The Belle Epoque: Utopia

The Victorian-Edwardian period was one of great optimism. Technological advances and the resulting prosperity had for the first time in history made it possible to believe that utopias were attainable. The result was a lot of crackpot theories: spiritualism, theosophy, eugenics, communism, nudism, free love, vegetarianism, and so forth.

Fantasy fiction of the time showed these influences. Africa, South America, the Arctic, and any other region with some remaining mystery were packed to bursting with long lost tribes of fair-skinned utopians, and quite a few of these tribes were completely female.

Jeff was a tender soul. I think he thought that country - if there was one - was just blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies, and all that sort of thing.
~Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Although Wonder Woman was created in 1941, Dr. Marston, the psychologist who created her, was clearly influenced by many of the same popular ideas of the late nineteenth century. Wonder Woman was descended from the Amazons of Greek mythology, who now live on Paradise Island, a sort of tropical commune where they all wear pretty dresses, have wrestling contests, and lounge on the beach. They used a "mental radio" to communicate telepathically. Astral projection, spirit planes and various forms of "thought energy" turned up regularly in the stories; we are told that the Amazons' superstrength comes from learning to focus their mind power. Avant-garde methods of therapy also showed up often; in one story, people reformed by having "fun therapy", but usually therapy involved bondage and discipline. Incidentally, Dr. Marston's editor claims that had he allowed Marston to leave in all the symbolism and stuff he wanted to, the stories would have been even weirder. After you read a few 1940's issues of WW, the mind boggles.
After Dr. Marston's death, a series of different writers with various interpretations of the character took over. None shared Marston's eccentricity and the character often became little more than a female Superman, but the fantasy of the all-female society on Paradise Island has lingered. Wonder Woman was the first female superhero who was not a spinoff of a male hero, and is the third longest-running superhero in comic books, after Superman and Batman.

Herland is probably the foremost classic of the "all-female society" genre. It's not exactly a good read; it's a didactic utopian novel, depicting an all-female society of highly competent women who dress in drab uniforms, have no interest in sex, reproduce by spontaneous parthenogenesis, and live together peacefully if dully in an agrarian communist paradise.
There are two main recurring themes in fantasies about all-female worlds, and the male explorers display both of them:
Jeff was a tender soul. I think he thought that country - if there was one - was just blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies, and all that sort of thing.
And Terry, in his secret heart, had visions of a sort of sublimated summer resort - just Girls and Girls and Girls - and that he was going to be - well, Terry was popular among women even when there were other men around, and it's not to be wondered at that he had pleasant dreams of what might happen. I could see it in his eyes as he lay there, looking at the long blue rollers slipping by, and fingering that impressive mustache of his.


It's only fair that both of the 20th century's most murderous ideologies should get a nineteenth-century all-female Utopian novel, so someone wrote Mizora, hauntingly remniscent of Nazism. The disinterest in sex remains, but the women wear beautiful and elaborate clothes. Instead of agrarian subsistence, Mizora is technologically highly advanced; they synthesize most of their food from minerals, have cured most diseases, have flying machines, and their parthenogenesis takes place in a laboratory. Their planned economy, unlike every planned economy in real life, has created great prosperity for all. Everybody is blonde and blue-eyed. The Nazis did not invent their "master race" theory all by themselves; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, not only did many people take the pseudoscience of eugenics seriously, but there was a widely held theory that blue-eyed blonds were the highest type of human. The theory is discussed in depth in Joanna Pitman's fascinating book On Blondes.

When Loneliness Comes by Geo. A. Glenn, M.D.
Published in 1940, this book is chiefly a pseudo-scientific defense of what was then called "free love" - he talks about things like "congestive pathology of the ovarian glands". Much of the book takes the form of the author relating how he lectured various people who consulted him about how important it is to have lots of sex, and complaining that men are not trained to be good in bed. He also indulges in the usual nonsense, derived from Margaret Mead's discredited research, about how happy "savage peoples" are made by their alleged promiscuity. He claims to have journeyed through the jungles of Peru and encountered there a tribe of white Amazons. They declared him God of the Moon and assigned him an exceedingly beautiful High Priestess named La, to whom the book is dedicated. I remind you that this is presented as a factual account, not a novel. With the help of an herbal aphrodisiac, he and another white American man, who has been declared the God of the Sun, service half a dozen women a day.

In between stud service sessions, he explains to the God of the Sun that he has been looking for the plant from which the aphrodisiac is made, because it will cure the effects of advancing age. The God of the Sun replies, "Were I to allow you to reveal this discovery to civilization... you would be crucified! The prudish religious forces of your land would denounce your claims, inasmuch as they have repeatedly opposed anything that stimulates sexual organs, regardless of the fact that the vital characteristics of man and woman are primarily generated by the sexual glands. Likewise your notoriously politicoreligious-controlled Press would either ignore or openly besmirch your findings." And much more in the same vein. Isn't it an amazing coincidence that both of the white men who were captured by this remote Peruvian Amazon tribe should see things exactly the same way?

The Amazons, it turns out, are quite above such civilized corruption as romantic love or family. Mothers feel no connection between themselves and their children, who are turned over to "the general nursery" - exactly what communists planned, before a generation's experiments in that direction proved it disastrous even by their standards. (This has not prevented their intellectual heirs today from continuing to advocate dragging children away from the influence of their parents as young as possible.) Not surprisingly, these Utopian Amazons have a communistic form of government: "Thereby, as the collectivity owns the national wealth, we do not penalize the individual."

The God of the Sun also explains that the habit of these Utopian Amazons of killing their sons and the men they occasionally kidnap for sex is all right because they don't enjoy it; it's only men who enjoy committing murder, therefore it's all right to kill men. This anticipates radical feminists by several decades. It's actually quite honest: every human attempt at Utopia has involved killing a lot of people. The good doctor is so impressed by hearing all this that he offers to return to civilization long enough to get the scientific equipment needed to fertilize women with the eggs of other women so that the Amazons can reproduce without fathers or sons. This, remember, is technology we still do not have today, but he talks as if it were the simplest of matters.

The story concludes with the author declaring that he has written this book to expose the horrible truth: that medicine is nothing but a racket to keep people sick (by telling them not to have sex) in order to get paid to make them well.

Sultana's Dream
An Indian fantasy about a world where men are secluded in a sort of reverse purdah. "Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?"

The Convent of Pleasure and Other Plays by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Like Cavendish's other play The Female Academy, this story depicts women creating a retreat from men and from the world in general. Safe from male domination and from the stresses of the outside world, the women enjoy beautiful pictures, soft bed-linens, delicious food, and companionship. Nor is the companionship altogether platonic; some of the women at times don male attire and pay court to others. One, a princess, courts the founder of the "convent" in most romantic terms and kisses her. At the end, it turns out that this princess was in fact a prince, and the founder marries him. Interestingly, this scene seems to have been written by Cavendish's husband!

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