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Utopian Visions & Urban Living

"Woman on the Edge of Time"
by Marge Piercy, Crest, 1990

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: September 7, 1992
Present: Maria C., Catherine C., Carolyn K., Cara A., Bernadette C., Colleen M., Miranda H., Kalisa, and Cathleen M.

Marge Piercy's inspiring science fiction novel is about a working class Chicana who has been committed to a mental institution and is struggling to avoid a ruthless lobotomy. Able to channel into the year 2137, she encounters a utopia distinctly ecofeminist in character. To her horror, she also stumbles into a competing techno dystopia.

Although all the women at this session truly enjoyed Piercy's work, we had numerous criticisms. One woman noted that the book reflects certain radical feminist ideas of the 70's that differ from those that have evolved into contemporary ecofeminism. The clearest example was Piercy's vision of a future in which humans are created in biogenetic labs; women are no longer birthgivers.

This harks back to 70's feminist Shulamith Firestone, among others, who saw science as a way to free females from the shackles of birthing. All of us felt that women's ability to give birth is sacred and that technological birthing is an anathema.

Although we welcomed Piercy's imaginative world in which males likewise parent, stripping women of their innate power to give life was not seen as a constructive way to equalize gender relations. One woman deplored the idea of taking away from women. If equality is the goal, she preferred a utopia in which men also give birth.

Several woman felt that had Piercy written her book today, she surely would not have constructed a society in which animals are hunted and eaten by humans. In Piercy's utopia interspecies communication exists through a higher form of language, an animal advocate participates in the grassroots government, and nonanimal food is plentiful (though, regrettably, genetically engineered).

Given this scenario, some women found it incongruous that her characters would kill and eat those with whom they are friends. Were she to compose this book in the 90's, the popularity (and ecofeminist support) of today's animal rights and vegetarian movements would seemingly have influenced Piercy to imagine a more thorough non-speciesist society. [Note: none of us had read Piercy's 1991 sci fi novel He, She, It.]

Several women commented on Piercy's positive depiction of death as a natural passage in the cycle of life. Ecofeminists (as well as prepatriarchal peoples and most current indigenous cultures) regard death with respect, and not a force to be feared or controlled as it is under patriarchy.

One woman thought it curious that in a society that accepts death positively Piercy would perceive the death penalty as a means of punishing the incorrigibly violent. Another woman, however, said that in a culture which recognizes multiple rebirths of the soul, there exists a spiritual logic in ending a life so that another more life affirming incarnation can inhabit that energy space.

Piercy's future juxtaposed a nature-based utopia with a frightening, aggressively technological dystopia. One woman said that it seemed appropriate for Piercy to locate her dystopia in what is now New York City. Other women, however, strongly rejected the book's claim that cities do not work, noting, for example, that most urban centers provide public transportation options.

One woman added that 40% of all mass transportation in the U.S. is located in New York City alone. By contrast, outside most cities auto dependency is the depressing norm—a carmegeddon in the making. Other women added that people are part of nature, that people live in cities, and that we can and should reclaim them.

One woman exclaimed that the privileged elite who control most urban planning don't prioritize the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic need for green space because they are in a position to purchase nature retreats. Since large portions of metropolitan populations are people of color, another woman implied that it may even be racist to advocate abandoning cities.

Some women felt that instead of fleeing to the country, we should be concentrating on bringing the country back into our cities. One woman, a gardener, called for massive infusions of greenery to replace the omnipresent concrete. Another woman felt that even though small-town life may be a refuge from big-city ills, rampant consumerism by inhabitants there is no more earth-friendly than the environmental problems of the megalopolis.

One woman appreciated Piercy's concept of ample leisure time. Along with good health, she said self-defined time is her most cherished want/need. It is through her own time that she is able to most creatively and radically give birth to new realities. The more time we spend in the corporate workplace, the more our visionary minds are distracted and stultified—and the further we enable the possibility of a patriarchal dystopia.

Although economically difficult, she felt her active commitment to disengage from the dysfunctional corporate paradigm constitutes a direct contribution toward the realization of a society based on ecofeminist ethics.

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