I’ve often dreamed of an all-female utopia. What would life be like, if I was surrounded only by women? How would my physical and emotional experience change? Unfortunately for the younger version of myself, I never read Herland until just this week, which is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s imagining of one such utopia. I’m sure that my teenage self would have enjoyed this because my adult self loved it.
More About the Story
Published in 1915, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is the story of “a lost feminist utopia” discovered by three American explorers shortly before World War I. Although this work of fiction has aged over a century, its poignant commentary is still depressingly relevant.
After they discover that the locals’ myths of Herland are true, the three men–Van, Jeff, and Terry–land their small biplane upon its seemingly-inaccessible (by foot) region. The men boldly form their hypotheses about this place, predicting that “it’ll be awfully primitive” (page 8) and doubting that women could exist entirely without men; “there must be men” (page 11). However, once they traverse into the immaculate city of Herland, they realize that they have wildly underestimated the capability of these women and, after being accepted as guests, become “students” of Herland’s society, at the same time “teachers” of the outside world. As the women inquire about the rest of the planet, the men slowly begin to realize that their own ways–which they previously accepted as “the way it is”–are actually quite inherently faulty.
Thus, this 146-paged novel is less of an adventuresome tale and more of an in-depth study of Herland’s society and history. While it is quite clearly a compendium of Gilman’s feminist commentary, it reads like a complete story and is quite engaging to learn about. It is told from the perspective of Van, who is writing the book several years after the events transpired and has the advantage of hindsight. He and the other men, while holistically similar, have their differences, and their three archetypes exhibit a sort of logos-pathos-ethos dynamic, in which Van is the logical, Jeff is the emotional, and Terry is the egomaniac. Gilman was clever to write this story from the perspective of the men because it not only makes for a more engaging narration, but also because it allows her to coyly play with the internalized misogynistic attitudes of the typical man.
There is so much to unpack with this text, and beyond what I have written here, there is yet more to analyze and discuss. Now I will share some of my in-depth thoughts on various themes I found within Herland, such as gender and social consciousness.
Gender as a Social Construct
What this book exemplifies successfully is how–in the absence of a gender binary–women are free to be human. Having never been judged in relation to men, the women of Herland flourish in a way that women of America–we’ll say, for example–don’t.
The three male protagonists of Herland operate under heavily-conditioned social assumptions, such as that there is an inherent difference between men and women beyond biological factors. Terry, our resident chauvinist, often makes bigoted assertions about how women are supposed to behave and what they’re naturally disposed to be. Yet time and time again, the women of Herland prove the men’s assumptions wrong (even if Terry has too much pride to accept that he’s wrong). Herland’s inhabitants treat the men like equals, and the men grapple to adjust to a group of women who have no desire to sexually please them.
“If their hair was only long,” Jeff would complain, “they would look so much more feminine.”
I rather liked it myself, after I got used to it… we are so convinced that the long hair “belongs” to a woman. Whereas the “mane” in horses is on both, and in lions, buffalos, and such creatures only on the males.Page 30
While biological differences between the sexes exist, our human perception of those differences creates our ideas of gender–“gender” as we understand it is an entirely contrived abstract idea. When the patriarchal narrative of those differences are dispersed across a culture, those gender stereotypes are internalized and accepted as fact; concepts like “masculine” and “feminine” are derived and attempt to lump certain human traits or modes of expressions within the natural order of one sex or the other. This social conditioning deeply influences a person and these sex-divided characteristics are often internalized. For example, if a woman grows up in a society that reinforces the idea that “women must be desirable for men,” she is more likely to prioritize her beauty over her brains, which is then used to reinforce the stereotype that “women are only preoccupied with their looks.” What feminists seek is a world in which a person is allowed to be enjoy their beauty or their brains without that trait being related to their gender or sex.
Humans tend to emphasize the differences between men and women, which only further drives them apart from each other.
But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People, aren’t there? That’s what I mean about you being more like us–more like People.Page 89
The women of Herland are less like our notion of “women” and closer to this pure form of “human,” which is certainly not to erase their womanhood but rather comment on how they are free to exist without a human gender binary, which commonly seeks to contrast everything directly to something else. Humans so often assert binaries where they don’t exist: cat is the opposite of dog; Heaven is the opposite of hell; Democrat is the opposite of Republican; woman is the opposite of man. To simplify, we try to weigh everything in direct contrast to something else; however, if nature shows us nothing else, it’s that there is far more complexity and nuance in everything than we immediately and confidently assume.
Here you have human beings, unquestionably, but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics, which of course we did not look for, but so much of what he had always thought essentially feminine.Page 57
…those “feminine charms” we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity–developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process.Page 59
Even if many men are level-headed and logical, are there not a myriad of men who are quick to anger and punch walls? Even if some women are quick to yell, are there not a plethora of women who choke back their words to remain poised? It’s insanely reductive (and moreover, boring) to parse out a list of acceptable behaviors to each sex, especially when there are blatant double standards.
The men in Herland are so bewildered to discover an intelligent civilization comprised of only women because they fail to see women as human: capable, adaptable, cooperative. The men are limited by their own implicit biases and social conditioning, which they dearly cling to. Terry is especially indoctrinated, and he is displeased to spend so much time in a land where women exist autonomously and not for the sheer pleasure of man–which would be a huge blow to his inflated ego, if he were ever to be at all aware of his own emotions.
There’s not only no fun without [men]–no real sport–no competition; but these women aren’t womanly.-Terry, Page 58
So, I really enjoyed how Herland questions our deeply-ingrained notions of gender and challenges our expectations of others based solely on their sex.
The Female Experience
Although Herland is an idealistic, fictional society, we are able to glimpse into what life would be like without the presence of men, who often ruin the female experience. Many women in America (and all over the globe, I’m sure) have adopted so many implicit behaviors to prevent sexual assault that we aren’t even fully aware of how actively we consider it a possibility, and that’s just one of the ways in which women suffer. (Which is not to say that men cannot experience sexual assault, but merely to point out that RAINN reports 1 in 6 American women is raped.)
The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection. As to wild beasts–there were none in their sheltered land.Page 57
With Herland, Gilman illustrates how women have passion for such a wide range of human activities, from motherhood to gardening, from physiology to ethics, and so much more. In the time Gilman wrote this, I imagine that her society’s culture dictated that women’s interests were cooking, cleaning, and motherhood. But what Gilman knew was that when given the freedom, women as a whole want to explore their boundless interests, just like any man wants.
But alas, Terry, like many men, view women in terms of what they can do for him:
Terry, with his clear decided practical theories that there were two kinds of women–those he wanted and those he didn’t; Desirable and Undesirable was his demarcation. The latter as a large class, but negligible–he had never thought about them at all.Page 21
Unless a woman is visually pleasing to Terry, he really doesn’t even acknowledge her as human. Time and time again, he refers to the middle-aged women of Herland as “grenadiers” (29) or “old maid[s]” (33) or “elderly lady acrobats” (32). Van even admits, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy” (page 20). In Van, Terry, and Jeff’s world, once a woman ages out of her youthful appearance, her humanity is forgotten and erased.
However, Herland is unconcerned with Terry’s displeasure, because they have created a society in which the woman is all. Every woman pursues the specialized study of her choice; every woman is comfortable and free to travel the country without worry of attack or sexual harm. Van often remarks of their intelligence, clever innovations, and creative blending of art and science. Of a particularly small yet delightful detail, he writes, “…these women had pockets in surprising number and variety” (page 38). It’s not an uncommon complaint among women that women’s fashion seems to exclude the convenience of pockets in everyday garments, and so I found this to be clever of Gilman. Van elaborates on the pockets, describing how they were so brilliantly woven into their clothing that they hung naturally with the shape of the body.
And of course, the heart of their improved female experience: their social consciousness.
In Ann J. Lane’s introduction to Herland, she provides some biographical information about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which helps us better understand this story. Clearly, Gilman was a feminist, but she was also an advocate of socialism and spent her life’s work championing for both causes.
Her socialist ideals certainly shine through in the collective consciousness of Herland, which is beautiful to read about. The way their society is structured, every woman is afforded the same opportunities, equal love, and endless respect. For example, “education” in Herland is not rigid and measured, but rather fluidly implemented throughout a child’s life so that they can learn how to think critically and how to be capable. The women have a very communal style of raising children, so that many children are cared for by a large group of mothers. Their food supply is tended to closely to ensure that there is no hunger, and rather than allow over-population to dry out their resources, they confer to solve the problem in a humane way, which is to encourage many of the women to abstain from motherhood.
…whereas our children grow up in private homes and families, with every effort made to protect and seclude them from a dangerous world, here they grew up in a wide, friendly world, and knew it for theirs, from the first.Page 101
Herland is inherently community-oriented, making sure that no woman is left to starve while no other woman hoards all the resources. And when the women and the men exchange information about their societal structures, Herland greatly contrasts the rugged individualism of the United States. Often, the women of Herland expect that the larger world is better off because they have the advantage of two sexes, yet time and time again, the men are faced with admitting that their world is rather flawed.
We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarreling children–feebleminded ones at that.Page 81
While in the United States, it’s “every man for himself,” Herland cooperates with her neighbor and is better for it. When one woman struggles, such as when Ellador is distraught with the concept of hell (110), there are systems in place to which she can turn to seek support and guidance. Because every woman prioritizes the well-being of the entire group, they lift each other up.
To them the country was a unit–it was theirs. They themselves were a unit, a conscious group; they thought in terms of the comunity. As such, their time-sense was not limited to the hopes and ambitions of an individual life. Therefore, they habitually considered and carried out plans for improvement which might cover centuries.Page 79
Interestingly, this system of society aligns closely with Buddhist philosophies. In Buddhism, we understand that no person can exist on their own–everything on Earth affects everything else, like the butterfly effect. When we eat an apple, we are eating the apple, but we are also eating the efforts of the person who picked the apple, the tree from which it grew, the water and sunlight and dirt which nourished the tree, and so on. Everything in life is interconnected, so there is no way to completely separate one’s self from the rest of their society; we are always touched by everything on this planet, which is why it’s so important to take care of one another. (And with 7.8 billion people now inhabiting this planet, we really must start looking out for the collective global good.)
“Everything which came from the earth went back to it,” Van writes of their gardening practices (page 80). The women work closely with the land, nourishing the trees as the trees nourish them. Rather than be greedy or in constant battle, the women of Herland embrace growth and essentially, enlightenment.
They had no theory of the essential opposition of good and evil; life to them was growth; their pleasure was in growing, and their duty also.Page 102
No woman asks, “Why should I help others?” because she understands that the common good is the individual good. When they all work together, they achieve incredible results, and within this structure, there is plenty of room for individual preference–such as how Ellador is a “forester” and works in nature. A widespread maturity pervades their lifestyles, and Van often remarks on how logical they are because they understand that their actions not only affect their present but their posterity. This great sense of purpose within their community provides the ultimate feeling of contentment.
In Buddhism, we believe that everything is divine, and so we are able to love strangers because as the Buddha exists in us, the Buddha exists in them. Similarly, in Herland–partially because all the women have a singular ancestor–there is an inherent motherly/sisterly love for all others.
Here was a religion which gave to the searching mind a rational basis in life, the concept of an immense Loving Power working steadily out through them, toward good… It gave to the “heart” the blessed feeling of being loved, loved and understood.Page 115
Above all, the women of Herland cherish motherhood. From each woman, a child may be born, just like in nature, from each tree’s acorns, more trees may grow. Herland demonstrates, in a way, how humans are truly just a part of nature. A tree will grow around a fence if that fence is in the way. Life persists. And so do the women of Herland, like nature blossoming, dying, and blossoming again.
What I Wanted to See
One of the aspects of this book that I think Gilman fell short on was the total lack of female sexual pleasure. Because every woman is able to conceive a child through sheer natural willpower, Gilman seems to erase the women’s sexual desire. However, I felt like she greatly missed out on the opportunity to explore the multitudinous ways in which women could derive sexual pleasure in the absence of oft-disappointing male genitalia. Although, it’s certain that Gilman’s work was limited by the taboo of her time.
Studies show that women in female-female relationships experience far greater sexual pleasure than women in heterosexual relationships, often because the male sexual experience is prioritized. Because women in American society are commonly conditioned to cater towards male pleasure, women are often unfamiliar with their own bodies and even unaware of their own desires.
While I would have loved to have seen some sapphic pairings in Herland, I acknowledge that perhaps at the time, it may have been a bit too risky for Gilman to publish such a story with a homosexual society. Additionally, because all the women of Herland descend from a single woman, it could be a bit dicey to explore their sexuality with one another, their family–although, at the point in time during which this story occurs, there are three million women who have become quite diverse among themselves.
So rather, I would have liked for these women to have discovered their own individual sexual pleasure, at the least. The vagina is a complex sex organ and I find it more than likely that these women would have created a pleasure-positive culture of knowing their own bodies with more intimacy. Of course, considering that Gilman’s writing even tiptoed the notion of marital consummation, I understand that this pro-masturbating rhetoric would have been received with great outrage at the time.
Topics I Haven’t Covered
While I’ve touched on many of the themes that personally resonated with me, I’ve left out many other topics that could just as well have been discussed. For example, there is the slippery slope of the women “breeding out” certain problematic individuals on page 82, which certainly causes one to raise an eyebrow–although, the women of Herland handle this in such a way as to encourage that woman to abstain from motherhood, and if she persisted, educate her child away from her influence.
So suffice it to say, there are several other ways one could interpret the elements of Gilman’s utopia, both positively and admittedly negatively; however, I was most enthusiastic to discuss these aspects, and I encourage you to leave a comment with your own thoughts and observations.
More Like This
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote of a feminist utopia prior to this entitled Moving the Mountain, as well as a sequel, Her in Ourland, which takes place after Herland is apparently a bit more heavy-handed on social commentary.
Another book which features a utopian society is Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, which I read in college for my American lit class.
Recently, I read Euphoria by Lily King, which has a strangely similar dynamic to this book; although written in the 21st century, it takes place in the 1930’s and follows three anthropologists as they study the Tam tribe, who live along the Sepik River in New Guinea. The three anthropologists fulfill a similar archetype–the logical Bankson, the egomaniacal Fen, the personable Nell–and study a group of people who continue to fascinate them with their remote sophistication and unique social conventions. Although fictional, this book is inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, and does not necessarily feature a utopia.
For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page.