Wikipedia defines feminism as seeking "to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women". It also calls The Left Hand of Darkness part of "feminist science fiction".

[spoilers for the book follow]

The science-fiction novel describes a culture in which there is no gender divide: individuals are essentially hermaphrodites and commonly both father and bear children during their lives. One of the major characters in the novel is an earth male who finds it difficult to understand the non-gendered nature of this society. They, in turn, find him bizarre and believe him to be some sort of pervert.

It is a book of considerable depth. The author uses the non-gendered nature of the alien culture to explore human obsessions with duality, and with gender roles in western culture. It poses a number of interesting questions for the reader to consider.

However, while the book has strong and clear themes around gender, I have always struggled to understand how it is explicitly feminist by the definition given at the start of the question. It seems to posit not particular superior judgement of this necessarily gender-equal society compared to our own. Nor does it seem to offer much exploration of patriarchy or other societal ways in which men oppress women in human society.

How, then, is it considered feminist?

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    You're working off a poor definition of feminism. I've always understood it to mean "The equality of men and women" — that is, both genders have exactly the same rights and privileges. Commented May 17, 2017 at 9:44
  • Relevant opinion: "Is {X} feminist?" is the wrong question to ask. I happen to agree with the framing challenge Dan Olson offers - especially in the context of LHoD - but I'm not sure if I should write an answer with this in mind.
    – user80
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 9:55
  • @LaurenIpsum I did wonder if that was the case, which is why I opened the question quoting Wikipedia. If you can frame an answer along those lines, it would seem relevant and useful. However, I still find it difficult to see how the novel advances the cause of feminism by exploring gender equality. As I say at the end, there is not a clear statement that this equal society is somehow superior to ours - only different.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 9:58
  • 1
    As ever, I'd be grateful for down-voters to explain how the question could be improved when doing so?
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 14:42

2 Answers 2


Like others have mentioned, your definition of feminism is too narrow. For argument's sake, we might distinguish between feminist politics and feminist thought or philosophy. Considering the social distinctions between men and women and questioning them would be encompassed by the latter definition.

Le Guin's novel does this in literary form. By positing a society where gender is radically different from how it is in our world, we can imagine how our society might be different if we were to rethink gender roles and construct them in a fairer way.

The novel is seen through the eyes of Genly, an inhabitant of Terra (Earth, i.e. our society). This heightens the contrast with Gethen. A number of times in the book we see him struggle to understand this society's social norms. (I don't have the book available right now to quote, but there are a number of incidents like this.) Again, this can provoke the reader to think about how gender roles are taken for granted here on 'Terra'.

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    Could you point to specific passages or quotes from the novel that support this? Commented May 17, 2017 at 13:34
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    Surely it's the entire conceit of the novel? Commented May 17, 2017 at 13:35
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    Hard to agree since I don't know about this book. It'd be beneficial if this answer would not rely on readers' knowledge of the novel. Commented May 17, 2017 at 13:40
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    @Gallifreyan I'm a huge proponent of using quotes on this site, but I think this answer is fine. Any basic plot summery of the book would tell you that it describes "a society where gender is radically different from how it is in our world": there's no need to support this with twenty pages of quotes. And this answer is essentially correct in terms of explaining why The Left Hand of Darkness is considered a feminist novel.
    – user111
    Commented May 17, 2017 at 16:40
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    If I remember correctly, there's a point missing from this answer ... Genly Ai comes from Terra, which in this book is still a very sexist place. He has some difficulty adjusting to interacting with the inhabitants as ungendered people and not men or women.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 11:35

It is feminist because none of the inhabitants of Gethen are male or female; they are both. As Genly is the principal narrator of the story, and comes from Terra, he automatically refers to everyone he meets as "he", as his established convention is to default to the male pronoun, and he is used to men running society. If he referred to all the Gethenians as "she" (which is equally valid) the feminist aspects would be clearer, but part of the subtlety of the novel is Genly's unconscious prejudices.

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