The tradition of utopian thought in western culture has been a long and weighty one. Some trace it back as far as classical Antiquity, others date it from the Renaissance. But whether it is said to have originated with Plato or with Thomas More, utopianism1 has been a staple, if not bedrock, of the western cultural tradition. By the late 1970s, however, some of its most eminent historians were proclaiming its demise. With a nostalgic look backward at the great utopian classics of the past, Frank and Fritzie Manuel’s monumental study Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979), concluded that the utopian imagination seemed finally to have exhausted itself, to have run its historical course. Social analysts also weighed in with their verdict, announcing that the counter-cultural and rebellious dreamers of the 1960s were finally waking up to reality. While these various assessments of the relationship between utopianism and the so-called “real world” differed in terms of the way they framed history (some, like the Manuels, spanned millennia, while others dealt in decades), in Realpolitik terms they amounted to more or Jess the same thing. Conservation, not change, was the proposed order of the day. Utopia-the vision of the radically better world that our world could potentially be-was declared dead along with the movements for change that had inscribed it on their banners. It is my contention that this verdict was only partially true. In particular, I believe, it ignores the emergence of political and cultural movements at the time for which a utopian dimension was critical. Central among these was feminism. At the very time that the dream of utopia was being pronounced dead, it was vibrantly alive in the emergent American and western European women’s movements. Inasmuch as the various feminisms that took shape in
the 1970s called for new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, new ways of living, loving, and working, new ways of experiencing the body, using language, and defining power, their cumulative vision encompassed nothing short of a complete transformation of the very reality that the erstwhile dreamers of the 1960s were supposedly learning to accept. Indeed, to the extent that feminism was-and is-based on the principle of women’s liberation, a principle that is not reducible to a simple matter of equal rights, it was-and is-not only revolutionary but radically utopian. Moreover, as feminists not only expressed the belief that “reality” should and could be changed, but acted on the basis of that assumption, the very concepts “revolutionary” and “utopian” were transformed. Revolution was defined in terms of process. And the concept of utopia became concrete.