Feminist fiction of the 1970s engaged mainstream American culture and society in an aesthetic and political debate over the cultural meanings of gender. Through a range of representational strategies it managed to both mount a stringent critique of dominant modes of representation and project a vision of social change, a vision which transcends the limits of the text to point to the injustice and violence of existing power relations and to the possibility of a feminist or womanist future. The narratives of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, of Audre Lorde’s Zami, of Kate Millett’s Flying, and of Vida and Meridian all embodied not just the possibility but the realisation of a feminist literary discourse in textual practices which both thematise and enact the struggle with the language and cultural scripts of a patriarchal social order.
This, however, is no longer unequivocally the case with feminist fictions of the 1980s, as the contradictions of a Utopian/paranoid realism such as that of Vida already indicate.
In her essay ‘Is Personal Life Still a Political Issue?’, Barbara Haber articulates an awareness of changed historical conditions on the eve of the 1980s as the era of a new political ‘realism’ which was poised to dismantle the gains of the 1960s: ‘Now a new day has come. It is time (so soon!) to begin to look at how the world changed and how we changed, and how the two have influenced each other’ (Haber 1979:420).
With the contraction of American feminism’s political space, a backlash against the libertarianism of the 1960s brought a reaction against the Women’s Movement in its train, which had its effects upon feminist culture and theory too. The backlash fictions of my title then refer to novels which have been read and praised as feminist texts, but which in my view were strongly influenced by, and are in their functioning complicit with, the anti-feminist backlash of America’s New Right. A brief discussion of feminist Utopian fiction and its political moment in the 1970s will elucidate this shift from political fictions of feminism to political fictions by women which position themselves post-feminism, or in some cases even against feminism.