Utopia Comes Alive

By Showalter, Elaine | New Statesman (1996), December 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Utopia Comes Alive


Showalter, Elaine, New Statesman (1996)


The nineties: an age of liberated New Women seeking to establish a role for themselves in a fair society. That's the 1890s. How are things today?

"It was very heaven to be young when I came to London in the nineties," the journalist Evelyn Sharp recalled in her memoirs. "I arrived on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away the Victorian tradition." While their brothers were gloomy, fearful, decadent, or tormented by PMT (Pre-Millennial Tension), Sharp and other New Women of the 1890s eagerly anticipated a new world of freedom for women and a complete regeneration of the relations between the sexes. New Women writers specialised in the literary genre of the utopia, imagining an ideal future in which they would share their aspirations and desires with New Men. They hoped to see and enjoy that future paradise. "The ninth decade of the last century," the suffragist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence fondly recalled, "was a time of expansion and vision . . . We read, discussed, debated and experimented, and felt that all life lay before us to be changed and moulded by our vision and desire."

By 1896 observers such as H G Wells thought that the optimism of the New Women had exhausted itself; and the heyday of the feminist novel, with its daring utopian visions, was waning. But even as New Women of the 1890s acknowledged the disappointments and dangers of their vision, they refused to turn back the clock. As Olive Schreiner wrote in her parable Life's Gifts, her generation had to choose freedom rather than love, but the day would come when women would have both.

What of 1996? Are women still optimistic? Do they look forward to the millennium with confidence? Have the dreams of fin-de-siecle feminism been fulfilled? How do women's lives in the 1990s differ from those of their mothers, and what do they expect for their daughters? These were among the questions I asked some of the Newest Women of the 1990s - novelists, journalists, actors, professors and psychiatrists - including Susie Orbach, Erica Jong, Fiona Shaw, Nicola Barker, Jenni Diski, and Joan Smith, for the BBC series Femmes de Siecle. Their answers came as a surprise.

On one hand, women artists of the 1990s have found a genuine freedom to explore fantasy, sexuality, anger and adventure. Those in mid-career exult in the medical and technological advances that have prolonged youth and health, and added, as Margaret Drabble comments, "ten years to every plot". Women's entrance into the medical and psychiatric professions has made psychotherapy a more maternal, nurturing profession, and adventurous women are less vulnerable to the neurotic disorders that plagued early feminists.

On the other hand, depression and breakdown are still significant themes in contemporary women's writing. Although they may be leading healthier lives, with less drudgery and more exercise, not to mention HRT, they are also more obsessed with eating rituals, dieting and food taboos, and more concerned with what Naomi Wolf has called the PBR - the Professional Beauty Requirement to look and dress well in order to succeed. Passive resistance, in the form of refusal - refusal to marry, to eat, to play the expected feminine roles - is still a dominant negotiating strategy for many, although it may only be a metaphor for self-denial. Women may be feeling sexual and youthful longer, but the sexuality of older women - as the shocked and disapproving reviews of Doris Lessing's novel Love, again suggest - is still regarded as outrageous.

And despite the power they themselves have gained, 1990s femmes de siecle are suspicious of women who hold political power. Women of the fin de siecle had to work through men in order to have political influence. In Florence Dixie's 1890 utopian novel Gloriana, or, The Revolution of 1900, the brilliant Gloriana actually disguises herself as a man, gets elected to parliament and eventually becomes Prime Minister, revealing her true womanhood and bringing prosperity, peace, full employment, and green parks. …

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