Space the Nation: Worlds without men

Contributed by
May 1, 2018

The headlines:
“Has #MeToo Gone Too Far?”
“The rise of women-only coworking space”
“At Nike, Revolt Led by Women Leads to Exodus of Male Executives”
“I think we should ban men until we figure out what the hell is going on.”
“So if it’s not a good thing for a man to be a man, then what are they going to turn men into? What do you think is the alternative? If masculinity is a problem, then what are these guys gonna become?” — Rush Limbaugh

The trope: Lady Land, where men are barred or nonexistent. Noted futurist Rush Limbaugh vocalized the fear that undergirds much of the reaction to the still-growing #MeToo movement: The empowerment of women leads, obviously, to the disappearance of men. This is a fear (or fantasy) as old as gender itself. Anxiety about gender is so fundamental to humanity that stories of female-only societies and alien worlds — dystopian and utopian alike — have been a staple of not just science fiction, but all storytelling basically since we first started telling stories.

Where to find it: There are many lists! You could start here, or here, or here. The question isn’t where to read about these worlds, perhaps, but what they mean. The idea appears in Western literature first with the Amazons, who appear in The Iliad, written in the eighth century B.C., set 500 years before that — but they are mentioned only twice, almost in passing, as “the peers of men.”

The concept was so stirring that the Greek writers who followed continued to embroider on the alluring but dangerous notion that women could be equals. This eventually led to the creation of a full-fledged mythology and origin story for the tribe — one that addressed, for instance, how it is that an all-female society could reproduce itself, eventually settling on the idea of an annual f*ckfest with a neighboring village, nine months after which the boys were sent back to live with their fathers and the girls were raised as warriors.

This bit of retcon, however, throws into high relief the intimate relationship between feminism and science fiction. Imagining women’s equality — much less a whole female society — almost always necessitates some sort of magical or technological intervention. Even the Amazons were eventually upgraded into demi-goddesses, the daughters of Ares and the wood nymph Harmonia.

It’s probably no coincidence that narratives about worlds of women grew both more numerous and more elaborate as women were able to publish their writing. Indeed, some of the earliest fictional narratives by women happen to be about women’s worlds; The Book of the City of Ladies, written by Christine de Pizan in 1405, is an extended allegory in which the author builds a city out of women from history and literature with the help of the three Virtues, who tell her, “Take the spade of her intelligence and dig deep to make a trench all around” — essentially, no boys allowed!

Pizan’s work is also a good example of how thinking about feminism practically forces non-genre writers to think in more fantastic terms. Friedrich Engels — Karl Marx’s writing partner — wound up writing an almost wholly fictional account of what he imagined pre-capitalist society must have looked like, aspects of which would become a staple of futurist accounts of feminist utopias, such as group marriage with little attention to paternity and a pastoral, classless, and cooperative benevolent matriarchy. There were "no soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits," he wrote, nor "any poor or needy... All are equal and free — the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes." Far be it from me to absolve capitalism of ruining things, but Engels was also retconning here: Archaeologists have not been able to substantiate his theory of this awesome-sounding idyll — but you can explore it further as an invented future in HerlandWoman on the Edge of Time, and "Sultana's Dream."

Shulasmith Firestone, a philosopher of second-wave feminism, was writing a book of critical theory (The Dialectic of Sex) when she also theorized far-out scenarios that scandalized her peers: a world where robots alleviate the need for gender divisions in labor and children are gestated outside the womb without mothers or fathers, making incest taboos obsolete and obliterating family structure entirely. Thanks to technology, “we are no longer just animals,” she wrote. “Thus the 'natural' is not necessarily a 'human' value. Humanity has begun to transcend Nature: We can no longer justify the maintenance of a discriminatory sex class system on grounds of its origins in nature.”

(Science fiction has also been ahead of the curve in positing that even thinking in terms of "men" and "women" — the gender binary — could itself be transcended, a notion worth exploring in another column at another time.)

Philosophers could be detailed in describing what a feminist future looked like but could mostly sidestep the messy transition to these utopias — something that fiction writers usually felt they had to at least explain away. What’s striking in the modern accounts of female-only societies is how they are almost all rooted in some kind of violence: a plague or disease (Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, Y: The Last ManThe Female Manand Ammonite), or war (The Shore of Women; the camp classic Hell Comes to Frogtown). Perhaps, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of patriarchy” — or, put another way, imagining a feminist future seems to require the destruction of the present.