Jasper Gregory is a citizen science advocate and gender activist in Oakland, California; for the past few months he’s been researching the development of modern feminism from the 19th-century variety, and his “tweets” on the subject were so fascinating I invited him to contribute this column. I think you’ll find it just as interesting as I do.
A new wave of sexual repression has swept through the lands of the Puritan Diaspora. Under the banner of Feminism sexual puritans have declared a war on prostitution in Sweden and politically incorrect words and images in the UK and North America; the new Puritans are on the rise and have wrapped themselves in a rhetoric of “True Womanhood” that seems more appropriate for the 19th century than for the Internet Age. But the similarities between today’s prude feminism and the earlier Victorian age of moral regulation go far deeper than you might suspect: the radical “cultural” feminism of 1970-2013 is actually the continuation of a two century moral purity movement.
The English romantic sentimental novel became established in the 1730s during the evangelical Protestant ”Great Awakening“. Under the label of “sensibility”, displays of romantic sentimentalism became the measure of good character; the more sensitive you were, the more civilized you were. According to True Woman ideology, they were the most pure and civilized and thus the most sensitive, which is they were always fainting away and coming down with cases of nerves. One outgrowth of Gothic romanticism was the science fiction novel, which first rose to international success in 1818 with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, daughter of romantic novelist and women’s rights pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft. And soon the Utopian science fiction novel became a way for the early women’s movement to inspire collective action just as the earlier Gothic romance heroines had provided a template for individual reformist action.
The first American woman science fiction author published the Utopia Three Hundred Years Hence in 1836. In it, Mary Griffith imagines the Philadelphia of 2135, in which middle-class white women have attained more power in society. The novel displays many features which would appear in later feminist Utopias, but it also contains many elements which were more in keeping the Victorian separation of spheres. For instance, 2135‘s women do not have or desire the vote, for when they were given equal status under the law they retreated into a women’s sphere and separated themselves even more fully from the men’s sphere of politics and the university. They did, however, enter the realm of business, which they were suited to on account of their house-holding skills; in fact, quite prophetically, Griffith saw equal competition in the marketplace as the route by which women achieved equality.
Griffith lived in an era in which romantic movement activists were holding up women as especially pure and civilized within the separate women’s sphere of the home. Though it seems paradoxical to us, it was middle-class women who fought for their gilded cages as moral arbiters of the home and guardians of society’s manners and morals. Rather than being imposed upon women, the separate women’s sphere was fought for and attained by a Romantic Era women’s movement. This can be seen in Griffith’s Utopia; her 2135 Philadelphia is a world in which the women’s sphere had domesticated and civilized the male public sphere. All of the rough edges had been removed: the roads were smooth, and noisy, scary steam engines were banned once women began to guide technology. All dogs were also exterminated, a theme common in later feminist Utopias: dogs were uncouth, ill mannered and dead, though cats would be allowed to live. Griffith’s Matrons got together and censored the vulgar passages of Shakespeare, and in another flash of prophecy, once the actors had been censored they would go on to become major cultural figures. Mostly, Griffith dreamed of state regulation and a strong police to intervene and protect white middle class women from undignified situations and unscrupulous men. Liquor and smoking were banned; if a bachelor was found drunk three times his head was shaved and he was sent to the work camps.
These themes mirror the concerns of Romantic Era Christianity in which a highly artificial version of sentimental femininity came to dominate. As Colin Campbell wrote in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism,
…the rise of sentimentality went hand in hand with the rise of consumer capitalism and of middle class women’s new role as head consumer of household items. This is reflected in Three Hundred Years Hence, where all duties on imported luxury goods have been lifted. 2135 is a consumer paradise.
By the 1880s the women’s movement was picking up steam and had moved on from the creation of women’s space into the purity campaigns, the effort to impose what they considered to be feminine virtues onto all of society. Proto-eugenics was also becoming popular because as mothers, the reformers believed they could lay claim to special eugenic knowledge. These themes are especially noticeable in Mary Bradley Lane’s Mizora (1881), the first parthenogenetic Utopia (this element would become dominant in 20th-century feminist Utopias). In Mizora, our narrator descends inside the Earth to find a blonde, Aryan, all-female society; their forebears had decided that dark skin caused criminal behavior and had used eugenic breeding to “cure” this affliction, and men were regarded as an inferior dark-skinned race whose elimination had led to a perfect society (an idea familiar to readers of 1970s feminist Utopias). As in Griffith’s work, the Mizorans had tamed and domesticated uncivilized nature; animals had been eliminated and farming was held in suspicion because of the “deleterious” effects of earthly matter. Their engineers made food from chemicals, produced bread from limestone and were close to achieving their glorious goal of finding chemical substitutes for fruit and vegetables; in a sense, Lane was imagining the Hostess Twinkie Utopia. But besides being the first exclusively female Utopia where all of the turbulent and chaotic aspects of the men’s sphere had been tamed and made safe for proper ladies, Mizora was also a whiteness Utopia: even their architecture and clothing were all bleached white.
1888 brought the literary Utopia into the mainstream with the publication of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which contained many of the themes of earlier women’s Utopias. Looking Backward became the first international blockbuster bestseller and inspired the American Nationalist Socialist movement, the Nationalist Women’s Movement and later the Progressive Movement, the New Deal and Europe’s National Socialist movements. One early Bellamyite was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who in 1915 wrote Herland, a direct inspiration for 1970s women’s separatist Utopias. Gilman continued the dog exterminationist themes of Mizora and Three Hundred Years Hence, and like most feminists of the time was a strong believer in Lamarckian evolution and eugenics; the Herlanders “of Aryan stock” had made eugenics the focus of their society, and had perfected their race by eliminating males along with the dogs. The “Race Mothers” gave virgin birth to girls and were never subjected to the degradation of sex; women thus became supermothers and maternal passion was the only emotion left to them. Herlanders did not eat meat and cats had been eugenically engineered not to meow or catch birds; female cats were allowed to roam free, but males were kept in cages for stud purposes only.
Contemporary feminists consider Gilman one of the founders of American feminism, which is ironic considering that her eugenic feminism contained so much of the intolerance displayed by modern neo-Puritans. She is less known for the white supremacism evidenced in her 1908 “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem”, in which she argued that the state should re-enslave African Americans to instill social hygiene in them and take away their right to reproduce; her proposal anticipates both the German solution to “the Jewish Problem” and the invasive social hygiene policies of the modern welfare state. Gilman was rediscovered in the 1970s and adopted as a feminist idol, thus supporting the idea that 1970s feminism was a white women’s power movement; her model of purified eugenic Utopia became a cottage industry as multiple generations of women’s studies students read and wrote these Utopias and used them as a guiding principle for action. The following graph shows the rise in use of the term “feminist Utopia” from 1970 to the mid-’90s:
The year 2013 has seen a renewed feminism which in the United Kingdom is busy banning rock music, men’s magazines, pole fitness and exotic dancing, while in California a new culture war is aimed at the traditional libertarian values of the high-tech scene. Without knowing it, a new generation is taking up the battle to civilize and domesticate the wild unruly natives and impose the traditional values of the Victorian women’s sphere on men and women alike.