Monday, June 25, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Susanna J. Sturgis

Timmi: Some scholars of utopia draw a clear distinction between "the utopian impulse" and the "utopian project." They regard the "utopian impulse" as an engine firing the imagination for social and political change and the "utopian project" as the attempt by a government or would-be government to follow a blueprint for the "perfect" society. (The Stalinist regime is often taken as an example of the "utopian project" in action.) Would you agree that 1970s feminist sf was all about the "utopian impulse" and not the "utopian project"? Can feminists today really afford to consign the utopian impulse to the dustbin of history? What would you say to younger feminists who believe that utopia, tout court, is an evil totalitarian dream that aims to demolish both individuality and individualism?

Susanna: "Consign the utopian impulse to the dustbin of history"? Don't do it! And don't buy into the dichotomy that posits the individual on one hand and society -- utopia, dystopia, and everything in between -- on the other. Without some kind of society -- family, clan, tribe, community, state -- the task of survival severely circumscribes, and maybe precludes altogether, the potential for individuality. How a society is structured influences who gets to be an individual and who remains part of the undifferentiated mass. Until recently the privilege of individuality was reserved to a few, nearly all of whom were men. Each man's individual aspirations were predicated on having a mostly female support staff -- a woman, or a household of women -- to cook, keep house, raise the children, and generally enable the man to do his work in the wider world. This work was, and is, rarely done in isolation either: to realize his individual aspirations, the man has to join or create some kind of organization -- like an army, a government, or a corporation -- that can provide a comparable support staff. Whether these support staffers can aspire to the privilege of individuality depends on where they fit in the hierarchy, which in turn is greatly influenced by such factors as gender, social class, and economic need.

No matter what socioeconomic class we're born into, most women don't get a support staff, or even the option to create one. Usually we're tracked into being other people's support staff. Small wonder that when women start thinking about liberation, our attention soon turns to the social structures and institutions that limit the potential of women as a class. No sooner do we recognize the constraints than we start envisioning alternatives. Those solutions almost inevitably involve structural and institutional change.

No kind of fiction is better suited than f/sf to experiment with social structures, and none offers more scope to the imagination. As the women's liberation movement gathered strength in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many feminists were drawn to f/sf, as readers, writers, editors, and critics. In the real world, feminists were forcing change in existing institutions and inventing new ones: women's centers, shelters for battered women, feminist bookstores, publications, and publishers. In f/sf they were creating worlds that never were and worlds that might become.

Joanna Russ outlined the challenge in "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write":

Culture is male. This does not mean that every man in Western (or Eastern) society can do exactly as he pleases, or that every man creates the culture solus, or that every man is luckier or more privileged than every woman. What it does mean (among other things) is that the society we live in is a patriarchy. And patriarchies imagine or picture themselves from the male point of view. There is a female culture, but it is an underground, unofficial, minor culture, occupying a small corner of what we think of officially as possible human experience. Both men and women in our culture conceive the culture from a single point of view -- the male.

Now, writers, as I have said, do not make up their stories out of whole cloth; they are pretty much restricted to the attitudes, the beliefs, the expectations, and, above all, the plots that are "in the air" . . . Novels, especially, depend upon what central action can be imagined as being performed by the protagonist (or protagonists) -- i.e., what can a central character do in a book? An examination of English literature or Western literature reveals that of all the possible actions people can do in this fiction, very few can be done by women. Our literature is not about women. It is not about women and men equally. It is by and about men.(1)

Feminism is the politics of putting women in the foreground, at the center of the story. Patriarchy is organized on the premise that men come first; it says women are innately, biologically, theologically, and every other way support staff for men. Putting women first is like breaking the sound barrier: it takes a lot of momentum, and it makes a big noise. Manage it, even for a few moments, and assumptions crash on all sides. Feminist fiction writers of all kinds took up the challenge of expanding "what can a heroine do." Feminist f/sf writers could go further, inventing might-have-been and never-were worlds for these female protagonists to function in. This often proved harder than expected. In theory, imagination could go anywhere. In practice, it was tethered to our bodies and the world we lived in. Fantasy and science fiction turned out to be a particularly powerful tool for feminist writers to discover the limits of the imagination and then to expand them.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's relationship with feminism and feminists was, to say the least, contentious, but her Darkover novels offer a remarkable chronicle of an expanding feminist imagination. In a 1986 essay, "What's a P.C. Feminist like You Doing in a Fantasy like This?"(2) I discussed at some length how Bradley was challenging and changing the internal logic of her own creation. Given that the Darkover novels started appearing in the mid-1960s and that the sf audience was assumed at the time to comprise primarily adolescent boys, it was no mystery that Darkover was a patriarchy; "the marvelous mystery," I wrote, "is the appearance of the Free Amazons."

According to Bradley, the first Free Amazon "walked out of my subconscious mind as a problem"(3) for the sexist protagonist of what became the first Darkover novel.

The options available to Darkovan women are so limited that marriage is one of the more attractive. But women who want something else can join the Free Amazons, formally the Order of Renunciates, who "renounce" economic, physical, and emotional dependence on men. Bradley's subconscious, I believe, wouldn't accept a fictional world where a woman of resourcefulness and independent spirit -- like Bradley herself -- couldn't exist.

The Free Amazons did not take center stage in a Darkover novel until almost fifteen years later, in The Shattered Chain (1976). The decade that followed saw an veritable explosion of Amazon activity, including Thendara House, City of Sorcery and the Friends of Darkover anthology Free Amazons of Darkover. Hawkmistress! offered some backstory: its independent female protagonist joins the Sisterhood of the Sword, a forerunner of the Guild of Renunciates. Over time and several books, Marion Zimmer Bradley successfully challenged the internal logic of Darkover: she brought the Free Amazons into the foreground of Darkovan history. She did the speculative fiction equivalent of the work of feminist historians: uncovering and believing in evidence that according to the internal logic of patriarchy cannot exist.

Few of us can travel in one great leap from our world to one in which women are unfettered by even the memory of patriarchy. Nevertheless, feminism, even the most moderate feminism, contains within it the dangerous possibility that women can function quite nicely without men, thank you. No matter how mildly and moderately a feminist speaks, most men -- and not a few women -- immediately zero in on this dangerous, but usually unspoken, possibility and start bashing the hell out of it.

Interestingly enough, within patriarchy most women do much of their work with no men in sight, a paradox that was eloquently described by Adrienne Rich in "Natural Resources" (1977):

Could you imagine a world of women only,
the interviewer asked. Can you imagine

a world where women are absent. (He believed
he was joking.) Yet I have to imagine

at one and the same moment, both. Because
I live in both. Can you imagine,

the interviewer asked, a world of men?
(He thought he was joking.) If so, then,

a world where men are absent?
Absently, wearily, I answered: Yes. (4)

Women can bear, raise, and teach children with men nowhere in sight; they can sow crops, nurse the sick, organize PTAs, and do whatever their societies expect them to do -- performing tasks that require considerable strength, intelligence, courage, and other heroic qualities -- without causing a blip on the patriarchal radar screen. The trouble starts, of course, when we start horning in on what the men think is their turf, and especially when we decline to observe their priorities and answer their questions. In patriarchy an individual woman may get away with telling an individual man to piss off, but if women as a class tell men as a class that women control spaces where men cannot go -- then the foundations of patriarchy start to shake. Phrases like "ball-buster" and "man-hater," words like "lesbian," "dyke," and "separatist," are frequently heard.

Works that envisioned "worlds of women only" were not numerous in feminist f/sf of the 1970s, but they loom large among what we now think of the classics of that decade, and of f/sf in general. With good reason: they pushed the frontiers of the female imagination into territory that even feminists found troubling, if not downright dangerous. In James Tiptree Jr.'s "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" the women of a women-only world gradually come to the conclusion that men born and bred in patriarchy are too dangerous to let in. This poses a disturbing challenge not only to feminists but to liberals, who are asked to entertain the possibility that some kinds of "diversity" may not be tolerable.(5) Near the end of Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" (1972), men arrive on the all-women world of Whileaway. Even today I finish the story with foreboding, unable to imagine that this change could be anything other than disastrous for Whileaway. Tellingly, in Russ's The Female Man (1975), one of whose protagonists is a Whileawayan, men don't, and apparently can't, get anywhere near the women's world. Whew!

In The Conqueror's Child (1999), the culmination of her Holdfast Chronicles, Suzy McKee Charnas breaks this "imagination barrier" by creating a scenario where reconciliation between women and men takes root and might even manage to grow into something other than Patriarchy Redux. The Conqueror's Child stands on its predecessors, Walk to the End of the World (1974), Motherlines (1978), and The Furies (1994), each of which broke a few feminist sound barriers.

In Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines Charnas created three distinctly different women-only worlds. The first, the world within a world ruled by the fem elders, the Matris, in Walk to the End of the World, is almost as dystopian as the extreme patriarchy that surrounds it. The Matris' rules are ruthless, and ruthlessly enforced. But the Matris' objective is the survival of humanity, and humanity will not survive if the Holdfast men manage to exterminate every being capable of bearing children. In a situation so dire, with a goal whose achievement is so desperately important, the end may well justify the means -- at least for the moment. Later, in The Furies, when the situation is less dire and extermination less likely, the rage of the Free Fems is directed against the Matris as well as the men. Once they're well under way, revolutions usually don't deal kindly with the transitional figures who made them possible. Once survival is assured, collaboration looks less like a survival technique and more like a form of treason.

In the second women-only world, that of the Free Fems, men are physically absent, but the Free Fems unwittingly and unwillingly (and, I'd argue, inevitably) carried men in their heads when they escaped from the Holdfast. They tell stories of their oppression; they dream of conquering the Holdfast, but they take no practical steps toward making their dreams come true. They're in a rut, and by endlessly repeating the same stories and fantasies they're digging themselves in deeper.

The Riding Women, the women of the third women-only world, have never known either men or oppression. They tell very different stories. Like those of the Free Fems, their stories reach into the past, but they're also open-ended: each woman adds her own adventures to the tale, and thus the stories carry the past into the future.

Charnas's main theme might be described as the interaction of three stages of utopian impulse, and she embodies them all in Alldera, one of the great heroes of feminist fiction. True, there's nothing utopian about the iron-fisted rule of the Matris. But the utopian impulse is an achievement of the imagination, and in their desperate situation, to believe and act as if humanity can survive is about as utopian as you can get. It is the Matris who groom Alldera for her "walk to the end of the world," setting in motion forces that will eventually bring about their own bloody destruction. Like the poet of "Natural Resources," Alldera lives simultaneously in a world of women only and a world where women are absent, a world of men and a world where men are absent.

Significantly, the third volume of the Holdfast Chronicles, The Furies, was not finished during the 1980s, a decade that saw not only an anti-feminist backlash but also a waning/diversion of the utopian impulse among grass-roots feminists. "Heroines" could do almost anything in 1980s f/sf, f/sf by men as well as women, f/sf by feminists and f/sf by those who recoiled from the term. But the limits of the imagination were obvious to anyone who looked carefully. Most of these strong women were solitary. They rarely had peers or partners or long-term relationships with either men or women; if they did, the partners and partnerships usually remained offstage. Women in community were, not surprisingly, few and very far between. Of the exceptions, the best -- Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988) -- illustrated the limitations of imagination even as they kept alive the hope of more full-blooded feminist work to come. The all-women cities in Shore of Women are static, in continual reaction against the horrors of the past, and repressive to nonconformists and iconoclasts. Most of the action takes place outside the walls, and the story focuses, tellingly, on men.

The same is true of The Gate to Women's Country. The hierarchally organized and pugnacious men live on the outside perimeter of Women's Country; nominally the women are keeping them out, but they're also keeping the women in. Interestingly, the primary movers in the plot are all men: without the men, nothing would happen. There would be no story.

Since we're reading these books in the real world, it's hard to ignore the between-the-lines suggestion that women without men -- just for the hell of it, call us lesbians -- are static, unoriginal, and downright repressive. Compare The Gate to Women's Country to Whileaway, or to The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women, by Sally Miller Gearhart. First published in 1978, and by a lesbian press, The Wanderground grew in the dynamic confluence of feminist movement and lesbian community. Like Gate to Women's Country, it posits as necessary some interaction between women and men: the all-women Wanderground is safe only as long as a certain percentage of women risk living in the male-dominated cities. But in Gearhart's vision this is on the women's terms. The women keep secrets from the men, but in their own society there is no hierarchy based on who knows the truth and who doesn't.

So yes, the "utopian impulse" was strong in feminist f/sf of the 1970s, and in feminist f/sf of subsequent decades as well. But before we reject the "utopian project" as inevitably totalitarian and stifling to the individual, let's subject the idea to a little feminist re/visioning. How likely is it that a feminist utopian project would look like Stalin's USSR? Not very. First of all, the Stalinist regime had more progenitors than utopia, and one of them was imperial Russia. We can debate which genes it got from which parent, but it can't be denied that some of them didn't come from anyone's idea of utopia. While we're at it, Stalin's Soviet Union was as patriarchal a project that ever hit the planet; it may have offered women options that weren't being offered elsewhere, but the guys were still running the show. A feminist utopian project probably wouldn't be perfect, but it wouldn't be patriarchal either.

Whether you're writing a novel, building a house, or implementing a utopian vision, dogmatically following any blueprint will get you into trouble. Here feminism has an advantage: it resists the very idea of blueprints. (In a different light, this looks like a distinct disadvantage, but that a subject for another essay.) There is no feminist bible, no feminist equivalent of Das Kapital. Feminism is implicitly, and often explicitly, concerned with process as well as product, means as well as ends. What blueprints it comes up with are always evolving as more women join their experiences, visions, and energies to the great confluence that is feminism. When feminist blueprints are mistaken for feminism itself, feminism becomes static and exclusive. Feminism encourages multiple utopias and doesn't expect any of them to suit everybody. What all this suggests is that the feminist utopian project is plural, and decentralized, and often very small. Looked at in this light, Virginia Woolf's room of one's own and £500 a year is a blueprint for a utopian project.

In the 1970s, feminist f/sf created a room of its own. It still exists, and it's called WisCon. WisCon is a feminist utopian project, and a very brief review of its significance to feminist f/sf should persuade anyone that we junk the utopian project at our peril. WisCon's relationship with feminist f/sf is both symbiotic and synergistic. It was born out of the expansive and exuberant surge of the 1970s, and it helped foster that surge. Through the retrenchment of the 1980s, it played a key role in keeping feminist f/sf alive, by inspiring writers, connecting writers with readers, and above all by enabling us to live one weekend a year in a place where feminist f/sf was important -- or at least to dream of getting there next year. But it's hard to keep the energy up in hostile or indifferent times. When I first attended WisCon, in 1990, WisCon -- like feminist f/sf -- was flagging. Would it continue? Did it matter?

In 1991, in her WisCon guest of honor speech, writer Pat Murphy announced the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award -- a feminist utopian project if ever there was one. When it was announced, it didn't even exist: the announcement brought it into being. The Tiptree may have been the brainchild of two individuals -- Murphy fingered sister writer Karen Joy Fowler as a co-conspirator -- but if WisCon hadn't provided the podium and the audience, would it have taken off as it did? As it turned out, the feminist imagination was on the cusp of a resurgence. The Tiptree didn't singlehandedly cause it, but it did provide a focus for it, and thus visibility and the energy that crackles in the air when excited people come together to create something new.

Nicola Griffith's Ammonite (1993) was the first fully realized "world of women only" since the late 1970s. Suzy McKee Charnas's The Furies appeared in 1994, and The Conqueror's Child five years later. In 1996, WisCon threw a huge party to celebrate the previous twenty years. The achievement -- both WisCon 20 and the two decades that preceded it -- was so gloriously obvious and so obviously necessary that it was easy to forget how tenuous everything had looked five years before. I don't think it's an accident that this resurgence coincided with the resurgence of WisCon. The publishing and bookselling landscape has been transformed since the 1980s, and generally not in ways that support the independent, iconoclastic, and marginal. WisCon helped feminist f/sf create an ongoing and ever-evolving presence on the Internet, using e-lists and websites and blogs and such Web-based projects as the feminist f/sf wiki.

The feminist utopian impulse is indeed an engine firing the imagination for social and political change. When it flags, feminism flags. But fired-up imaginations aren't effective in isolation, and though social and political changes may be inspired by individuals, individuals alone don't make change happen. Let's redefine the "utopian project" so that it can embody feminist values and meet feminist needs. Let's say that a feminist utopian project is an organization or other structure devised to channel the feminist utopian impulse in ways that make feminist social and political changes happen. We know from experience that our notions of what's possible -- never mind what constitutes a "perfect" society -- expand as we make headway, so whatever blueprints we have will be subject to continual tinkering and maybe the occasional overhaul. To be sure, some will leap to call whatever we're doing Stalinist, fascist, or otherwise dystopian; they may claim that a "secret cabal" is at work and say that this isn't their idea of utopia. That's OK. It doesn't have to be. Tell them to fire up their own utopian impulses and create their own projects.

(1) Joanna Russ, "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write," in To Write like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 80–81. "What Can a Heroine Do?" was written in 1971 and first published in 1972.

(2) Published in the spring 1986 issue of Lesbian Contradiction. It can be found on my website at The discussion of Darkover that follows draws heavily on that essay.

(3) "Introduction," Marion Zimmer Bradley, ed., Free Amazons of Darkover (New York: DAW Books, 1985), p. 8.

(4) Adrienne Rich, "Natural Resources," in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974-1977 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 61.

(5) "Houston, Houston" might be compare-and-contrasted with Tom Godwin's celebrated "The Cold Equations," in which a female stowaway must be jettisoned for the spaceship to survive; "Houston, Houston" suggests that three men must be quarantined for the planet to survive. Both stories consider the possibility that the survival of the whole may require the sacrifice of an individual or two. Whose sacrifice is required and who gets to decide are the key questions, and any reader's response is likely to be influenced by whom s/he identifies with.

Timmi: Thanks very much, Susanna. I'm particularly pleased to see you bring to bear a history that's all but forgotten, especially when so many people now believe that the Late Capitalism is the only possible way to live in the world.

1 comment:

Cat Rambo said...

Terrifically interesting, thank you very much.