Book Review: The Feminist Utopia Project, fifty-seven visions of a wildly better future

The Feminist Utopia Project, fifty-seven visions of a wildly better future

edited by Alexandra Brodsky, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

This was a great book. But then, I expected it to be that from the LRB interview I had seen about it. I had to buy it from Amazon USA because, as a modest art-academic project with the Feminist Press, it has not been published in the UK (yet).

The collection is mostly short stories and essays but includes poems, listicles, art, the lot. I’m in the middle of writing fiction about a world with different gender dynamics so I especially wanted to look at these, even more after I saw the contributors included Melissa Gira Grant and a few other writers I already enjoy reading.

This won’t be a particularly thorough review: if you’re the kind of person who thinks they’d like to read a book called the feminist utopia project, yes, this is the kind of book you would like to read. But here are a few observations.

One thing that is striking, and in a way depressing, is that what particular essays or short stories describe as utopia is literally the reality of most of Western Europe. Entries basically describe an idealised NHS (minus funding battles and day to day disaster). Others look to a Scandinavian model of labour relations with employee voices in company management, protected sickness and parental rights, maximum working hours.

Hearteningly, some go further than even the Scandinavian countries have done in terms of a universal basic income or nationwide restorative/community justice programs (i.e. rather than a punitive prison system), but even those have reality or plausible futures in north European municipalities. Why sad, then? Because so much of the pain and hurt these writers or their communities experience could be helped by existing structures. By the same note it is comforting that utopia is just a plane-ride away and is there to be studied, refined, built upon.

At the other end of the scale, some of the utopias are full-blown make believe. Reading, I had to restrain the think tank policy wonk in me that was grinding its teeth at every vague paragraph and itching to write in the margins ‘How is this costed? What about opposition? How would this even work?!’ They lacked specifics, they lacked any sense of how we’d get there.

But that wonk deserved to be restrained. The essays were not policy proposals, not even political aspirations, but ideal dreams. The premise is that the will and tools are there for the building. Each entry had merit, whether it was in sheer imagination, the sci-fi quality of some set hundreds or thousands of years in the future, the specificity in looking at tiny aspects of life I’d never considered from a utopian or even mundane point of view, or in the high quality manner they were written.

The best contributions fell between these extremes. They imagined a world in which social progress was believable, possible, practicable – almost tangibly better – but also visionary and optimistic. Many of them did at least nod towards how they would be funded, or how problems could be worked out. Some, like the contribution of Melissa Gira Grant (author of the excellent Playing the Whore) challenged readers to do more now to at least lay the groundwork for utopia, not gaze at a nebular future.

Thanks to the high number and brevity of contributions, the impression you get is more constructive than dreamlike. Even the pretty far-out ideas have clear aspirations we could move towards, and there are very few simple demands for (to straw man) a world in the clouds where nobody was ever mean and food just appeared at will. There is certainly no single utopia here, and many contributions contradict in particulars, although a beauty of the book as a whole is spotting tacit areas broad agreement, spheres of similarity.

Without spoiling much, Gloria Malone’s Feminist Utopia Teen Mom Schedule was one that got me especially excited. In a richly detailed diary entry Malone takes you through a typical schoolday, letting you see the changes introduced in her world to make a teenage mother’s life easier. This was done without spelling out or patronising the reader on the wider societal shifts that happened in the background. Justine Wu’s Reproductive Supporters chimed in a similar way.

Another strong entry retrospectively charted the evolution of migrants’ experiences naturalising in America. Again, to avoid spoilers, it is enough to say that the progress Dara Lind describes would not be a great leap in political terms, but could be millions of humane steps.

The editors clearly went to the effort to embrace intersectionality. There is a wide consideration of themes – race, trans, sexuality, poly living, sex work, reproductive health, childhood, education, body and body image, Hollywood and literature, ageing, poetry, fashion, humour, parenthood, lactation, linguistics, deafness, mental health. If that’s not enough for you to ask to borrow my copy, stop reading this review.

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