“They had hardly more understanding than a really intelligent dog, and besides nearly everything was too sacred for them to hear” (Burdekin 415): so are the words of the Knight in Katharine Burdekin’s 1937 dystopia, Swastika Nights as he reflects on the treatment of women within his patriarchal society. This quote is representative of the harsh patriarchal ideologies present in the 1900s when Swastika Nights was written. This patriarchal and domineering language present in Swastika Nights is a clear example of a dehumanizing and degrading societal tone in regards to women.
On the contrary, however, Herland, a 1915 utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, describes a land where women are abundant and men are absent. The introduction of this work clearly describes to voyagers that males are not present within the society while also insinuating that women are agent. Despite the absence of men within this society, the women are self-sustainable and able to reproduce and survive on their own. Both Swastika Nights and Herland demonstrate unparalleled differences within their utopian societies compared to the conditions and treatment of women of the period in which they were written.
As Professor John Carey states in his introduction to the Faber Book of Utopias, “[Utopian writing] is a collection of humanity’s desires and fears as recorded over the past two thousand years and more” (Carey 1). Aligned with Professor Carey, within this essay, I will explore a record of fears from a feminist perspective within two utopian writings, Herland and Swastika Nights, by presenting textual evidence that demonstrates the effects of patriarchy in the Modern period on its respective utopian works.
To begin understanding the effects of a patriarchal society on women’s equality, we must first reflect on gender roles and women’s rights, which were major concerns in the Modern period. Prior to the twentieth century, the utopian tradition represented a patriarchal tone and often displayed male sensual desires. In response, many feminist movements and writings have occurred. Thus, patriarchy remains a major theme in society and writing, both in the past and present. Herland, a twentieth century utopian work, is a clear representation of a move toward a matriarchal and feminist view.
For instance, the need for sex passion within Herland is absent, because the rlanders can reproduce parthenogenetically, or asexually. This view can be further observed within the text in terms of word choice and associations. The author of Herland is very explicit in her notion of patriarchy within society. For example, the women of Herland express to the explorers that men are absent from their society, by regarding that “all men were wiped out by a catastrophe” (Gilman 382).
This expression of a successful society without men represents a grave difference from the subordination of women to men that was prevalent in the 1900s. During the construction of Herland, according to Pacific University Professor of History, Martha Rampton, “the social and political climate was focused on the emerging first wave feminist movements which focused on equal opportunities for women, with a large focus on suffrage” (Rampton). Within Herland, Gilman’s attitude toward equal rights for women are displayed.
The relationship between the Herlander women and the three male voyagers, Terry, Jeff, and Van, demonstrates the difficulty associated with equality for women. Each of the three men approaches his relationship with his Herland companion differently, with the most successful being Jeff and Celis and the least being Terry and Alima. Terry’s thoughts and actions of Herland depict the common stereotype of a patriarchal society. He struggles to regard Alima as his equal and often becomes aggressive because he believes women desire submission.
For example, Terry understands that the notion of sex is incomprehensible to Alima, nevertheless, he forcefully overpowers her to commit a sexual act (Gilman 386). This scenario presents cogent similarities to the controversy present within contemporary society of reproductive rights, where often women are deprived of their rights due to the inherent subordination of women in society. Overall, male minance in society derives negative connotations and fears within women and often sexual intercourse is a reinforcement of patriarchal power.
Also within the text, Gilman identifies areas of calamity that are eliminated within the utopian society to provide equality among its inhabitants. For instance to annihilate competition, “no private homes” or “families” exist (Gilman 382); instead, individuals are raised communally. This communal living, according to the text, eradicates the society of common hardships present in European and similarly constructed societies such as “war, greed, and hatred” (Gilman 383) along with poverty and sickness.
Therefore, Herland, is an illustration of the reconciliation of social harmony to a society through the deviation from private property and nuclear families to communal living and equality. Patriarchy within society can be found in every aspect of life, from occupation to religion. Specifically, within the excerpt, Gilman can be seen to embrace femininity by her description of Herland’s religion. Within the society, the practiced religion was “maternal pantheism” (Gilman 385), accordingly worshipping a female, rather than traditional religions for whose focus is of a “domineering paternal god” (Gilman 385) like Christianity or Buddhism.
By removing the male-dominance from all regards of life, including religion, within the utopian society, Gilman can be observed referencing the negative impact patriarchy has on society while also revealing sources of female fears in maledominated spaces. In much of the same way, Gilman criticizes patriarchy through symbolism. Since ancient times and especially in the twentieth century when women were advocating for equal rights, men were being associated with hunters and women with being homemakers. In much of the same way, a recent study has observed that men believe meat is linked to their masculinity.
Recently, Hank Rothgerber, a professor of psychology at Bellarmine University, published research that stated, “meat eating is linked with manhood, power, and virility” (2), thus demonstrating the junction between masculinity and meat. Analogous to the study, within the text Gilman articulates her disdain toward patriarchy by excluding meat from the society. “They very soon eliminated all the grazing cattle… also they worked out a system of intensive agriculture surpassing anything I ever heard of” (Gilman 383), representative of the diversion of Herland from a carnivorous society to a vegan society.
The prohibition of meat consumption, a symbol of patriarchy, figuratively illustrates the link between patriarchy and meat, and thus by removing meat, Gilman advertently removes patriarchy from the utopian society and alleviates the fear of submission and subordination of women. Contrary to Charlotte Gilman in Herland, which can be acknowledged to express great disdain for patriarchy within society, Katharine Burdekin, author of Swastika Nights, can be seen to endorse and showcase the effects of patriarchy. Swastika Nights, a 1937 feminist dystopia, highlights the intense realities that accompany a male-dominated, totalitarian society.
During the time of Swastika Nights’ composition, the Nazi regime was in power, The Holocaust Period was underway, and the United States was experiencing The Great Depression. Likewise, women had been granted suffrage in the United States, but both abroad and on the home front societal fears on their behalf were still prevalent in regards to equality. With respect to the conditions of contemporary society in the 1930s, within the text, Burdekin uses a combination of aspects from each of the previous affairs to express fears and illustrate the potential manifestation of patriarchy within society.
In the beginning of the text, women are vividly described as innately simple and weak, stating, “Women will always be exactly what men want them to be. They have no will, no character, and no souls, they are only a reflection of men. ” (Burdekin 413). This series of negation in the text is hence explaining that maledominance is required for women’s survival, by calling into question all the qualities that make a human an individual and thus insinuating that they are all fundamentally controlled by males. An example of this control is, “Once they were convinced that men really wanted them to be animals and ugly and completely submissive… hey shaved their heads till they bled, they rejoiced in their hideous uniforms… they pulled out their front teeth until they were forbidden for reasons of health” (Burdekin 413). This type of psychological control degrades self-esteem and is symbolic of women’s fear of submission in a totalitarian society, where misogyny can potentially destroy their ability to have equal rights. As the novel continues, Burdekin shows physical control of the women by stating that women were, “Herded into cages, they are at the disposal of any man who wishes to use them. ” (412).
This quote is demonstrative of the lack of reproductive rights in a maledominated society, which strengthens the idea that women are not equal to men, even with regard to their own bodies. Likewise, this helps to explain how history can be interpreted through utopian writings as Professor Carey suggests. As the women in Swastika Nights were accepting subordinate treatment to men, the women in the 1930s were protesting and defending their rights to equality. Much in the same way, as a means of strengthening a patriarchal society, the concept of beauty for women was eradicated.
As the text states, “All memories of the time when women were considered beautiful have been expunged, because the power beauty gave them over men was considered an insult to manhood” (Burdekin 412). The men in the text understood that in order to maintain order and dominance, beautiful women cannot exist. This behavior is similar to the modern cultural practices of Middle Eastern countries, where females are restricted to clothing that obscures their beauty, whereas, women in the United States promote equality and freedom in dress, thus representing women’s fear f losing their identity and the ability to express their femininity.
Overall, the analysis of Herland and Swastika Nights, further explains the capacity of utopian writings to provide historical knowledge of the literary periods in which they are written. Until the twentieth century, when both Herland and Swastika Nights were written, the genre of utopian literature was maledominated and often centered on sensual pleasures and the imbalance of power between genders in society from their perspective.
These two texts, however, present alternatives to the traditional male perspective of patriarchy within society, as they are both written by women. Specifically, this essay focused on women’s fears regarding patriarchy, equal rights, and respect. Gilman articulates these female fears in a eutopian society by emphasizing the other contributions women make to society besides reproduction such as educating the youth, while Swastika Nights, illustrates this focus by highlighting the negative impact of patriarchy on women and its ability to strip them of their beauty and rights.
Lastly, Professor John Carey’s claim that utopian writings are an accurate representation of the desires and fears of the past can be revealed in Katharine Burdekin life. When Swastika Nights was originally published, Burdekin opted to publish her book under a masculine pseudonym, Murray Constantine. This detail reflects her fear that as a woman her work would not be recognized and readily received by audiences under a female name, again illustrating the subordination of women to men that society condones.