In 1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman—a feminist, futurist, and activist—published a serial story about an all-women utopian society hidden in a jungle. They shared all labor and child care equally and reproduced without men. For generations, they lived peacefully, communally, and happily—until three men barged in, disrupting the order.
Herland—the title of Gilman’s story—was all fiction, but it was an allegory for her very real philosophy about what it would take for women to escape oppression: having full and equal opportunities to participate in all aspects of society, which meant turning all childcare and household work into a paid profession. Through the lens of today, we can see many problems in Gilman’s theories: they were focused on white, middle-class women and relied on an underclass of caregivers and domestic workers. Also, Gilman believed in eugenics, as did many of her contemporaries. But the debate around her work still animates conversations today about race, gender, class, and equity: What does an ideal society look like and who gets to participate?
Throughout this season of Nice Try!, we’ve explored past attempts to create ideal societies and places. Most of them haven’t succeeded because the people in them didn’t have complete autonomy, the belief structures were so rigid that they couldn’t be passed on, or because they replicated the very systems of oppression they sought to escape. The final episode of Nice Try! explores how three feminists have approached utopian world-building in fiction, in back-to-the-land separatist communities, and in queer spaces in cities, and asks: Is it possible to even build a utopia, or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes from history? Conceiving of utopia as an ever-evolving journey and not a finite destination—as philosophers Ernst Bloch and José Esteban Muñoz theorize—might be the answer.
This episode features interviews with Katherine Fusco, professor of literature at the University of Nevada and author of “Systems Not Men: Producing People in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland”; Barbara Lieu, a founder of Alapine, a lesbian community in Alabama; Lisa Silberstein, experience developer at the Oakland Museum of California; and Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, co-ordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and librarian and assistant professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Season 1 of Nice Try! may be over—but we have something special planned! Join us on Tuesday, August 6, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City for a bonus live taping of our hit podcast. Host Avery Trufelman will be in conversation with Caity Weaver of the New York Times as they explore humanity’s perpetual search for utopian living. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at 92y.org/curbed.