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.
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]