Thursday, May 4, 2017

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was published in 1915. It tells the story of an expedition to a remote, mountainous area that stumbles across a society that is utopian and entirely comprised of women.

The expedition is comprised of three men. Their personalities and initial beliefs concerning gender are important in terms of the book’s themes. Terry O. Nicholson is a womanizer and a sexist who views women as children. Jeff Margrave idolizes women and can be described as chivalrous.  Vandyck "Van" Jennings is the story’s first person narrator. His attitudes on gender are the most enlightened of the group. He sees women as equals.

The expedition uses a biplane to access a plateau inaccessible by land. There they find Herland, a civilization comprised only of women. Thousands of years earlier, Herland was cut off from the other parts of earth by a volcanic eruption. Most of the men were killed in  the eruption and an ensuing civil war. The women found a way to reproduce by Parthenogenesis, or without sexual intercourse. 

Gillman uses the trio’s stay in Herland as a vehicle for all sorts of social commentary. The women of the country have created a utopia. There is no violence. Everyone is mentally healthy and most are physically fit. The women have achieved a high level of intellectual, technical and moral development. Cooperation is paramount and there is almost no competition. The society is socialist.

This book is very funny. Van, Jeff and Terry’s interaction with the woman of Herland are often satirical. The satire is effective.  Terry in particular, is completely out of his element and though he is a popular and confident man in his home country, comes off as pretentious and buffoonish in Herland.

The women of Herland, as observed by their male visitors, exhibit few of the traditional feminine traits. The big exception is in the attitudes toward motherhood. Gilman sees motherhood and a set of behaviors associated with it as the primary difference between men and women when the effects of culture and sexism are removed.  Most of the virtues of Herland derive from the ethos that has formed has around motherhood.

The concept is described by Moadine , one of the teachers assigned to the men,

““The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them— on the race. You see, we are MOTHERS,” she repeated, as if in that she had said it all.“

Later, Van observes,

There you have it. You see, they were Mothers, not in our sense of helpless involuntary fecundity, forced to fill and overfill the land, every land, and then see their children suffer, sin, and die, fighting horribly with one another; but in the sense of Conscious Makers of People. Mother-love with them was not a brute passion, a mere “instinct,” a wholly personal feeling; it was— a religion. “

There is a lot more incorporated into the text related to this belief system and religion and how they are ingrained into the society of Herland.

As the months go by, each of the novel’s protagonists falls in love and marries a local woman. This leads to even more social commentary related to gender, psychology, religion, etc. It also leads to what is, in my opinion, Gilman’s most problematic contention. All of the male characters find that when  women are seen as competent, intelligent, confident and serious, sexual attraction to those women decreases.

At one point Van observes.

“I see now clearly enough why a certain kind of man….resents the professional development of women. It gets in the way of the sex ideal; it temporarily covers and excludes femininity. “

The narrative and characters seem to support the contention that the above is a universal fact that relates to sexual attraction. The novel’s protagonists go on to enjoy a more platonic and in eventually their view, a purer form of love without a sexual component.  The philosophical implications of this are further explored in the text.

While the above is likely to be true for some people who are attracted to women, it is clearly not the case for many others. The above characteristics do not exclude or hinder attraction for many, perhaps the majority of people. For some, the opposite is true. Intelligence, assertiveness and competence can be very attractive in both men and women. On this point, Gilman has gotten it wrong. Of course this book was written in 1915 so perhaps such a misunderstanding concerning this aspect of human attraction sexuality was understandable.

Based upon both the text and some biographical information that I read about Gilman, she believed that there were both biological and cultural differences between the ways that men and women usually behave. She was socialist who believed in a social progress. Her views were egalitarian. However, she believed that it was women who would likely lead great social change. The society that Gillman envisions here fits neatly within the author’s views.

I think that Gillman gets it right when she observes that the difference between men and women is a combination of biology and culture. Though I think that she attributes too many aspects to culture, considering the fact that was writing in 1915, I find her views more accurate then many who write and philosophize about gender issues today.

While I do not believe in socialism (I define socialism as a system in which most of an economy is collectivized through government or other means), I do believe that society can improve. Poverty and violence can be lessened. In fact, these ills have been reduced in many nations since Gillman’s time. The author has put a lot of thought into ways to alleviate these ills.

Ultimately I found this book to be very worthwhile. It is an interesting and entertaining story. It is funny. While the characters are not extremely complex they are interesting. As I often write: one does not have to agree with all of the author's views to find her speculations fascinating. Many of her observations on gender, violence, poverty, etc., are still very relevant in our time. I recommend this book to anyone interested in gender issues, as well as anyone who likes stories about fanciful societies.


Mudpuddle said...

I've contemplated reading this book for sometime, therefor appreciate your post... A comparison erewhon is inevitable, although it doesn't sound very similar... Erewhon isn't supposed to be humorous, but it might be considered to be so by some... Anyway, this sounds interesting; I'll put it on the list... Tx...

Jillian said...

I really liked Goldman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" & have this pne on my lisy. I didnt realize parts of it are funny. I appreciate your critique of some of her views, as well as your acknowledgment of their place in history.

Jillian said...

Sorry, my cell phone auto-adjusted my spelling. That said Gilman when I typed it!

Jillian said...

Ha! I see my phone made madness of my whole comment! I won't bother correcting. I assume you can piece it together. :p

Jillian said...

Sorry, my cell phone auto-adjusted my spelling. That said Gilman when I typed it!

Jillian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James said...

I've heard of this book but did not know much about it. Your review is enlightening. Classics like this are worth reading in spite of their flaws.

thecuecard said...

Gilman seems to be way ahead of her time on many feminist issues, considering she was born in 1860. I have read her book The Yellow Wallpaper (in school) but I have not read this one. It sounds interesting as well. I admire her for many of her beliefs.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle. I have not read Erewhon. I would like to. One difference is that Gillman did not show any downside to her utopia.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jillian - Spellcheck is evil :) Typing on phones is maddening.

I have not read The Yellow Wallpaper. I would like to. There really are much less viable theories on gender floating around theses days then those of Gilman's.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I give Gilman a lot of credit. She worked out all sorts of interesting ideas on gender. Many have done much worse.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - It sounds like I should really read The Yelow Wallpaper.

Gilman really was ahead of her time.

Lory said...

When I read this in high school the main thing that stuck with me was the parthenogenesis -- the women just decided they were going to have children by willing it very hard, and they did! Very convenient...I would like to reread it because I think I would see a lot more than I did as a teenager. In particular, the relationship between sexual attraction and intelligence/competence in women is very interesting to consider. In some ways we have come so far since 1915, in others not so much.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - I found the parthenogenesis thing the least plausible aspect of this story.

I wonder how many men and women who are attracted to women, would have argued the attraction/competence point on 1915. I bet that some would.

Stefanie said...

It's a good one, isn't it? A really interesting thought experiment.

Gently Mad said...

This sounds like a book I read years ago written about the same time. I'm fairly sure it's not the same book because the one I remember involves one man stumbling across a country comprised solely of women and they don't have children.

It was basically a story to show how women could live independently of men.

It must have been a popular theme at the time. That would be interesting to speculate. Why woman independent of men was such a popular topic pre WWI. Edith Wharton wrote of it most famously, but also Virginia Woolf and some others (including Kate Chopin).

Of course the question begs, were these rich, privileged women in tune with the common woman or simply reflecting their own distaste for domestic living.

Another interesting question is why the subject interests you. I say that sincerely not sarcastically; it can be hard to tell when someone is only writing and you can't see face expression or voice inflection. :)

Have a fun weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I think that, at least as far as this book goes, Gilman was using her fictional society to comment on gender and other social issues. Setting up a society comprised solely of women allowed her to look at these issues in unique ways.

Your question for me is good one. I have read three novels about fictional matriarchies lately. Over the last few years I have been really interested in gender issues, particularly nature verses nurture. As I mentioned above, these books explore these issues in unique ways. Also there is the tendency of one book leading to another. I have likely had my fill of this kind of narrative for a while. I am planning one more post where I compare all three books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - These fictional worlds often are interesting thought experiments. This is a good reason to read speculative fiction.

Kate Scott said...

I'm enjoying this theme of novels that explore gender via utopian/futuristic scenarios that you seem to be on lately. This one sounds particularly interesting. I read the results of a study maybe a year or two ago that showed men prefer their daughters to be independent, intelligent, and competent but were less inclined to desire those traits in a romantic partner. I have no idea if the parameters of that survey were sound or how big the sample was, but it did make me think. I suppose the idea could have some validity, especially considering how our culture is still influenced by certain patriarchal ideals, though I suspect that even if this is the case, there is a significant percentage of the American male population finds those qualities attractive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - this is the third novel that I have read recently that is set in a matriarchal society. These have all been interesting. I will be posting one final entry comparing them in few weeks.

Without a doubt t some men find intelligent and competent women unattractive. But many of us find that the opposite is true.

That study sounds interesting but I agree, one needs to see its validly band what other studies show.

baili said...

i find this book very "my kind of book" ,books related to such topics attract me so much and i really wish i can find this around.
i admire the way writer highlighted the point about main thing that today's world lack so badly .
i agree that if each home has a GOOD MOTHER who invests herself in the formation of an strong and virtuous characters of her children the world will be a better and peaceful place .
i agree that education and poverty matters a lot yet the first foundation of human character is lap of a mother .

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

As the book is in the public domain It is available as a free download here:

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, Herland sounds interesting. Have you read The Yellow Wallpaper by this author? I thought it was interesting, one of those stories that gets under your skin a bit.
It's interesting to think of a society that is mainly made up of women. I was just having a discussion with my kids last week about sexism and feminism.

What sparked the discussion is that my teenage daughter who considers herself a proud feminist, wore a t-shirt to school that has the word FEMINIST printed across the front. When one of her male teachers saw it, in front of the class, he asked her "Do you even know what a feminist is?" She replied "Yes, a feminist is someone who believes in equality for everyone no matter what their gender is." And he said "Not really. Feminists are mainly women who don't like men and who don't shave their legs." <-Can you believe that? From a teacher, who supposedly has an education.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Excellent analysis and looking forward to your upcoming commentary in which you compare the three novels. Herland sounds like the most pleasant of the three. In too many of tbese futuristic worlds, men and women have either separated, enslaved or gone to war with each other but in zHerland I sense that the men who visit become part of the community and not second class citizens and the author is still able to make her observations about gender roles. But I haven't read the book and I want to.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida

I have not read The Yellow WallPaper but I would like to.

That story concerning your daughter's teacher is awful There is so much hostility to Feminism. As I think you know I read alot on this subject and I know a lot of very adamant feminists. I also know a lot of reasoned critics of the modern feminist movement. Though some criticism is reasoned, there is a lot of ignorance and misogyny out there. It sounds like that is what your daughter ran into.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy.

This was indeed the most pleasant of the three books. Your description of the three is exactly right. There is little unpleasantness in this book. The men are treated as guests even when they behave very badly. It is also very funny.

The Reader's Tales said...

I've never read this book, but we have it at home. This is my other half "kind of book". I will probably read this classic one day - the topic is interesting and I love books that are funny...Sense of humour attract me. :)

Emma said...

Interesting topic. I should read this, it's my kind of book.

There are some physical differences between men and women obviously but I don't think they influence behaviours that much. I believe almost everything comes from culture. There is no such thing as "maternal instinct" superior to "paternal instinct". I'm convinced that both genders have it in them to take care of their offspring. Then society comes it and dictates roles.

I also don't believe that women are naturally gentler or more loving or less turned to violence. I think that society tolerates violence and rowdy behaviours better when they come from boys. And the rest comes from it.

I am also convinced that trying to convince us that the biological differences lead to defined behaviours and skills is also a way to perpetuate men's power over women. It's them saying "Listen, they are different from birth. They cannot do eveything we do. They cannot be our equal" It opens the way to double standards.

See the current debate in the US about contraception and health insurance. Unless I've misunderstood, Trump's troops don't think it's necessary to have free contraception for women but I didn't hear that Viagra would not get reimbursed anymore...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma.

This is all part of the great nature verses nature debate. I think that there is overwhelming scientific, historical and social evidence that there are differences in the way that large groups of men behave verses large groups pf women. There are many sources but the best books that I have read on this issue are Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate and his The Better Angels of Our Nature and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. The biggest difference seems to be the propensity for violence. I think there is evidence that there are differences in way large groups will behave when it comes to child rearing. These differences manifest themselves in almost all (perhaps all) cultures that exist, or have existed on Earth.

This says nothing about individuals. Any given woman might be very violent, any given man may be non - violent. A particular woman might have no desire to raise children and be a terrible parent, a particular man may love to be in a parental role and be a great parent.

I agree that these differences have been used to justify sexism and misogynistic behavior. The GOP's position in these issues that you point to are horrible. These positions are immoral and irrational.

There is is no moral or rational justification to discriminate or treat individuals differently die to these differences in large population. In The Blank Slate Pinker makes this argument very eloquently.

There is a lot of disagreement amount reasonable folks on these issues. They are, as you say, very interesting!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales.

The humor differentiates this book from many others that explore gender issues.

I would love to know what you thought if you read this.

Caroline said...

I've only read The Yellow Wallpaper which is a classic of feminist literature, just like this one. It sounds very good. I imagined it would be dry but you say it's funny too. I was wondering how she'd resolve the question of children. Parthenogenesis is logical. Nowadays, an author might choose in vitro.
I agree that there are cultural and biological differences, I just wonder how importnat the biological differences really are. isn't culture responsible for how mc they define us? I have no answer, I'm just wondering.
It's interesting that your definition of socialism corresponds with what we would call communism in Europe.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I really want to read The Yellow Walpaper now.

I agree that it often is not clear where biological and cultural differences amoung large groups of men and women begin and end. I am pretty sure that when it comes to violence, biology is a major factor. Also when it comes to ability and competence, there is no, or almost no biological difference between genders.

Folks are all over the place here in The United States when it comes to the definition of Socialism and Communism so I wanted to at least use that definition for the purposes of this post.

Maria Behar said...

Incisive, interesting commentary as usual, Brian!!

Gender issues have certainly become increasingly important in recent years. I find it fascinating that such a book as this was actually written and published over a century ago, but then, I really shouldn't. That was about the time that American women were protesting for the right to vote. Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution had a lot to do with women's changing roles in society. Of course, WWII had even more to do with that.

A society entirely composed of women would certainly allow its members to flourish in all sorts of creative and intellectual ways. And, of course, they would not have to deal with male domination. The sad part would be the loss of romance and passion. Otherwise, though, women living in such a society would be unhampered as to what they could or could not do.

The way these women see their role as mothers is truly beautiful. They have been able to integrate motherhood with the development of their own potential, without one thing impeding the other. It would be wonderful if our own society would move further in this direction. However, I'm wondering if socialism would be a necessary outcome of such a move, as women would certainly need help in the raising of children. I'm not in favor of socialism, either, except, of course, for those components of our system we already have, such as Social Security. But too much government centralization can definitely lead to totalitarianism.

(More coming....)

Maria Behar said...

(I actually had to split my comment into two parts, as the system would not allow me to post it in its entirety. Lol.)

The following quote from the book is a rather troubling one, and it also irritates me: "I see now clearly enough why a certain kind of man….resents the professional development of women. It gets in the way of the sex ideal; it temporarily covers and excludes femininity.“ Unfortunately, I have seen that it DOES reflect the attitude of certain types of men. We need look no further than the White House for confirmation of this. There's also the rise of the Men's Rights movement, as well as the Alt-Right.

I had an encounter with such a man myself, when I was in college. He was the brother of my best friend at the time. He had the VERY firm opinion that women MUST NOT wear pants. Heck, he even once told me that, whenever he saw a woman at work wearing pants, he automatically thought she was most likely after his job!!! Can you believe that?!

Another man who was one of my co-workers years ago later became my boss when I started teaching ESOL part-time at night. This guy had always struck me as a progressive. At least, that was the impression I had of him. Yet, when he interviewed me for the teaching job, he actually asked me if my husband would MIND me working at night!! WTH?!

The above are just two examples. And then, of course, there's my ex-husband, who is an EXTREMELY misogynistic guy....but I won't go into that. Suffice it to say that yes, this type of man is DEFINITELY still around.

I've just finished reading a YA novel titled "Ninja Girl", in which there's an interesting gender role reversal. A teen girl actually becomes the bodyguard of a teen boy whose father is running for office. The boy in this book does feel VERY attracted to this girl, who happens to be a martial arts expert. In fact, Bruce Lee is her idol. I found myself wondering, as I was reading, how many guys, even in this day and age, would actually feel attracted to a woman who would be protecting THEM from danger. Besides, Snow, the main female character in this book, was the one who made the first move on Ash, the main male character. Again, I'm wondering whether this is entirely realistic. It certainly made for some exhilarating reading, though!

I have to say that the reverse might very well be true for some women -- they would not feel attracted to a man who displayed some female traits. I think that a man who is sure of himself is certainly attractive, for instance. However, brutish men who feel they must BRAG about their physical prowess have never appealed to me. Nor have men who are inordinately proud of their intellect. Tenderness and the ability to listen are, to me, traits that are very appealing in a man. These are, of course, traits traditionally associated with women.

From what I've read so far, as well as my life experiences, it seems to me that both men and women possess traits of the opposite sex. It's just a matter of knowing when to display them. But this should in no way diminish sexual attraction. Of course, Gilman's novel refers exclusively to heterosexual relationships. I'm not sure what the dynamics would be for homosexual relationships, although it would seem that men and women in such relationships would actually feel attracted to people who mostly displayed traits not traditionally considered part of their gender.

I have never heard of Gilman's book, but will certainly add it to my Goodreads shelves! So thanks for reviewing it! Hope you're having a GREAT week!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

The interesting thing here, is that it is the book's most progressive man who makes that statement. The plot also idealizes platonic forms of love because it is implied that there is little sexual attraction if there is real equality. So it is not just sexist men that thus effects. Thus Gilman seems to really miss the mark here.

I also believe in progressive programs such as social security and universal healthcare. It is the collectivization of the majority of society that I disagree with and why I defined socialism as such.

I agree that a society with such a great emphasis on motherhood would be enormously beneficial.

Have a great week'!

Brian Joseph said...

PS - The role reversal in Ninja Girl sounds interesting. I think that there is a large spectrum of attraction. I think that some men would be attracted to women who are physically stronger and who were protecting them.

HKatz said...

I remember a friend's parents telling her that while she could be assertive on the job, she had to be meek and self-effacing at home... so definitely this idea still gets floated around of men being turned-off by assertive, successful women. Remembering also a male friend from years back who hated the idea of a wife who'd be making more money than him. Though I agree that many still find competence and confidence attractive in women, there's a persistent idea that femininity is somehow incompatible with these qualities. People also get mixed up sometimes between what they're actually attracted to and what they think they should be attracted to...

I liked your analysis of this book and have added it to my to-read list. I also only know the author from The Yellow Wallpaper, so it's good to find out more about her.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I want to read The Yellow Wallpaper.

I agree that a fair number of me do not like assetive women, both generally and from the point of view of romantic interest. Gilman seeemed to be making a universal statement however.