With this remarkable study, historian Keira V. Williams shows how fictional matriarchies—produced for specific audiences in successive eras and across multiple media—constitute prescriptive, solution-oriented thought experiments directed at contemporary social issues. In the process, Amazons in America uncovers a rich tradition of matriarchal popular culture in the United States.
Beginning with late-nineteenth-century anthropological studies, which theorized a universal prehistoric matriarchy, Williams explores how representations of women-centered societies reveal changing ideas of gender and power over the course of the twentieth century and into the present day. She examines a deep archive of cultural artifacts, both familiar and obscure, including L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series, Progressive-era fiction like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland, the original 1940s Wonder Woman comics, midcentury films featuring nuclear families, and feminist science fiction novels from the 1970s that invented prehistoric and futuristic matriarchal societies. While such texts have, at times, served as sites of feminist theory, Williams unpacks their cyclical nature and, in doing so, pinpoints some of the premises that have historically hindered gender equality in the United States.
Williams also delves into popular works from the twenty-first century, such as Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise and DC Comics/Warner Bros.’ globally successful film Wonder Woman, which attest to the ongoing presence of matriarchal ideas and their capacity for combating patriarchy and white nationalism with visions of rebellion and liberation. Amazons in America provides an indispensable critique of how anxieties and fantasies about women in power are culturally expressed, ultimately informing a broader discussion about how to nurture a stable, equitable society.
Keira V. Williams is lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy, and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. She is also the author of Gendered Politics in the Modern South: The Susan Smith Case and the Rise of a New Sexism.
“The breadth of this well-written, carefully theorized, and deeply researched book is impressive. Engaging with a wide and inventive range of texts over the last 100-plus years—from feminist theory to political rhetoric to comic books to novels to film—Amazons in America explores the varied invocations, shifting meanings, and sometimes unsavory implications of matriarchalist thought in American public life.”
~Bonnie J. Dow, author of Watching Women’s Liberation, 1970: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on the Network News
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