“A New Kingdom of Femininity”: Women’s Utopias in Early English Culture and Imagination (1405-1666)
- Author(s): Verini, Alexandra Cassatt
- Advisor(s): Chism, Christine
- Gallagher, Lowell
- et al.
This dissertation uncovers an overlooked history of women’s utopian thought that has its foundations in the medieval period. Challenging scholarly narratives that position Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) as the foundation of utopian thought, I argue that medieval and early modern women’s writing produced and/or read in English contexts engaged in unrecognized forms of utopianism that reemerge in contemporary conversations about gender and sexuality. I thus trace an earlier lineage of what Mary Louis Pratt calls “feminotopias,” idealized worlds of female self-realization and social harmony, from the fifteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. But I also expand Pratt’s notion of feminotopia by showing how writers from French author Christine de Pizan to religious leader Mary Ward extended utopia beyond its narrow generic definition as an ideal world into a heuristic for imagining the world otherwise. Through such utopian thinking, women generated gynocentric models of identity, friendship, and community. Writing at moments of social and political tensions, the women in my project collectively imagine ways for communities to negotiate difference—between individual women, between the past and future, humans and nature, and religious and secular life. Reading their writings together builds a picture of how early women engaged in radical, political thought that uses the past to map the future. Placing early women’s writings into conversations with post-modern feminist and queer theory, my project reveals how the past can illuminate the present by offering insight into a transhistorical effort to resist oppression and imagine new possibilities. This dissertation thus generates a literary history that is not exclusively informed by geography or periodization but rather focuses on structures of feeling that strive for a better future.