Marge Piercy’s 1976 feminist utopia Woman on the Edge of Time is, hands down, one of my favorite utopias. It is the utopia where I want to live: a feminist utopia that doesn’t have to get rid of men entirely for equality, a community where learning and “education” is entirely self-directed, where in-knowing is valued, where the ideology of progress is largely limited to what can be good for the land and the people…It’s just beautiful. But, as much as I love it, WET is also incredibly depressing at times, and it’s that anchor in the horribleness in the here and now that makes it so successful as a utopia, I think.
The Plot: Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a poor Mexican-American woman in NYC, has been having strange dreams and hallucinations of a young man named Luciente who claims to be contacting her psychically from the future. Before Connie really knows what’s going on, she has a run-in with her niece’s pimp, hitting him in the face for trying to force her niece to have an abortion by a quack doctor and, due to past violent behavior, winding up back in a mental institution. In the hospital, Connie begins to communicate more with Luciente, who turns out to be a woman rather than a man, and even passes over in Mattapoisett, the utopian community where Luciente lives with her “mems,” those individuals she is close enough with to consider family. As Connie learns more about this possible future where babies are grown in tubes, men breast-feed as well as women, no one goes hungry, and renewing the earth is a prime concern, she is signed up for an experimental procedure by her brother, one intended to “cure” her illness by releasing chemicals into her brain every time she feels a negative emotion. Her implant, however, is removed because her frequent trips to visit Luciente result in her lying for hours in a coma-like state, which worries the doctors. During this time, Connie visits another possible, dystopic future in which humans are kept alive as organ farms for the wealthy elite, women undergo plastic surgery to make themselves into parodies of femininity and live with men only on contract for limited periods of time, and the highest physical state is to become a cyborg. Connie decides that it is time to fight and, after a visit to her brother where she is able to steal a fast-acting and lethal poison, she makes one last visit to Mattapoisett to say goodbye to Luciente before she dumps the poison into the coffee pot of the doctors in charge of the experiments.
Most utopias/dystopias outline in detail the future but do not discuss the present at any length, creating what my colleague Ben and I have been referring to as “the macro-enthymeme of utopia” in which the unstated premise is the author’s/audience’s own cultural/historical situation. WET doesn’t follow this form, though, spending a great deal of the novel in the present and one that is very marked by race, class, and gender. Since the novel clearly divides itself into conceptions of the present and the possible future, I’ve opted to divide by commentary in the same manner, beginning by looking at the way things are for Connie.
As a rhetor, Connie’s position is limited at best and just plain shitty at worst. This becomes immediately apparent when she is readmitted to the hospital but no one will listen to her because she is “crazy”: “They said reluctance to be hospitalized was a sign of sickness, assuming you were sick, in one of these no win circles” (9). Connie is stuck in a system of welfare and hospitalization that does not offer her any agency or authority on the state of her own body or living situation. She has an unwanted hysterectomy so that medical students can get practice when she is in surgery for a poorly performed abortion. She is routinely monitored by welfare representatives who check her job situation and living arrangements.
Feeling sympathy for Connie made more complicated because this attention is not necessarily unwarranted: Connie admits to being a neglectful and abusive mother. She admits to being an alcoholic and drug-user and not taking care of her daughter. She argues that this is also the result of the system which kills her lover Claud in a prison experiment, and though it is difficult to determine the degree to which Connie has been wronged in issues concerning her daughter, it is easy to see that she is continually being punished for a fluke in her life, albeit a very large and dangerous fluke.
But even before her life was derailed by her abusive second husband and the loss of Claud and her daughter, Connie learned to be distrustful of the system. As Luciente explains how decisions are made in Mattapoisett and the larger township, Connie tells the following story:
Years ago, I was living in Chicago. I got involved that way. Meetings, meetings, meetings! My life was so busy, my head was boiling! I felt such hope. It was after my husband Martin… he got killed. I was young and naive and it was supposed to be a War on Poverty… But it was just the same political machine and us stupid poor people, us… idiots who thought we were running things for a change. We ended up right back where we were. They gave some paying jobs to so-called community leaders. All those meetings. I ended up with nothing but feeling sore and ripped off. (146-7)
So even before she is labeled as “crazy”, Connie suffers from a dearth of political power, though she recognizes that the political machine works to make it look like she may grasp some for however short a period of time.
The rhetoric of the present judges based on gender as well as class and race; consider repeat-offender and repeat-asylum inmate Sybil. While Connie does not quite buy into Sybil’s assertions of magical power, she does admit that “Sybil was persecuted for being a practicing witch, for telling women how to heal themselves and encouraging them to leave their husbands, for being lean and crazily elegant and five feet ten in her bare long high-arched feet, for having a loud, penetrating voice and a back that would not stoop” (76). Connie frequently comments on how Sybil’s size gets her different treatment from herself, since Connie is short and perceived as being easy to handle compared to Sybil.
Altogether, Connie’s story in the present paints a picture of a political machine (an important word considering the cyborgs of the dystopic future) with many arms for oppressing women, especially women of color. We see staged moments of Bakhtinian carnival where it looks like an inversion in power might happen in Connie’s participation in the War on Poverty. We see the means by which medical rhetoric is used to control Connie’s sexuality and reproduction as well as her freedom to move about, given her strict incarceration in the hospital. We see the degree to which how a woman looks controls what she is able or allowed to do in Sybil, Connie, and Connie’s niece Dolly (who takes speed to stay thin and dyes her hair — all her hair — red to attract johns) but also in the wives of Connie’s brother Luis, who become increasingly Anglo as he becomes more successful, leaving behind as much of his Mexican identity as possible. In all of this, Piercy illustrates the ways in which “women’s issues” are also inherently tied up in issues of race and class as well.