Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Feminist Futures: Feminist Separatism in Science Fiction

The past dreams of a female-only future...

Content Warning: This essay tackles multiple texts which conflate sex and gender, and erase trans and intersex people.

Men, eh. What a mess they make. What a bother it is, to have this whole category of people on the planet who march around like they own the place yet mess it up at every opportunity, can't change a baby, can't do their own laundry, can't even get in touch with their own emotions unless it involves some form of anger or violence. What trouble they cause for the rest of us - especially if you fit into that other big category of "women". Why, wouldn't it just be better if they weren't around us any more? Wouldn't it make our lives, those of us in that other big category of "women", just so much easier and safer and nicer if we could put that category of "men" to one side, to do whatever it is they are compelled to do without getting in our way. Wouldn't that be lovely. If only it were possible.

Fear not, beleaguered sufferer of the patriarchy: feminist speculative fiction has got your back. As long as you are from the category of "women". And were recognised as such when you were born.

The idea of escaping from patriarchy by getting out from under the direct power and institutions of men is hardly a new one. Women have long been exploring the impact of male power on women's autonomy and wellbeing, and speculating on how separation from men (to varying degrees) might improve women's lives. Feminist separatism (both heterosexual - i.e. celibate - and lesbian) was a significant strand of "second-wave" feminist thought in the 1960s and 1970s. As you'd expect, this idea has also been explored in fiction, as in the myth of the Amazons, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland -- a travel memoir of a land where men don't exist -- both of which consider what all-women societies might look like, albeit from very different perspectives. In 20th century science fiction, the "single-gender-planet" trope has become well established, from the practical all-female futures of "When it Changed" and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read", to the magical pacifists of A Door Into Ocean, to the alien sexual biology of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. There's even the occasional all-male world, like Lois McMaster Bujold's Athos in Ethan of Athos. All of these stories involve individuals of another gender visiting (or in the case of Ethan of Athos, being visited by) the single sex society, exploring the clashes in expectations and culture that these provide. All come down on the side of integration being undesirable for the society, whose unique characteristics and culture would not survive the introduction of multiple sexes and the return of gender roles that would inevitably result.

This point is most firmly made in Joanna Russ' "When it Changed": the story that introduces the world of Whileaway revisited in The Female Man. The women of Whileaway never intended to create an all-female world, but disease early in their colonial project led to the death of all the men, and they've been doing fairly well on a hostile world nevertheless: sure, they need to do more farming than they'd like, but everyone is getting by. Generations later, when men arrive once again from space, they basically feel like a foreign species, and a community who have grown up without the dreaded mansplain are suddenly treated to the full force of male pity when it's discovered they have been living "alone" for so long. Unlike Herland, "Houston, Houston, Do You Read", and even the Left Hand of Darkness, Russ gives voice not to the outsiders but to the women they have "discovered", who are unimpressed and immediately aware that their rediscovery represents an end to freedom and self-determination, with their lived experience on Whileaway now subject to questioning and disbelief from male authority. The message here is that once the men arrive, so too do the dynamics of patriarchy; there is no way for women, even those brought up entirely outside of our gender norms, to combat the dismissal and subjugation men subject them to.

Where single-sex planets usually posit totally homogenous societies, there are also plenty of stories The Wanderground, in which groups of "hill women" have developed a set of psychic, environmentally linked powers which allow them to talk to plants and animals, telepathically share thoughts and feelings and care from each other across long distances, control their own bodies and reproduction, have magical experience of one-ness with the moon, and prevent all male power and technology from working outside their cities.
which assume that men and women might live alongside each other and yet develop entirely separate communities. Like single-sex planets, these societies basically run the gamut from saccharine magical utopias to complete dystopian disasters, although from the example I've read, there's often more ambiguity even in societies which we read as basically working fine. On one extreme is Sally Miller Gearhart's

(Full disclosure: I attempted to reread the Wanderground - one of the first feminist SFF texts I ever encountered -- for this essay, and completely bounced off. Perhaps it's the Hill Women's casual killing of a group of "gentle" men (men who reject patriarchy, which as in several of these texts is equated with homosexuality) right at the start of the book, or the lack of personality among any of the perfect, selfless, emotionally open characters in the first 20% of the text. I can't take seriously the idea that women released from the patriarchy will also be released from all their personality faults and interpersonal conflicts, and that's the world Gearhart seems to give her characters with all their empathic powers and expanded self-awareness.)

Interestingly, I expected to see the nature vs. technology division of the Wanderground replicated across other texts, reflecting the ecofeminist movement that seeks to link male power to culture and technology and women to the natural world. On taking stock, however, I've read more books where women explicitly use control over technology to maintain power and separation from men, with men living in a more "natural" state of conflict that may either be entirely of their own choosing, or controlled through society. Ursula Le Guin's novelette "The Matter of Seggri" tackles, in the form of a series of anthropological texts, the development of a world in the Hainish universe called Seggri, where ancient genetic tampering has skewed the gender ratio to be less than 10% male. Like most of the "single sex planet" stories explored above, the narrative plays out from various outsider perspectives, and Le Guin juxtaposes the external expectations that "normal gendered" societies place on Seggri. Women on the planet control almost all space and wealth and the few men are sent to "Castles", where they compete in sports against other castles and go out to service women in the town "fuckeries", set up for reproductive purposes only. Because of the gender skew, Le Guin never explores male power as an explicit threat to the women of Seggri, instead focusing more on how the system has affected the life choices and self-determination of both men themselves and the women who grow up as their sisters, mothers, and occasionally lovers.

Likewise, Sheri M. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country allows women, and a select number of men, to live in relative technological comfort and to control the means of production, while the rest of the men are inducted into a warlike parallel society which most of them choose not to leave even when given the opportunity. And The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent, takes this one step further still: women live in high tech cities, completely separate from men except for the early years of looking after boy children, while men in the wilderness are allowed to live as hunter gatherers only, forming bands and worshipping goddesses controlled by the women. These "goddesses" actually turn out to be pornographic images in high tech "shrines" controlled by women, which allow them to occasionally bring men in and collect semen for artificial insemination while maintaining total societal separation. When two women -- a mother and a daughter -- are exiled from the city over an attempted murder, the mother is quickly killed but the daughter survives by revealing herself to a young man. The two eventually fall in love and attempt to find a place where they can survive without being killed either by other men or by the women who, it turns out, are willing to destroy any signs of technological progress (e.g. agriculture or settlements) that the men try to build for themselves. 

These two texts, taken with Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles (which I'll discuss more below) represent significantly more ambiguous or dystopian societies; The Shore of Women in particular is quite clear that women in control of military technology are capable of exactly the same kinds of destruction as men. Unfortunately, this isn't the only Sergeant book I've read where she sets up a mildly dystopian separatist society and sets it against the ~power of heterosexual love~ (the other is Venus of Dreams), and I can't help but feel we aren't at a point in our societal acceptance of queerness where this is a sympathetic "what-if". But despite the problematic elements in The Shore of Women, and especially The Gate to Women's Country, both do present their separatist societies with a level of nuance that's more in-keeping with what the speculative elements deserve.

Despite the existence of feminist separatist spaces (both heterosexual and lesbian) on the fringes of society, fiction which wants to address large-scale cultural or biological separation of the sexes needs to have a science fictional element, for the obvious reason that science has not yet developed to the point where humans can live in reproductively viable, "single sex" spaces. What this means is that many of these works effectively evolve around two speculative axes: first, the kind of technology or circumstance that enforces the separation of sexes, and how this is reproduced to allow for a relatively stable culture to be established; and second, how societies have evolved differently given this separation. Depending on the cocktail developed here, a work may posit a more or less utopian feminist future stemming from its societal set-up, and as we've seen from this limited sample, these really do run the gamut from ecofeminist wonderlands to "human business as usual" and past that to outright dystopia.

And, here's the thing a feminist separatist future, in which a cis-woman-only society can be developed and maintained and curated so these cis women can feel the full range of human connection and love, is a eugenicist future, and I believe it is deeply problematic to analyse eugencist futures along utopian lines. It's no accident that separatist feminism in the political sphere is usually identified with radical feminism, a phrase one doesn't often hear these days without "trans-exclusionary" before it. Some of these stories are very explicit about their eugenics angle, particularly when it relates to genetic "improvement" of men. The Gate to Women's Country is a prime example of this, in which the separatist project revolves around a secret scheme to breed genetically "better" (less violent, more cooperative, homosexual) men -- though it's not a revelation which the narrative takes lightly, or presents without controversy. What's more widespread is the assumption that we can simply erase the existence of people outside the conflated sex-and-gender binary -- trans, non-binary and intersex people -- and still have a valuable thought experiment on gender dynamics and patriarchy. If there are no intersex or trans people in The Gate to Women's Country, or The Wanderground, or A Door Into Ocean, we must assume they have been engineered out, and to be blunt, that's not fucking good enough for books aiming to present more utopian alternatives to patriarchy. And while I'd welcome an introduction to other examples (the comments are open!), the only non-cis gender identity I can identify from the texts I've discussed above (leaving aside the Left Hand of Darkness) is Andy Kay in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read", whose masculinity is a product of non-consensual genetic engineering, not a reflection of their own felt gender identity.

Ultimately, I find feminist separatism, with its compulsory cisnormativity, far more convincing as a setup for exploring restrictive, dystopian societies - especially when genetic engineering and reproductive technology come into play - than for dreaming up the end to patriarchy. I think this is what makes the Holdfast Chronicles one of the most compelling entries in this sub-genre, despite the almost cartoonishly misogynist society that it spends much of its time in. The first volume, Walk to the End of the World, spends most of its time in a post-apocalyptic society where men have instigated a brutal system of age-based heirarchy amongst themselves and reduced women to sub-human chattel called "fems". Through the eyes of one fem, Alldera, we eventually escape beyond this society, where literally grow up in pits and are forced to subsist on their own breast milk, and the sequel Motherlines introduces us to the women-only plains society of the Riding Women. Charnas resists the urge to set up the Riding Women as a panacea to the ills of the Holdfast, presenting their society as nuanced and not shying away from the taboo horror of their parthenogenic reproductive abilities (they were genetically engineered to reproduce by having sex with horses, because apparently that's what pre-apocalypse scientists spent their time on in Charnas' world), and the series is richer for this complexity. To take a much more recent example, Kameron Hurley's all-female The Stars Are Legion justifies its single-gender "planets" by making all technology biological and dependent on human uteri for its perpetuation. The resulting horror of having characters spontaneously conceive and give birth to spaceship parts is visceral and compelling, and Hurley has characters react in a wide range of ways to their own biology, which goes some way to addressing the lack of gender or sexual diversity in a society where there is only one pronoun.

Where does this leave us today? From a speculative standpoint, there's a huge amount to explore in the way our societies (be they worlds of the far future, or in parallel to ours, or somewhere else entirely) conceptualise gender and the relationships and hierarchies it creates. There is still a great deal to be explored in worlds that limit or delineate the space for certain identities, like the all female-pronouned empire of Radchaai in Ann Leckie's Ancillaryverse, whose gender identities are not analogous to anything we have on earth but whose assumptions about civilisation mean alternatives exist only on the non-assimilated margins. Likewise, I would like to see more worlds like Juliet Kemp's A Glimmer of Silver, which creates a single gender world by centring use of a non-binary pronoun and making this worldbuilding peripheral to the actual story being told. Ultimately, I don't think that feminist separatism has ever been an adequate tool to conceptualise the end of patriarchy and the utopias that might result: its assumptions rely too much on essentialism, binary identities, and on a problematistation of masculinity and men that only femininity can solve. Where stories are able to acknowledge and address their own problematic elements, however, its a subgenre that is still worth diving into despite its faults.

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.