Imagine a world without men. Imagine it occurred as a natural experiment. Imagine, for example, a valley cupped by high mountains, accessible by only a single, narrow pass. Imagine that, thousands of years ago, the people of this valley found themselves at war when an unlucky tremor from a distant volcano sealed the pass shut with a shower of rocks. Most of the people who’d stayed back from battle died fighting among themselves in the weeks after the cataclysm, leaving only a small group of women behind to despair that without men there’d be no children, and without children, no future. This is a fantastical premise requiring a fantastical twist. So say the women’s bodies adapted to the absence of mates. They became capable of asexual reproduction, previously the province of invertebrates and plants. From there, the society developed between the cliffs of its petri dish. That this could never happen is beside the point—the important question is: What would come next?
This is the setting for the 1915 novel Herland, by the first-wave feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and what comes next in her book is utopia: women solving humanity’s problems without men getting in the way. I loved this strange novel when I read it in college, though I couldn’t say why. It’s earnest, even dopey, and, inevitably, outdated. Yet I found myself thinking about it after the Harvey Weinstein revelations this fall, and during the reckoning that followed.
From the start, the #MeToo moment seemed to rest on a utopianism that no one had named. “Don’t harass” is a simple demand, but envisioning a world without sexual harassment—without its many tendrils invading every corner of our lives—is not a simple act of imagination. Many women have suggested they came forward with #MeToo stories because they wanted to offer evidence that such a world is possible. “I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence,” the actor, director and producer Lupita Nyong’o wrote. “Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing.” In an essay explaining why she started an anonymous spreadsheet to collect allegations against “Shitty Media Men,” the writer Moira Donegan said, “We’re being challenged to imagine how we would prefer things to be.” The document was her imperfect, incendiary way of contributing to that project, an avenue for women to “wield the power we already have.”
I’m embarrassed to say that when the first #MeToo stories broke, I didn’t want to read them. This is not the reaction I would have expected from myself, a journalist who writes regularly about sexual violence and feminist politics, and a woman in my twenties who knows what it feels like to be called charming instead of promising, to see an editor’s eyes wander toward the V in my shirt. Maybe I kept my distance out of discomfort: absorbing the endless accounts of assault and harassment could feel, as Josephine Livingstone wrote at the New Republic, like “being pelted with stones in the name of solidarity. Watch out—here comes another!”
But the individual stories were not the same as the stories in aggregate—and if they were stones, they were geodes, each one a uniquely beautiful map of a single person’s emotional survival, each one sharp enough to cut. I remember listening to the actor Katherine Kendall describe being harassed by Harvey Weinstein, the first of the fall’s stories I heard out loud. “He didn’t actually touch me,” she said, after detailing how he’d stripped naked toward the end of a business meeting and blocked her exit from his home, “so, you know, I wasn’t sure if people would care.” I was walking home from the corner store, shifting the milk from hand to hand when its cold bit my fingers, and I cried listening to her voice, which was thick with emotion but measured and calm. It was the voice of a woman who’d decided that people would care. She was proving true what she’d feared was impossible.
But even after I overcame my instinct for detachment, I remained wary of the movement’s language, which was a language of binaries: women and men. I resisted the pressure I felt, from nowhere and everywhere, to think of myself at all times in terms of womanhood; to espouse a solidarity both too narrow and too broad; to foreground my gender, as if it were a paper cutout taped over my face. I shared the anxieties that the writer Heidi Julavits articulated in December, when she recounted misapprehending the news, hearing the names of women when the names of offending men were broadcast. She wrote, “Maybe my brain wanted to hear fake news to complicate a secret message that I could not help worrying other people might be hearing and believing: Men abuse power, and women do not. Men have overbearing sex drives they cannot control, and women do not.”
Of course, most people are not consciously “hearing and believing” this message, though some are. A few weeks before, the writer Stephen Marche had argued in the Times Sunday Review that the problem “at the heart” of the abuse epidemic was “the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido.” Marche urges men to do better, but his premise suggests that the space for improvement is limited. A few months later, in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan complained that “in our increasingly heated debate about gender relations and the #MeToo movement,” the reality of sex difference “is rarely discussed. It’s almost become taboo.” Both authors took a stab at defining what it is to be a man, while avoiding the even more inflammatory question of what it means to be a woman, how female biology translates to behavior. Not that their views on the matter felt like much of a mystery. Gender essentialism is a binary game: if you believe in a puzzle with only two pieces, you must imagine corresponding opposites, a perfect pair. If men are predators, women are prey; if men are “brutal,” women are gentle; if men are bottomless with hunger, women are creatures of little appetite.
I was less worried about the positions of these well-known polemicists than I was about the attitudes of people close to me—and others like them everywhere—who seemed to develop a bad mental habit from our endless conversations about the women and the men. Let me acknowledge, right off the bat, that I will not be able to solve the question of nature vs. nurture to anyone’s satisfaction, including my own. What I can say for sure is that when a male friend sent me Marche’s piece with a glowing note about its contents, my throat closed up with anger as if I’d swallowed an allergen, and after a male relative told me that to deny some biological difference in how the sexes wield power was to treat all of human history as contaminated data, I sat at home with a void in my stomach. It made me sad, knowing these men might think I was a little less capable of something than they were, even if that something was terrible. Surely my loved ones felt themselves, their range of moral possibilities, to be definitionally human. Had they entertained the idea that mine were somehow less so? I believe most gendered behavior is socialized, and I also want to believe it. This faith feels inextricable from the central promise made to girls of my era: that we, like boys, could be whatever we wanted.
But I don’t really know, because I, like you, don’t have access to a controlled experiment—a country like the one Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined, high in the mountains, where women wouldn’t grow up as foils for men. The fantasy of such a place is an old one that had its heyday in the lesbian-separatist movements of the Seventies and Eighties, and also a regressive one that excludes people who are intersex, transgender, gender-nonconforming and genderqueer. I’m not interested in inhabiting the binary dream of Herland any more than the versions of reality pronounced by Marche. But I’ve been wondering why our current revolutionary moment seems so tangled up in the language of binaries—wondering why I keep bumping up against its essentialism, as if the utopian hope of #MeToo were encased in an eggshell.
I started searching my past for the things that made me feel the way I felt this fall and winter: like the possibilities afforded my being were growing and shrinking at the same time. I found myself going back to feminist utopias—the fictional ones I’d read in books, and the closest thing to a real one I’d ever experienced, on a small farm hidden in the hills of New England, a tiny Herland for a handful of women. If this moment rested on a still-incomplete act of imagination, I wanted to learn what I could from the imagined-up worlds I’d encountered years earlier—the ones that taught me to long for alternatives.
The mountain country of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel is a utopia because women created it, and, according to Gilman, women are better than men: more peace-loving, altruistic and eminently rational. The residents of Herland “had the evenest tempers, the most perfect patience and good nature—one of the things most impressive about them all was the absence of irritability,” notes the narrator, Van, one of a trio of male explorers who stumble upon this strange land and stay to study its superior ways. The women have cultivated every grass, tree and creature for maximum usefulness; even their cats are as sweet and trainable as dogs, and though they still purr, they do not “sing.” Van marvels, “the most salient quality in all their institutions was reasonableness.” This would have gobsmacked readers of Gilman’s era, who considered it common knowledge that women were weak, frivolous and prone to hysteria. “Women cannot cooperate—it’s against nature,” insists the chauvinist in Van’s traveling party. He’s quickly overruled by his less biased friends: “I tell you, women are the natural cooperators, not men!”
Gilman’s vision of femininity comes with its own constraints, however. Motherhood is the society’s dominant ethic, and childcare is the most sought-after job in the nation. If human beings have a few ways to touch immortality—children and art, as the saying goes—then the women of Herland have only one. After watching the women’s plays, Van acknowledges that “the drama of the country was—to our taste—rather flat. You see, they lacked the sex motive”—sex is a foreign concept in Herland—“and, with it, jealousy. They had no interplay of warring nations, no aristocracy and its ambitions, no wealth and poverty opposition.” The intellectual life of the country is equally anodyne. When Van tells one of his hosts that, back home, some Christians believe in the damnation of unbaptized infants, his interlocutor is undone by the thought and runs to a temple for guidance from a priestess. Later, she apologizes, “You see, we are not accustomed to horrible ideas. We haven’t any.” The women of Herland have little in the way of art, philosophy or ego—ego not only in the pejorative sense, but in the sense of having a self at all. This appears to be Gilman’s intent. “This place is just like an enormous anthill,” one of the men says with amazement. “You know an anthill is nothing but a nursery.”
Gilman’s vision of womanhood is not unfamiliar. In fact, it looks a lot like that of James Damore, the engineer whose infamous “Google memo” used evolutionary biology to explain why women have less success in Silicon Valley. Today’s gender-essentialist paradigm, as summarized by Damore, assigns women more “feelings” and men more “ideas.” Women are “more cooperative,” more selfless, more nurturing. They choose children over art or accomplishment (“work-life balance”), while men “have a higher drive for status on average” and make a more dazzling range of things. In men’s hands, power is an instrument that imprints the individual on the world. The nature of women’s power, as imagined by Gilman, is to disperse for the good of the species, like a million ants scattering to find shareable crumbs.
And yet I see a luminous sense of possibility hovering around the text of Herland. Perhaps this is partly because, when I read it at 21, I was having fun taking possession of femininity’s trappings, trying on different roles with men: the sad girl whose sadness you can’t understand, the wild girl who drinks whiskey and drives your car barefoot, the adoring girlfriend who swears she would follow you anywhere. The women in the novel were many things I was cultivating: playful, graceful, attractive to men without trying. And yet they weren’t like me, because they took it for granted that “woman” was a category encompassing every adjective, not only the softer ones. By being close enough to aspire to and yet deeply strange, they opened a little bubble of freedom in my brain.
I learned about freedom in what I remember as my own brush with utopia. At twelve, thirteen and fourteen, my world on weekends was 132 acres of farmland that belonged to a woman I’ll call Katherine. “I’m the king of my own hill,” she used to say, and it was true. She reshaped the land to match her moods, leveling plains and drawing roads in her skid-steer, hunched over the joystick in the caged cab. She was a big woman, almost as tall as my dad, with broad shoulders and a body that looked soft but could heft almost anything—harvest a whole hayfield, stop a runaway horse, or shove free a truck spun deep in the mud. There were delicate freckles on the soft skin around her eyes, a detail that struck me as inexplicably beautiful on a woman who wasted no time on her face.
Katherine bred Norwegian Fjord horses, dun-colored, prehistoric-looking creatures with stiff manes like a zebra’s and dorsal stripes down their spines. She became the riding teacher of my best friend Abby, and because I went where Abby went, she became mine too. We were middle schoolers, almost-teenagers, who cantered around like horses during recess. In our real lives, we were sheltered, scheduled children of the middle class. We went to school, we went home, we went nowhere unsupervised. On the weekends, I went to synagogue and Abby went to her Polish grandfather’s house to sit on his carpet and watch the Pope on TV.
We lived a different life on the farm. Katherine was happy to have us around. She and her partner, Anne, got bored keeping company with the dogs and ponies, and besides, our extra hands were useful. They lived in a two-room apartment over the barn with a view of the pastures and no indoor plumbing, and they gave us a room beneath it that we called the Cave, piled with boxes of their books and old coats, shrouded in smells both sour and sweet: wafts of coffee from upstairs, the nutty pungency of hay and manure, the musk of our bodies, the bright sting of cedar shavings. In the evenings, Abby and I ate soup cold from the can and stayed up late watching horse shows on tape.
Katherine’s horses lived outside, and to feed them we stacked a truck bed with hay, grain and water, and trundled down a steep hill to the pasture. At twelve, Abby and I learned how to drive. As with everything Katherine taught us, Abby picked it up fast and I picked it up slowly. For weeks, I couldn’t stop training my eyes just beyond the front bumper, which meant I couldn’t drive straight but progressed by a tick-tack of course corrections that made everyone sick. I was afraid to soften my focus, which felt like relinquishing control. “Steer toward that hilltop,” Katherine would say, gesturing at a misty peak miles away. “You have to pick a stable point. Look beyond where you’re going.” I was afraid if I listened I would go off the road. “Just do it,” she said. “I promise it’ll work.” I listened, and it did. I came to love driving: the look of my skinny wrist folded over the steering wheel, my hand casually hanging, like a vision from the future, a glimpse of a woman who could go where she wanted.
Rereading it now, I find Herland’s vision of the future uninspiring, but it retains its power as a metaphor for a future we can’t yet imagine. Gilman was ahead of her time in knowing that much of what her contemporaries called “femininity” was, as her mouthpiece Van calls it, “reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us.” For her, as for today’s social constructionists, to imagine a world where women are free of this binary is to imagine a state of nature of sorts, a womanhood uncorroded by misogyny.
It’s an odd but inescapable paradox that this state of nature prompts a search for what is natural—which is to say essential, biological, determined. Worse, this search is doomed to occur within the confines of the present. Even Gilman’s radical imagination fed on her era’s stale ideas in the effort to picture what no one can know: What happens after starting over? What selves will we find on the other side?
It would be easy to say that on the farm I became a different kind of girl. At home, I was my mother’s perfect physical copy, so alert to her moods that there was no space between her wishes and my own. I brushed my pin-straight hair until it gleamed every morning; I pleased my teachers and brought home good grades. My only rebellion was to sneak a book under the covers at night.
In my other life, with Katherine, I was sweat-filmed and dirt-smudged. I once saw a girl kicked full in the face by a horse, and while Katherine called 911, I lured the loose animal back with a treat, catching his lead rope in my firm hand. I once held a colt’s head when the vet came to castrate him. He leaned into me, sedated, and I braced him with my body as we both tasted the metallic smell of his blood. I fell off more horses than I could count; one landed a glancing blow on my back as I rolled away, leaving a radiating, hoof-shaped bruise that I hid from my mother, first purple-black, then sky-in-a-thunderstorm yellow and green.
The farm was a world of Katherine’s creation, and she wrote us girls into it as an odd couple. Abby was tall and loud. She loved the color orange, the jokes in Borat and the unusually large size of her own feet. I was small for my age, a prim perfectionist, and I don’t know if I attached myself to Abby in spite of the way she embarrassed me, or because of it. Abby’s gifts revealed themselves on horseback—her long limbs became elegant and her clowning smoothed into a preternatural calm—while I was stiff and cerebral in the saddle.
The balance between us tilted the other way in the evenings, when we would sprawl on the braided rug in Katherine and Anne’s bedroom, slurping Swiss Miss and correcting Abby’s English papers. Katherine would chide Abby to focus, just as, in the afternoon’s lesson, she’d scolded me for thinking too hard. I loved my friend, but I started to live for the moments when I had an edge on her—when Katherine seemed to want her to be more like me. Katherine was the first person outside my family to tell me I was pretty, would someday be beautiful. She praised my habit of guessing what Abby was saying and jumping in ahead of her, finishing her sentences. “You two are so close, and you’re so quick, Nora, that you’re better at figuring out what Abby means than she is.” I became Abby’s tutor, and Abby became the demonstration, during riding lessons, of everything I couldn’t do. We appealed to Katherine’s imagination as opposites who not only attracted but completed each other. From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs.
It’s hard for me to explain now what went wrong on the farm. I would like it to be clear that I loved Katherine. I loved her devotion to unwanted animals—a pack of stray dogs from a storm-ravaged island; a horse that held its head out of reach, expecting to be hit—and the way she trusted us to help in their rehabilitation. Driving to competitions in her battered truck, I loved the yellow light of wayside gas stations—places coughed out of someone else’s rugged life—and the view through the window of a nighttime hour I’d never otherwise have seen. She interpreted people as scholars do books, and I fed off the narrative energy of her world, even if I sometimes chafed against the stories she told about me. At first, I liked being written into our small society as Abby’s opposite; it made me essential to a person I loved. Maybe it was eagerness to find the ways we fit together that brought me to compare us until my sense of self narrowed to that sole competition—a tick, an obsession, a bad mental groove.
I began to feel like the negative of Abby’s image, someone who made no sense without her—and I resented it. I started teasing her for not knowing state capitals, the spelling of “necessary,” the point of the story of Adam and Eve. Her schoolwork got worse, and so did my riding. I fell off horses over and over. I fell because I believed I would fall. Before I even lost my balance, I felt the whoosh of the ground rushing toward me.
Eventually, Katherine called me into her upstairs apartment to tell me I was being demoted, taken off the horse I’d been riding and moved to an older, more placid mare. I sat on her couch, under a quilt that smelled of dog and sent up eddies of golden dust. Probably her decision was warranted—as I remember it, I was truly getting worse—but that didn’t soothe me. Katherine seemed offended by my tears. “This is part of how I’m going to make you better,” she said. “If you don’t trust my methods, it’s not going to work.” Before, she could have convinced me this was a step forward, not backward, on the right and only track. But I found that I suddenly didn’t believe her, especially when she told me my disappointment, too, was for my own good: “I need to toughen you up, and I will.” On the farm, Katherine had created a world where girls could claim the usual province of boys: could be pain-hardened, dirty and brave. But her world still split my field of vision into two parts, the qualities that were Abby’s and the ones that were mine. Hers included toughness, and therefore I was weak. The farm reshuffled the rules of who got to be what without dispelling a feeling I had gotten used to in girlhood: the recognition of a possibility in the same moment I saw that it was lost to me.
Gilman wrote Herland more than thirty years before Simone de Beauvoir differentiated sex from gender in The Second Sex, pulling open the space where feminists would move beyond gender essentialism, and, in some cases, beyond gender entirely. Beauvoir inspired one of the mother texts of second-wave utopianism, Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex, which is not a novel but a Marxist “case for feminist revolution” with a heavy flavor of science fiction. Writing in 1970, Firestone argued that the oppression of women was rooted in a “biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equal.”
Women throughout history before the advent of birth control were at the continual mercy of their biology—menstruation, menopause, and “female ills,” constant painful childbirth, wet-nursing and care of infants, all of which made them dependent on males (whether brother, father, husband, lover, or clan, government, community-at-large) for physical survival.
Firestone thinks our differences are natural, but that doesn’t mean she thinks they’re indelible, or a necessary limitation on what we can be. “We are no longer just animals,” she writes. “The ‘natural’ is not necessarily a ‘human’ value.” She hoped she stood on the cusp of a future where technology would obviate the tyranny of biology. Pregnancy and childbirth, “the original division of labor,” could soon be eradicated. She imagined a generation of test-tube babies, children “born to both sexes equally, or independently of either.” In this future, there would be no men and no women: “genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”
Firestone accepts the Marxist notion that it’s impossible to imagine an equal future from the subordinated position of the present. She resists the idea that offering a “blueprint” for the future is part of the revolutionary’s task at all: “Any specific direction must arise organically out of the revolutionary action itself.” And yet, she says, “I feel tempted here to make some ‘dangerously utopian’ concrete proposals,” because “there are no precedents in history for feminist revolution.” We need a literary image of the future, she suggests, not as a destination but as an inoculation against cowardice, so that we can make the leap into the unknown.
It remains as utopian as ever to imagine a world where sex confers no cultural power, but other sections of Firestone’s Dialectic were far less clear-sighted, especially her ill-conceived argument that “racism is sexism extended,” and that racism and classism were merely incidental to sexism. These views shaped a simplistic dream of feminism’s way forward—one that has left an enduring mark on the movement. Around the time Firestone wrote the Dialectic, she co-founded the radical group Redstockings, which vowed in its 1969 “Manifesto” to “repudiate all economic, racial, educational or status privileges that divide us from other women.” As the historian Robin D. G. Kelley wrote in his book Freedom Dreams, “Although the ‘Manifesto’ acknowledged differences between women, it treated these differences as impediments to overcome”—as distractions from the true cause rather than truths to be reckoned with.
The shortcomings of second-wavers is territory so well-trod as to be tiresome—even if, half a century later, self-awareness hasn’t stamped out the temptation to see our struggles in the simplest terms possible: men vs. women, monolith vs. monolith. Over a decade before the word “intersectionality” was coined, a trio of black radical feminists and lesbians, members of the Boston-based Combahee River Collective (named for a river in South Carolina where Harriet Tubman became the first woman to lead an American military campaign in an operation that emancipated more than seven hundred slaves during the Civil War), not only criticized the movement’s disregard for poor women and women of color, but also traced a direct line from the binary thinking of radical feminists and lesbian separatists to a biological essentialism that could easily backfire. “We have a great deal of criticism and loathing for what men have been socialized to be in this society: what they support, how they act, and how they oppress,” Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier wrote in a statement on behalf of their collective. “But we do not have the misguided notion that it is their maleness, per se—i.e. their biological maleness—that makes them what they are.” The statement warned: “As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic.”
The Combahee River Collective Statement doesn’t offer a utopian “blueprint,” but it contains a utopian energy. Elucidating the overlapping sources of their oppression—the way their concerns as black women were ignored by black men in the fight against racism, and by white women in the fight against sexism—the authors assert: “We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The subjunctive contains the act of imagining the world it wants, as a seed contains the makings of a bud.
Utopia is best like this—as a wish, a metaphor, a tiny bubble of freedom, not a blueprint that locks some out and others in. Consider Monique Wittig’s novel Les Guérillères (1969), which succeeds by immersing us in its slippery strangeness. Wittig largely eliminated male pronouns (il–ils) from her book and eschewed the hegemony of linear structure, instead stitching together fragmented scenes of ritual, myth and enigmatic violence. When the book begins, the overthrow of the old world is already far in the past—so far back that the inhabitants of this new society no longer remember it.
A new order has been built on a new religion—one that exalts the female body. Women have no concept of shame. They expose their genitals to the sun: “They say that they retain its brilliance.” They worship “the O, the zero or the circle, the vulval ring.” Farewell to the semiotic sovereignty of the phallus: they reread every fragment of history through their new mythology, finding their holy circle in King Arthur’s Round Table, a symbolic clitoris in Sleeping Beauty’s spindle. They laugh at the art of our classical period, comparing a painting of a girl with demurely concealed genitals to a “knife without a blade that lacks a handle.” They laugh all the time; they are profoundly irreverent.
But Wittig’s endgame is not the veneration of women’s bodies. Like Firestone, she wants a world where sex difference ceases to have cultural significance; unlike Firestone, she rejects the idea that sex was ever a real or natural category. In a later book, Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary (1979), Wittig and her co-author, Sande Zeig, imagine a future where the word “woman” is an obsolete term, defined as a noun whose meaning was “one who belongs to another.” Wittig, herself a radical lesbian, controversially proclaimed that “lesbians are not women,” and it is possible to read Les Guérillères as a lesbian-separatist statement. In the most widely circulated English translation of the novel (from which I quote in this essay), translator David Le Vay refers to the inhabitants of this future as “the women” (elles). But “the people” would have been a translation closer to Wittig’s intent. She hoped, as she later wrote, that “this elles could situate the reader in a space beyond the categories of sex for the duration of the book.”
The novel was intended to elevate the female plural pronoun to the universal usage of its male counterpart. (In French, a group of women is feminine, elles, but a group of women with a single man in it adopts the masculine ils.) Wittig believed in the power of language to commit “a plastic action upon the real,” as she wrote in a later essay. Les Guérillères attacks the presumption that the male perspective is universal, capable of encompassing everything, while the female is subsidiary, non-male, grammatically limited—lesser from the moment it comes into existence. In one scene, set during the bloody revolution, a young man joins the women and they arm him with a rifle. Elsewhere, the reader glimpses men in the women’s army who have grown their hair long and adopted androgynous dress. Under loose garments, the bodies of elles take different shapes. The novel’s omniscient, incantatory voice is as inclusive as its repurposed pronoun.
What appeals to me most about Wittig’s novel, rereading it in the #MeToo era, is that it takes the people in her future many years—she suggests generations—to shed the last traces of our binary world. In the beginning, they make an iconography of their anatomy because they need these symbols “to demonstrate their strength,” most of all to themselves. They need something to believe in: a better world, dormant, suspended in their beings, their bodies. They are just like the women I know who drift off wistfully, “If I had a woman boss…” “If we had a woman president…” These are not serious, or sufficient, suggestions; women, in and of our gender, are not a solution to humanity’s problems, just as Wittig does not solemnly see vagina-worship as the key to revolution. But there’s some truth to the idea that we can only imagine ourselves into the future by harvesting some detritus from our present. To build a spaceship, we hammer together what earthly materials we have—even if this means weighing ourselves down, bringing what we should have left behind.
Slowly, very slowly, the inhabitants of Wittig’s world realize that “they do not want to become prisoners of their own ideology.” They come to see a danger in defining themselves by their bodies, taking a part for the whole, reading too much into biological accidents:
They say that at the point they have reached they must examine the principle that has guided them. They say it is not for them to exhaust their strength in symbols. They say henceforward what they are is not subject to compromise. They say they must now stop exalting the vulva. They say that they must break the last bond that binds them to a dead culture. They say that any symbol that exalts the fragmented body is transient, must disappear.
Utopia becomes dystopia when people become prisoners of their own ideology. Feminist utopia becomes dystopia when its heroines become prisoners of their self-definitions. Stillness, ossification, suffocation. But for Wittig, utopia is less a static destination than a method of forward motion. In a later essay, Wittig wrote that women had to become conscious of themselves as a class before they could succeed in ceasing to be one. The trap may be laid, in other words, by the project itself, but that doesn’t mean we can’t climb out of it. The society in Les Guérillères has no fixed values except that of iconoclasm. When the people decide to do away with circle runes and holy vulvas, they heap the books of the canon they’ve worked so hard to reinterpret—they call them “feminaries”—in the town squares and burn them. In their place they put a “great register” that is forever unfinished.
The revolutionaries who broke from the old world in Les Guérillères never could have imagined how their successors would eventually leave them behind. Or maybe they could—maybe that’s why they taught their children to laugh, especially at whatever professes to be serious. The laughter makes the novel generous. Les Guérillères is a vision of having more than one shot; of surviving our errors because we’re prepared to burn the feminaries as many times as it takes; of accepting that whatever new world we make will limit us and liberate us, both at the same time. It offers permission to learn the wrong lesson from the revolution.
Katherine was big on imagining the future—her own, and also Abby’s and mine. She decided she would breed one of her mares and produce a foal that Abby would someday ride in the Olympics. Even at thirteen, I suspected there was nothing about the animal in question to suggest her offspring would be fit for the task, but Katherine was at her most generous during these sessions of dreaming. Benevolence blurred her at the edges, as if she were stretching in the direction of what she described, as if her vision might absorb us bodily.
In the future, Abby would be an Olympian, and I would be a famous writer who chronicled Abby’s amazing exploits. In the future, we would have our own hilltop, a short ride through the forest from Katherine’s. In the future, I would be a woman who lived a wild life on a farm, far from the rules of my coddled childhood. In the future, I would be beautiful. In the future, I would not be weak. In the future, I would not cry. And yet, in the future as Katherine imagined it, I would be stuck in this same binary, playing second fiddle to my best friend, a platonic, early-adolescent image of a wife.
Katherine wasn’t there for one of the last weekends I spent on her farm. She and Anne were traveling, leaving a friend to watch their horses and dogs. It was bitter cold, and the friend barely ventured out of doors all weekend, meaning Abby and I were entirely free. We rode bareback, pressing our legs against the animals for warmth. We blasted music from the truck as we circled the pastures, stopping at every bucket of water, hammering the frozen surfaces with rocks and our boot heels to crack the ice.
Then it snowed. The clench hold of cold loosened its grip a couple degrees. Glittering flakes covered horse shit and dog shit and the snaking scars of tire tracks on fields and roads. Abby and I climbed to the top of the hill and looked down on the pond behind the barn, a blind gray eye shutting slowly under snow. We reasoned it must be frozen solid. We decided to find out. I’m sure I was terrified of falling through, and I’m sure I looked at my friend, snow collecting in the whorls of hair by her face, and wondered if she was frightened too. We agreed to take the first step in unison, so neither one of us would be more the hero. We marched clear across to the other side, leaving two perfect pairs of tracks.
Leaving Katherine’s for good proved less climactic. Katherine had entered a group of us into a drill-team competition. On the day of the show, I fell, for no reason. The horse I was trotting around a corner was behaving when I simply slipped off. My parents were there, so Katherine pretended not to be furious. Afterward, I thought I would let things blow over. Then I thought, Just a little longer. Then I thought, Maybe I don’t have to go back.
I’ve been thinking about Katherine since the start of #MeToo—and about Abby, who I saw less and less after I stopped riding horses, drifting apart until we lost touch. Mostly, I’ve been feeling grateful. In many ways, I’ve become the person I would have been in a world where I never found her farm. A small woman with a small voice, as fastidious about typos as I am about shirt stains; a writer who sits in a small apartment all day, nudging words back and forth on a page. But I also feel, dormant in my body, the unlikely awareness of what I can still do, even if I haven’t done it in years. Mend a broken leather bridle. Clean a deep cut on a horse’s leg. Calm a thousand-pound animal with the steady pressure of my palm.
I’m grateful to have touched these possibilities, to have fallen under the thrall of a woman unafraid of her own power, even or especially because she wielded it recklessly. Her last lesson to me, the lesson in leaving, was one more invaluable gift. Utopia starts with starting over, and so we must, over and over again.
Art credit: Maria Rivans