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  • Eleonora Voltolina

Motherhood and gender equality, Ursula K. Le Guin's stroke of genius

True gender equality begins when caring for children is no longer only the job of women; when caring and nurturing responsibilities are shared equitably. Someone who understood this well was Ursula K. Le Guin, the American author who died in her nineties in 2018, the creator of magnificent novels and sagas, particularly in the fantasy and science fiction genres (though she regarded genre limits silly and detrimental, and rightly so), whose ‘Hainish Cycle’ made her immortal.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Perhaps her most famous book, The Left Hand of Darkness, the fourth book in the Hainish Cycle, earned the Nebula Award in 1969 and the Hugo Award – considered the Pulitzer of science fiction – in 1970. Genly Ai, an envoy, a kind of ambassador, arrives on behalf of the Ecumene (roughly speaking, a League of Worlds) from a planet similar to ours to a world quite similar to ours... save for a few minor details. For one thing, there are no birds or other flying species; and, as a result, there is no air travel of any type.

Then there’s the population’s unique feature: the lack of a specified gender.


Gethen’s population are essentially hermaphrodites, or bisexual in the biological sense – «ambisexual». Their reproductive system involves a few days of heat, known as the ‘kemmer,’ when individuals have sex; only on those days do their bodies become sexually connoted, morphing towards male or female features for that brief period. People can become men or women at random during kemmer; if a relationship results in a pregnancy, the person who was sexually connoted as a woman at the time remains a woman throughout the gestation and lactation period, and then returns to their original ambisexual state, ready for new relationships. As a result, «the mother of several children may be the father of several others». Outside of kemmer, people are continually in somer, “neutral” or rather, as Le Guin says «potential, or integral».


Gethen's society is far from ideal, but the biological peculiarity of ambisexuality means that there is no discrimination in the population because there is no significant difference between the genders, and therefore no gender bias or stereotyping regarding how one should behave when one is a man or when one is a woman, what is possible or impossible to accomplish depending on one’s gender.

This is how an envoy ‘investigator’ from Ecumene, who landed on Gethen some time before the protagonist Genly Ai, breaks it down in her official reports in the chapter “The Question of Sex”: «Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be […] “tied down to childbearing,” implies that no one is quite so thoroughly “tied down” here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically». This is the most powerful argument offered by proponents of equal maternity and paternity leave today! Le Guin continues: «Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else».


Gender preconceptions are dismissed: «There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/ protected, dominant/ submissive, owner/ chattel, active/ passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed». The investigator also gives directions to those who will come along afterwards, to better interact with the inhabitants of Gethen: «When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. […] This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?». It is not easy, the investigator admits, to give up thinking in a binary way, or even the habit of being perceived in a binary way: «A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation». But this is impossible on the planet Gethen, because its people do not think in dichotomous male/female terms: «One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience».


Ursula K. Le Guin, an exceptional thinker and storyteller, never stopped thinking about it.

In another of her classics, The Dispossessed, the sixth novel in the Hainish Cycle that won the rare triple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award in 1975, Le Guin imagines a group of idealists establishing a colony on a previously deserted planet, resulting in an anarchic utopia. Anarres becomes the realisation of a society devoid of hierarchies, regulations, and pre-established rules, in which people can live fully freely and communally, without owning money, pooling resources, giving to each according to their skills, and taking according to their needs: «An idea of freedom, of change, of human solidarity».


Men and women are totally equal in this context, so much so that the most common practise is to place children in shared dormitories, giving up the option – the instinct? – of ‘possessing’ them and thus the possibility of developing relationships with them that are too strong, too deep, relationships that are not interchangeable. This is also why, for example, extended breastfeeding is strongly discouraged. Children are only given community affection rather than their parents’ excessively intense «individual love», with the belief that love ends up binding people together, limiting each person’s individuality, building links and systems of gratitude and duty, which often develops into shared suffering. What results is a society in which men and women are equal in terms of personal and professional fulfilment but emotionally impoverished.


Finally, in the short story ‘Paradises Lost,’ which appeared in the collection Birthday of the World, the final book in the Hainish Cycle, released in 2002, Ursula K. Le Guin imagines a spaceship travelling from Earth to a new planet to be colonised. The 4,000 passenger population must remain steady; those who left will never see their destination because the journey will last decades and only the next generations will complete the last step, landing on the new planet. People on the spaceship must consequently reproduce neither too much nor too little.


In this constrained and controlled environment, each person has the right to one child – in extraordinary situations, two – and can make do by finding a willing partner. Because each parent is only accountable for one child, men and women have one child each that is ‘theirs’ to care for and raise independently, regardless of how many children they biologically produce. Gender equality is enforced on the spaceship, but not at the expense of gender uniqueness or individual affection.


Ursula K. Le Guin has made incalculable contributions to contemporary literature by inventing imaginative universes that allow us to see our reality, our impulses and battles, and our aspirations through new eyes.

Having children, caring for children, is both a blessing and a curse, a gift and a curse, a privilege and a yoke; it can be a source of pride for women, but it can also be a source of oppression, discrimination, and subordination. It’s no accident that some people are captivated by the artificial womb project today, a med-tech idea – for the time being, science fiction – that would move gestation outside of women’s bodies, ‘freeing’ them from those nine months. Those who study gender issues, however, are well aware that it is not so much the nine months that keep women back but rather... everything else!


There may be other ways – we just have to imagine them. After all, as Le Guin says in the first line of The Left Hand of Darkness, “Truth is a matter of the imagination”. Image credits for Ursula K. Le Guin, taken from her official website: Photo courtesy Euan Monaghan/Structo

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