When I started thinking of the topic of women only societies I quickly realized that I perceived of two separate types of story under the same label of ‘Lesbian Utopia’. While there is a LOT of overlap in the way people have written about societies where a group of women have separated from the mainstream mixed society, (Amazons,) and single-sex worlds I’ve decided to treat the two as separate topics.
After all, it’s not as if we talk way too much about women. I’ll talk about Warrior Women in a later article dedicated to her history. There is enough information that I’m splitting this topic into 1915 to 1960 with a second column dedicated to 1971 through to the turn of the millennia.
The dividing line I’m using is whether or not the single-sex world requires the presence of men to reproduce. If heterosexual sex is required for survival the women have to figure out how to deal with men – and also what it means to be a woman in a male dominated world. In books written about societies with only one gender (I’ll leave Intersex worlds for another column) the question of ‘what does it mean to be a woman’ is replaced by ‘what is essential to being human’.
For now I’m only looking at societies where women do not need men to reproduce. Most of the earlier works are based on what the 20th century thought were innate traits of women. If the author were Feminist the societies would be rationalistic, artistic, low-tech, and pacifistic. The stories written by women (whom I can’t always label as ‘Lesbian’ since some of them never identified as such) tend to be pacifistic, egalitarian, and nurturing. The societies tend to honour the roles of Mother and Crone. The bearing and raising of healthy children is a focus point within these stories. If men do arrive in the culture they will be seen as a purely negative and destructive force.
The earliest book of Science Fiction set in a woman only society was Herland written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in 1915 in serial form followed by the sequel With Her in Ourland in 1916. These books set many of the tropes of feminist Utopian writing, based on the Victorian concepts of female nature. This woman only society had much in common with Shangri-La being located in a distant, inaccessible, and ‘exotic’ location. The three explorers, the point of view characters, who discover and name Herland are white men. The women have no concept of romantic love or sexuality reproducing only through parthenogenesis. The society treasures teaching above all else, knows no violence, and does not distinguish between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ cultural traits. All the women are muscular with short hair since the concepts of inter-female competition for men does not exist. Their culture combines aesthetics with practicality. In common with French fairy tales the women attempt to tame and civilize the men. Sadly, the women in the story don’t develop as characters since the focus is on the men.
The novels written on women only societies well into the 1970s tended to be written from sexist points of view by male authors. There were two main types of story; the first was the male fantasy of available women without competition. The second was the male nightmare of nasty women who treated the men like men treated women.
One story that was still sexist but did not have quite the level of disrespect toward the humanity of women was The Disappearance written by Philip Wylie in 1951. In this novel an unexplained phenomenon splits Earth into two parallel dimensions. In the Man’s world it appears as if all the women have vanished. In the Woman’s world, men have disappeared. Each world is a disaster in different ways. In the absence of women, men fall into a brutal military dictatorship. The women have to learn all the skills that men had denied to them – after many plane crashes since none of the pilots were women. This book does look at homosexuality in a positive way – but only as situational homosexuality.
John Boyd wrote a (terribly) bad satire called Sex and the High Command 1970 where women gain a capacity to reproduce without men leading into a world-wide Gendercide within a year.
Poul Anderson wrote the archetype of the straight male fantasy in 1959 called Virgin Planet. The writing is better than the vast majority of these style of novels- avoiding most of the soft-core porn or Letters to Penthouse. But still, it’s the style that is called sophomoric even though it’s usually middle-aged to old men who fantasize about lots and lots of virgins.
The plot of the book is simple. All of the men on the planet died of a plague centuries before. Like Herland the women reproduce by cloning themselves. They have created a mainly egalitarian society that is peaceful, low-tech, and stagnant. Then a MAN arrives. Then entire society falls apart since each and every woman on the planet wants to experience sex with THE MAN. It ends with THE MAN being the ruler of the planet that is experiencing a technological renaissance since the women are dedicating the economy to building space ships so they can find more men.
I’ll talk next time about how this novel inspired Joanna Russ and Lois McMaster Bujold to write about single-gender societies based on how ridiculous the concept was.
A special thank you to Ms. Lorna Toolis Senior Department Head of the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy for her help in finding books based on a loose description of story elements.
John Allenson is a pen name for someone who has a horribly insulting real life name he does not use on social media. He has had a long process in trying to be an author but may actually be making some progress. He’s a gender-queer Jew who lives in Toronto.
This column is a tour through some of the bits and pieces of Queer themed Speculative fiction over the past few millennia.