Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.Arundhati Roy, Confronting Empire, 2003
Visionary thinking has often been central to feminist scholarship, literature, and activism. Take for instance the world making gesture that drives Christine de Pisan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. Pisan was born in Venice, Italy in 1365, and moved to Paris, France, when her father took on the role of King’s astrologer for Charles V, King of France. At the age of 25, she found herself fatherless, widowed, and a mother of three children. Now responsible to support a family, Pisan began to write and became a well known woman of letters. In The Book of the City of Ladies, Pisan constructs an encyclopedia of great women role models drawn from European history, myth, and religion. She offers a critique of the stereotypes of femininity that circulated in her time, but she also offers a vision for a world that recognizes the worth of women, and that encourages bonds and solidarity between women. Central to Pisan’s proto-feminist vision is an allegorical city populated by great women and closed to men who have, for far too long on Pisan’s view, been heartless and wicked in their characterization of women as incapable of intellectual pursuits or self-sufficiency.
A similar vision of feminine solidarity is found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novella, Herland. Written centuries after Pisan imagined a city of ladies, Gilman’s Herland is an imaginary world that is inhabited entirely by women who have developed a capacity for parthenogenesis and so have no need for men. Gilman explores what a world without men, and without gender based power distinctions, might look like. In a word, it is a paradise. The women in Herland, freed from the expectations of men, the distractions of heterosexual desire, and the pressures of motherhood, are free to become themselves. Herland is a socialist utopia in which individuals are cared for by the group and where art and invention flourish. Herland’s inhabitants are confident, happy, comfortable: they are the women that Gilman had hoped to see in her own world.
Both Gilman and de Pisan imagine societies of women who are free from the pressures of male domination. The worlds that they construct are utopian sisterhoods, but a closer look reveals fundamental and persistent exclusionary thinking. Pisan, for instance, makes space for only the great and pure women; Gilman’s Herland is a twinged by eugenicist logics of uniformity and racial purity that makes Herland seem less a utopia than a dystopia.
This is all to say that the visions that feminist scholars, artists, authors, and activists imagine for the future must be carefully constructed. What sorts of worlds are we creating? Who is included in the worlds that we imagine? Who is excluded? Contemporary feminist scholarship is finely attuned to need for visionary feminisms that avoid what Ahmed describes below as universalism.
Universalism is the perspective that one solution can be applied cross culturally and cross historically to solve a particular problem. A critique of universalism—in language, in theory, in politics, and in other sites of representation—has been central to this course, and as Ahmed points out, it has been central to feminist theory and thinking more generally.
Ahmed’s critique of universalism needs also to be applied to feminist visions like those offered by Gilman and Pisan. From an intersectional perspective, our visions must be responsive to the fact that women have different experiences and need different solutions. Even better, our visions need to recognize that what is at stake here is not just women’s futures, but the future for all of us—men, women, those who are neither men nor women, and indeed, all living things with whom we share the earth.