Commentary Media

Another, More Feminist, World Is Possible

Eleanor J. Bader

'The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future,' offers a panoply of exhilarating responses to the question of what an ideal world looks like. And the future these writers dream of isn’t just a desirable one. As far as they’re concerned, it is an achievable one too.

We’ve all done it: taken ourselves on a little mental vacation, imagined working less and loving more in the Caribbean or a Parisian café. But what if, instead, we daydreamed of heading to a “feminist utopia?” Would it be total paradise?

The dozens of contributors—individuals of all ages, races, and sexual and lifestyle preferences—to The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future, out this week from the Feminist Press, offer a panoply of exhilarating responses to this question. And the future these writers dream of isn’t just a desirable one. As far as they’re concerned, it is achievable too.

“We’re in the midst of a feminist resurgence,” editors Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff write in their introduction. “But we still rarely find a break from today’s crises to think about what we might want for tomorrow. How can we dream big when we are constantly playing whack-a-mole with the patriarchy?”

Good question. As the pair point out, unless we envisage and agitate for the wide-ranging eradication of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and economic inequality, we’re, at best, holding steady—keeping Planned Parenthood open and stopping efforts to derail the Affordable Care Act, for example. But we’re still failing to promote the broad social justice we desire and deserve.

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Worse, Brodsky and Nalebuff write, “gendered inequality can start to feel inevitable.”

That’s why, in 2012, the two began reaching out to “writers, activists, artists, and friends” and asking them to think about what a feminist utopia would look like—a concrete exercise aimed at picturing the world we want to work toward. Contributors include Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium; writer, photographer, and mother Victoria Law; trans activist Janet Mock; blogger and reporter Jenny Trout; and “recovered attorney” Sheila Bapat, author of Part of the Family?: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights.

Not surprisingly, the contributors present varied visions of their ideal future. Yet they all foresee a time when cooperation will replace competition for resources and opportunities, a time when respect between people will be the norm.

Rape, writes Maya Dusenbery, editorial director of Feministing, will become ”unfamiliar to us,” since it will no longer exist “in any present-day language,” reflecting a shift in consciousness that goes beyond the merely linguistic. In “Dispatch from the Post-Rape Future,” she conjures a world in which “desire, not consent, is the standard,” and where inequality between partners is as impossible as turquoise snow.  

The piece is presented as an excerpt from an interview with “one of the historians who discovered twenty-first century American rape culture” and asks some important questions about this atrocity. The fictional historian starts with language, describing words in the documents she had “studied”: “‘Forced penetration.’ What does that look like? ‘Nonconsensual sex.’ Nonsense. ‘Sexual assault.’ How does sex become weaponized? ‘Sexual violence.’ A contradiction in terms. It wasn’t horrifying at all—just literally unimaginable.”

In the new, ideal world, “We don’t give our partners pleasure so that they can give us pleasure in return,” Dusenberry writes. “The mutuality in our sex is not based on something as abstract as fairness or contingent on something as rare as commitment. If you are literally ‘feeling the pleasure another feels,’ it’s simply impossible to say where your pleasure starts and the other’s begins.”  

And pregnancy? In her piece, Justine Wu, a New Jersey abortion provider, introduces an incredulous young woman who is said to have recently learned how hard it was for 20th- and early 21st-century women to end unwanted pregnancies. In “Reproductive Supporters,” the character’s faux incredulity spills out as she reports that, once upon a time, ”you had to see a doctor to get pills (that you swallowed like food!) to stop your eggs, and you had to do it every day or else you could get pregnant. If you did get pregnant, you had to see a doctor, usually a different doctor in a different place (sometimes you had to drive really far, like over a day) if you wanted an abortion. You had to pay for the abortion yourself or your job paid.”

In Wu’s essay, elder women called “Reproductive Supporters” and “Life Navigators” help younger ones get the services they need so that that they can create families when they are ready to have them—or not have them, if they prefer. In Wu’s utopia, every child gets what they need from their families and communities to thrive and grow.

Imagine that. Or don’t. Perhaps instead, think about a utopia in which people still struggle to be the best and most productive social contributors they can possibly become, but without having to fight against the prejudices and stereotypes that discourage so many of us from pushing on. MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, for one, notes that her utopia would not be a place of easy achievement. No, for her, utopia means that children will not be pigeonholed by race, class, or gender.

“In my utopia, [my daughter] would not have to overcome a set of stereotypes that will sexualize her in her adolescence,” she begins. “A feminist utopia is the time when our struggles, our anxieties, our challenges to overcome, are based on our human condition  and not on our identity.”       

Meanwhile, Katherine Cross, a graduate student who is a board member at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a public interest firm that assists transgender clients, imagines what U.S. life would be like if we had constitutional protections against bias and exploitation. Taking a page from the right wing, she demands that we be given the “right to life.” In Cross’ version, though, right-to-life is not an anti-abortion meme, but is rather the assurance that people will be cared for by society. In “Feminist Constitution,” she explains that new governing documents will guarantee access to a range of services. “Reproductive health care would be publicly funded,” she writes, “up to and including all transport costs; contraception, being essential to such health, would also not be subject to one’s ability to afford it … A right to life for transgender people would mean a right to all the medical care and self-alteration necessary to fashion a livable life for ourselves … A right to life, period, would mean a right to a home, a right to food, a right to be free from prejudice and its manifold violent manifestations. It would mean fundamentally rethinking ‘criminal justice’ and regarding the mission of any system worthy of that name as one that puts rehabilitation and community building at the center of its enterprise.”

Other anthology contributors lay out a vision of restorative justice, whereby an aggrieved party and their violator meet face-to-face to discuss the impact of what transpired. Still others present a new plan for expanding community life to be accessible across-the-board to a wide variety of individuals.

s.e. smith’s “An Unremarkable Bar on an Unremarkable Night” imagines a diverse collection of individuals socializing together. Everyone in smith’s watering hole—think Cheersearns a decent wage and is treated well by both employers and co-workers, and workplaces accommodate people with disabilities sans fanfare or complaint. In fact, sidewalks are universally wide enough for wheelchair navigation and every building is accessible; bathrooms are, too.   

smith’s utopia also includes funding for home attendant services to allow people with disabilities to be as independent as possible. Even better, the assumption that family members are responsible for providing unpaid care to other household members is now considered ludicrous. “Utopia isn’t senseless to difference,” smith writes, “but it embraces and warmly welcomes it rather than fearing it.”

And lest you think the collection is completely serious, think again. There are numerous pieces that veer toward satire, and others that are laugh-out-loud funny, including Transparent creator Jill Soloway’s “Lesbo Island.” The remote isle of her creation, dubbed Feather Crest Village, gives residents and visitors a chance to attend Cuntifesto, a biannual fiesta “with really good barbeque,” and a chance to bed down in cozy cabins with wood-burning fireplaces, all strategically placed near a center house for a spontaneous sisterly rendezvous or two. Soloway, of course, is Queen, Ruler of It All.

It’s an irreverent and amusing essay. At the same time, through her hyperbolic setting, Soloway joins other writers in pushing us to think about what kind of governance we want and believe necessary. And, like many of other works in the collection, “Lesbo Island” blends playfulness with rock-hard seriousness.

It’s impossible to imagine that readers will close the anthology unaware that another, better world is possible.

This takeaway is not accidental, and editors Brodsky and Nalebuff note that they expect The Feminist Utopia Project to provoke debate, discussion, and strategizing about moving beyond reaction to proactivity. “Our great hope for this anthology is … that the pieces within the book will make you hungry,” they write in the introduction.

They continue, “We hope that they will nourish but not sate, providing you with comfort, companionship and pleasure—but also anger at how far we are from these visions.”

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