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.