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Conscious Dreaming: Feminist Utopian Narrative as Mentor
Tracie Welser


Editor's note: numbers in square brackets, such as: [1] indicate an endnote, found at the end of the document.

     Most of us can remember a “click,” a time when we experienced a shift from the mindset of our upbringing to a feminist consciousness. Perhaps the moment occurred in a favorite aunt’s living room, in a women’s studies course, during a retreat, or as the result of a personal trial. Maybe it even happened in an armchair, glimpsed through the pages of a novel. Once the shift transpires, the frustration of feminist consciousness is in constantly and mindfully negotiating with the world one finds oneself in. Arundhati Roy has said, “I think my eyes were knocked open and they don't close…once you've seen certain things, you can't un-see them, and seeing nothing is as political an act as seeing something.”[1]  It seems safe to say that in the world we come to see, change is desperately needed; however, the ways in which change may come about are less obviously stated than the particulars of the problems that want remedy. As feminists and pro-feminists (as some of my male students prefer) we may look for hope in text, especially that of utopian works. We may even look for a kind of succor in worlds that resemble the more equitable futures of our dreams. But is this dreaming just an escape? Or are fictional texts (and their authors) mentors of utopian consciousness, projecting wishes into the future only to have them bounce back again, like radio communiqués, calls to action? And if we ourselves are mentors of others (as educators, writers, and the like), how do these texts resonate between us and those we mentor? What do we “make” of utopian fiction, in regard to our thoughts on the topic and to the usefulness of the genre? I assert that utopian fiction is not only enjoyable to read but also necessary.

     First, some brief explication of the term up for discussion. The American Heritage College Dictionary, used by many of my students, defines utopia as “an ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects.” Utopian novels often suggest that such a perfect place is possible, or at least desirable and preferable to the current social configuration. Some of these “social, political, and moral aspects” include the goal of complete equality of all citizens, the elimination of illness, crime, and war, and the availability of satisfying livelihood (all arguably related to perfect social equality). In contrast to the utopian narrative is the dystopia. Rather than propose a hopeful reconfiguration of society which eradicates collective ills, the dystopia envisages the worst possible future in which utopian dreaming has been subverted by repressive forces. The ideal is thrust upon citizens; homogeneity is dictated. In this way, dystopia can be seen as a form of reflection, rather than the antithesis of utopia. Politically, it may serve as a warning in specific historical moments, or an admonition about the tricky business of doing utopia, by providing significant extrapolation of utopian desire that utopian narrative itself may lack. The desire for and formulation of ideal community models is often predicated upon an assumption of the superiority of a homogenous, common identity; wholly utopian narratives may posit socially fallacious solutions which identify difference as the social problem, rather than pinpointing the interpretation and stratification of difference itself as a source of unrest or injustice.

     So, this definition is probably nothing new to us.[2] The question is, what makes utopian narrative feminist? According to bell hooks, “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives” (26). Feminist utopian narrative includes fiction that explores difference in the context of feminist discourse, meaning that in the search for ideal community, it considers both the existence of social stratification based on difference and the “humanist ideal of sameness” to be problematic (Melzer 1); as with feminist theories, difference may not always be problematized in the same ways in these narratives. As Frances Bartkowski states, “The feminist utopian novel is a place where theories of power can be addressed through the construction of narratives that test and stretch the boundaries of power in its operational details” (5).

     Feminist fiction tends to defy genre boundaries as well; it projects its desires for perfect community (utopia) and investigates problematic elements of those desires (dystopia). As such, many works are neither utopian nor dystopian per se, but contain elements of both. Raffaella Baccolini states that women writers expand the boundaries of the traditional utopian genre by creating works that “contain both utopian and dystopian elements,” and by utilizing narratives that resist closure. She terms these works “critical or open-ended dystopias” (13).

     Moreover, I say “feminist” rather than “humanist” because feminist utopia is firmly rooted in interrogating the present and the place of women in it, and often considers multiple layers of oppression in its analysis. This analysis presents a particular kind of vision, in three specific ways, and my exploration of these ways returns us to the subject of textual mentoring and the usefulness of utopian literature by feminist writers. Feminist utopias project longing for political change, they predict future manifestations of current social and technological experimentation (what Margaret Atwood has termed “forecast journalism”), and they confront current social problems by increasing the visibility of those ills, often in exaggerative terms. As an example, I present an examination of a recent text that I feel fits the definition of feminist utopia: Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing.

     A quick plot synopsis: Starhawk envisions a radically democratic community based in San Francisco that incorporates a non-violence ethic with sustainable living and cultural diversity. Religions of all varieties practice side-by-side, hospitals are staffed by teams that include traditionally trained specialists and healers who use magic, and new models of kinship make way for multi-racial families and sexually diverse practices. In contrast to this revolutionary community is the fundamentalist culture from which it has withdrawn, wherein The Millenialists, a slightly more extreme version of the Religious Right, control the government in tandem with global corporations. When people of the community become infected with a virus that resists treatment, the enclave leadership believes that the virus may be a weapon of the government. The protagonists struggle to find a cure for the virus and to forge alliances with other groups who resist the corporate and fundamentalist government. In the novel’s climax, the peaceful values and consensus process of the community, realizations of utopia, are tested when it must protect itself from an invading government army.

     What vision does this work provide? Here is the breakdown. Projection: The Fifth Sacred Thing projects the desire for a healthier, more egalitarian world free from violence and corruption. The original founders of the enclave have helped to turn the San Francisco Valley into a lush paradise in the desert through sustainable living; enough food and water exists for everyone, and each citizen has meaningful work. Governance of the enclave takes place through an often lengthy and argumentative consensus process among affinity groups, and a system of ethics based on earth spirituality guides the consensus process. Prediction: This text is a dire commentary on the consequences of ecological disaster, over-reliance on antibiotics, corporate control of water and food supplies, militarism, and the growing gap between rich and poor. Much of this is a commentary based on Starhawk’s own observations as an activist. In her recent book, Webs of Power, she writes, “The Global Justice Movement now must assert that water is a human right, linked to the right to life. There is no substitute for water; therefore there must be a limit to private ownership and control of water resources” (Starhawk, Webs 66). In this novel, water has been privatized in much the same way as it has been in real developing countries and in some American cities, and the result here has been that the poor must steal water in order to survive. The possibilities for human survival in this future seem grim, but resistance exists, just as Starhawk insists upon in current reality. Confrontation: Inevitably, as this text bluntly asserts, the conflation of Christian rhetoric with politics, and of government with corporate interests, will lead to greater repression and inequity. The army that clashes with the citizens of the city is a concrete illustration of what the narrative confronts: systems of domination and violence, supported by religious and corporate institutions.

     Additionally, models of consensus-building presented in the text are frustrating, but useful and inspiring, demonstrating the meaning of “critical utopia.” In this work, policy and decision-making based on consensus is the norm. Dissent is presented as a healthy component of the process, and participation in the process is a measure of one’s citizenship; blind obedience or conformity is regarded as dangerous. This demonstrates that while disputes may hinder collective action, the process of consensus allows for it. Repressive practices are not replicated here as with more limited utopias that long for sameness and fail to account for dissension. Starhawk’s consensus process is practical model that she has applied in training for direct actions, and a useful one for the present, particularly in the current political climate.

     While I have only touched on some of the more valuable aspects of The Fifth Sacred Thing, I hope I have illustrated my most important point: the usefulness of, indeed the necessity for, feminist utopian narrative. It should not be dismissed as escapist fantasy. The vision it provides through projection of desire for change, prediction of the future, and confrontation with the present makes it a unique tool for investigating manifestations of power and extrapolating new directions for feminist discourse and social consciousness. As such it should be thoughtfully considered as part of interdisciplinary pedagogy to foster the development of critical consciousness. The possibilities for mentoring through texts like this one are limitless, with a particular eye for the future vision and reflection of the present they provide. I hope you will consider utilizing this powerful tool, or at least reading a bit for yourself.


from an interview in The Progressive with David Barsamian.

The reader may notice that I am repeatedly referring to “we,” to the reader and myself; I am emphatically and intentionally using this referent to stress that the futures we dream of are everyone’s, or should be.


Baccolini, Raffaella. “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katherine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler.” Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. 13-34.

Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1989.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Melzer, Patricia. “‘All that you touch you change’: Utopian Desire and the Concept of Change in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” FemSpec (3.2). http://www.femspec.org/samples/butler.html.

Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. New York: Bantam, 1993.

---.Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2002.


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