In the course of reading and choosing what books to read, sometimes one book leads to another. Sometimes I read a series of books on the same topic. This often happens with non – fiction, but it can happen with fiction. A recent reread of Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women led to several people recommending Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women's Country as a similarly themed story. As I found Sargent’s speculations on gender to be particularly interesting, I read Tepper’s work a few weeks later. Having found the theme of both books interesting, I was reminded of having heard about an earlier work called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This book seemed like an important precursor to later books depicting fictional matriarchies. Thus, I also read Gillman’s novel.
I think it is relevant to note a few of my observations about supposed read life matriarchies. A Google search indicates that there are several definitions of the term matriarchy. For the purpose of this post I will define the concept as a society where women have significantly more political, social, and economic power then do men.
From time to time there appear claims that some real life matriarchy exists or existed in an obscure area of the world. There are also claims that all of human society was once matriarchal. Though a detailed discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this post, everything that I have ever read from credible sources indicates that no true matriarchy exists, or has ever existed. I should note that there are indeed matrilineal societies. A matrilineal society is a system where ancestral descent, names, inheritances, linages, etc., are traced through mothers instead of fathers. Often folks identify these societies as matriarchies. Based upon the definition that I am using here, they are not matriarchies. A good piece by social anthropologist Liza Debevec explaining the difference is here.
As for the fictional matriarchies, I think that an exercise comparing and contrasting the three works mentioned above will be fruitful. All three authors described societies that easily fit within the definition of matriarchal. It also seems that these books share a common influence. The newer novels seem to have been influenced by Herland. As I observed in my commentary on The Gate to Women's Country, it seems possible that Tepper read and was influenced by Sargent’s book.
One commonality between these books is that all three authors see the differences in men and women to be a combination of biology and culture. This is in contrast to the many folks today who insist that gender differences are entirely cultural. If one were to accept that gender is entirely a cultural construct, a matriarchy in some instances would be a mirror image of a patriarchy. Stories depicting simple role reversals between genders exist, but they seem dull and in my opinion are not an accurate refection of reality.
All three authors suppose that one of the biggest differences between large groups of men and women is the level of violence between the groups. I think that all three authors are correct here. Large groups of men are on average, more violent then large groups of women. I think that there is clear evidence that there are biological differences that account for this. It seems that these authors agree. With that, history and current events show that culture also has a great effect on how violent people will be. This also seems to be factored into all these works.
One cannot draw conclusions or make assumptions about individuals based on these averages. I think that Sargeant gets it right for women, despite the differences inherent in large groups, some of the women in her world are violent. This is reflective of reality. Tepper depicts a world where some men are violent some are not. Again this is true of real life. Gilman on the other hand depicts an all - women society that is one hundred percent non - violent. I think that this is unrealistic.
There are also important differences in the way that the authors foresaw their respective societies. Tepper’s society is the most interesting and I would argue the most realistic. In her world, some men live with the women of the cities. That is in itself is more plausible then total gender segregation.
Both Sargeant and Gillman depicted societies where the genders are completely segregated. Gillman and Tepper created societies that were better off due to a preponderance of power vested in women. In fact, Gillman’s Herland was a utopia. Gillman clearly laid - out and believed that a better and egalitarian society would come about but only if men learned from women. Sargeant’s society was depicted as being harmful to both women and men due to gender segregation and the power imbalance.
Tepper seemed to be saying that a better society based on egalitarianism was impossible due to a percentage of men who were genetically disposed to be violent. Her solution was selective breeding that would lead to a world where men were less violent. Sargeant’s message was that an egalitarian society based on gender equality would be the most beneficial.
I would be remiss if I did not mention another fictional matriarchal organization, perhaps better described as a society. This fictional creation was Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit sisterhood found in his Dune books. The Bene Gesserit are an ancient society of women who have mastered great intellectual, psychic and physical powers. Herbert’s fictional group differs from the above depictions in that the Bene Gesserit could never include all women. It was a group of elites. Early in the Dune books the sisterhood was depicted as mix of good and bad, but as more unsympathetic then sympathetic. However, as the series progressed, it seemed that Herbert’s affection for his own creation grew. Several books late in the series centered on the Bene Gesserit and the stories were populated with sympathetic women who were its leaders and members. It is significant that unlike most other groups in Herbert’s Universe, the Bene Gesserit were attempting, at least on some level, to safeguard humanity’s future. Most of the other groups that Herbert created, were interested only in their own power. With that, Herbert’s sisterhood practiced violence. However, they did so more judiciously then other groups in his Universe.
It is unsurprising that there were similarities and differences between all of the above visions. I think that it would be difficult to find one hundred percent agreement between any two people on these issues. With that, I think that the similarities between these authors’ creations are reflective of reality that gender differences are a combination of nature verses nurture and that the propensity for violence is one of the biggest differences between large groups of men and women.
Exploring gender issues is common in fiction. Many non - science - fiction writers, from Jane Austen to Chinua Achebe as well as many others have done so. However, through the medium of science fiction and fantasy, authors can explore territory that more conventional writers cannot. I found that reading all of the above books to be interesting, insightful and entertaining.
My commentary on The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent is here.
My commentary on The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is here.
My commentary on Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is here.