Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Although Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a slim book (124 pages), the issues raised are relevant today. I wouldn’t say Gilman’s writing is stunning or beautiful. The plot is not engaging or page-turning. It is predictable and overly “convenient.” The characters are stereotypes on steroids. But rather than expecting any of those other things, the reader of Herland should expect an issue book, and Gilman manages to address a number of issues in its pages.

Herland is nearly 100 years old, but the fantasy-adventure story of three men discovering a country of women still has some relevance. In some aspects, its age shows, but I’m glad I reread it ten years after my first read so I could get a fresh perspective.

I’m also willing to send you my twice-read, still-in-good-condition, ten-year-old Dover Thrift Edition so you can read it for yourself.

I had issues, good and bad, with Herland that I didn’t have when I read it at age 18 or 19. Certainly, I am more aware of feminist issues. Having read a little bit more Victorian literature, I am more familiar with the era from which Gilman was raised in, and I feel that knowing the Victorian perspective is important going in to it. (Although Herland was published in 1915, which was after the Victorian era, Gilman’s feminist perspective is based on her specific experiences in the 1890s.) That said, some of the things Gilman suggests through her novel made me a bit uncomfortable. While Gilman didn’t really come across as a man-hater, her perspective of the perfection of an all-woman society was just as inaccurate as the Victorian men’s perspective of woman’s abilities. In the end, I consider Herland a dystopia that would be just as dreadful to live in as More’s Utopia (reviewed here).

In the novella, three adventuresome men hear of a land of only woman and go seeking it, hardly daring to believe in such a paradise. Of course, when they walk into the uni-sex society of Herland, they are stunned to find

They were not young. They were not old. They were not, in a girl sense, beautiful. (page 16-17).

Although the woman do not allow the men to leave Herland, they do teach them and learn from them. The narrator of the novella is, conveniently, a sociologist, so he’s able to accurately capture the society he observes.

This is the Dover Thrift Edition I'm giving away (see below)

The women of Herland have the ability to spontaneously reproduce by choice, and thus their society has reproduced for 2000 years. It is a land that is of course without poverty or inequality. It is a land that improves its teaching methods with each generation, and mutually decides on how to use their land (the country is the size of Holland, so space is at a premium). It is a land where women choose careers and succeed in them. (Imagine that.) To the astonishment of the men, the woman’s organized and clean society is far superior to the male society they had come from!

Above all else, it was a land of mothers, as all the children are raised by the villages collectively. The ultimate plot-driving conflicts between the men and the women go back to the “nature of the [marriage] relation” (oh, how many euphemisms are in this text! It’s so amusing.). The women struggle to understand the necessity for sex beyond “fatherhood” and “motherhood.” In fact, the entire race appears to be asexual. On the other hand, the Victorian men struggle to realize that the women have rights over their own body. Women, to the surprise of the men, are not property simply because they are their wives.

This contrast between the Victorian male and the “liberated” female is, I think,  the most important aspect of the novella. Herland is a series of contrasts between what Victorian men (in stereotype) believe and what a particular Victorian woman (Gilman) believes. Gilman captures her own utopia of women being in charge. In her Victorian and Edwardian world, she may not have had the opportunity to experience such a world, and I can only imagine (from the brief introduction in my edition of the novella) what her relationship with her first husband must have been like to prompt such a utopia.

However, the book is dated, in terms of a modern utopia for women today. (Herein begins my personal ramble.) I am certainly not a man-hater, but I’m also not a woman idealizer. So for me, this other extreme seems almost as inappropriate as suppressing woman’s talents. In Herland, the women all got along, and while they not all mothers, they all celebrated it and wished they could be mothers. They were also ugly and manlike in all descriptions.

I sincerely believe that if a society of all women existed, there would be economic inequality and political rivalry. Some women would be more feminine than others. Some would be more motherly than others. I personally feel women as a whole are generally more inclined to negotiation, compassion, and nurturing than men as a whole (see my thoughts on Dee Dee Myer’s social history/memoir). BUT. I don’t think women, as a whole, are perfect, and I certainly don’t like the idea of stereotyping women into a “mother” role. Women need the opportunity to choose which type of women they will be. We come in all different ways, and each strength needs to be celebrated.

When I read Herland a decade ago, I recall thinking, “I don’t think I got that book. There is something in it I missed. I need to revisit it sometime.” I’m so glad I finally took the chance revisit this book! According to the introduction to my copy (Dover Thrift Edition), Gilman was largely forgotten after her death until the woman’s movement in the 1970s. What a tragedy, since her near contemporaries probably would have appreciated it very much.

What is your idea of a utopia?

Have you read Herland?

If you would like me to send you my good condition, used copy of Herland (Dover Thrift Edition), please mention it in the comments. I’m willing to send it anywhere in the world. I’ll select a winner this week from the comments. If no one is interested, I’ll list it at Bookmooch. Giveaway ended.

[Chosen specifically for the Women Unbound for obvious reasons]

[A Year of Classics]

Reviewed on January 23, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I am certainly not a man-hater, but I’m also not a woman idealizer.

    Exactly! Feminism (or at least the kind I identify with – I know the concept is far from a monolith) is about neither the first nor the second. For me, the most important thing is to question gender stereotypes and how they limit us, period. I don’t think being a woman or a man determines who we are nearly as much as society at large would have us believe. So no, a world of women wouldn’t be necessarily more peaceful in my view.

    Very interesting review, Rebecca! I see that Project Gutenberg has this book, so no need to enter me in the giveaway. I’ll definitely read it, though!

  • I love what Nymeth says and agree with her. And I agree with you when you say a society filled with women would have rivalry and inequality – of course it would! I don’t think women are in essence any different from men – they’ve just been brought up to behave differently. and I know that I myself am very far from the “mother” type. But I still think this would be an interesting book to read. I’d love to win it.

  • I read it eons ago and remember being sort of underwhelmed by it. It didn’t seem to me to be a wonderful place to exist but perhaps that’s because I wasn’t a Victorian woman even more constrained by society than we are today. Anyway, no need to enter me as I still have my old copy sitting around here.

  • I’ve never even heard of this one, but it does sound fascinating! Of course, it does sound like it has some problems, but I think you addressed all of them fairly in your post – I agree with pretty much everyone who has said that a society based solely of women would still have inequality and problems. You might be interested in reading Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which essentially talks about how girls (even very young one’s) can be mean and this notion that women are nurturing and sweet is perhaps misplaced, especially when looking at female-female interactions.

    I’m not going to enter the giveaway as I have too many books to be read, but thanks for spotlighting such an interesting book!

  • I’d like to be entered for the giveaway! I had no idea Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born so early – she’s nearly a contemporary of Oscar Wilde (my yardstick for everything :P). Her writing seems so modern, I just assumed she was born around the turn of the century.

  • I’m like you, too! I don’t think an all-woman world would be ideal at all. Maybe there wouldn’t be outright war, but there’d be a lot more sabotage and backstabbing!

    No need to enter me in the giveaway! I will stick with Yellow Wallpaper for my Perkins Gilman experience 🙂

  • I’d love to win and read this. I think all I wanted to say has been said, but I’ll just add this: the possibility of a society with just one gender is often negated because we need “diversity” to flourish, but I would argue that even with one gender only, we would still have diversity. Not that I’d like a single gender society…just a thought.

  • This premise sounds absolutely interesting! I’d never heard of the book or the author before your review. I would love to be entered in the giveaway, though I’m glad to know that it’s available on Gutenberg so if I don’t have the hard-copy I can read it electronically. Thanks!

  • GREAT review, Rebecca. I agree with all the points you raise, and I would add that women are sexual beings as well as men, and I have a very hard time with the idea of the inhabitants of a female separatist society struggling to grasp the point of non-procreative sex!

    The idea that removing men from society would automatically result in some kind of conflict-free paradise is completely ridiculous, but this still sounds like an interesting stop along the gender-relations track.

  • Wow, the cover of that Penguin Classics edition is racy. I’ve never thought about utopia. I think it’s so much easier to pick out the bad things in society and exaggerate them to make a dystopia than to write a utopia. I’ve never read a utopia I’d want to live in, not The Dispossessed by LeGuin nor Utopia nor any other. Your comments on Herland did remind me of a conversation I’ve had on Twitter with other SF fans. Some women read Heinlein as being sexist while I never did. Certainly, I see their point. He does extol women as better mothers with more virtue and less jealousy. However, he also makes them smart, resourceful, and sometimes action heroes. OK, Friday was genetically engineered, but still. He did succumb to a lot of female stereotyping and didn’t really understand women but he was also the first male SF author to write strong female leads.

    I would love to have your copy of Herland.

  • Nymeth, It’s interesting because it seems Gilman lets Victorian ideals limit her own idea of a utopia. I hope you enjoy reading it!

    Amanda, I think that’s the issues with Utopias: The author takes what they want and it, um, is pretty horrific to everyone else! I’ll enter you for the book.

    Kristen, I think I was pretty underwhelmed when i read it a decade ago: I think the difference now is I’ve read more Victorian lit so I see the context a bit more. It’s not a masterpiece of writing, but to me at least it definitely raise thought-provoking issues.

    Steph, I haven’t read much Atwood, and that sounds like an interesting perspective.

    Jenny, yep, born 1860, died 1935.

    Aarti, LOL, yeah, I kept wondering when the backstabbing would commence. But no, everyone was happy for each other.

    Chris, that is what I think Gilman missed: human nature. She was trying to show the good side of women, but missed the fact that they’d still be human.

    Trisha, I’ll enter you for the book! And yes, diversity would always exist, no matter what gender the people. That is, I think, the main thing that Gilman missed.

    mee, isn’t Project Gutenberg great?! I’ll enter you for the giveaway.

    Emily, oh you say that so well. That is EXACTLY what kept irritating me in the later half of the book: the concept that these women were not sexual at all.

    I definitely think it is a good book for gender-relations, most particularly given it’s historical context. I think that is the most telling thing about it.

    Cara, I haven’t read the book you’re talking about, but it sounds interesting! I’ll enter you for the giveaway of Herland.

  • Marvelous review Rebecca! I agree with you in your assessment of the book. To assume that a world completely without men would be such a paradise is not correct. I think Perkins falls into the Victorian stereotype trap that she is struggling against. To present women as angelic asexual mothers who have no conflicts whatsoever is a wholly Victorian idealization. I much prefer Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper to this one but it is definitely worth reading at least once.

  • I forgot about this book! I read The Yellow Wallpaper in college and we learned about Herland but didn’t read it, and I meant to seek it out and never did. So enter me in your giveaway! The Yellow Wallpaper was a short story that actually stuck with me (I tend to forget short stories almost instantly), and that I enjoyed a lot, and I was intrigued by Herland considering the time in which she wrote. I agree that such a society would not be my cup of tea. I like men. 🙂 But, it’s an interesting look at society and that the world wouldn’t fall apart if women were allowed more freedom and choice.

  • Excellent review and it looks like we agree (and you say everything more eloquently). Why don’t you pick two people for the book and I will send my copy on, as well. I’m willing to give my copy away (it’s the same edition as yours.) Just let me know. 🙂

  • Stefanie, it did strike me as odd that Perkins went into her own stereotype but I’d have to agree that’s what she did! I need to reread Yellow Wallpaper too!

    Lindsey, it definitely is an interesting look at society. I’ll enter you for the giveaway.

    Care, awesome! I will do that!

  • I also dont think it would be an ideal world if there were only women. I would however like to read this to get another’s point of view. Always open to new views.

  • […] first heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman from Rebecca, when she reviewed Herland (which I’d love to read but not sure when). So when I saw her name […]

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