby, and the novel ends with the townsmen violently purging the community of the convent and the women for whom it provides refuge. What is it about the convent women that is so threatening to the men of Ruby? How does Morrison’s convent participate in the single-sex utopian project described above?

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