Despite being written back in 1976, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time surely contains the most fully developed and influential feminist utopia written to date (29). It also contains an uncompromising account of the modern USA from the point of view of a poor, Mexican-American woman with mental health issues, Connie Ramos, whose life is defined by systemic injustice. This misogynistic and racist dystopia, set in New York circa 1976, is the counterpoint to Piercy’s future society, itself set in 2137 in the village of Mattapoisett[i]. Care is the essence of Woman on the Edge of Time, both in accounts of a ghastly, uncaring present and a future society in which care is taken to a profoundly starling ‘extreme’. To negate male oppression, care-giving is shared equally by men even to act of breast-feeding the babies produced in the ‘brooder’, wherein the community grows its asexually produced, genetically engineered embryos. Connie’s guide, Luciente, explains:
‘It was part of women’s long revolution. When we were breaking all the old hierarchies. Finally there was that one thing we had to give up too, the only power we ever had, in return for no more power for anyone. The original production: the power to give birth. Cause as long as we were biologically enchained, we’d never be equal. And males would never be humanised to be loving and tender. So we all became mothers’ (29, p. 105).
Martin Delveaux senses the dystopian in Piercy’s future, pointing out the perils of eugenics (30). Confronting criticisms on reproductive rights, Piercy admits that, if she were to re-write the novel, she would include the choice for women to give birth naturally (31). We note that the inhabitants of the fictional Mattapoisett are aware of and debate their power over population make-up in terms of race, gender and dis/ability. After they are ‘born’ children are raised by three ‘mothers’, consigning the nuclear family to the dustbin of history. Moreover, mothers can be women or men and they are not related ‘by blood’ to the child. ‘Mothering (caring work), then, must be incorporated as a human experience and located at the center of culture, rather than remaining at the margins of culture as women’s work, undervalued and/or senitmentalized’ (32, p. 251). Caring is regarded not as a natural virtue of women but as a social human practice that is learned. Moreover, the community makes the connection between caring for the self and the welfare of society as a whole: ‘Interpersonal relations are valued as a form of community activity’ (32, p. 251).
Regardless of their race, the citizens of Piercy’s future live in communities based on ethnic cultures. One character, Bee, says: ‘We want diversity, for strangeness breeds richness.’ Connie asks: ‘Are there black Irishmen and black Jews and black Italians and black Chinese?’ To which Bee answers: ‘Fasure[ii], how not? When you grow up, you can stick to the culture you were raised with or you can fuse into another’ (29, p.104). Homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality are norms in future Mattapoisett. And, as people inhabit a more androgynous environment, gender is much less of a cultural and somewhat less of a physical binary. Although physical disability is not explored as a social issue, O’Byrne notes that in Mattapoisett ‘the stigma around mental illness no longer exists… they do not use ‘sick’ and ‘mad’ interchangeably’ (33, p.3).
Politically, Mattapoisett is organised as a libertarian, voluntarist community. If a high proportion of a village population opts out of decision-making meetings, ‘the neighbouring villages send for a team of involvers’ (29, p.154)[iii]. Economically, Piercy’s utopia is ‘a world in which gender socialization and the concurrent division of labour is abolished’ (32, p251). Where possible, the routine work of production is highly automated. Onerous tasks that demand physical labour are shared. People who do not do their share of the work may be asked to leave a community, if ‘healing’ doesn’t work. There is no private property. Then: ‘Piercy’s novel is an early example of ecofeminism, as the exploitation of women, as in the prostitution of Dolly[iv], is paralleled by mistreatment of the earth. The book seems prescient too in its championing of sustainable farming, composting, natural fertiliser and recycling’ (33, p.4). Each region attempts to be self-sufficient in food production and every settlement has its own Earth Advocate, who speaks for the rights of the environment, resonating with J Baird Callicott’s concept of environmental stewardship (34). At one point in the novel ‘the pastoral clutter’ of Mattapoisett infuriates New York resident Connie, and her guide, Luciente, tells her: ‘We don’t have big cities – they didn’t work’ (29, p.68).
Surprisingly perhaps, Piercy chooses not to liberate her future society from violence. Although each individual can refuse military service, as indeed they can every societal duty, their civilisation is at war against the remnants of the previous one. In the main, the people of Mattapoisett seem accepting of, if not enthusiastic about, the social duty to fight. On the home-front, meanwhile, when healing has failed and a person commits a second act of violence, they are executed. Not only do the community refuse to tolerate violence within, they regard imprisoning someone to be less humane than execution, not least for the people who would be compelled to be warders. Even though animal consciousness is accepted in this future society and, indeed, people have learned to communicate with animals, they still eat meat. Mattapoisett’s culture is that of Native Americans, ‘Wamponaug Indians’[v], and the villagers respect the animals that they eat on (many) feast days. Luciente implies that knowledge of animal consciousness has reduced meat consumption. Moreover, although the village still practices hunting, Luciente relates that a number of residents do vote against the tradition.
Woman on the Edge of Time is hopeful of creating a more egalitarian world. ‘Piercy simply imagines a possible world given the intentionality of people receptive to change’ (32, p.19, our emphasis). The author judges her own feminist, ecologically sound future and most women’s utopias to be ‘profoundly anarchist and aimed at integrating people back into the natural world and eliminating power relationships’ (31). Maciunas suggests that central to this becoming is an openness to subjugated and marginalised knowledges: ‘feminist epistemologies indicate revolutionary changes in knowers, ways of knowing, and to the worlds to be known. They ought to and do show us “the conditions necessary to transfer control from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots’” (32, p.19). Quoting Connie’s musings in Woman on the Edge of Time, ‘Probabilities clash and wink out forever’ (29, p.177), O’Byrne states that: ‘This is the basic message of the novel, that we need to actively make positive choices’ (33, p.8).
Piercy’s account is clear about the intersectionality of Connie’s oppression on the basis of her gender, race, class and poverty. O’Byrne concludes: ‘The novel puts the onus on us as readers to enable women like Connie to grow ‘up through the concrete’, to contemplate a different way of being, a society with shorter work hours, a chance to choose to work at interesting tasks, and life-long learning’ (33, p.10). Marge Piercy herself said of the novel: ‘it’s very intentionally not a utopia because it’s not strikingly new. The ideas are the ideas basically of the women’s movement’ (35, p. 102). We observe that a work of art with its origins in a social movement continues to inspire social movements, and that it is in itself an act of resistance. O’Byrne notes that resistance is indeed a theme of the novel and that the people of the future advise Connie that: ‘There’s always something you can deny your oppressor, even if it’s only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-oping. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back’ (29, p. 328). Piercy also reminds us that the struggle is never over, not even in - relative to Connie’s ‘real world’ – utopia. Luciente holds onto a utopian dream, however:
‘Someday the gross repair will be done. The oceans will be balanced, the rivers flow clean, the wetlands and the forests flourish. There’ll be no more enemies. No Them and Us. We can quarrel joyously with each other about important matters of idea and art. The vestiges of the old ways will fade. I can’t know that time – anymore than you can ultimately know us[vi]. We can only know what we can truly imagine. Finally what we see comes from ourselves’ (29, p.328).
29. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. London: The Women’s Press, 1979.
30. Maciunas, Billie. “Feminist Epistemology in Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.” Women's Studies 20, 3-4 (1992): 249-258.
31. O'Byrne, D. M. “Marge Piercy's Non-Utopia in Woman on the Edge of Time.” In Utopia edited by R. Bradshaw, 75-84. Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2012.
32. Piercy, Marge. Parti-Coloured Blocks for a Quilt. Michigan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982.
33. Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia. Berkeley: Banyan Tree Books, 1975/2004.
34. Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. London: Bantam, 1993.
35. Held, V. The Ethics of Care: personal, political, and global. Oxford: OUP, 2006.
36. Delveaux, Martin. “The Biologisation of Ecofeminism? On Science and Power Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.” Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 5, 1 (2013): 23-29.
37. Piercy, Marge. “Woman on the Edge of Time, 40 years on: ‘Hope is the engine of imagining utopia.” The Guardian. November 29 2016. Accessed November 22 2017.
[i] Mattapoisett is a town in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, USA. The 2010 census recorded its population as 6,045.
[ii] The novel’s futuristic shorthand for ‘For sure’.
[iii] There is a disconcerting sense of surveillance implied in this explanation as well as the intimation of there being somewhere a centre from whence to summon ‘involvers’.
[iv] Connie Ramos’ niece in the ‘real world’ of New York.
[v] Piercy seems to base the future culture of Mattapoisett on the Wampanoag, a Native American people, groups of whom inhabited eastern Massachusetts in seventeenth century records.
[vi] Luciente explains: ‘I mean you can’t fully comprehend our society, any more then I could one a hundred years past us.’