Well, howdy! Do I ever have a link for you! It is entitled “The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias,” and it will lead you to an essay by me, about just such a topic!
There is one line in the end of it which reads, “and it’s easy to point out the flaws of the books themselves, political or otherwise.” Which is true! And yet, simply stating it thus does not allow me to engage in my favorite hobby, which is complaining about flaws. So, I have for you a series of footnotes, which will hopefully increase your appreciation of the piece itself, and also allow us all to complain at length in comment sections. (Well: this comment section, please; other comment sections should contain comments reading “wow! Sady’s neat! She saved my kitten from a tree once, and then she knitted me a scarf so attractive I instantly found several very attractive potential sex partners!”) It goes like this:
2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was racist. I know, right? Who would have thought it from a white woman in 1915???? It’s subtle in Herland, but it’s there — it’s specified that all the ladies are white and that they’re very creepily proud of their “race,” but all-white alien lands and planets are not uncommon in the early 20th century imagination, and the white American guys are also referred to as being a different “race” and an “alien race,” so it’s easy to miss. It’s far more tempting to get caught up in the other shocking stuff, such as the fact that the one crime the Herland women are genuinely disgusted by is abortion, and the fact that the women who enjoyed and wanted sex were prevented from breeding. The rest of it seems very much like the racism you’d get in other books of that time period. But in later books, which I haven’t read in full and so can’t give detailed comment on, shit apparently gets REAL(ly racist). Ellador, the ambassador from Herland, discovers that not everyone in the entire world is white, and she apparently gives a lecture on why racism against black people is wrong but also worries about racial purity, aloud, thus starting the proud white lady feminist tradition of complaining about (a) racism and (b) the existence of other races. Feminist scholars have actually had to point this stuff out in response to people embracing the book as a socialist-feminist-separatist political vision. They’ve also pointed out that these were contemporary, mainstream, even liberal views at the time of publication. One of the notable things about these books is that feminist visions of utopia tend to mirror the problems with feminism. In the first wave, one of the most major problems with feminism was that it was For White Ladies.
3. Marion Zimmer Bradley is the most complicated person I’ve ever written two paragraphs about. The Mists of Avalon, as I pointed out, represents Christianity as a violent, colonizing, misogynist, jerkass-inhabited religion of No Good, whilst saying things about religious tolerance. It’s influenced by Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (which was in turn influenced by Zsusanna Budapest, who formed the separatist Dianic tradition of Wicca and was Starhawk’s teacher) so these views can perhaps be attributed to those sources as much as anything else. Bradley nevertheless became a traditional Christian later in life, when she started going to an Episcopal church, with much pagan involvement in the middle of her life and around the time of Avalon’s publication, when she was forming a center for nontraditional religion and “rejecting” Christian beliefs. Also: Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote not one, but several books re-interpreting myths to focus on principal female characters, about “free Amazons” roving the countryside, and about the main characters pausing every so often to declaim that beating and raping and not respecting woman power is wrong. She also ran an anthology which especially courted female writers and was considered one of the best ways for feminist sci-fi to get out there. She characterized one of her plots as “strong woman overcomes an anti-feminist culture,” which was actually A LOT of her plots, said that The Mists of Avalon was written specifically in response to “anti-feminist” elements within the church and culture, published articles with titles like “A Feminist Creation Myth,” and then, when feminists criticized her, said she wasn’t feminist. She was also one of the people who invented nerds dressing up like knights and shit. No. Really.
4. And then there’s the issue of her husband. Depositions from the case against her are posted online, by a family member of a victim — they name victims, which is why I’m not linking to them here — and honestly, in my opinion which reflects in no way on anyone else’s, HOLY HELL. You can look them up. Go ahead. I will be back to hold you while you cry later.
5. One of the things that’s really important in this life, and in any form of political engagement, is to be aware that no-one is actually “one of ours.” Which is to say: The instinct you have to protect someone who seems to side with you, and to gloss over their crimes, is a bad one. Just because someone agrees with you on Wednesday, that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to say something abhorrent on Thursday or that they didn’t do something terrible on Monday that you just don’t know about yet. I actually find it really fascinating that the women who wrote these hugely influential Utopian or lady-powered fictions were in fact so super-duper-ultra-flawed; it says something, about how powerful your unease in this world has to be in order for you to want to create your own world, and about how assuming that you have the ability to define “perfection” or “the ideal” almost certainly means that you’re far from perfect or ideal, or at the very least will make your distance from it that much clearer. For someone like me, who apparently gets a lot out of pointing at Feminisms Of Generations Past and yelling “a-HA,” looking at Utopias is a good way to do it. Then again, just pointing out the obvious weirdnesses has taken almost as many words as were in the piece itself! So, you know. There is that.