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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Utopias are irresistible. This feminist utopia has much to recommend it, at least as a book. The supreme function of fiction is to offer a different way of seeing the world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman gives her readers a world without men in her utopia, called Herland.

In Women & PowerMary Beard explores the historic silencing of women and the current constructions of power that exclude women. That book reminded me about Herland. I decided to treat myself to a reread.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is the early twentieth century and young men are proving themselves through exploration in Africa, Antarctica and up the Amazon. Three young men, in search of adventure, are determined to find the fabled land rumoured to be peopled by women only. They approach with many assumptions in place. They assume they will be welcomed, that there are men managing things, and if not seen the men must be pulling the strings from some glorious hiding place.

Terry is a rich, virile and confident young man, not used to being denied by anyone, above all women. He expects to conquer the women. Jeff is a southerner, and his respect and reverence for women makes understanding Herland easier for him than for his macho companion. But his worship is of weak and feeble women, and the inhabitants of Herland are not that. They are assertive, powerful and in no need of protection. Van, the narrator, likes to take a scientific approach to the world, more questioning, less prone to assumptions. Even he is amazed by what they find in that hidden land.

The young men are certain that the place will provide them with opportunities for conquest and power.

“They would fight amongst themselves,” Terry insisted. “Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.”

“You’re dead wrong,” Jeff told him. “It will be like a nunnery under an abbess – a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.”

I snorted derision at this idea.

“Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.”

“No, sir – they’ll scrap,” agreed Terry. “Also we mustn’t look for invention and progress, it’ll be awfully primitive.” (7)

On encountering some women, they discover that their accustomed ways of approaching women do not result in the outcomes they expect. And when they become more aggressive many women arrive and subdue and detain them. They attempt one escape but after a while cooperate to learn about Herland.

Reflecting on their early days in Herland the visitors find that they were surprised that many of the inhabitants were older women and that these older women took charge of them.

In our discussion and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother. (17)

Some of the pleasure of the novel is in anticipating the ways in which the men’s preconceptions will be challenged as they gradually learn about how the women organise their society. In comparing the strange country with their own the three men find that they want to hide much about their homeland: poverty, disease, inequality, war and so forth.

They are eventually expelled, or leave or remain in the paradise. Terry believes in the superiority of men and that the relationships between men and women as he has experienced them are the natural order of things. It is his behaviour, his sexual violence, which leads to his expulsion. Jeff finds happiness in Herland and Van returns with Terry.

Is Herland a paradise?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman constructed a land based on assumptions that challenged those common in early twentieth century America. Its principles were rational, and the women worked together for the benefit of all. Their sexless motherhood was seen as almost sacred by them, and the outcomes of their cooperation included equality, generosity, shared knowledge, wealth and good feeling. Without men the women had rejected competition and values based on strength, acquisition and exclusivity.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was reacting to a society that she found deeply repugnant in its treatment of women. She wrote her short story The Yellow Wallpaper in 1892. In it she describes how a woman is treated (medically, psychologically) in order to bring her to the proper attitudes of a wife. It was based on her own experience of marriage.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman in c 1900

And she is no less a product of her time. In particular, this imagined female-dominated society is governed by rational thinking. And we know, we cannot escape the knowledge that humans, male and female, do not always act rationally.

The chapters in which the men discover the ways in which women organise various aspects of their community, become a little tedious. The expectation by the reader that the narrative will reveal the amusing shortcomings of the men’s attitudes cannot be sustained as they and the reader become more familiar with Herland.

Herald is a mischievous and lively exposition of women’s capabilities, and reminds us of how the men of Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s time viewed women and of how little has changed since then.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first serialised in 1909 and published as a book in 1979. I read the Dover Thrift Edition. 124pp

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