Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Publisher: Dover Publications
Device: Trade paperback
For a plot summary
There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly and what was ‘womanly.’…When Jeff said to Celis, “Women should not carry anything…they are not built for heavy work. Celis looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road they were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her. “I don’t understand, are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?[i]
I was so disappointed by Edward Bellamy’s depiction of women in his utopian novel, Looking Backward, that I found myself pining for a more positive view. I remembered I had Herland on my shelf and pulled it off only to find in the introduction the author was inspired by Bellamy! Charlotte Perkins Gilman was already known for her autobiographical, The Yellow Wallpaper, which exposed the chilling and harrowing methods of the ‘rest cure’ forced on some women when depression and the inability to cope made living impossible. Surely, she had a more affirmative and supportive concept about women in her utopia?
Happily for me, Herland presents a stable and progressive environment, a well-planned framework for a new way of life. The novel, in a parallel to Looking Backward, is based around conversations, in this case, between the three male explorers and their three female teachers.
The plot is simple enough. Three young men, Terry the rich boy, Van the sociologist and Jeff the doctor and friends since college have joined an expedition somewhere in Central or South America, the exact location is not made clear, where the native guides tell tales of a land of women high up in the mountains where there are no men or male children. One of the guides shows them a piece of cloth made with extraordinary skill that looks nothing like the work of local people. The three men vow to come back and find this land which they do a year later.
And the tales they heard are true. It IS a land of women, who have created a country of beauty, peace, culture and education without the aid of men. And poor Terry, who is certain the women have been waiting centuries for him spends the entire trip trying to prove it, but to no avail. Van and Jeff are eager to learn and understand the history and society of the country and it is through conversations with their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel that we learn how the land came to be.
Two thousand years ago, after a series of wars, though they built fortresses and had skilled warriors, the men were unable to stave off attacks from other tribes and all were killed. This left women, young girls and old slave women as the only inhabitants when the final blow, a volcanic outburst, sealed off the pass below and penned them up against the mountains. There was no escape. After the initial despair where some women suggested suicide, the majority made the decision to live. The slave women taught them invaluable skills and they learned to work the tools and equipment of various trades. They had records and archives with their history, which they learned and added to as the centuries went by.
But the question had to be asked: if there were no men for two thousand years, how did they populate? For about 10 years after they were sealed in by the volcano, the remaining women plucked up the courage to plan a future as best they could. They cleaned up the land by working together and grew strong and wise and more and more mutually attached, until a miracle occurred: one young woman bore a girl child… a direct gift from the gods, they believed. She bore four more—all girls. The miracle continued as each woman, upon reaching the age of 25, bore her first child, until she, too, had five. But as the centuries passed and overpopulation threatened the land, the process settled on one child a piece.
“Babies are raised communally after a year spent with their mother, though even then, the mother is never far from her child. School and education is an environment calculated to allow the riches, freest growth….”[ii]
The children grow up in a system of education that draws out their talents and abilities to things they love and are good at so when they enter the work force work is a delight and a joyous contribution to the nation. This notion that education is for discovering what we’re good at and love is like Bellamy’s system, except that his excludes women, whose highest contribution to society is to procreate, with ‘careers’ only auxiliary, not part of the needs of the nation.
I should mention here that in Herland, motherhood, too, is lauded as the supreme achievement with babies loved and adored by the whole community. However, it is acknowledged that not every woman will have or want to have a child, a decision that is honored and respected. In Bellamy’s new world as in his real 19th century world, a woman who does not want to have children is looked on with derision, even suspicion.
It may be that Gilman’s perspective on motherhood is also a reflection of her ideas about women and work and the insistence that women have choices over their life. This may have also been a reaction against the criticism Gilman received when she gave up her daughter to be raised by her first husband so she could concentrate on her work. He remarried her best friend and the three were close, but the act of voluntarily giving up her child for such a “selfish” reason was looked upon as extremely “umotherly.”
Gilman also explores femininity in Herland. The women here are not ‘feminine’ in the way Terry, Van and Jeff are accustomed. It is confusing enough for them that society functions just fine in every area without men and Gilman uses this as a platform to explore this new womanhood. The three are educated about Herland for months together and individually by their three teachers, Zava, Moadine and Somel, whom they affectionately call “The Colonels.” The lack of sexual dynamics and their notions of femininity are confusing to the men. That the women of Herland created a land of peace and plenty, built streets and edifices, figured out food sources and methods of feeding 3 million people, developed laws and education without the guidance and organization skills of men, is an almost impossible concept for Terry, Van and Jeff.
Van: “Here you have human beings…but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics…but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine….The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection.”
Terry, with sarcasm, “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”
Jeff: “But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember?”[iii]
What a blow to Terry who is observing a land where he is not needed and that frankly works better without men!
And in fact, Terry, the prized catch of manhood in his former life has the most difficult time. I think Gilman uses him to illustrate every sexist and chauvinistic word men ever said about women! Even after the men are accepted into society, learn the language and are educated on the history of the county, Terry refuses to accept that a country can actually exist without men and that in truth, the women MUST have been waiting just for him. As imagined, he causes the most problems, cannot accept what he sees and longs to get home to ‘real women.’ In a remarkable observation Van says, “those feminine charms we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.”[iv]
Gilman explores many aspects of society, including religion
…they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion….They applied their mind to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.[v]
And relationships, because of course, there is romance! But between whom and whether they stay in Herland would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: Poor Terry….
That this beautiful, stable, evolving world exists because women are cooperative with each other, that they are smart, are able to take their talents and abilities both physical and mental to their highest potential, have created culture and art is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer and feminist, was working for in 19th/20th century America. It is hard to remember women once had to fight for the right to be smart and capable, to freely take their talents and abilities as far as they could, to create whatever kind of life they wanted.
It makes me laugh, knowing all I do now, to think of us three boys—nothing else, three audacious impertinent boys—butting into an unknown country without any sort of a guard or defense. We seemed to think that if there were men we could fight them, and if there were only women—why, they would be no obstacles at all.[vi]
Was Herland a reaction to Looking Backward? Or Gilman’s singular attempt to design a world where women were not only safe from the violence of men, they were also physically competent and smart and educated enough to build and care for their own society? Looking forward, taking the best from both, they have the potential to create a good decent society where each person is valued for their individuality, yet part of the whole.
[i] p. 79.
[ii] p. 87.
[iii] p. 49-50.
[iv] p. 50
[v] p. 8.
[vi] p. 18.