Female Utopias

by Marie Westhaver

It’s a man’s world, the saying goes, always has been, always will be – and, it is implied, always should be. In many parts of the world, patriarchy and sexism are the norm, male children are preferred, male heirs are the only ones who can inherit titles or property, and men run most of the government and commerce. A world without men is unthinkable. But what if it weren’t? What if women ran the world?

In the novel Herland, men exist only in a faraway place, and the documentary film Umoja: No Men Allowed, a group of Samburu women have set up a women’s only village, called Umoja (“unity” in Kiswahili), where men are not allowed. Both examples explore the possibilities of worlds designed and maintained by women, where the role of men is extraneous if not actually unnecessary.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel from 1915, Herland, describes a place where a series of events wiped out all the men and then isolated the surviving women physically from the outside world, producing a race of parthenogenic (asexually reproducing) women who would evolve to create a world populated solely by women. Since the children inherit only their mother’s DNA, all babies are female. The village of Umoja was created in the 1990s, after hundreds of Samburu and Maasai women in Kenya accused British soldiers from a nearby military base of rape and were subsequently blamed for bringing shame to their family and cast out of their village. The outcasts set up the village of Umoja, where men are not allowed. As with Plato’s Republic, the concept of a real-world utopia is explored, in order to create an idealized environment where people may live grow, and thrive, reaching their fullest potential as human beings.

In both the fictional and the real-world examples, one assumption is that women lack the ability to survive, much less thrive, without men. When male explorers, one of whom is the book’s narrator, arrive at the island of Herland, their first instinct is to find the men in charge (“there must be men…of course there are men”);1 failing that, they try to dominate and subdue an environment that was thriving peacefully without them. Regarding Umoja, local men are unwilling to accept a village that exists outside of their control and authority, even though the village consists of people cast out of their home village. One of the men, Leapora says, “We don't want those women to even have food,” and another tells the camera, “I was upset and decided to go to the women's village, one man says in the film, and beat them up because they just sit there and eat.”

The Samburu men believe they have authority because it has always been so, and this attitude is reflected in their interactions with women. Men approve when other men hit their wives; one male interviewee tells the camera, “It means they’re knocking some sense into them.” The men hold the law, but they blame the women for the crimes of other men. “It was the lady’s fault there was a rape,” one man says, “They knew the British soldiers were in the area.” The women’s claims of their victimization fall on deaf ears, since, although hundreds of women came forward, an investigation by the British police was dropped due to insufficient evidence. Still, some evidence can’t be denied: one woman speaks openly about her ostracism when she bore a son after the rape; a son who became a pariah in the community due to his origins. The men’s underlying objection to Umoja seems to result from them getting stuck with the “women’s work” that remains: gathering firewood and water, dressing and caring for children, washing dishes. In retaliation, the men begrudge Umoja women their very subsistence, seeking to starve them out in the hopes that they will break up their village and disperse.

Thus, the Umoja women are “no good,” in contrast to the women in Herland, who have an emotional distance from the men and baffle them with their endless goodness – after all, every woman is a virgin in Herland. The male explorers find the lack of distractions, noise, smoke, and dirt maddening, seeing the feminist world as an endless parlor and nursery, where there is nothing to oppose, struggle with, conquer, or overcome, and bewailing their day to day comfortable existence as lacking “even the satisfaction of hitting anybody.” Absent is the spirit of competition and jealousy after living for so long in a world without predators. The men are also frustrated in their attempts to describe the woman’s place in their native “Manland” as being in the home; in Herland, there is no word for “home” or “family” – the women are all out performing various jobs according to their skills. There is no need to corral mothers into “their place” – their place is everywhere in Herland.

Despite the differences in these two social contexts, both Herland and Umoja have striking similarities. For example, in both places the act of sex is reduced to a matter of practicalities as well. In Herland, sex is for one season and one purpose; otherwise, they don’t see the point. The women in Umoja have sex with men only to procreate – they don’t see another. Additionally, both groups of women have control of the food supply, not the men. The women of Herland have developed a vegetarian diet that is suitable for the people and the planet; all existing animals are pets. Before setting up their own village, the women in Umoja accepted a pecking order in which they prepared meals for their husbands and ate whatever was left over after he had had his fill – if he didn’t eat it all. When the village roasted animals for food, women were forbidden to eat the ribs, the head, or certain parts of the leg – food deemed fit only for men. These days, the women of Umoja eat what they want, when they want.

Consider, as well, the way these female-centric communities articulate their attitudes toward men.  They are not interested in the men ruling them again – men who sleep under trees all day long while the women work until eleven o’clock at night. “We don’t want women like that” the Samburu men say, but the women have no interest in going back “Where are the husbands?” a tourist asks a woman in Umoja. “There are no husbands here,” the woman replies with a big smile, and both women laugh. Whether the men “want women like that” is unimportant in Herland, where the central theme always returns to motherhood as a starting point for everything, including religion. The time when men existed in this place is irrelevant; having moved beyond a world dominated by men, the residents of Herland see no point in honoring it. Worship seems unnecessary and irrelevant. Eternal life is neither desired nor expected. Gilman proposes that imagining the divine as female produces a radically different religion and a much more benevolent society than picturing the divine as a man.

The novel Herland is twelve short chapters. The film Umoja: No Men Allowed is 32 minutes of reportage with serious social critique, of women who have reclaimed their lives and clearly emerge the victors. The film unfolds with occasional intertitles that provide information (i.e., “Umoja has built its first primary school, where boys and girls are given equal access”) in white text on a black background, before expanding on the information with interviews and local shots.

Like the women of Herland, whose lives were devoted to educating their children in the most optimal intellectual and physical environment, the women of Umoja see educating boys as part of creating a new outlook in the next generation. They use the profits from their handicrafts business to provide scholarships for young girls, teachers’ salaries and lunches for the Umoja pre-school, a fresh water project, a health care project and support for entrepreneurial training. They have succeeded in providing a nurturing environment for children, despite their struggles to separate from the men and to rule their own lives.

The film ends with a montage of wildlife and a shot of people swimming and playing in the water. The women of Umoja are in their own place, and know their place in their world, and it is both a pragmatic and spiritual concept. “We love swimming in the source of the river,” they tell us, before our view of their world fades out.

Lesson Plan: Feminist Utopias


Umoja: No Men Allowed. 2010. Directed by Elizabeth Tadic. New York: Women Make Movies. 32 minutes.
Umoja: No Men Allowed explores the problematic power relations of gender privilege in Northern Kenya, where a group of women have established a women-only village, Umoja (Kiswahaili for “unity”), where no men are allowed, and establish a handicrafts business for tourists.

These Hands. 1992. Directed by Flora M'mbugu-Schelling. San Francisco: California Newsreel Studio. 45 minutes.
These Hands is an ethno-documentary that documents the labor of Mozambican women refugees over the course of a day as they work in a rock quarry outside Dar es Salaam.

What Dreams May Come. 1998. Directed by Vincent Ward. Universal City, CA: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. 113 minutes.
In this film a man searches the afterlife for his wife who has committed suicide.

After Life. 1998. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Tucson, AZ: Artistic License Films. 118 minutes.
This film depicts the time after people die, when they spend a week with counselors, also dead, who help them pick one memory, the only memory they can take with them to eternity.

Herland. 1998. By Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Minneola, NY: Dover. Available online from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32.
Herland is a 1915 utopian novel written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman about an isolated society of women, who reproduce via parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction), resulting in an ideal social order free of war, conflict, and domination.

Readings fromthe Roots of Wisdom, 3rd ed. 2002. Edited by Helen Buss Mitchell. Victoria, Australia: Cengage Learning.
This anthology explores the different philosophical traditions by compiling a wide range of excerpts from texts such as The Republic by Plato, La Respuesta by Sor Juana de la Cruz, Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe, and Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa.

Umoja Women. http://www.umojawomen.net/HOME.html.
The Umoja Women website provides background information about the women of Umoja, as well as opportunities to donate to their village or to purchase their beaded items.


The theme of the day’s class is metaphysics and the concept of Ultimate Reality, which explores questions such as, Where do we come from? Who are we? How does the universe operate?


The class will compare what we know about the world with the concept of a feminist utopia. We will discuss the 1915 novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and we will watch the film Umoja: No Men Allowed, as well as a selection of short clips on related subjects, including those for further philosophical exploration. A discussion will follow about the important issues raised from the novel and the films.

We will begin by explaining the advantages that people have taken for granted with the status quo. We will watch the film Umoja: No Men Allowed, and the film will also be made available on the class website to review later when students are working on the written assignment.2 Clips will also be shown from These Hands, a documentary about a day in the life of Mozambican women refugees working in a quarry outside Dar es Salaam, who are struggling to survive but have achieved self-employment, and two films (What Dreams May Come and After Life) that explore the religious implications of a philosophical worldview. We will end the class by questioning and discussing the fundamental religious assumptions students have made in terms of patriarchy and sexism. Licensing rights were obtained from the distributor to stream films through Canvas, our online learning management system.

Discussion Questions - for reflection in class after showing the film

  1. What parts of the film could you relate to and why?
  2. Which utopia do you find more attractive?
  3. Discuss underlying assumptions about feminist utopia. Compare the reactions of the Samburu men when a female-run and female-driven enterprise gets off the ground vs. the assumptions the male explorers have before they arrive at the isolated Herland.
  4. How does the medium of film help to raise and explore philosophical questions?
  5. What effect does imaging God as male have on human society and power relationships? If motherhood became the dominant metaphor, what qualities might we expect to find in the divine? In human society?
  6. In Herland the divine is pictured as a kind of motherly power – an extension of human motherhood – and the concept of a male divinity is not an automatic assumption. What has been gained and what has been lost?
  7. Which aspects of Herland attract you and which repel you?
  8. Do you think the women of Umoja will continue without the men taking over?

Written Assignment to be completed outside of class

Read Herland (free online from Project Gutenberg), and the information about the story from 4.4 in Readings from the Roots of Wisdom; then, compare Herland with Umoja: No Men Allowed, shown in class. Both of these creative works offer us utopias or ideal societies.  We have already met Plato's utopia in the Republic. Here, all the inhabitants of the utopias are women. Compare and contrast the way the movie and the book each define gender roles, how they are constructed, and how the gender system is viewed as changeable or unchangeable by outsiders. This is not a formal essay assignment – please address all the questions about gender roles below.

How is education treated in the film and in the book? Plato also had very specific ideas about the education of the philosopher king or queen in his utopia. Which utopia do you find more attractive? Why? As you watch the film Umoja, think about the scenes that raise for you a profound philosophical question.  How does the medium of film help to raise and explore philosophical questions?

Herland also considers the question of Ultimate Reality. If we consider our current span of life in a larger context, does this make a difference?  In your response, please draw from the worldviews expressed in What Dreams May Come, the Japanese film After Life the excerpt from Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (reading 4.5) from the Readings from the Roots of Wisdom. This is the rubric used to grade this assignment:

You’ve already rated students with this rubric. Any changes could affect their assessment results.
Criteria Ratings Points
Common themes in Umoja and Herland as examples of utopian visions. In shaping your response, refer to Plato’s utopian vision in Republic [reading 1.1] Full marks: 25 pts No marks: 0 pts 25
Explore indigenous worldviews Threshold: 3 points Exceeds expectations: 5 pts Meets expectations: 3 pts Does not meet expectations: 0 pts 5
Explore the power of film to raise profound philosophical questions and analyze their impact on the living of a human life. Exceeds expectations: 5 pts Meets expectations: 3 pts Does not meet expectations: 0 pts 5
Herland touches on questions of Ultimate Reality. How do these questions show up differently when the world is composed entirely of women? We see living women in Umoja and fictional women in Herland Full marks: 25 pts No marks: 0 pts 25
Total points: 40

1 These quotes are from the online version of Herland through Project Gutenberg, which does not include page numbers (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32/32-h/32-h.htm).

2 When purchasing the DVD from Women Make Movies, we opted for the choice to include the licensing fee for streaming.

Professor Marie Westhaver has been a full-time faculty member at Howard Community College (HCC) since 2006, where she has been involved in distance and alternative learning, developing and teaching online classes for both credit and continuing education courses. Marie is also the Chair of Film, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Arts, which includes overseeing the Women’s Studies programs at HCC.