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Heterosexual Utopianism

Kate Soper

‘When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous
customs and superstitions of the times we have the
unhappiness to live in, what will they say?’ Sue
Bridehead’s question – or rather exclamation – in Jude
the Obscure – is, of course, rhetorical; and Hardy has
surely been vindicated in this appeal to the enlightenment
of later times to put to shame the mores of his own. We
who are in a position to do the saying, do indeed deplore
the particular constraints under which Sue and Jude were
labouring as the bigotries of a darker age relative to our
own. In a sense, then, there is no more to be said about
this ‘what will they say?’ other than to say that when the
time came, ‘they’ were mostly true to the word that
Hardy had scripted for them.

I propose here, however, to pursue the issue of what
later times say about earlier ones a little further, though
not so much with respect to Sue’s particular question, as
to some others circling in its general orbit: How do we
assess progress in the feminist cause, particularly where
this relates to its impact on sexuality and relations
between the sexes? What interpretative framework
should we bring to its shifts of utopian focus? How do
these relate to the appraisals which feminism, at a later
stage of its advance, may retrospectively offer upon the
utopian aspirations through which it was promoted at an

These ruminations have been prompted partly by
personal experience and partly by theoretical uncertainty.

The experience in question is that of the particular
amities and abrasions which feminism has introduced
into relations between the sexes; the theoretical
uncertainty has to do with the difficulties – to which the
deconstructivist turn in social theory has made us more
alert – of formulating a view of ‘progress’ which can
give due recognition to the cultural relativity of the
conceptions we bring to it. The former led me to ponder
why it is that feminism today, relative to earlier phases in
its development, offers so few reflections on its own role
in transforming heterosexual relations, and is notably

short on any very positive commentary on its potential in
this respect. The latter led me to consider how one might
account for this contrast of ‘utopian’ outlook, and what
were the implications of any account provided for the
understanding of ‘progress’ in the feminist cause. My
engagement here, then, is part philosophical, part
historical, my aim being to outline a conceptual
framework in which to consider the effects of the
feminist movement on relations between the sexes, and
the significance of the varying degrees of concern it has
expressed at different stages with their amelioration. I
here compare what I call the ‘utopian discourses’ which
have been offered in defence of feminism, focussing in
particular on the shifts that have taken place in respect of
the importance attributed to its role in transforming
heterosexual relations. But I also pose some questions
about the relations ( or maybe it is more accurate to speak
of’ dislocations’) between the achievements of feminism
at any point in its history and its earlier utopian
projections. Since progressive movements seldom seem
to advance their emancipatory causes in a form which is
thought to realise or coincide with the visionary
aspirations by which they were at a prior stage
legitimated (and this, I think, may be particularly true in
the case of sexual emancipation), I the question arises as
to whether later gains can, in any sense, be said to realise,
rather than confound, earlier aims; and if they can, by
what criteria we might want to claim this to be the case.

As suggested, the main vehicle for this enquiry is the
differential and shifting attitudes that have been
expressed within the feminist movement to what I shall
henceforth term ‘heterosexual utopianism’, though I
would emphasise that the review I offer of these
mutations is extremely synoptic, and too schematic to do
justice to the complexities of the cultural and political
history of the pretty extensive period to which I shall be
relating. 2 By ‘heterosexual utopianism’, I refer to the
claim that the emancipation of women will prove the
condition of unprecedented union and understanding

Radical Philosophy 69 (JanlFeb



between the sexes, and allow both to enjoy previously
unrealised forms of erotic gratification. Any discourse
on female emancipation may be said to endorse this claim
insofar as it sees improvement in the social and economic
status of women as leading to more harmonious and
reciprocal relations between the sexes, and regards this
as an important (if not the only) reason for advancing the
feminist cause.

One hope within two wills
There is no period in the history of feminism in which
the core ideas of’heterosexual utopianism’ have not
found expression in some form or other, but as an
explicitly formulated utopian discourse it played a
particularly key role in the legitimation of a first phase of
feminist agitation in the nineteenth century. In the
headier formulations of this argument, feminism, it was
said, would not only transform heterosexual relations but
in doing so lead the way to a moral renaissance of the
species in all its dimensions of existence. But even when
confined to the erotic sphere, it was fulsome enough: the
freedom of women from their enslavement to men would
allow both parties to enter a new paradise wherein it
would no longer be, as Milton put it, ‘Hee for God only,
shee for God in him’ ,3 but both equally united in a secular
and mutually balanced love, respect and sexual
requitement. The promise was of heterosexual reunion,
or perhaps more accurately, transcendence of all the
previous relations of asymmetry and inequality whereby
the sexes in their previous existence had perforce had to
contrive what reconciliation they could.

This argument is first sounded in abstract and
metaphysical fashion in the androgynous images and
aspirations of Romanticism and its free love ethic, with
Blake and Shelley providing some of the more obvious
examples. To cite here but one instance: Shelley’s
‘Epipsychidion’ (which like Blake’s ‘Visions of the
Daughters of Albion’ is a paean to free love), projects a
vision of sexual union in which:

We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, oh! wherefore two?

One passion in twin-hearts, which grows and grew,
Till like two meteors of expanding flame,
Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
Touch, mingle, are transfigured; ever still
Burning, yet ever inconsumable;
In one another’s substance finding food,
Like flames too pure and light and unimbued
To nourish their bright lives with baser prey,
Which point to Heaven and cannot pass away;
One hope within two wills, one will beneath


Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one annihilation.

Of course, images of heterosexual fusion are found in
much earlier writing,4 but it is arguable that it is only in
the Romantic vision that they are linked to aspirations of
a more social and recognisably feminist kind. Blake’s
allegories and symbolism, and Shelley’s projections are
clearly prompted by their dissatisfaction with the
historical condition of the sexes, and in particular with
what they regarded as the impoverished and destructive
sexual mores of their times. In their conception,
moreover, the distraints placed on the possibilities of
heterosexual joy and transfiguration are directly related
to the subordinate and unfree status of women. This does
not mean, of course, that the perspective of these
Romantic visions of heterosexual liberation was not
profoundly androcentric. 5 But despite their sexual bias
and gender asymmetry, it would be a mistake to present
them as consciously manipulative. Moreover,
androcentric though they may be in certain respects, their
images of unfettered conjugality are not a prurient and
hypocritical cover for male licentiousness, but
expressions of conviction in the transformative potential
for both sexes of their mutual release from the shackles
of conventional morality. They are also the vehicle for a
new kind of celebration of the feminine principle,
whereby this is depicted not so much as the complement
to an inherently superior masculinity, but as the essential
element of spiritual regeneration for humanity as a
whole, and even, at times, as the guiding light of the
process. 6
Both these themes are given a more prosaic and
explicitly political expression in the feminist argument
of the Owenite and Saint-Simonian movements of the
1830s-40s, Fourier having set the tone with his claims
that ‘the degree of emancipation of women is the natural
measure of general emancipation’, and that the
‘progressive liberation of women is the fundamental
cause of all social progress’. 7 The Owenites remained
passionate advocates of the idea that women held the key
to a more general moral renaissance, even though there
were ambiguities in their arguments, and definite shifts
of opinion over time as to whether this would be
accomplished within the marital relationship, or only
with the abolition of the constraints imposed on
heterosexual relating by marriage and its monogamous
demands. By and large, it was the free love ethic which
prevailed in the high phase of Owenism (1830-40),
whereas by the early 1840s the Owenites were preaching
and practising a form of sexual union more in conformity

with the general mores of Victorian society. Thus
Owen’s early fulminations against marriage Ca Satanic
device of the priesthood to place and keep mankind with
their slavish superstitions’), and monogamy (‘you
commit a crime against the everlasting laws of nature
when you say that you will “love and cherish” what your
organisation may compel you to dislike and loath, even
in a few hours’),8 are in marked contrast to the ‘Hymn to
Marriage’ sung at the secular ceremonies which had been
devised for Owenite couples in the movement’s final

United by love then alone
in goodness, in truth and in heart
They both are so perfectly one
Their bonds they never can part.

Their union has love for its ground
The love of the man and his bride,
And hence in affliction they’re bound
So close they can never divide. 9
But that Owenism, in the end, was forced to capitulate to
the prevailing protocols of sexual union, does not imply
any significant rupture with ‘heterosexual utopianism’.

Whether the unions of man and woman are conceived,
ideally, as multiple and easily dissolved, or as singular
life commitments; whether the bond is that of legality or
that of the heart, the utopian message remains constant:

the cause of female freedom is co-extensive with
heterosexual regeneration.

This, moreover, provides the utopian framework for
the liberal feminism professed by Harriet Taylor and
John Stuart Mill in the latter half of the century, despite
its very considerable difference of temperament. Mill’s
whole essay, for example, on The Subjection of Women
is moved by deep-felt conviction that the liberation of
women will not only prove of equal and immense
advantage to men, but will enable the ‘most universal
and pervading of all human relations’ to become the
source of general moral revitalisation. Thus he writes in
one of his more ‘utopian’ passages:

What marriage may be in the case of two persons
of cultivated faculties, identical in opinions and
purposes, between whom there exists that best kind
of equality, similarity of powers and capacities
with reciprocal superiority in them – so that each
can enjoy the luxury oflooking up to the other, and
can have alternately the pleasure of leading and
being led in the path of development – I will not
attempt to describe. To those who can conceive it,
there is no need; to those who cannot, it would
appear the dream of an enthusiast. But I maintain,
with the profoundest conviction, that this, and this

only is the ideal of marriage; and that all opinions,
customs and institutions which favour any other
notion of it, or turn the conceptions and aspirations
connected with it into any other direction, by
whatever pretences they may be coloured, are
relics of primitive barbarism. The moral
regeneration of mankind will only really
commence, when the most fundamental of social
relations is placed under the rule of equal justice,
and when human beings learn to cultivate their
strongest sympathy with an equal in rights and
civilisation. 10
By comparison with the sensual and socialist emphases
of Owenite literature, this may seem both a classblinkered and overly cerebral conception of marital
union, but it is certainly no less impassioned (maybe
more so) in its defence of the revolutionary impact of
sexual equality on relations between the sexes.

A socialist defence of the core idea of ‘heterosexual
utopianism’ does, in any case, resurface in Engels’ Origin
of the Family, in Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling’s
argument in The Woman Question (1886) and, of course,
in Kollontai’s writings on love:

In the achieved communist society, love, ‘the
winged Eros’ will appear in a different,
transformed, and completely unrecognisable form.

By that time, the ‘sympathetic bonds’ bet’Yeen all
members of the new society will have grown and
strengthened, the ‘love potential’ will have been
raised, and solidarity love will have become the
same kind of moving force as competition and selflove are in the bourgeois order. 11
The ideal of sexual reconciliation is also the inspiration
of fin de siecle fictional utopias of sexual equality, and
given a particular forceful, if somewhat far-fetched,
expression in Olive Schreiner’s image of a love between
the sexes which changes from a ‘dull slow-creeping
worm’ to a ‘torpid, earthy crysallis’, to a ‘full-winged
insect glorious in the sunshine of the future’ . Expanding
on this vision of a sexual love allowing for complete
spiritual, intellectual and physical expression for both
men and women, Schreiner writes:

To those of us who at the beginning of a new
century stand with shaded eyes gazing into the
future, striving to descry the outlines of the
shadowy figures which loom before us in the
future, nothing seems of so gracious a promise as
the outline we seem to discern of a condition of
human life in which a closer union than the world
has yet seen shall exist between the man and the
woman. 12


To this one might add that a good deal of what was
deemed progressive thinking about issues of sexuality in
the later decades of ‘first wave’ feminism was
conceptualised within the heterosexual utopian
framework. Darwinian theory and eugenics were
invoked in support of the idea that women could prove
the vehicles not only of spiritual revival, but of improved
health and physique for both sexes; 13 ‘free union’

thinking, dress reform, support for the idea of more
liberated heterosexual engagements; Reichian theory,
Lawrentian celebrations of the ‘animal instinct’, the cult
of the ‘priests and priestesses of love’: all this, though it
would clearly be absurd to assimilate it directly to
feminism, was widely thought of as in some sense
friendly to that cause, and all of it was inspired by a
certain ideal of what could – and should – be taking place
between the sexes. There was rather little in this argument
and practice which registered the idea that heterosexual
reconciliation and erotic union might not be the goal of
female emancipation, and may even have been
problematised and disabled by such advances as were
being made in that direction. Of course, a great deal of
reactionary anxiety was expressed – much of it by men regarding the conseqences for heterosexual love of
female advancement; a misogynist or anti-feminist
response which feared the emasculating impact of the
new woman, and held out the threat of a total collapse of
male-female bonding as a warning against allowing
female emancipation to proceed. But such reactions are
very different from an anxiety expressed from within a
position more sympathetic to the female case; and it is
this, I am suggesting, which is given rather little
consideration in these forms of ‘progressive’ thinking on

Uncoupling discourses
In pointing to the persistence within ‘first wave’

feminism of the ‘heterosexual utopian’ idea, and the
passionate expression it was given, I do not mean,
however, to imply that there were no countervailing
voices, or that a more sceptical and separatist vein of
argument might not be said to be more representative of
its later stages. In the last decades of the nineteenth
century, the legitimating framework of assumptions of
‘heterosexual utopianism’ was challenged from a
number of differing perspectives, whose rhetorical
appeals are to the joys of celibacy and autonomy rather
than those of sexual congress. The sexual exploitation of
women, and the deleterious effects of heterosexual
relations, were targeted by a number of those involved in
the agitation around the Contagious Diseases Acts in the
1860s and the social purity movement into which it fed


in the 1880s. 14 The suffrage movement, too, especially in
the period 1906-1914, was the vehicle of much antiheterosexual sentiment and advocacy of political
separatism. This was expressed in summary form in
Christobel Pankhurst’s ‘Votes for Women: and chastity
for men’, and there were a number of women who
followed Pankhurst in viewing spinsterhood as the only
political response to the existing conditions of sexual
servitude. IS By the latter part of the century, then, female
liberation had come to be viewed by many as perfectly
consistent with, and maybe dependent on, the rejection
of heterosexual union, at least in its existing sexual and
marital form. The liberated woman is to realise herself
not in the relationship of equality as conceived by Mill,
but by going it alone: a stance which insists on the
importance of economic autonomy for the woman, and
mocks the mockers of the love-famished old maid by
revealing the ‘odd’ or ‘redundant’ female to be far more
enviable and dignified in her celibacy than those of her
sisters who had succumbed to the ‘prostitution’ of
marriage. The ‘new’ woman is the self-made woman,
the woman who by dint of her own efforts (particularly
her efforts to achieve an education and to dignify herself
through work) will place herself above the squalid
marriage market, and in exchange for that will enjoy the
fruits of economic independence and a sexual autonomy
denied to all those ‘angels in the house’ whose lives are
daily, and nightly, contaminated by their association with·
the male.

This more overtly separatist position on the ‘woman
question’ is clearly reflected in much female authored
‘New Woman’ fiction of the period, and also in the
writing of Gissing, Meredith and George Moore. What is
also registered in some of the more female empathetic
fiction of the time is a non-misogynistic sense of the
possible delusions of the ‘heterosexual utopian’

philosophy. Both Jude the Obscure and The Odd Women
may be read as expressing some scepticism about the
whole idea that female emancipation is compatible with
the promotion of heterosexual harmony. Though Elaine
Showalter has interpreted Jude the Obscure as an antifeminist caution (Hardy is here hinting, she suggests ‘that
the New Woman, Sue Bridehead, was in some way
perverse’),I6 the novel is better seen as responding to a
certain feminist and anti-marriage ‘new woman’ fiction
which had taken the ‘free union’ as a potential guarantee
of the freedom of women. Sue’s tragedy suggests that
even the ‘free union’, conceived as a basis for human
moral evolution which might substitute for the degrading
economic basis of legal marriage, offers no obvious route
to emancipation. 17 Indeed one might even go further and
see the novel as problematising not just the limitations of

the ‘free union’ from the female point of view, but as
raising the question of happy heterosexual endings
between partners possessed of Jude’s and Sue’s
emancipated sensibilities. There is, as it were, a
prefiguring here of the idea that heterosexual happiness
may be more complicated than it is advanced by the
forms of thinking about sexuality and sexual identity
which are introduced by feminist enlightenment. 18
Gissing’s novel, too, is an essentially empathetic work in
which no heterosexual harmony is finally achieved
(Rhoda Nunn cannot, in the end, allow herself to marry
Barfoot, whereas Monica Madden’s sexual liaisons bring
only unhappiness). 19
Let us add here, too, in further qualification, that even
if it is only towards the end of the century that we
encounter a confident celebration of the ‘free’ woman,
and unashamed idealisation of spinsterhood, such themes
are prefigured in a more muted and ambiguous form in
the sympathetic treatment accorded the ‘single’ woman
in a good deal of earlier (especially female authored)
writing. Jane Eyre, and Lucy Snowe in Vi llette, for
example, do not make a conscious option for
spinsterhood, and their respective careers are intimately
bound up with their affections for men, and even in a
sense (though pretty equivocally) are brought to their
culmination in their cementing a heterosexual union. But
they are among the more striking representations of a
new type of female heroine, whose cultural oppression
and marginalisation is depicted as the source and grounds
for the development of an inner strength, and who is
commended to us precisely in virtue of all those attributes
and circumstances of life in which she diverges from the
conventional femme fatale. It is with the struggles of
these ‘plain’ governesses, cast back on their own
resources, destined seemingly for loveless spinsterhood,
that the reader is invited to empathise in a fictional genre
that has broken with the idea that the nature and fate of
women are exclusively determined by their romantic
attachments, and the fortunes or misfortunes they meet
at the hands of suitors and marital partners. Some time,
then, before the novel registers the fully self-conscious
and explicitly feminist advocacy of the single life, this
feminist politics is intimated in the sympathetic
chronicling of the quest for autonomy of the antiheroines of Charlotte Bronte and other writers.

To this we might add that, quite independently of the
advocacy of the single woman within the feminist
movement, a certain empathy for the independent female
was also being sounded in what might be termed the
‘official heroics’ of Victorian culture, which could put a
Florence Nightingale on a pedestal even as it ridiculed
the crabbed and male-hungry old maids. 20 Indeed, it

became almost impossible for Victorian culture to
celebrate the self-sacrificial virtues of the ‘angelic’

female without endowing her with almost preternatural
powers of endurance and an initiative and capacity for
solitude quite at odds with the official discourse of
feminine passivity and dependence. In the persistence
and ingenuity they bring to the service of men and the
salvation of family values, Dickens’ ‘little’ heroines
display, alongside their feminine patience, all those
virtues of fortitude, autonomy and simple ability to get
by on their own which were supposedly the exclusive
property of the male (and in which, to add to the irony,
the men of Dickens’ fiction are frequently somewhat
lacking themselves).21
For all these reasons, it would be mistaken to suppose
that reflection upon the condition of women, and support
for her emancipation, found expression even in the earlier
part of the century only within the legitimating discourse
of heterosexual utopianism; and certainly in the later
stages of ‘first wave’ feminism there was a definite shift
away from what might be termed the instrumental
conception of female liberation towards a more selfjustifying logic, with the emphasis coming to fall rather
more on the pleasures of female autonomy itself, and
rather less on the ways in which advances in educational,
legal and economic independence would prove the
enabling condition of a more general sexual freedom and
revitalized form of union between the sexes.


It is, however, I think, debatable how far these shifts
represent a complete rupture, as opposed to an
attenuation of the commitment to the overall conception
of ‘humanist’ amelioration through heterosexual
reconciliation. Some separatist voices can certainly be
regarded as questioning this whole framework of
thinking. Others, however, might be said to have been
advocating separatism as an essentially strategic move
rather than inviting any extensive rethinking of the
transformative effects of female liberation. Insofar, that
is, as they target the institution of marriage as the main
obstacle to female self-realisation, they represent a
pragmatic concentration on the immediate means and
present possibilities for change in the status of women,
rather than a challenge to the long-term goals of
reciprocity and sexual union. 22 Certainly, this
pragmatism is in contrast both to Owenite futurism and
to Millian reformist utopianism, since it draws back from
speculation on the ultimate consequences for gender
relations of the improvement in the social standing of
women, while also rejecting Mill’s faith in the
compatibility of marriage with any such improvement.

But it does not necessarily imply a head-on contestation
with the idea that female emancipation is directed at
improved relations between the sexes.

The reviled ‘norm’

In any case – to turn now to the main contrast I wish to
focus on between earlier and contemporary feminism however compromised, qualified and indefinitely
postponed the ‘utopia’ of sexual reconciliation becomes;
and whatever prefigurings there may have been of the
eventual legitimation crisis of heterosexual utopianism,
there is little doubt that this crisis was yet to emerge; and
that there is little in earlier feminism which compares
with the forms of dissent registered by feminists in our
own fin de siecie to the whole idea that there is a
necessary and constructive interconnection between
improvement in the social status of women, and the
transfiguration of heterosexual relations.

Here, too, I must emphasise that I am not here
speaking of modern feminism as a whole, but referring
only to an influential discourse within it at the present
time. Just as it would be wrong to overlook the divergent
positions within ‘first wave’ feminism, so it would be
mistaken to imply that ‘second wave’ feminism offers
no other arguments than those opposed to the
‘heterosexual utopian’ framework of thinking. Indeed,
some of the more influential voices in the modern
movement have tended always in the other direction.

Though her work is keenly sensitive to everything
distraining on their achievement, de Beauvoir remained

committed throughout to the goals of sexual reciprocity.

Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and many others
defending a socialist feminist position have always
resisted the demonisation of heterosexuality, and the
attempt to present it as in some sense inherently opposed
to feminist interestsY The ‘line’ adopted by radical
lesbianism in the 1970s – that it was impossible to be
both feminist and engage in heterosexual relations brought forth a storm of protest at the time, and there
have been very few prepared to endorse the policing of
heterosexual practice implied by such a conception of
feminist ‘orthodoxy’ .24
Yet there is no doubt, either, that there is a very
pervasive tendency within current feminist theory to
depict heterosexuality as a negative and coercive
construct which is preemptive of feminist emancipation,
or at any rate distraining upon its achievement. In the
present context, so much emphasis has come to be placed
on the exclusionary dimensions of ‘binary’ sexuality,
rather than on the potentials for a more rapturous form of
heterosexual relating, that it has come to seem almost
heretical for feminists to present themselves as celebrants
of love between the sexes, and it is the Conservatives
and popular sexologists who tend to exercize a monopoly
over the positive representations of heterosexual union.

In this sense, one may argue that heterosexual
reconciliation has come to figure less as the promise of
feminist progress than as a problem standing in the way
of it, and there is much in the argument and rhetoric of
contemporary feminism that runs directly counter to the
thematic of ‘heterosexual utopianism’.

As suggested, this antipathy to heterosexuality finds
its most forceful expression in the writing of those
women for whom feminism has provided the space for
the liberation of lesbian sexuality, and who have argued
in some cases that liberation for women as a whole is
very closely bound up with, if not directly co-extensive
with, the realisation of desires and modes of sensuality
of a more self-regarding and specifically female
character. For them, feminism is precisely not the cause
of heterosexual reconciliation, but the release from the
oppressive constraints it has imposed on a distinctive
female pleasure and erotic gratification. Adrienne Rich’s
critique of ‘compulsory’ heterosexuality, Monique
Wittig’s celebration of the ‘Lesbian Body’, Luce
Iragaray’s parler femme, Sheila Jeffrey’s account of
heterosexual desire as ‘eroticized power difference’,
Judith Butler’s recent assaults on the heterosexual
‘imperative’ – all this, and much more one might
mention, is in both tone and message a far cry from the
images of heterosexual union to be found in Episychidion
or The Subjection of Women. 25 (I must emphasise here



that I am pointing to similarities of rhetoric and general
theoretical disposition, and not denying that there are
considerable divergences between these writers in
respect of their specific concerns and political
recommendations) .

Most feminists today, moreover, whether or not
explicit advocates of a separatist erotic, would want to
argue that one of the great advances of the politics of
sexual difference opened up by feminism, is that we are
no longer so fixated on the supposedly all-consuming
passions of heterosexual desire, and that other modes of
sexuality have been able to challenge their propriety and
authenticity, establishing in the process their own claims
to attention and social acceptance. Many would agree,
too, that the binary gender system and its coding of roles
and attributes has served, even reinforced, a certain
model of heterosexual relations, and that this model is
itself hierarchical – designed to secure the interests of
the male partners in the arrangement rather than those of
women. For all these reasons, heterosexuality has been
treated in much recent feminist literature and sexual
difference theory as a ‘norm’ of relations which is
symbolic of the dominion of patriarchy, oppressive of
gay and lesbian sexuality, and inimical to the realisation
and expression of subjectivity; and even where this
position is not being expressly defended, it is often
gesturally acknowledged in the form of reflex rhetorical
references to the ‘heterosexual norm’ and its disciplinary

What has come to be targeted in these perspectives,
then, is not so much the ‘barbarous’ customs of
heterosexuality (marriage or enforced monogamy) but
the relationship itself as a form of coercion on women
which is inimical to their liberation. Here we are asked to
view heterosexual identity itself as an imposed and
inherently unstable construct – a form of ‘discipline’

which may secure the reproduction of the species, but
does not speak to any preordained biological desire, and
may even run athwart it.

These approaches, I submit, represent a marked shift
or displacement of utopian focus, whereby the prospect
of improved relations between men and women ceases
to function as any kind of legitimation for the
advancement of the feminist cause, and begins to figure
rather as the obstacle to the furtherance of its ends. Here
we are no longer being asked to think in terms of
removing barriers to the expression of pre-given sexual
identities, but of liberating subjects from the fixity of
sexual identity itself; and what is denounced as
oppressive is not so much the gendered constructions
associated with heterosexuality, but heterosexuality as a
limit on the otherwise plural and indefinite sexualities

available to individuals – male and female alike. Hence
those futurist scenarios to which various poststructuralist theories have beckoned us (the sexually
confused or polysexual culture, the sexually in-different
society, the society of ‘bodies and pleasures’ and so

Revealed agendas or hidden

Now, it seems to me that these kinds of arguments
demonize (and, In the process, essentialise)
heterosexuality in ways which are far too ready to
abstract from the impact on heterosexual desire, identity
and relations, of the transformations brought about by
feminism and the rethinking of gender relations more
generally. For as desiring subjects, with definite sexual
and social needs, heterosexuals in our culture have also
been caught up in the convulsions around identity which
these have introduced. There is, moreover, something of
a paradox in presenting heterosexuality as if it were an
external fixity preemptive of choice, since this would
seem to undermine the possibility of the mutations at the
level of subjectivity which polysexual utopias project as
a desirable alternative. However, I think these issues are
best approached not by focussing on the pros and cons of
the arguments which go into this new utopian framework
(and to do that, in any case, would be to undertake a much
lengthier analysis than is possible here), but by focus sing
on the shift itself, and the mode of its interpretation. What
is it that this shift is revealing (or concealing) about the
impact of feminism on heterosexual relations? What is it
saying about the truth or falsity of heterosexual
utopianism as a legitimating discourse? With a view to
addressing these questions, in ways that bring out their
bearing on my opening remarks about ‘progress’, I
propose here to consider two rather differing possible
lines of response they may elicit.

The one argues that since the visions of conjugal bliss
and humanist renewal projected in the earliest stages of
feminist thinking have not been realised, despite
significant advances in female emancipation in socioeconomic and legal terms, and do not speak to current
conceptions of progress, this first phase of feminism got
its utopian vision wrong: the feminist cause was not to be
the cause of improvement in heterosexual relations, was
never in reality the promise of this, and carried no
guarantee that this would be the outcome of gains in
female status. The gradual demise of heterosexual
utopianism therefore reflects a distinct rupture with
previous perceptions of the likely achievements of the
feminist movement, and a recognition of the ideological
delusions of earlier feminism. Modern feminists can now



‘see’ what many of their precursors did not: that the
aspiration to ‘liberate’ women towards the goals of
heterosexual reconciliation was trapped within the
modes of thinking and desiring which served to
perpetuate their oppression.

The feminists of the nineteenth century, in other
words, initially conceived their cause under the influence
of an essentially ‘masculine erotic’ ideal of sexual union,
which still determined the role of woman as partner,
helpmate and complement to the male. This was
inevitable to the extent that even contesting voices are
conditioned by their own ideological context, and, in any
case, heterosexual utopianism was the necessary
legitimating discourse of a movement whose latent
promise was much more sinister: the death of marriage
and romantic love, the convulsion of all previously
established ties of amity and dependence between the
sexes. Feminism at this stage was ideologically
‘obliged’, so this argument might have it, to mask its
more threatening implications by showing its progress to
be consistent with – indeed, to be more likely to realisecertain ideals of love and sexual union that were
themselves complicit in the protraction of female
suppression insofar as they were espoused by patriarchy
itself. Its immanent critique played on the gap between
the social reality of heterosexual oppression and its
justifying discourses, rather than exposing the
profounder source of this oppression in the very
requirement that the empowerment of women should
coincide with the realisation of the ‘truth’ of male desire,
the equalisation of happiness, and the moral regeneration
of the species as a whole.

The other line of response, however, is to say: no,
this is a very partial reading of the evidence, and we can
certainly challenge its underlying presumption that
feminism and gender politics have had no positive
transformative impact on relations between the sexes
(particularly over the period of modem feminism, since
surveys consistently suggest that women have become
much happier in their heterosexual relations since the
1950s).26 To pursue this line is to focus on the forms of
freedom, good will and co-operation between the sexes
that were absent at earlier stages, introducing in the
process a different appraisal of the demise of
heterosexual utopianism. To approach things this way
on, would be to entertain the idea that some of the
programme of heterosexual utopianism may indeed have
been realised (and to that extent earlier feminism proved
correct in its projections); only realised, we would have
to say, along lines which earlier discourse did not
imagine, and which we, who are immersed in this
realised actuality, no longer conceive as part of utopian


To give but one example: Mill offers us a vision of
heterosexual harmony in justification of female
emancipation, which many couples who are today
attempting to live in the light of feminist principles would
find quite ludicrous and belying of their own union, both
because it fails to register the tension-ridden and often
quite explosive nature of their relations, and because its
pieties seem so wide of the mark of their own forms of
hedonism. Yet insofar as such couples have broken with
the sexual division of roles, both emotionally and
materially in ways which advance them beyond
conventional conceptions of what conduces to marital
‘harmony’, they could be said to be engaging in far more
‘reconciled’ and mutually supportive modes of relating
than Mill ever dreamt of. Thus, it might be said that
although feminist progress has introduced new sources
of anxiety, bitterness, guilt and rancour, some of them
feeding directly into reactionary responses of the ‘Iron
John’ variety, it has also opened up forms of cooperation, erotic engagement and communication in
comparison with which earlier projections of
heterosexual utopianism now seem incredibly limited.

Heterosexual relations, it can be granted, have been
afflicted by some quite specific pains and stresses as a
consequence of feminism: male envy of the subordinate
status and resentment of always being the ‘sex in the
wrong’; male jealousy of feminist solidarity and
empowerment of women (but also guilt over feeling the
jealousy); female resentment of these resentments (but
also, maybe, a certain unease about the licence feminism
gives to manipulate and reinforce male guilts); distress
on the part of both sexes over the effects of the desanctification of heterosexual love, and over the misfits
between the impulses of desire and the dictates of
ideological correctness; and also, as suggested earlier,
anxieties about the ‘authenticity’ of one’s heterosexual
identityY But at the same time, it can be argued that it is
only possible to be subject to these kinds of tensions and
self-critical reflexes, if you are already enjoying an
extensive intimacy and empathy with the opposite sex.

That it is only on the basis of a certain closeness that you
can be subject to these particular forms of alienation;
only on the basis of a certain overlap of experience (coparenting, for example, shared spheres of work, power
and pleasure) of a kind which feminism has helped to
bring about, and which Mill could scarcely have
imagined, that – to invoke Slavoj Zizek’s phrase – men
and women together ‘go through the fantasy’ of a Millian
imagined harmony in order, dare one say it, to arrive at a
higher state of communion and enjoyment. In this
connection, one might note, too, all those ways in which



relations between the sexes have been enhanced,
rendered more fulfilling, in a sense realised, precisely as
a consequence of the relative desexualisation of those
relations. For to a significant degree in Western culture
today, we are freed, not only from Sue Bridehead’s
‘barbarous customs’ and ‘superstitions’, but from a
‘gender alertness’ – a constant awareness and wariness
of the sex of the other – which even she might have had
difficulty in conceiving as dissoluble. In this sense, the
very emphasis on heterosexuality may be functioning as
a kind of throw-back: a reading of a more sharply
eroticized past into a present in which, in reality, it no
longer so clearly applies. It would be wrong to overstate
the advances made on this score, but neither should we
overlook the mutations that have taken place at this level
by comparison with a past in which sex-difference
figured as the ever present and inescapable grid through
which men and women lived their relations to each other.

At any rate, to look at the issue from this optic would
be to argue that it was not so much that ‘heterosexual
utopian’ feminism got it wrong in an abstract sense about
what it would achieve in the way of improving
heterosexual relations, but that it was incapable of
foreseeing the particular forms in which such
improvement would come to pass. It was not that it was
deluded in advancing the goal of amelioration between
the sexes, but that its vision was limited by the historical
conceptions it brought to the goal itself. If heterosexual
utopianism no longer looms so large in the vocabulary of
contemporary feminism, this is not because the latter has
exposed the mistakenness of the very idea it
incorporated, but because feminism has contributed to
the realisation of the idea in ways which reveal the now
anachronistic quality of its earlier representations.

I have sketched two alternative ways of thinking
about the question of feminism’s achievements, and
pointed to some divergences in the constructions they
invite us to place on earlier utopian discourse. The first
approach charts the limitations and misconceptions of
earlier aspirations relative to a truer understanding at
which we have now arrived. The second directs us to the
changing contents wherein the formal and open-ended
categories of a progressive movement such as feminism
may find themselves historically realised. The first gives
a picture of society as containing inherently masculine
privileging structures – in this instance ‘heterosexuality’

– which present a barrier to female emancipation, and
must be transcended as a condition of liberation; the
‘utopia’ is, as it were, the place beyond that barrier. The
alternative focusses on the dialectical transformation of
the structure itself as a consequence of actual feminist
advance. Its ‘utopia’ is, so to speak, unfolding in the here

and now, but must be seen to involve a continual
changing or reperception of the goalposts as the goals
themselves are reached. There are therefore no clearly
specifiable ends which allow us finally to discriminate
between developments which might be said to ‘realise’,
as opposed to ‘deviate’ from, the feminist agenda. Insofar
as utopian projections can be said to be realised, and ends
achieved, it is only in ways which so far depart from
their specified content, that they can hardly be said to
represent its actualisation; and they are also, it would
appear, only achieved at the cost of generating new
modes of desire and hence new agendas for progress.

Both these approaches may be said to register, if not
to resolve, the dilemma of bringing the enlightenment
shed by a social movement such as feminism to bear on
its own self-representations. The one does so by directing
attention to a ‘real content’ of its agenda which is
ideologically veiled by utopian discourse; the other by
looking to the changing content wherein the essential
‘truth’ of utopian discourse finds itself realised. The
former approach makes a clean distinction, as it were,
between the cultural packaging of a progressive
movement, and its objective and independently
specifiable goals or consequences; the latter recognises
only a dislocation between the cultural packaging and
the actual achievements of the movement: it is altogether
fuzzier about the exact criteria of progress. Both have
their points of strength, but also their weaknesses. The
first provides a clearer criterion by which to demarcate
between more or less progressive developments within
the movement, but it is vulnerable to having that same
logic turned against its own claims to know the truth of
the feminist agenda. If heterosexual utopianism
misrepresented the ‘truth’ of feminism at an earlier stage
of its advance, what guarantees that more separatist
conceptions of these ends will not in turn be exposed as
ideological miscontructions of its purposes at a later
stage in its history? The second avoids this problem by
fixing on the imprecise and open-ended nature of the
goals of feminism, but arguably only at the cost of being
so elastic about criteria that it comes close to allowing
the utopian projections of the movement to be realised in
any and every development which it induces.

These respective limitations might be said to have
their counterpart in the restricted purchase which both
perspectives, if taken in isolation, have on current
political realities. For to raise the question as to whether
feminism has issued in more harmonious relations
between the sexes, is to accept that there is some
empirical support for both perspectives, but that each can
be contested through the evidence adduced in support of
the other. I have tried to show that there are grounds for


arguing that feminism has been responsible for, or
contains the potential for, a transfiguration of
heterosexual relations which is in many ways ‘in excess’

of the imagined pleasures of those who invoked the
discourse of ‘heterosexual utopianism’ to legitimate the
feminist cause; and that, in this sense, a reflex rejection
of this discourse as a false or ideological register of
feminist progress would be inappropriate. But it is also
true that it has disturbed previous sources of harmony
and introduced new tensions of a kind which do indeed
undermine any simple confidence in the idea that
feminism and sexual reconciliation can proceed together.

In this sense, a more separatist utopian discourse is also
registering something of the truth of the conditions which
feminism has brought into being. For perhaps from
where we are now, we can see that a question arises as to
whether the project of heterosexual reconciliation has not
depended on a covert assumption of differential roles and
powers of a kind which modern feminism is
systematically dismantling.

At any rate, it would seem at least pertinent to ask
whether the revolution in our thinking about gender and
sexual identity which feminism has helped to stimulate
is ultimately compatible with any very stable or
harmonious pattern of sexual relating. Perhaps relations
between the sexes have become more estranged than
reconciled as a consequence of feminism, and it will
continue that way. On the other hand, one would also
have to recognise the role of feminism in generating
dissatisfaction with earlier forms of co-existence and
communion, in exposing the limits of previous
‘contentment’ , and thus in generating the desire to break
with the estranging conventions of older modes of
intimacy. Or, to put the point more positively, we would
have to acknowledge its transfigurative role in the
creation of new and altogether more pleasurable forms
of co-existence between the sexes. Feminism in this
sense, one might say, has both exposed the falsity of its
earlier utopian promises and served to realise their truth.

Whether people of a later age will say anything of this
sort about it, of course, remains to be seen.

part of my aim here to expose the interrelationship
between the ‘openness’ of the goals of progressive
movements and the transmutations of their utopian



Paradise Lost, IV, 299.


The Metaphysical poets are a case in point (one thinks
here of poems such as Donne’s ‘Extasie’ or ‘The Good
Morrow’); Dante’s Beatrice, moreover, to trace some of
these conceptions further back, provides inspiration for
Shelley’s presentation of the beloved woman as the
medium through whom both sexes will attain to a more
sublime state of existence; and maybe something of this
idea is presented in the figure of Diotima in Plato’s
Symposium (also the site, of course, of Aristosphanes’

fable of an original sexual union).


As witness Blake’s idyll in ‘Visions of the Daughters of
Albion’, Plate 11,24-30:

But silken nets and traps of adamant will Oothoon spread,
and catch for thee girls of mild silver, or of furious gold;
I’ll lie beside thee on a bank and view their wanton play
In lovely copulation bliss on bliss with Theotormon:

Red as the rosy morning, lustful as the first born beam,
Oothoon shall view his dear delight, nor e’ er with jealous
Come in the heaven of generous love; nor selfish
blightings bring.

It should be said, too, that to the extent that this vision
became translated into practice, as it did in modest fashion
among certain pockets of Owenite socialist-feminism. it
did not prove altogether lyrical, least of all for the female
parties to the experiment (see Barbara Taylor, Eve and the
New Jerusalem, Virago, London, 1983, pp. 43-8).


For a discussion of some of these themes in German
Romanticism, see Ursula Vogel, ‘Humboldt and the
Romantics: Neither Hausfrau nor Citoyenne . The Idea of
“Self-Reliant Femininity” in German Romanticism’, in
Ellen Kennedy and Susan Mendus, eds, Women in
Western Political Philosophy, Wheatsheaf, Brighton,
1987, pp. 106-26.


Charles Fourier, Oeuvres Completes, Anthropos, Paris,
1966, I, pp. 131-3. With this we may compare Frances
Wrights’s comment that ‘women, however high or low in
the scale of ci vilisation, hold the destinies of mankind’; or
William Thompson’s that ‘a comparative sketch … of the
state of married women in different countries … would
show that the happiness … of the whole of society, is in
direct ratio to an approach of equality’; or that of Annie
Wheeler: ‘When I advocate the rights of women … I do it
under the most perfect conviction that I am also pleading
the cause of men by showing the mighty influence women
hold over the happiness or misery of men themselves,
according as they are instructed or ignorant, fettered or
free’ (all cited in Taylor, pp. 29-30).


Robert Owen, Lectures on the Marriages of the Priesthood
in the Old Immoral World, quoted in Taylor, op. cit., p.



From the Socialists Social Hymnbook, quoted in Taylor,
op. cit., p. 209.

1 It would be a mistake, all the same, to dwell too exclusively
on the dislocations between the progressive aims and
actual achievements of progressive causes at the cost of
recognising the extent to which these can be fixed on finite
and absolute goals. The campaign for the abolition of
slavery, for example, may in a sense have been continued
into the anti-apartheid and anti-racist movements of our
times, but it would be misleading to identify these later
initiatives with the anti-slavery campaign itself, or to
suggest that the latter had not been targeted on fairly
precise, and now largely realised, objectives. It will be


For accounts which provide both an overview of the rise
and development of the feminist movement and a sense of
its historical complexities, see Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden
from History, Piu to Press, London, 1974; Women,
Resistance and Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth,
1974; Women in Movement, Routledge, London, 1992.

10 1.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, Virago, London,
1983, p. 177.


Quoted in H. Kent Geiger, The Family in Soviet Russia,

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1968; cf.

Rowbotham, Women, Resistance and Revolution, 1972,
Ch. 6, esp. pp. 140-158.

very perdurance of her widowed condition (Woman and
the Demon, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

and London, 1982, pp. 119-20).

12 Olive Schreiner, Woman and Labour, T. Fisher Unwin,
London, 1911, pp. 296-7; cf. Elaine Show alter, Sexual
Anarchy, Virago, London, 1992, p. 48.

13 Thus Keith Pearson: ‘Feminists must show that the
emancipation of women will tend not only to increase the
stability of society and the general happiness of mankind,
but will favour the health and physique of both sexes’ (The
Ethics of Free Thought. A Selection of Essays, London,
1988, p. 391); Havelock Ellis argued that women will
bring a ‘reinvigoration as complete as any brought by the
barbarians to an effete and degenerating civilisation’ (The
New Spirit, London, 1890, p. 9). According to Penny
Boumelha (Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology
and Narrative Form, Harvester, Hassocks, 1982) ‘new
woman’ fiction of the 1880s-90s is to be read as very
concerned with the new moral mission to use female
‘influence’ to reform society.

21 On this too, see Auerbach, pp. 82-8.

22 Barbara Caine has rejected any interpretation of ‘first
wave’ feminism as concerned only with the single woman,
and argues that the campaign for the reform of the legal
situation of married women was the first one around which
the movement organised a sustained campaign, occupying
the attention of almost all the prominent members until
the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1982
(,Feminism, Suffrage and the Nineteenth Century English
Women’s Movement’, in Sarah, op. cit., pp. 541-2). Even
so vocal a critic of marital dependency as Frances Cobbe,
defended its ‘rightness’: ‘For the mass of mankind,
marriage is the right condition, the happiest, and the most
conductive to virtue’ (quoted in Caine, p. 543). Josephine
Butler, too, who led the agitation against the Contagious
Diseases Act from 1869 onwards, is said to have viewed
feminism as directed ultimately to expanding the moral
sway of women with a view to the transformation of men,
ibid. p. 547.

14 See Sheila Jeffreys, “‘Free from all uninvited touch of
man”: Women’s campaigns around sexuality, 18801914’, in Elizabeth Sarah, ed. Reassessments of ‘First
Wave ‘ Feminism, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1982, pp. 62946; and The Spinster and Her Enemies, Pandora, London,
1985. Cf. Lucy Bland, ‘Feminist Vigilantes in Late
Victorian England’, in Carol Smart, ed., Regulating
Womanhood, Routledge, London, 1992, pp. 33-52.

15 Cristobel Pankhurst, Plain Facts about a Great Evil (the
Great Scourge and How to End it), Women’s Social and
Political Union, London, 1913, p. 3f. Cf. Jeffreys, op. cit.,

16 Showalter, Sexual Anarchy, p. 171.

17 Cf. Boumelha, Thomas Hardy and Women, pp. 146-7; cf.


18 One might contrast Hardy with Lawrence in this respect.

Whereas in Hardy’s case, it would seem mistaken to
construe any intimations to be found in his work of the
‘difficulties’ posed by feminism for heterosexual relating
as an ‘anti-feminist’ warning of the consequences of
female advance, this is much less clearly the case with
Lawrence – whose fears of ‘some ghastly Clytemnestra
victory ahead for the women’ (letter to Robert Mountsier,
20 January 1917, quoted in H. Simpson, D.H. Lawrence
and Feminism, Northern Illinois Press, Illinois, 1982, p.

67) clearly speak in this direction. It is arguable, in fact,
that despite his interest in an androgynous fusing of male
and female principles, Lawrence in the end reverts to a
classic ideology of complementary but separate spheres.

On the other hand, fears of the emasculating effects of
feminism must be a factor to be born in mind in
considering the actual import of female emancipation for
erotic relations between the sexes.

19 This pessimism, we might note, was by no means to
everyone’s taste, and indeed provoked some feminist
criticism formulated from within the heterosexual utopian
framework of thinking. We feel, wrote the reviewer in the
Illustrated London News in 1893: ‘that between two
persons so clear-sighted, so outspoken and so fully aware
of the pitfalls of married life, the natural end would be a
real marriage – that is to say, an equal union, in which
each would respect the freedom and individuality of the
other, and in which each would find the completest
development’ (quoted in Showalter, Sexual Anarchy, p.


20 Nina Auerbach has remarked that Victoria herself, hostile
as she was to feminism, and as committed as any woman
of her time could be to the sanctity of marriage, and
conventionally subordinate role of women within it,
becomes iconic of an indomitable feminine solitude in the

23 For a critique of the radical and cultural feminist ‘retreat’

from the more ‘utopian’ agenda of 1970s feminism, see
Lynne Segal, Is the Future Female?, Virago, London,
1986, esp. ch. 2, 3, 6. While Segal makes out a powerful
case for viewing these forms of feminist argument as a
reactionary betrayal of the promise of feminism, she also
makes the important point that the relative silence within
the 1970s movement on heterosexuality contributed to the
strength of the separatist lesbian analysis in the post-1978
period (pp. 87-8). See also, Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne
Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments,
Merlin, London, 1979; Lynne Segal, Slow Motion:

Changing Masculinities, Changing Men, Virago, London,
1990; Anna Coote and Bea Campbell, Sweet Freedom,
Picador/Pan, London, 1982. Unfortunately, Segal’s
Straight Sex: The Politics of Pleasure, Virago, London,
1994 – a full scale attempt to make good the silence of the
1970s – was published too late to take into account here.

24 For an account of some of these reactions, and a defence
of the lesbian position, see Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax,
The Womens Press, 1990, pp. 287-316 (now reprinted in
The Woman Question, second edition, ed. Mary Evans,
Sage, London, 1994, pp. 54-75).

25 Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian
Existence’, in The Signs Reader, eds Elizabeth Abel and
Emily K. Abel, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,
1983 (also in Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann
Snitow et al., Virago, London, 1984); Monique Wittig,
‘The Straight Mind’, Feminist Issues, Fall 1980, pp. 10311; ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues, Fall
1981, pp. 47-54; The Lesbian Body, Beacon Press, Boston,
1973; Luce Irigaray, Speculum, Cornell University Press,
Ithaca, 1985; This Sex Which Is Not One, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca, 1985 (and see the bibliography
in Margaret Whitford, ed.The Irigaray Reader, Blackwell,
Oxford, 1991); Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax; Judith Butler,
Gender Trouble, Routledge, London, 1990; Bodies that
Matter, Routledge, London, 1993 (where it is argued that
the ‘regulatory norms of “sex” work in a performative
fashion … to materialize sexual difference in the
consolidation of the heterosexual imperative’, p. 2).

26 For some discussion of feminism’s impact in this respect,
see Segal, Slow Motion, pp. 276ff.

27 These issues are extensively discussed in Segal, Slow
Motion, see esp. pp. 280ff; cf Victor Seidler, ed.,The
Achilles Heel Reader: Men, Sexual Politics and Socialism,
Routledge, London, 1991; and Seidler, Unreasonable
Men, London, Routledge, 1994, pp. 94-120.


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