The Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune series stand among the most skilled female characters in science fiction. They can control others with the commanding voice. They are highly trained in combat and can win without a weapon. They choose when to become pregnant and whether to bear a female or male child. All these abilities, and more, give them an important role in the story of Dune.
Yet surprisingly, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood have often been overlooked or dismissed by literary critics. Very little has been written about them as individuals or as part of a longstanding organization that has mastered the art of politics. Now, a new book about women in the Dune series hopes to set the record straight.
Women’s Agency in the Dune Universe: Tracing Women’s Liberation through Science Fiction by Kara Kennedy is the first major study of female characters and feminist themes in Herbert’s bestselling Dune saga (1965-1985). Based on Kennedy’s extensive research for her doctoral dissertation, the book looks at how women gain control and influence in the Imperium, and how the female body plays a big role in their strategy.
Power and Influences of the Bene Gesserit
Each chapter focuses on one of five different ways women use their body for empowerment. The first chapter looks at the Bene Gesserit’s skills in prana-bindu—total control over every nerve and muscle. The second examines how they control reproduction and raise their children. The third chapter explores their skills in the voice and truthsaying. The fourth looks at the Bene Gesserit’s education and training program, as well as Other Memory. Then the final chapter studies women’s sexuality.
Because the study covers all six original Dune books, it includes characters from the beginning (such as Jessica, Margot Fenring, and Gaius Helen Mohiam) as well as the end (such as Lucilla and Darwi Odrade). It also makes comparisons between the Bene Gesserit and other key factions including the Mentats, Bene Tleilaxu, and Honored Matres.
Furthermore, the book looks at what was happening in history when the series was published, including the women’s liberation movement and the New Wave science fiction trend toward more experimentation. The final conclusion is that Herbert’s Dune series should be acknowledged for showing active, influential female characters in control of their bodies, just as women in the real world were fighting for similar rights.
Women’s Agency in the Dune Universe: Tracing Women’s Liberation through Science Fiction is available now in hardcover. For more information, visit DuneScholar.com/publications.
About the Book’s Author
Kara Kennedy, PhD, is a researcher, writer, and educator in the areas of science fiction, digital literacy, and writing. She has lectured and published on various aspects of Dune, including world-building, names, social sciences, and spice. She is currently writing another book on Dune and posts analyses for a mainstream audience on her blog at DuneScholar.com.