The Wanderground was published in Britain in 1985 in the Women’s Press science fiction series.
Sally Miller Gearheart was born in 1931 in the Appalachians in Virginia, where she was raised by her grandmother, who owned a cinema. She received an MA in Theatre and Rhetoric in 1953 and a Ph.D in theatre in 1956. Sally taught in various colleges in Texas before establishing a women’s studies programme at San Francisco State University, one of the first in the USA. She was very active in lesbian rights campaigns in the 1970s, and in the successful campaign to defeat Proposition 6 which, if passed, would have barred lesbians and gay men from teaching in schools. The Wanderground was originally published by Persephone Press in 1979 in the USA.
The Wanderground is not a single narrative, but a series of overlapping stories, mostly set in the hills (the Wanderground) which lie at some distance from an unnamed city. The stories introduce us to a range of different women: some women appear in several stories. The Wanderground is where women fled to several generations ago to escape the violence and oppression of men in the city. In the chapter “Pelagine Stretches” we learn from an older woman’s reflections on her past history that women in the city who had asserted themselves were suffering a male backlash. In a flashback Vivian tells her friend Kate about the stories she is hearing
‘Kate, they’re true. The stories are true. About how thye’re hunting women, Swear to god. Sue and Sandy saw them pick them one up. Put her in the wagon. And her doing nothing. Not a hooker. Doing nothing I hear another story every day and oh, I got to tell you this Kate, I got to to tell you.’..’The men. All of them was laughing about it yesterday. You know that singer, Gwen Aquarius, the libber? Well you know they took her down to the Hall. They booked her for defacing public property. Because of that midnight mural, on the H.E.W. building.And with attempted murder because she shot the policeman. Well, they could have locked her up for life but they let her go the guy was saying. And this is true now, because she’s trying to sue the state: they let her go Kate but they cut out her tongue. They said that ought to be plenty punishment because they found out she was a lesbian They got such laugh out of that. Them and their smut. I couldn’t laugh Kate. I said some things I shouldn’t have.!
Kate and other women flee into the hills, although they are hunted as they do so, one woman being snatched up in a net by a helicopter. In The Remember Rooms more stories emerge of the past, of how women were labelled as witches, of how polygamy was reintroduced in some states, and curfews and dress codes were imposed on women.
Women became more and more divided. All the freaky -looking ones were rounded up – you know, those who wouldn’t wear even long hippie-type dresses, or those who didn’t comb their hair, the kind that would rather be with women than men, or the kind who gave their husbands any kind of hard time. God, it wa snightmare. Only the ones who looked and behaved like ladies had a chance…then the misfit women began leaving the cities, heading off to the hills, going towards rumours of country women who lived off the land, isolated and self-sufficient. Some found these women. Others probably didn’t. All of them had to get away from police and state militias. All of them had to hide.
This dystopian vision of the future predates Margaret Attwood’s better known novel, The Handmaid’s Tale by some years. Both were perhaps inspired by observing the violent reaction of some men to the assertivemess of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and also perhaps by observing what happened in Iran after the Revolution when a narrow religious conservative orthodoxy was imposed on women who had previously behaved much as women in the West had. This is a video of protest by women in 1979 against the compulsory wearing of headscarfs.
Once in the hills the women change. They are able to comunicate with each by thought alone, which is known as “stretching”, they can also communicate with plants and animals. The women seek live in harmony with nature, embracing the notion of the earth as a mother. A number of women are developing more advanced powers, able to fly even. How this came about is not explained. There is a strong emphasis on woman-centred rituals, with poems and songs and stories at the centre of their lives. In the final chaper they sing:
To work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.
To work as if our healing care were not too late.
Work to stay the slayer’s hand,
Helping him to change
Or helping him to die.
Work as if the earth, the mother, can be saved.
The hill women have escaped from a nightmare vision of a modern city to build an alternative all women community. Having abandoned techology, the women are so in touch with with nature that animals and even trees talk to them, but the spare simplicity of Gearhart’s prose ensures that this never becomes mawkish.
The women have created a rich culture with songs, ritual and their own language. Gearhart makes subtle use of existing mythology in a feminist interpretation of the Persephone stoty, and, wittily, has the women wordlessly communicate Poe’s The Raven to their attendant crows.
Femininity is seen as culturally determined. Urban women wear make-up and high-heels, but the Hill Women wear simple, functional clothes and pass as men when they infiltrate the city. Yet in meetings with “gentles” (men who conscioulsy repudiate sexism) there are indications that it is the intrinsic maleness of men, rather than the socialised attributes of masculinity, which prevent men and women living together. “Somehow men – even Gentles – found it difficult or impossible to really share power.” Nevertheles Gearhart avoids the simplistic equation: women=gentleness, men= aggression. The women experience extremely violent feelings: “They were having visions of man-slaying, of man-mangling.” But by opening themselves individually and collectively to negative as well as positive emotions they achieve full humanity.
Fantasy is an important means of prefiguring versions of a feminist future. If, like me, you find the books implicit assumption that all evil emaates from men’s colonisation of women historically inadequate and have doubts about its blanket dismissal of technology, you may find compensation in this optimistic vision of women working, living and loving harmoniously together.
Pam Johnson, Spare Rib, August 1979.
Sally Miller Gearhart’s website can be found here.