- Gender Models Alternative Communities and Women's Utopianism by Gilberta Golinelli
Bologna, Italy: Bononia University Press, 2018. 276 pp. Paperback, $25.12, isbn 9788869233449.
Gilberta Golinelli's book is set within an important area of utopian studies that, from the 1990s, also via archival studies (Kate Lilley, Marina Leslie, Nicole Pohl, Oddwar Holmesland, Christine Rees, and Alessa Jones), started to focus on the numerous utopias penned by women in the early modern English period. The book, significantly titled Gender Models, Alternative Communities and Women's Utopianism, analyzes some of the utopian writings by Margaret Cavendish (1623–1673), Aphra Behn (1640–1689), and Mary Astell (1666–1731). Golinelli did not choose to use the term utopianism on a whim, since the utopias of these authors are hybrids, mixing other genres in their makeup: travel reports, theater, romance, letters. They are complex texts, then, which are to be read at different levels and must be approached utilizing diverse methodologies: historical, sociological, and philosophical as well as aesthetic and literary ones. This is the reason, as emerges from her analysis, Golinelli uses the most recent utopian studies, gender and women's studies, and early modern studies, carrying out a transdisciplinary methodology. One of her volume's working hypotheses is that these three writers, due to their themes, fall within the genealogy of women's writing and constitute an important link in the development of feminism. They can be considered a sort of "proto-feminist," although, as Golinelli rightly notes in her introduction, the terms feminism and proto-feminism [End Page 346] must be used with caution in the case of seventeenth-century works. All three writers, despite belonging to different social and political environments, vigorously state the importance of education for the true emancipation of women, allowing them to find a space of their own within public life. They have a full, mature awareness of the fact that writing constitutes a form of empowerment of their identity and their agency. This is because writing not only ensured economic independence—most important in Behn's case—but also offered more visibility at a public level and consequently the possibility of influencing different mentalities and persuading not just their readers in general but their female readers in particular.
Another strong point of the book is that it examines, in the wake of Nicole Pohl's studies (Women, Space, and Utopia 1600–1800 [Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006]), alternative spaces envisaged by these writers' utopian imaginations: "The battlefield, the new world, the theatre and convents represented another 'ideal' place where women could investigate how their gender and social identity, together with their participation in and/or exclusion from the public sphere were constructed and regulated" (119). In the 1980s a seminal study by Ann K. Mellor ("On Feminist Utopias," Women's Studies 9 : 241–62) highlighted the existence of a very strong link between feminism and utopianism, between the utopias of the past and those of the present, and, moreover, how utopia became, for women, a powerful tool to criticize the reality surrounding them and to imagine alternative spaces.
In her analyses of these utopian texts Golinelli gives ample space to the historical and political context, because it is only in this way that contemporary readers can comprehend their complexity and the contradictions of the writers and their "feminism." Cavendish, Behn, and Astell are writers with very different biographies, but what unites them is a strong awareness of the importance of their writings. For instance, on one side, Margaret Cavendish, an extraordinary woman who possessed a remarkably vast knowledge of culture, capable of talking on an equal footing with the male scientists and philosophers of her time, presents extremely innovative ideas on women in her writings. But on the other, from a political point of view she was a royalist who exalted the values of the former monarchy, an institution founding its unassailability via the divine right of royal succession, and she saw in the heterosexual, patriarchal family a microcosm of the nation and an indisputable model of the good governance of the state.
The first chapter, "Female Agency in Margaret...