Academic journal article Hecate

The Problem of Violence in Sheri S. Tepper's Feminist Utopia, the Gate to Women's Country

Academic journal article Hecate

The Problem of Violence in Sheri S. Tepper's Feminist Utopia, the Gate to Women's Country

Article excerpt

The 1970s for the first time saw significant numbers of women writers turning to the genre of science fiction to reflect on what they saw as one of the major problems of modem society--its dominance by men. Before the 1970s, women science fiction writers were rare, but with the emergence of second wave feminism and inspired by the political writings of Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, among others, growing numbers of women turned to the genre to challenge what they perceived as the inherent violence of the patriarchal system, and to rewrite the script for the ideal society of the future. That both were sorely needed seemed clear; under men's leadership the century had so far witnessed two world wars and, worse still, the two super powers--the United States of America and the Soviet Union--were on the brink of nuclear war.

Robert A. Heinlein had been a powerful figure in the American science fiction scene for thirty years, so it is perhaps only to be expected that some of these women writers would target the highly conventional portrait of the sexes that characterises most of his works. A military man, Heinlein was fond of creating male heroes with an aggressive fighting spirit, and who, in line with the traditional ideal of masculinity, left behind a vast array of progeny as they confidently traversed the solar system. (1) By contrast, almost all of his female figures, except for those in his juvenilia works, conform to the stereotype of the passive, powerless victim, with no inclination to understand science and technology, let alone control it. (2) As for the future societies Heinlein projected, these were invariably high-tech and run by males trained in the art of war. Given Heinlein's influence on the genre, we have to ask whether it was a coincidence that so many of the science fiction works produced by women in the 1970s and 1980s are about peace-loving, female-dominated societies in which dominant alpha male types are either dispensed with, or forced to undergo genetic transformation before they can live alongside the women.

Another major influence on women's science fiction writers at this time was the all-female society portrayed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her early science fiction novel Herland (1916). (3) Not only was the all-female society less violent than any of the other societies described in the same novel, but it was more egalitarian and efficient; the inhabitants are vegetarian, and there is no poverty, no war, nor even any garbage. In addition, women have no need for men since reproduction is achieved through parthenogenesis (cloning). By portraying this all-female society as the most peaceful of those on offer, Gilman was suggesting that it is only the male of the species who harbours the violent tendencies that have historically placed civilisations at risk. Still, the idea that the male of the species might be the main cause of society's problems because they are the more violent of the two sexes, was not exclusive to women science fiction writers; it was also being investigated by scientists. From the early 1970s there had been attempts to find a gene that could account for male violence. (4) This may have been another reason why so many female writers felt compelled to address this topic.

Of the women science fiction writers who emerged at this time, it was writers of the all-female utopias who had most to say about the alternative worlds women might create if given the opportunity, and the changes to males that would be necessary if a more peaceful world were to be realised. That these writers were also seeking some sort of feminist- inspired reprisal, if not retribution, against science fiction writers like Heinlein seems clear from the emphasis they placed on the segregation of the sexes in their novels. In some utopias the men were even removed altogether from the reproductive cycle.

Science fiction works by women that fall into the feminist category can be neatly divided into two groups: those produced in the 1970s by the radical feminist writers--including Joanna Russ' The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy's Woman at the Edge of Time (1976), Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground (1979) and Suzy McKee Charna's Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978); and those produced in the 1980s by a less radical group--including Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Oceana (1986), Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri S. …

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