Founding the Feminist Utopia

Founding the Feminist Utopia

By Léone Drapeaud

Feminist approaches to space-making are often seen as domestic, humble, both in scale and scope. Many historic and social structures have encouraged women to tackle the issues within their immediate grasp. However, the lack of clearly labelled feminist spaces in architectural history does not signify that feminists have not broached the project of the feminist city. The fact that novelists have done so rather than architects testifies not only to the arduousness of the question on a conceptual level but also to the field’s reluctance to adapt as a space of experimentation for this particular social issue.

Feminist utopian fiction offers some insight into how cities and communities can absorb and manifest a new feminist society. Utopia may be located outside of space and time; it nevertheless always builds upon, or reacts to, an existing context. Space is a vector of expression of a social order: it creates relations, hierarchies, and systems of exclusion and inclusion. Space expresses power, reflecting and manifesting rules, values, and hierarchies through its form. Space is also the result of social relations, which makes it adaptable and ever-changing. As it is used, occupied, and crossed, these activities influence its form. Utopia relies on the mechanisms of space to articulate new social orders through its imaginary geometries and geographies. Thomas Markus states that "As utopian vision is concerned with the creation of power relations which are just and rich bond relations, so its architecture (as indeed any architecture) can only be understood in terms of power and bonds." (1) An analysis of the composition, typologies, materials, building techniques, and functions, as well as spatial relations in utopian fiction, from the domestic to the territorial scale, reveals possibilities for what a feminist space can be and what power dynamics and values the space expresses. 

Three spatial archetypes for city building appear in this survey of feminist utopian fiction: the fortress, the city as a machine, and the overlay. The fortress creates a new context through isolation. This approach is as close to the blank slate as fiction dares to be, without erasing the merits of comparison with an elapsed social structure. The city as a machine adopts the standpoint that work is both the backbone of society and of women’s oppression. By ordering new social and spatial structures linked to work, the social status of women can be challenged and improved. For lack of a better term, the last archetype is called the overlay, presenting a feminist coup that subverts existing spatial structures.


Image 1 / Illumination representing the three virtues Rectitude, Reason, and Justice overseeing the construction of the “Cité des Dames,” c 1410-c 1414

The Fortress

Since Christine de Pizan imagined The Book of the City of Ladies (La Livre de la Cité des Dames) in the early fifteenth century, many writers have continued to consider an enclosure necessary for utopia. While the City of Ladies (see image 1) encloses women in a beautiful city based on their personal merits rather than their birth status, spatial segregation based on gender is commonplace in feminist utopia. The segregated space has borders that are often hermetic rather than porous. Drastic events, such as war or environmental disaster, often precipitate the quest for utopia, leading to the creation of a new society isolated in both time and space. In the twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland isolates women on a high plateau due to the concurrence of a natural catastrophe with a tribal war that has led all of the men away from the land and a slave rebellion that kills all of the boys. In Ursula K. le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, a genderless humanity results from ancient genetic experiments. 

However, the most common spatial proposition is that of the walled city. Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women is one such utopia that exemplifies this fortress archetype. The premise of the story lies in how men, having caused a nuclear catastrophe that ended the world as we know it, are considered unworthy of power and therefore excluded from the cities. While bands of men roam the hostile expanses of wilderness in the hopes of settling the land again, women have become scientists, researchers, and politicians who inhabit the city. The city is a place of knowledge, power, safety (and secrecy).  It is concealed by thick, tall walls. Inside, there are technical, legal, military, medical, and political facilities capped by a climate-controlling dome. Men, living in nomadic camps, do not have access to the city's infrastructure, knowledge, or technology. Women are protected, healthy, and educated, while men face environmental danger, are illiterate, and die young.

The gendered spaces in The Shore of Women reflect not only the relationships between men and women but also values associated with gender. Sargent plays with some gender binaries, in particular nature and culture (see image 2). Nature—often associated with femininity—is inhabited by men, who understand its cycles and fluidity but are not masters of it. Nature is feared by women, who strive to control it through technology, including in matters regarding reproduction. It is unclear whether the walls around the city serve to keep the women in or to keep the men out. Women scout, travel, and trade in their golden drones, never touching down on the land. Women master the hard sciences and consider social sciences and arts useless, yet their quest for knowledge and research is conservative and undaring. Men, on the other hand, are bound together by legends and oral tradition and are highly religious. Segregating genders allows Sargent to define essential qualities for each gender which are not necessarily expected.

Sargent uses the symbolic forms of urban space to express power. The social elite, the Mothers of the City, hold all political and sexual power. The Mothers are responsible for bearing and rearing male children, while laywomen only have theoretical knowledge of men, so the Mothers also make all political decisions for the greater good. The Mothers live in a part of the city that is more rigid, more massive, more domineering, whereas the city of the laywoman is made up of markets and parks, small houses, and stores, and is more informal, smaller in scale, and more fluid. Sargent expresses power and control, or the absence of it, through the form of the city, but she relies on universal symbols without questioning the association of existing values

Image 2 / Cover of The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent, Benbella Books, 2004

If the utopian fortress is defined as the elimination of all that is wrong with a given society, then The Shore of Women qualifies as utopian. Men were identified as essentially violent and responsible for all evil. Removing men’s power righted all wrongs. Yet it seems that removing all that is wrong does not create good, as inverting positions of power does not create utopia. In Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes, Gerd Brantenberg explores how biology, history, politics, and other forms of knowledge and arts are vectors of social constructs.  By putting women in positions of power and re-inventing the entire social structure, including so-called rational or scientific narratives, Brantenberg illustrates how any domination is a social construct.

Similar to Sargent's The Shore of Women, in Sheri S. Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country, women hold all political power while men hold all military power in an even division of labour. Women harvest and manage the territory while men keep to themselves in military bases. Boys are handed over to their fathers when they turn five, in great fatherhood ceremonies, following the courtship ceremonies twice yearly. Unlike The Shore of Women, the boys are, at fifteen, given a chance to pass through the gate to women’s country and to leave the military. The peer pressure is immense, but some men do return to become servants and counsellors to the women. Yet the true balance of power is revealed when the men use military force to stage a coup. The military leaders are symbolically castrated and rendered powerless when the women reveal that they have been genetically weeding out undesirable masculine traits by conceiving only with their counsellors.

Therefore the fortress itself isolates, but is not necessarily an ideal city. Enclosure serves a rhetorical role, asking what society women would construct if they were freed from pre-existing oppressions. This seems to be a relatively dangerous, not to mention limited approach, since identifying men themselves rather than the social structures of the patriarchy as the means of oppression is no better than the preexisting situation of oppression itself.

The fortress serves as a narrative device to exacerbate the differences between two opposing societies. It creates an inside and outside where at least two different societies can be compared. In The Shore of Women, utopia and dystopia are intertwined: the utopian matriarchy underlines its own limitations and risks. This is clearly expressed when two main characters—Birana, an upperclass young woman destined to become a Mother, and Arvil, a young man—flee the lands overseen by the city. Frustrated by the matriarchy’s limitations, they go on a quest for another feminist utopia. However, their search brings them to places where women have, in various ways, limited power and autonomy. Interestingly, in all of the social societies they encounter, women and men live apart: where one woman is venerated, she lives alone on a small island offshore, beyond the gated village, and is called upon for divine services. Where women are enslaved, they live together in a collective hut but can be summoned by men for sexual encounters. In the end, Birana and Arvil give up any hope of joining an existing group and form a new one, gathering followers and educating the bands discreetly to the existence of a possible social structure based on equality. According to Rafaella Baccolini, (2) this open-ended narrative is a particularity of the feminist utopia. The feminist utopia does not offer solutions to every question it poses, and often concludes with ambivalent events in order to raise more questions and perhaps provoke action among its readers.

The walled feminist utopia is a contradiction in terms because the feminist utopia strives for inclusiveness. Sally Gearhart identifies a feminist utopia by four points. Firstly, it must be an idealised place in contrast to present times. (3) Secondly, it must offer a critique of present-day values or conditions. These first two conditions can be considered the definition of utopia, which was derived from two Greek terms, both “good place” and “no place.” Thirdly, the feminist utopia must identify men or male institutions as the principal causes of contemporary social issues. Lastly, women must be shown as not only equal to men, but with full possession of reproduction.

Image 3 / Urban block with 24 kitchenless houses ca. 1890, Philadelphia

The City as a Machine

Feminist utopias redefine both women’s relationship to motherhood and their relationship to work, hence redefining the city. Early material feminists argued that women’s liberation from patriarchal structures of work could contribute to a more egalitarian society. A patriarchal system is a system where men hold major positions of power, leadership, authority, and morality. Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued that if women were financially autonomous they would stop being a burden to men and society. Women's ability to enter the capitalist workforce hinges on liberation from unpaid domestic work. As early as 1869, Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe rationalized the household kitchen by creating small-scale assembly lines linking correlated tasks in The American Woman’s Home. Others proposed full disassociation from unpaid domestic work in the household by collectivizing all household tasks. Fiction written by early material feminists at the turn of the twentieth century explore the repercussions of a society where women can work outside the home, with access to new capital flows, new mass-production systems, and new public spaces generated by the industrial revolution. The housing typologies and social infrastructure they imagined have, in certain cases, been built by activists as experimental communities.

In her 1909 short story What Diantha Did, Perkins Gilman imagines a new housing typology she calls the apartment-hotel. Diantha Bell is an entrepreneur and manager of an apartment-hotel. She cooks deliciously, handles housekeeping perfectly, and manages accounting flawlessly. She keeps an iron hand on her employees and offers them excellent working conditions and accommodation while protecting them from unwanted advances from male employers. Thanks to her rich aunt, Diantha is able to hire an architect to design this apartment hotel, as well as kitchenless houses. Perkins Gilman hereby illustrates her belief in benevolent capitalism. She also distances community living from the free-love movement.

The apartment-hotel interested feminists and social activists, including teachers’ rights activist Henrietta Rodman, founder of the Feminist Alliance, and her husband Herman de Fremery, the organization’s secretary. The Feminist Alliance went so far as to commission an architect, Max G. Heidelberg, to design one such apartment-hotel in 1914. Fourteen years before Moscow’s Narkomfin Dom-Kommuna, Heidelberg’s twelve-floor building had 400 rooms in 171 kitchenless apartments of various sizes, various types of collective equipment, and a rooftop nursery. To ensure easy cleaning, it had no wallpaper or molding, and every room had rounded angles, matte finishings, and pivot windows. Most of the furniture was built in or retractable.

However, strong disagreements among the Feminist Alliance members held the project back. Rodman was faithful to Perkin Gilman’s model of an efficient capitalist-driven service, while de Fremery argued in favour of an independent collaborative system or cooperative. Indeed, Perkins Gilman’s model questions neither social hierarchies nor the fact that housework remains solely women’s work.

Image 4/ Plan of Llano del Rio, ca. 1916

Only the industrialisation of housework, some feminists argued, could free women from the household. In 1916, Alice Constance Austin presented her plan for a city for the utopian society of Llano del Rio (see images 4 to 6). A late and short-lived utopian community founded in the wake of the work of French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, Llano del Rio was founded in 1913 by socialist senator Job Harriman as a community not based on religious credence but on socialist cooperative ideals that promoted women’s rights.

Austin’s project was highly ambitious. The entire city was designed to eliminate private domestic work. In the center, a civic center hosted public spaces ranging from a theatre, a restaurant, a market, a church, a temple, and schools to men’s and women’s clubs around a circular park. On a radial grid, blocks of kitchenless courtyard houses surrounding neighbourhood parks are connected to underground tunnels with railway systems that deliver meals and return dirty dishes and laundry to the community facilities. According to Austin, the terraced houses express the community’s solidarity. After the community dissolved due to political tension and lack of water, Austin continued to promote her belief in technology and its role in eliminating housework.

Image 5/ Elevation of Llano del Rio, ca. 1916

Austin’s Llano del Rio strongly references Edward Bellamy’s 1888 bestseller Looking backward 2000–1887. A young american, Julian West, wakes from a 113-year drug-induced sleep and discovers a utopian socialist United States. All industries have been nationalized, including housework, and are run by an “industrial army.” Goods are equally distributed, working days are short and efficient and art and culture are readily available. Housework is mechanical, and cooking and laundry are done at community facilities. Each family can rent a dining room at a community kitchen.

Entirely freed from household chores, free to marry and have children, women are also allowed to work and to be outside the home. However, they are given different jobs in different industrial frameworks, in entirely different hierarchical systems where they cannot compete with men. They also work shorter hours and are granted more holidays than men, for equal credits. Bellamy describes this gendered industrial system as an imperio in imperium, an empire within an empire, hence testifying to his view of women’s work as inherently less meaningful than men’s, although he doesn’t mention what their work may encompass.

Image 6 / Alice Constance Austin showing models to Llano del Rio colonists in 1916

Bellamy’s Boston is clean, slum-free, and unpolluted. Shops no longer exist. Orders for all types of items and goods are placed in state-held showrooms and the goods are then immediately dispatched from the large-scale factories or warehouses to each house by an efficient delivery network. Bellamy often expresses his admiration for urban rationality and efficiency, but he seems to maintain Boston’s existing zoning systems, with huge factories outside the city. His city is above all an industrial network of production and distribution.

Perkins Gilman’s Herland also reveres industrial efficiency. In this feminist utopia, the entire territory is run by the women like a machine. Forestry and agriculture are highly efficient on a territorial scale. All plant and animal species which are of no use to the community or which exert too much pressure on its environment have been eradicated. The forests consist only of timber or fruit-bearing trees and all wildlife apart from birds has been eliminated. Even cats have been bred to hunt rodents, but not birds, and they cannot meow. This portrait of the landscape as a production machine forces us to question the value of industrialization and order and its association with women's liberation. This highly controlling industrial model at times seems oppressive and resistant to any form of individual initiative.

From the household to the city, feminists have questioned the ways in which spaces enable patriarchal systems, based on the premise that a male-dominant economy and its associated power structures rely on women’s subjection to household work. By restructuring the means of production, and particularly by freeing women of housework, early material feminists optimistically viewed technology as a possible emancipator.

However, the rationalisation and externalisation of domestic work through industrialization have not shifted women’s roles. Although women’s work can become less of a physical burden and less time-consuming, more often than not, it remains explicitly or implicitly women’s work.

Moreover, as the conversion of arms industries to domestic industries in the 1950s and 1960s shows, technological improvements have not liberated women, but rather served to reinforce a mystique of the loving, caring, well-equipped housewife, also the ideal consumer of post-war products. (4) This mystique reinforces different roles, and different spaces, for men and women, in which women are tied to the household and family making. In a similar sense, doesn’t the city as a machine create a new form of oppression? A dependence on technology does not challenge women’s traditional roles.


Image 7 / Drawing of Cluster City, 1952. Drawing by Alison and Peter Smithson.

The Overlay

In The Disposessed, Ursula K. Le Guin describes the city less as a machine, but rather as a network or an organism. Similar to the Alison and Peter Smithson’s Cluster City (see image 7), the capital of Annares testifies to values such as rationality, efficiency, proximity, interrelations, walkability, and organicity. Le Guin describes the urban spaces of Abbenay as the character Shevek walks through them, and Shevek’s observation of the city permeates the description. She describes the colorful fabrics drying at the centre of a weaver community’s yard, low and heavy anti-seismic buildings with large, plentiful windows, children’s games, the decorations in a welder’s store. Spaces are connected by use: resources are connected to workshops and factories and they are in turn connected to stores. Each neighbourhood has the necessary shared facilities. Abbenay has no centre, there is no starting or ending point for its incremental growth.

Similar to Le Guin’s approach of the incremental city, a feminist utopia can also overlay an existing environment so that new values to merge with existing spatial structures. This is the case in Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing as well as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In these utopias, existing spaces are subverted, transformed and questioned, often to the point where pre-existing spaces are barely legible.

San Francisco as described by Starhawk is a sustainable Ecotopia. Public space and the city’s streets have been reclaimed to become not only a walkable network but also lush gardens for food or leisure as well as an irrigation and water distribution and filtration system. The balance of nature is restored thanks to this reprogramming of space.

Aside from several new political and spiritual buildings, as well as an ad-hoc public transportation network, San Francisco’s existing spaces are merely transformed through new uses. Starhawk illustrates how the hospital is transformed by the new medical techniques, which link spirituality and herbalism with modern methods, yet she insists that the space is far from adequate for its new uses. San Francisco’s terraced houses, on the other hand, seem to fit perfectly to the new uses of larger groups of occupants, including extended families and friends, with a more fluid definition of the family and its spaces.

Starhawk calls for the reclamation of public spaces and the creation of “quixotic” spaces: porous, heterogeneous, surprising spaces with unexpected connections. The flexible ways in which San Francisco is appropriated by Starhawk are similar to the small villages of Mouth-of-Mattapoisett as described by Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time. Piercy, however, insists on an ideal size for human communities, and states that cities are too large for communities to form.

The township of Mouth-of-Mattapoisett is composed of sixteen villages that share certain infrastructure—a brooder, factories, a hospital, an airport and hangar, a fishing port—as well as political responsibilities. This infrastructure is distributed among the villages. Only the meeting house, dug in a hill, lies between the villages. Connie, a visitor from the past, sometimes comes across spatial structures that she recognizes from another era that have been adapted to new needs. A hotel golf club has been transformed into a blueberry field, and the fishing port has been retrofitted for new fishing methods.

The buildings are small and randomly scattered in the landscape among trees and gardens. They are made of recycled construction materials and either covered in plants or decorated with much personal involvement by their inhabitants. This maze of small houses and gardens form what Connie angrily calls “pastoral clutter.” In the neighbouring village of Cranberry, the underground houses and rooms open onto shared courtyards. The skyline consists only of windmills, greenhouses, and gardens.

Woman on the Edge of Time presents a view of time being malleable, so that action in the present brings along utopia or dystopia in the future. The narration swings from one to the other, encouraging an understanding of time as a crossroads where revolt takes place. It can be difficult to identify characteristics in these utopias that are strictly feminist, particularly because feminist utopias tend to depict humans as equal and free as well as describing ideal social, political, and ecological conditions. However, as Baccolini underlines, the feminist utopia shall be replaced by the humanist utopia only when women’s full humanity is no longer a utopian ambition. (5)

Building the feminist utopia

According to Erin McKenna, forfeiting utopian thinking is akin to forfeiting one’s future. (6) Utopia allows dreams of social changes and, in doing so, contributes to their construction. Utopia draws up an ideal society, while architecture inscribes social values into space. An understanding of spaces in feminist utopia helps identify characteristics of space or space making in utopian feminist societies. These characteristics do not define what a feminist space is, rather they offer tools and methods for thinking space through its embedded values. Three characteristics of space making can be put forward as guidelines for the creation of feminist spaces in city making.

Firstly, the process of space making is more important than the creation of iconic architectural objects. This process includes analysis and observation, programming and designing, and adaptation and apatability,  as well as re-use, flexibility, and bottom-up methods, all the way to the politics of dismantling and recycling. Feminist utopias in fiction seem to prefer humble, low-key buildings and insist on the fact that spaces are ever-changing, flexible, and should be adapted to evolving needs and aspirations.

Relationships between people and with nature are increased. Nature is no longer “otherness,” rather it is the framework in which human activities take place. Creating relations rather than hierarchies between spaces promotes collaboration and sharing. The descriptions of the connections between spaces are more plentiful than the descriptions of spaces themselves. The city as a machine specifically explores the ways in which relations and connectedness can contribute to women’s liberation by questioning the way work and space are related.

Lastly, reclaiming is an important method for redefining the values embedded in space. Although space can reflect outdated values, it can also be occupied, transformed, and overlaid with new ambitions. The occupation or reuse of unadapted space also reflects a stance relative to old values. Reclaiming means that humankind can accept its mistakes and make them right. Perhaps paradoxically, it seems that the only possible utopia is based on the real.


(1) Thomas A. Markus, “Is There a Built Form for Non-Patriarchal Utopias?” in Embodied Utopias: Gender, Social Change, and the Modern Metropolis, ed. Amy Bingaman, Lise Sanders and Rebecca Zorach (Psychology Press, 2002) 17.

(2) Raffaella Baccolini, “Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katherine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler,” in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, ed. Marleen S. Barr (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), 13–34.

(3) Sally Miller Gearhart, “Future Visions: Today’s Politics: Feminist Utopias in Review,” in Women in Search of Utopia, ed. Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch (New York: Schocken, 1984), 296–310.

(4) Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream – Gender, Housing and Family Life, (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1985).

(5) Ibid.

(6) Erin McKenna, The Task of Utopia: A Pragmatist and Feminist Perspective, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001).

Léone Drapeaud graduated from La Cambre Faculty of Architecture in Brussels in 2015. She has worked in architecture and urban planning studios in Brussels and Paris as well as for the new generation Chinese architecture firm ZAO/standardarchitecture. Her research focuses on the interactions between gender and space and she is currently writing a book on feminist utopias. She is a co-founder of the architecture studio Traumnovelle, curator of the Belgian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.