Herland / Charlotte Perkins Gilman

April’s text at A Year of Feminist Classics is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a feminist socialist Utopian novel from the late 1910s. While this is science fiction of a sort, the purpose of a feminist Utopia generally isn’t predictive, but rather comparative. Instead of saying this is how it would be or even this is how it could be, the idea is to create an ideal (not the ideal either) and contrast that perfection with the real world in order to highlight the latter’s deficiencies.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The three main characters in Herland are rich dilettante explorers. On a mission to the Amazon, they stumble on a local legend of a land of women situated on a plateau in the Andes above the jungle. The three keep their discovery a secret, vowing to return by themselves for a first contact mission. The narrator is Vandyck Jennings (a sociologist). Terry Nicholson (a Richard Branson type) and Jeff Margrave (poet, botanist, and doctor) fill out the party.

Ms. Perkins Gilman structured her protagonists very distinctly. On one extreme sits Nicholson. He’s a man’s man. He has the most sexist notions of the three, and stereotypically macho traits. Not only does he not want to re-evaluate his biases, he’s reluctant to give up the ones that are proven to be wrong. Margrave takes the role of the sensitive chivalrous male. Jennings is less of a stereotype, but he carries with him all the typical assumptions of Western male superiority. His job is to convert his notions logically.

The three first fly over Herland in a small collapsible airplane, attracting the notice of the populace which, due to geographic constraints, hasn’t had contact with the outside world for 2,000 years. They land their plane at the edge of the Herland plateau. The first people they encounter quickly and somewhat coquettishly climb a tree. The intrepid explorers follow them up. After a short, wordless face to face meeting, the women slide down through the thick foliage of the outer branches, leaving the men behind. The women then quickly run to a nearby town, drawing the men to follow them again. This ploy is a trap! On entering the town, dozens of sturdy women surround them and subdue them with sheer numbers and no weaponry.

The captive men are must learn the language and then teach the women about the rest of the world. Of course, as their hosts ask questions, the men quickly start leaning that many of the things they thought they knew about the sexes don’t make a lot of sense under hard easy questioning.

“I’m sorry to admit,” [Jeff] told them, “that the dog, with us, is the most diseased of any animal — next to man. And as to temper — there are always some dogs who bite people — especially children.”

Terry broke in at this. “You must not imagine they are all dangerous — it’s not one in a hundred that ever bites anybody. Why, they are the best of friends of the children — a boy does have half a chance that hasn’t a dog to play with!”

“And the girls?” asked Somel.

“Oh — girls — why they like them too,” he said, but his voice flatted a little. They always noticed little things like that, we found later.

Ms. Perkins Gilman deconstructs a lot of the practices, assumptions and attitudes that Western society, and particularly its men, hold. A lot of the focus no longer holds true, but a lot of it does. In particular, the use of sex particular language and the chivalrous treatment of women (and not men) get the treatment and they are rampant today.

I shan’t rehash the particulars of the criticisms that the author levels at our sexist society. For that you should read the book.

I do want to call out one curiosity that plays a big part in the book. Ms. Perkins Gilman’s Herland engages in a very gender essentialist assumption, that women will rightly and naturally tend toward a veneration of children and motherhood, and that men will not. To the women of Herland, the highest calling they have, every one of them, is that of being a mother. It’s a somewhat modified motherhood from our conception, in that much of the raising and education of children is entrusted to specialists. Despite the modification, there are many people who value other pursuits more highly than motherhood.

Ms. Perkins Gilman is most definitely a product of her time. Though this work is not particularly racist, some of her others are. So I’m not surprised exactly that she makes the assumption that, absent the cultural influence of men, women’s natural instincts are always toward raising children. However, the author famously experienced what we now know as post-partum depression. It’s hard to reconcile someone who went through that seeing women as being always striving for motherhood.

I’ll end with noting that the book is highly readable. I often have trouble progressing through older texts because of differing language and cultural assumptions. I had that problem with The Best Short Stories of 1915 last fall, for instance. Written the same year, Herland was smooth sailing, and an enjoyable read.

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