Science Fiction Studies

#112 = Volume 37, Part 3 = November 2010


Sandra J. Lindow

Le Guin’s Post-feminist Carrier Bag Make-Over

Amy M. Clarke. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. 209 pp. $35 pbk.

Since the 1980s some writers have argued that Second Wave Feminism has ended. “Women’s Liberation” is no longer a catch phrase in everyday conversation. Consciousness-raising groups have been lost in the dust of the 1970s and bras no longer have iconic significance for most contemporary women. Feminism has evolved. Wanting to keep the successes and separate themselves from the perceived failures of the movement, some daughters of Second Wave Feminists call themselves Third Wave Feminists while others call themselves Post-Feminists. Amy M. Clarke of the University of California-Davis was born in 1961. Her book, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism, based on her dissertation, A Woman Writing: Feminist Awareness in Ursula K. Le Guin, describes Le Guin’s feminist evolution seen through a post-feminist lens. While Le Guin’s work has received considerable critical attention, Clarke asserts that “no book-length treatment of Le Guin’s feminism” has been published (1).

This succinctly written book represents a thorough reading of Le Guin’s work and traces the evolution of her feminist thought from early in her career, when she professed to her mother, Theodora Kroeber, that she did not know how to write about women, to the present when Le Guin, along with authors such as Joanna Russ and Pamela Sargent, are acclaimed as the most influential speculative writers to have explored gender (3). Journey is divided into a preface, an introduction, and five chapters, plus endnotes, bibliography, and index. Although, as a Second-Wave feminist, I would argue a bit with Clarke’s conclusions, Journey provides excellent insight into Le Guin’s evolving thought experiment.

In her preface, Clarke describes the shape of Le Guin’s career as “more circular or spherical than linear” and argues that Le Guin “can be read as a perfect model for how a literary/political movement like feminism can shape an artist” (3). I have studied Le Guin since the 1960s and although I agree that Le Guin’s literary oeuvre tends to circle (or perhaps spiral), revisiting earlier themes when needed, the overall shape of her career has been more organic—tree-like, perhaps, with a trunk firmly rooted in Taoism and Secular Humanism, growing through contemporary intellectual discussion to embrace anti-war activism, civil liberties, feminism, and all human rights. Furthermore, I quibble with the word “perfect” because it suggests artificiality. As a lifelong Taoist, Le Guin is wary of anyone claiming perfection in anything.

In an introduction whimsically entitled “The Return of the Native,” Clarke characterizes Le Guin’s feminism as an increased willingness to “offend” and “speak openly about her core beliefs” (8) and her post-feminism as “return and reconciliation” (14). While I agree that Le Guin’s work demonstrates a paradigm shift in the 1970s to a more explicit feminism, I have difficulty with Clarke’s conclusion that Le Guin’s writing has now “entered a post-feminist phase.” Clarke acknowledges that there are no clear-cut dividing lines and her mapping of Le Guin’s thematic evolution is clearly explained, but she errs first by defining mainline Second-Wave feminism as critical of “diversity, femininity, and sexuality” (23). Major feminist writers such as Gloria Steinem have embraced these concepts all along. Second, Clarke forces Le Guin’s as yet unfinished work into an artificial pattern rather than a naturally branching thought experiment. Clarke argues that Le Guin’s early work is defined by the constraints of male-oriented heroic fantasy and that during the writing of The Eye of the Heron (1978), Le Guin’s viewpoint shifted toward feminist expression (8), what Clarke describes as “woman’s writing”: “stories about women, told in non-linear fashion, about non-heroic people, and using the ‘mother tongue,’ the language of the household” (7). Novels such as Always Coming Home (1985) and Tehanu (1990) do indeed fit comfortably into this category, but Clarke’s argument falters when she attempts to prove that Le Guin’s present work no longer represents a feminist mindset. Furthermore, considering Le Guin’s stature, it is clear that she has influenced feminist thought in the field at least as much as she herself has been influenced. Since the 1980s and 1990s, writers such as gender-bending Tiptree winners Eleanor Arnason and Suzy McKee Charnas have professed to have been profoundly influenced by Le Guin.

In Chapter One, “Contrary Instincts,” Clarke describes Le Guin’s early experiments with gender as motivated and moderated by contradictory impulses: her desire to maintain “good manners” while still challenging the social order (31). Schooled in male-oriented literary traditions, Le Guin nevertheless uses male viewpoint characters to challenge the status quo and undermine the military/industrial complex that fueled the Vietnam War. She subverts the traditional hero tale through “marrying opposites and thus transcending conflict” instead of glorifying power and violence (43). Despite Le Guin’s purported early difficulty writing through female viewpoint characters and her 1970 disavowal of the movement as “too often anti-male and too middle-class” (6), her early work cannot be considered masculinist. It is apparent that Le Guin’s writing condemned women’s oppression, advocated for gender equality, and was informed by feminist thought from the beginning. The androgyny described in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) was certainly inspired by 1960s gender discussion. Ged, of the first Earthsea trilogy (1968-1972), becomes an arch mage but is primarily interested in finding his own emotional and spiritual balance and is willing to give up his power for the good of his world. Shevek of The Dispossessed (1974) is depressive, over-worked, and underweight. Never the massively muscular macho sort of male hero of the pulps, Shevek is a nerd who loves physics nearly as much as he loves his wife and children. Both heroes can be read, as Robin Roberts describes in Gender and Science in Science Fiction (1993), as “codedly feminine,” where “an author explores a singularly feminine dilemma using a male character as a stand-in or cover” (Roberts 16). Shevek and Ged are driven by motives of preserving hearth and home and do so to the detriment of their own health and well-being. Most female readers historically have had little difficulty identifying with them.

“Chapter Two: The Voyage Out” describes the ten years following the 1974 publication of The Dispossessed. With Hugo, Nebula, and National Book Awards behind her, Le Guin entered her “Space Crone” period and with a frankness often seen in other menopausal women, began to write and speak openly about women’s issues while fictionally challenging the literary traditions that informed her earlier work (96). Initially, this work, according to Clarke, is “sometimes cautious, lacking the fluidity of her early work” and “less original” (73), but beginning with The Eye of the Heron it exhibits “a genuine concentration on female characters” (77). Here Clarke points to possible parallels with the Women’s Movement. For instance, the rising continent in the 1975 short story “The New Atlantis” suggests “a feminist upswell, the rediscovery of female solidarity” (76). Le Guin’s poetry also provides insight into her paradigm shift and Clarke’s analysis of remaking “the mother-tongue” is particularly insightful (74), as is her discussion of the recurring motif of spider/weaver/artist (97-98). Le Guin’s rethinking of women’s experience culminates with a 1982 short story, “Sur,” which describes a trip to the South Pole by a group of South American women and attacks prevailing Western notions of success and heroism, defining a kind of sensible “her-oism” when dealing with adversity (95).

“Chapter Three: The Fisherwoman’s Daughter” describes a period of increased literary response to feminist thinkers such as Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller, Rachel Blau Du Plessis, and Hélène Cixous, whom Le Guin considers her “unteachers” (99). Le Guin revisits and revisions Earthsea, makes Always Coming Home (1985) multimedia, and writes beyond traditional happy or tragic endings to describe widowhood, old age, and non-traditional relationships. She creates “yin utopias” (125) where her eco-feminism links “patriarchal culture, exploitation of women, and devastation of nature” (111). In a 1986 interview, Le Guin describes herself as now “free of certain rigidities” (99). This greater freedom leads to increased textual experimentation. In major work such as Always Coming Home, Buffalo Gals (1987), Tehanu (1990), and Searoad (1991), women are intimately connected to nature, non-hierarchical relationships are valued, and characters are allowed to “share their understandings without arriving at definitive answers” (117). Her book of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989) is, according to Clarke, the culmination of Le Guin’s feminist thinking. Its final essay, “The Fisherman’s Daughter,” is a “loosely knit collage” that “undermines the conventional positioning of the author as authority and the reader/listener as acolyte,” where “Le Guin initiates reciprocal relationships among herself, her audience, and the women writers who went before her” (100).

“Chapter Four: Repairing the Sequence” represents the period from 1990 to 2001. With “The Shobies’ Story” (1990) Le Guin revisits the Hainish Universe last seen in The Dispossessed, having come to the liberating conclusion that science fiction is actually an aspect of fantasy and

that there was little to be gained by adhering too closely to traditions, including those governing genres. In terms of science fiction, she simply disregarded the old dictum that things in an invented universe had to make sense, that they must conform to the laws of physics. (127)

With the joyful abandonment of the “maverick child” she must have been at age ten when she wrote and tried to publish her first sf story, Le Guin creates “the churten drive, a universe-shrinking technology that ends exile by time dilation” (126). What follows is an extremely productive period that includes publication of such major work as A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995), The Telling (2000), and The Birthday of the World (2002). Le Guin returns to Earthsea to answer the question, “Where were the women?” and to revisit issues of life and death and child abuse from a distaff viewpoint. The Other Wind (2001) and Tales from Earthsea (2001) reflect a twenty-first century multicultural sensibility. Le Guin rethinks wizardly celibacy and the dangers of attempting to become immortal, challenging Christian traditions and reflecting a no-nonsense Taoist approach to the circle of life.

Her storytelling, though perhaps more straightforward in this period, embraces the messiness of reality, balancing “logic and tidy solutions” with “openness and imagination” (128). Ignoring once iron-clad sf rules first established by editors Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Le Guin banks on her sizable reputation and gives herself freedom to mix science and magic realism in The Telling. Always part of the intellectual forefront, Le Guin’s work shows influences of post-structuralism and post-colonialism while focusing on the shared reality and community created through storytelling:

The writing is more inclusive of people from the spectrums of preferences, sexual, political and religious; while lesbian characters, for example, deal with the difficulties associated with their sexual preference, they are main characters, not peripheral ones. There is more focus on sexuality, including unorthodox practices. The variety of roles humans can take is embraced. Devotion to childrearing, for example, is not treated as capitulation to patriarchy. (128-29)

Clarke sees the eclecticism of this period as evidence that Le Guin has moved into post-feminism but is careful to add that Le Guin has never disavowed feminism, nor written about post-feminism per se (128). I would argue that these issues have been apparent in Le Guin’s work from the beginning and that she has simply returned to them with the greater energy and the bravery of a writer whose reputation is solidly established.

“Chapter Five: Landing on Middle Ground” describes Le Guin’s most recent work, including Changing Planes (2003) and her YA Western Shore books— Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007)—concluding with a brief discussion of Lavinia (2008). These books are all direct responses to twenty-first-century issues, her post-9/11 anger and frustration about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and her concern for the safeguarding of intellectual freedom. Le Guin, who turned 80 in October of 2009, continues to have a great deal to say about the meaning of life. Her poetry collection, Incredible Good Fortune (2006), considers “mortality, words, nature, war and the aftermath of colonialism” (153). In her 2004 essay collection, The Wave in the Mind, she worries about whether violence is innate in the human condition, searching for a “middle ground between defense and attack, a ground of flexible resistance, a space opened for change” (154). The Western Shore books are all about the uses and misuses of power. Lavinia, a retelling of the last six books of the Aeneid, paints war as “inevitable” while depriving it of any glamour or glory. It “is the story of a woman who knowingly causes a war by the choice she makes” (154). Clarke suggests that in continuing Lavinia’s story after the death of Aeneas, her husband, Le Guin considers her own mortality and posterity. Clarke does not see that in describing Lavinia’s moral development from early childhood, Le Guin has written her most profoundly feminist work since “Sur.” As in Tehanu and Four Ways to Forgiveness, Le Guin revisits the lasting effects of child abuse, but Lavinia transcends her mother’s abuse to achieve voice and agency, reflecting the developmental process described by feminist moral thinkers Carol Gilligan and Mary Field Belenky.

That Second-Wave feminists are no longer rabble-rousing is unsurprising. Thirty years have passed. They have been there, done that, worn the t-shirt (maybe braless, maybe not); but even though they are using their “inside voices” now, most feminists will say that their commitment to the cause of women’s equality has not decreased. They, like Le Guin, have chosen to continue working for change within the system. In an interview published in the 28 September 2008 issue of New York Magazine, Gloria Steinem said, “To me, the single thing that oppresses most women is having two full-time jobs: to have to work for money and also take care of everything at home.” Steinem concludes, “I’ll know that we’re getting someplace when I go into Central Park and see white men wheeling babies of color and getting well paid for it. There is no post-feminism—it’s like saying ‘post-democracy’!” (Nussbaum 95).

Feminism, like democracy, is very broad. It can exist in many different forms as long as its goal of equality remains clear, but the term “post-feminism” is misleading. It implies that either the job is done and everything is fine or that feminists have failed, given up, and are no longer working for equality. Although, as Clarke has demonstrated, Le Guin and the post-feminists do indeed have things in common, it is not a matter of Le Guin’s coming to post-feminism; rather, it may well be that the post-feminists have come to her. The rune on the stone at the bottom of the carrier bag clearly says that Le Guin resists critical categories except the ones she takes for herself. In an interview with Paul J. Comeau published in the Spring 2010 Fifth Estate magazine, Le Guin describes herself as a feminist who keeps “the doors and windows open” (12). Separatist, man-hating feminism was never Le Guin’s feminism. She is wife, mother, and grandmother. As a Taoist, she has always resisted extremism. She continues to speak out for equal rights and to work for change in her own way. Le Guin concludes her interview with a telescopic view of the last forty years:

very, very slowly, the popular perception of feminists as a few bra-burning manhaters has had to shift and shrink, since ordinary women, wives, mothers, grandmothers, are willing to identify themselves as feminists. But oh, it is so slow, it takes so long! (Comeau 13)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Journey to Post-Feminism is well-written and engaging. Clarke has an extensive, well-researched understanding of Le Guin’s oeuvre, but, like the Marxists and anarchists who strive to claim Le Guin as their own, Clarke goes a bit too far in claiming Le Guin’s post-feminist transformation.

Comeau, Paul J. “Verbal Dance: An Interview With Ursula K. Le Guin.” Fifth Estate 45.1 (Spring 2010): 12-13.
Nussbaum, Emily. “In Conversation: Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad.” New York Magazine (28 Sept. 2008): 94-97.
Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.

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