Science Fiction Studies

#130 = Volume 43, Part 3 = November 2016


Veronica Hollinger

“Some Real Mothers ...”

                                                                Whoever said
                                                it would go on and on like this.
                                                                waiting for tomorrow
                                                                long after tomorrow
                                                                should’ve come.

—Adrienne Rich, “Waiting for Rain, for Music” (13-14)

Angelika Bammer. Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s. 1991. Rev. ed. Ralahine Utopian Studies16 (Ralahine Classic). New York: Peter Lang, 2015. li + 365pp. €40.00; US$51.95 pbk.

At this moment of celebration for the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), the revised and updated edition of Angelika Bammer’s Partial Visions arrives as a kind of gift, at once comforting and unsettling—both for readers who lived through the feminist upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and for those who may be less familiar with the immediate historical, cultural, and theoretical foundations of today’s diverse feminisms, and less familiar as well with the utopianism of women’s writing in the 1970s. What a pleasure that the Ralahine Utopian Studies series has made this classic—originally published a quarter of a century ago—available again. And what a pleasure it is to read this new edition, which frames (and supplements in that Derridean way) Bammer’s original study with a long and thoughtful new introduction to the cultural and historical events of second-wave feminism and a challenging concluding roundtable discussion about the possibilities for both feminism and utopianism in the twenty-first century. If anything, this new edition of Partial Visions is even more interesting, informative, and important than its original. I cannot recommend it too highly.1

Partial Visions is much more than a study of representative feminist-utopian writing of the 1970s, although it is certainly that, offering as it does detailed readings of fictions such as Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères (1969),  Verena Stefan’s Häutungen [Shedding, 1975], and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). At the same time, it is also an astute examination of the theoretical intersections of feminism and utopianism, an enlightening overview of the competing theoretical positions embodied in feminist-utopian practices of the 1970s (including in the production of utopian fiction), and a wide-ranging comparative cultural history of second-wave feminism as utopian project in the US and western Europe. Bammer’s original project was in part an effort at remembering the feminist work of the 1970s, undertaking to restore to cultural memory a body of practices and cultural productions in danger of being disappeared under the weight of the 1980s, which were nothing if not a period of ugly backlash—encapsulated, for instance, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and in the title of Susan Faludi’s classic study, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991).2

In conjunction with the publication of studies such as Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (1986) and the proliferation of feminist sf and utopian studies since the 1980s, however, the feminist utopias of the 1970s have reclaimed their place as the most significant outpouring of utopian thought in the second half of the twentieth century. This reclamation was by no means assured when Bammer’s original study was taking shape. At the same time, the situation for women’s lives in the new millennium is perhaps even more dire than it was in the late 1980s—the revised Partial Visions is as relevant and timely as when it was first published. As Bammer notes in her 2015 introduction (and who can disagree?), “the world—and the condition of women in the world—isn’t better. In many cases and by many measurements, it is worse” (xxxiv).3

Bammer’s new introduction functions, among other things, as a brief history of US and German second-wave feminism, recounted in part through her own experiences as an activist and scholar. While noting the successes of academic feminism in the establishment of Women’s Studies and Gender Studies departments, she also notes the concurrent loss of ground outside the academy in the drastic reduction in the number of women’s bookstores and feminist presses in both the US and Germany. Not for nothing does Bammer “challenge the prevailing progress narrative” (xxxviii) according to which the theoretical foundations of second-wave feminism have been purged of their wrong-headed essentialism, and we are now all the better for it. Instead, Bammer argues—and Partial Visions amply supports this position—that “Not only ... have the radical promise and utopian potential of second wave feminism not yet been surpassed, they have not even been realized” (xxxviii).

This is no exercise in nostalgia for the past futures of 1970s feminism, however. Rather, it is a work of archeological remembering. Bammer makes this clear from the outset, insisting in the introduction to the Rahaline edition that Partial Visions “is not an elegy for a movement’s past. It is a work of recovery, an archeology of recent cultural memory that aims to retrieve and preserve what I believe is one of the most generative dimensions of second wave feminism: its utopian impulse” (xxi-xxii). A good archeology will give us some idea of the conceptual links between the present moment and its pasts, and this is what makes Bammer’s new Partial Visions not simply a history and not simply a literary study of a past decade. Rather, it serves to articulate the foundational work of second-wave feminism and its continuing transformations in the new millennium. It has been almost fifty years since the start of the second-wave feminist revolution, and this new edition of Partial Visions raises important questions about the ongoing significance of feminist movements and about what has been achieved since the late 1960s. The new layers of texts and histories enhance and expand Bammer’s original archeology of feminist utopianism and make this a multi-faceted study: an extremely valuable historical record of the rise of second-wave feminist movements in the United States, France, and Germany; an account of cognate elements in the work of first-wave feminists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; an incisive critical-theoretical examination of the intersections of feminism and utopianism from the 1970s to the present; and a clear-eyed examination of the state of feminist politics and cultural production in the twenty-first century.

Bammer was herself active in second-wave feminism in the 1970s, and she remains passionately committed to the utopian potential of feminist movements. At the same time, she documents the splintering of community that has resulted, in part, from ongoing theoretical critiques of the essentialist identity politics of separatist-feminist utopian fiction such as Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines (1978)  and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (1979), as well as the steamroller effects of globalization that also mitigate against separate political communities and separate fictional worlds. This was apparent even in the conclusion to the first iteration of Partial Visions: “In a world that is economically, ecologically, militarily, and culturally interconnected to such an extent that we de facto constitute a global community, there is no functional sense of separate or other worlds anymore” (234).

The 2015 edition of Partial Visions is framed by its two introductions (1991 and 2015) and by its two conclusions, the original and the new one,“Feminism and Utopianism, Then and Now—A Roundtable Dialogue,” which is less a conclusion than an exploration of future possibilities. These sections frame the six chapters that constitute the bulk of Bammer’s study. Chapter one, “Women and the History of Utopia,” traces the utopian impulse in women’s writing as far back as Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre de la cité des femmes [The Book of the City of Ladies, 1405], supporting Bammer’s contention that “to review the history of utopia from the perspective of women would cause the very concept of what a utopia is to change dramatically” (37). The crux of this chapter is the theoretical argument for feminist utopianism as process rather than as the blueprint for a particular utopian product. Relying on theorists such as Ernst Bloch and Fredric Jameson, Bammer traces the utopian impulse in feminist politics and writing, and argues against traditional conceptualizations of utopia as a site of fixed perfection: “To the extent that utopias insist on closure, both on the level of narrative structure and in their representation of a world complete unto itself, their transformative potential is undermined by the apparatus of their self-containment. What was utopian in impulse risks becoming dystopian” (26). This sense of the utopian impulse as a response to the Blochian principle of hope and as an ongoing process of working for a more equitable future is far more common now than it was when Partial Visions appeared in 1991, and I would argue that this is at least in part the result of Bammer’s influential first edition.

Chapter two, “Utopia and/as Ideology,” traces the development of women’s utopian fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the activism of first-wave feminism, juxtaposing texts such as Mary F. Bradley Lane’s Mizora: A Prophecy (1880-1881), Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant’s Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance (1893), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) against male-authored utopian fictions such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). In the “final” analysis, many of these women’s fictions “demonstrate how perilously close and easily reversible the categories utopia and ideology are,” given their assignment to nature of such cultural categories as class, race, and gender. Bammer’s thesis in this chapter is that “we are always ... bound by and to the very structures we are trying to escape,” situated as we are in very specific historical contexts. “However,” she argues, “as long as we think of utopia ... as a process, a series of utopian moments within the shifting configurations of the possible, those structures will not be immutable” (65).

Bammer’s third chapter, “Rewriting the Future: The Utopian Impulse in 1970s’ Feminism,” develops the theoretical and political axes of feminist utopianism as they were constituted in the historical upheavals of the 1960s, not least in the revolutionary energies of 1968. Her guide here is Bloch’s “principle of hope” and her aim is to explicate the currents—New Left revolutionary thought, for instance—that formed the historical and political contexts for the cultural separatism of much second-wave feminism— theoretically represented, for instance, by Luce Irigaray’s deconstructive critiques of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and Hélène Cixous’s call for an écriture feminine. This third chapter more or less completes Bammer’s cultural history of feminist movements in the United States, in France, and in East and West Germany into the 1970s, and leads into the final three chapters that read her exemplary texts in detail.

Chapter four, “Worlds Apart: Utopian Visions and ‘Separate Spheres’ Feminism” focuses, as its title suggests, on the “positive antitheses” (131) of separatist utopias such as American lesbian-feminist Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground and Verena Stefan’s Häutungen, “the first major literary articulation of the new West German’s women’s movement” (98). Bammer examines the struggles in these texts to revolutionize writing, to write as women against the grain of the masculinist language that is the only language available, to embody utopia in the embodiment of women’s writing. The theoretical tension in this chapter is between nature and culture, between essentialism and deconstruction. As Bammer writes of the biological definitions of women in these texts, they “forget that both nature and culture are themselves historical constructs. In that sense, nature itself is not natural” (111). In spite of this critique, Bammer’s reading of works such as The Wanderground is sympathetic and generous, noting the “new voice” (118) that Gearhart finds for women in the communal storytelling that constitutes the novel, and noting also the new ecological consciousness that infuses Gearhart’s text. This chapter is much more than a simple critique of essentialist currents in feminist thought; rather, “This affirmation of femaleness as a positive identity ... was a vital dimension of 1970s’ feminisms in general” (138).

Chapter five, “The End(s) of Struggle: The Dream of Utopia and the Call to Action,” examines some important challenges to the feminisms of the previous chapter, focusing on Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), invested in the position that there is nothing natural in human nature; Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, committed to historical embeddedness and calling for revolutionary action in the present; and Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian coming-of-age novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973). The central focus of this chapter, however, is a very substantial reading of East German’s writer Irmtraud Morgner’s Leben und Abenteurer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfaur Laura [The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura, 1974], in particular in terms of Morgner’s allegiance to a socialism aligned with feminism. Women must become the subjects of history and not merely its victims. In Bammer’s reading, Morgner’s novel points to the dilemma this poses: “for a woman to become a subject in history, she must simultaneously negate her place within a history that has denied her subjectivity and assume her place as a participant within that very history” (159; emphasis in original). Bammer’s attention to East German feminist cultural production in this chapter highlights the usefulness of a comparative methodology: “While [Morgner] maintains that evolution is possible, [Russ, Piercy, and Brown] insist that revolution is necessary” (169).

Novels by French feminists Monique Wittig (Les Guérillères) and Hélène Cixous (the bilingual Vivre l’orange/To live the orange, 1979), and West Germany’s Christa Wolf (Kein Ort Nirgends [No Place on Earth, 1979]) are the focus of Bammer’s sixth chapter, “Writing Toward the Not-Yet: Utopia as Process.” Bammer examines these texts in terms of Cixous’s commitment to écriture feminine, Wittig’s Marxist-inflected materialist feminism, and Wolf’s critical socialist feminism, seeing even in these very different positions “the degree to which they reflect on the implications of the difference between women as embodied subjects and the concept woman, and the impact of this difference on a feminist politics” (180). Wittig was one of the first feminist voices to challenge the idea of identity politics, arguing rather that the lesbian subject is “not-woman,” in that she is unconstrained by social relations with men. In contrast, Wolf’s Kein Ort. Nirgends is both “a lament” for the failures of socialism in 1970s Germany and an “insistence that the expansion of possibilities in which real choices can be made is for women an historical necessity” (207). Again in contrast, Cixous’s novel is an experiment with language, set in the present world and giving equal weight to the political and the aesthetic as “equally necessary dimensions of our lives” (221). Ultimately Bammer privileges the open-endedness of these fictions; these three writers “write toward more than they write about something,” rejecting “the idea of the utopian as a predefined state and instead project[ing] it as an open-ended process” (225-26).

In the conclusion to the first edition, Bammer outlines some of the political tensions that helped to shape the trajectory of second-wave feminism and which, arguably, still define what we might think of as the politics of the Other. For instance, should women embrace a cultural feminism that celebrates their essential difference, as espoused in fictions such as The Wanderground, or should they work for the collapse of gender difference, as Piercy does in Woman on the Edge of Time? As Bammer notes, “The first is a vision of a gender-separate world: a world of all women that is utopian because there are no men. The second is the vision of a gender-free state: a state beyond “woman” (and of course, “man”) that is utopian because it liberates women (and men) from the confines of gender.... the womanliness that the one affirms, the other negates” (230). Both positions, however, “address the same basic issue, namely the positioning of the female subject within a patriarchal culture” (230). Bammer here also points to some of the lacunae in second-wave feminist thought, most particularly its lack of attention to issues of class, race, and ethnicity, its tendency to assume a “we” that was in retrospect an exclusive category that did not recognize women of color, among others, whose voices only began to be heard in the 1980s. At the same time, Bammer’s study has made clear why a feminist identity politics was so necessary in the 1970s, as communities of women worked together to become subjects in history. 

Bammer does not offer a conventional conclusion to the new edition of Partial Visions but instead ends with an extended collective conversation about the ongoing potential for feminist utopianism. Participants include long-time feminist and utopian studies scholars such as Ruth Levitas, Fran Bartkowski, and Raffaella Baccolini, as well as newer scholars and activists such as Ildney Cavalcanti, Tahereh Aghdasifar, and Naama Nagar. The quotation from Adrienne Rich’s “Waiting for Rain, for Music” that serves as my epigraph, and that Bammer quotes in her 2015 introduction, suggests the sense of exhaustion that can so easily overtake such projects when the future so passionately desired remains so stubbornly out of reach. How is it possible to retain the energy and the passion required to transform such an intransigent world into a world that is more just and more joyful—and to transform ourselves in the process? As one roundtable participant notes, “The better society of the future will emerge from historical circumstances that the present can’t yet imagine, brought into being by people who, dialectically, are made fit to live in the new society by the transformations they undergo in the process of bringing it into being” (261). On the cover of the new edition of Partial Visions is a wonderful photograph that suggests the promise of such transformations: five laughing women with linked arms are outlined against an epic sky—their feet do not seem to be touching the ground. This is Toni Frisell’s “Five Women Running” (1935) and it captures the commitment to community and sisterhood, and to the difficult labour required by the principle of hope, that runs throughout Bammer’s text(s).

(Re)reading Partial Visions is both moving and inspiring. We are very far now from the optimism, excitement, and anger that mobilized second-wave feminism, and very far now from the cultural feminist agendas that helped to drive it. This is a moment during which feminist-utopian hope seems dimmer and more uncertain than ever, struggling as it does against the specters of extreme technologization, capitalist globalization, and the climate crisis. This new Partial Visions reminds us of what the utopian impulse is for, however, and confirms that feminism is nothing without that impulse: “No matter how far I walk, I will never reach it. What is the use of utopia? That’s its use: to help us walk” (Edouardo Galeano, qtd. by Baccolini 286).

1. My one disappointment is the relatively steep price of this new edition. Partial Visions will be of interest to a large and diverse readership, but too many potential readers may find it unaffordable.

2. In sf circles, we might recall Bruce Sterling’s elision of feminist sf in, among other places, his preface to William Gibson’s Burning Chrome (1986): “SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale” (ix). I have borrowed the title of this review from Samuel R. Delany’s response to Sterling and others, pointing to the powerful influence of feminist writers on 1980s cyberpunk: “What [cyberpunk has] got are mothers. A whole set of them—who, in literary terms, were so promiscuous that their cyberpunk offspring will simply never be able to settle down, sure of a certain daddy” (177).

3. Bammer cites the conclusion of the 2006 UN Report on Women: “There is no region of the world, no country and no culture in which women’s freedom from violence has been secured” (xl).

Delany, Samuel R. “Some Real Mothers ...: The SF Eye Interview.” 1987. Silent Interviews: On Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1994. 164-85.

Rich, Adrienne. “Waiting for Rain, for Music.” 2009. Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems, 2007-2010. New York: Norton, 13-14.

Sterling, Bruce. “Preface.” Burning Chrome. William Gibson. 1986. New York: Ace, 1987. ix-xii.

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