Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is one of those texts most American kids encounter in high school, but, as a literary critic in training at a women’s college, it’s popped up as the ideal candidate to practice feminist theory on in the class that teaches you about the major schools of literary theory. It’s also popped up in one of my history classes. So Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a very familiar name to me, but only because of that one short story. But her bibliography is much deeper than that, and includes a utopian trilogy of which Herland is the middle installment, flanked by Moving the Mountain and With Her In Ourland. I’ve tried reading Herland once before, as a kid discovering Project Gutenberg in high school, but I thought it was time to give it another shot.
Herland is the story of three male explorers—swaggering womanizer Terry, Jeff, who idealizes women, and Van, who is as neutral as the 1910s get towards ladies. While on an expedition in an undisclosed country, they learn of a folk tale about a community full of only women. The three determine to return and travel to that community, with various designs on the denizens, whom they can’t believe are only one sex. But even they can’t fathom the women of Herland—strapping, curious, and intellectual. In short, they are people, although a people utterly without the male sex. As they try to integrate after their capture, they and the women attempt to summit their cultural differences, but can they ever be truly resolved?
There’s a passage late in Herland where Van talks about how they didn’t realize until the end of their stay that for the women of Herland, everything defaults to the female. “When we say WOMEN, we think FEMALE— the sex,” he says. “But to these women, in the unbroken sweep of this two-thousand-year-old feminine civilization, the word WOMAN called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word MAN meant to them only MALE— the sex.” I’m reaching the end of my college career at a women’s college, and that just made me grin. There are a lot of advantages to attending a women’s college, but one of the ones I cherish the most is how it subtly rewrote the way I see the world until female became default. (If I had a nickel for every time I heard “Who does that guy belong to?” on campus…) Some books come to us at exactly the right point in our lives—as bad as child Clare was, she would have been worse without The Lord of the Rings—and the last few weeks of my time here at Southern Lady Hogwarts feels like the perfect time to read a novel about a lady utopia. The future is now, Gilman! Let’s braid hair and talk about smashing the patriarchy.
Of course, it’s not a perfect utopia—well, utopias are such personal things, aren’t they? Herland is hardly Wonder Woman’s Themyscira, my preferred lady land. For one, while I immediately saw the women as indigenous South Americans due to their location and the fact that Herland is only accessible by plane, Van takes care to point out that they’re from “Aryan stock” and “white”, since at one point Herland did have access to the outside world. (Film adaptations of Herland: please disregard Van on this matter.) And then there’s Gilman’s fascination with eugenics. The women of Herland reproduce by parthogenesis, and this makes motherhood, not romantic love, the center of their lives. (There are no queer women at all, of course. Themyscira just keeps looking better and better by the second.) This can be suppressed at will, and women with “unfit” traits—i.e., the traits that Gilman doesn’t like—are weeded out by appealing to their patriotism and logic. (Oh, they would get on with Vulcans quite well.) It’s all troubling, even as Gilman devotes the bulk of the novel to divorcing sex from gendered behavior and has Herland founded by “infuriated virgins” with swords.
Herland is mostly focused on the culture shock the men encounter when meeting a community of women who are, in Gilman’s eyes, fully developed people, as well as the culture clash between a single-sex race and, as she renders it, a “bi-sexual” race. Van comes out the best, although he does trip over his own assumptions at certain points. Jeff has his idealized and angelic image of women popped—his beloved (yep) questions him about the physical abilities of regular women when he tries to carry something for her. The worst clash, however, is Terry. Even Jeff and Van laugh at him; at one point, he calls the Herlandians very unwomanly, to which Jeff points out that their focus on motherhood is sort of more inherently womanly (in their conception of the world) than being sexually available. But Terry represents man as conqueror of woman, disgusted when he discovers women that he cannot conquer. The climax of the novel occurs when Terry, in his tempestuous marriage to Alima, attempts to rape her. Alima fights him off easily and summons other women to her aid, but it remains a horrifying moment due to the way Van renders it. He feels sympathy for Terry for trying to taking what’s rightfully his. Here, I think, the novel is speaking out of both sides of its mouth—presenting the then-masculine view of marital rape while still having the women of Herland expel him for his horrific crime, giving us a vision of a world where female consent is fore and center. But that doesn’t remove the modern reader’s disappointment with Van’s view of the situation.
I’m thinking of checking out Her in Ourland to see a Herlandian react to our world, although I’m wary that might bring more of the novel’s problematic elements to the surface.
Bottom line: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic Herland imagines a society of women were women are people and men are the variants. Racism and Gilman’s fascination with eugenics mar the novel, however, and the modern reader will be disappointed by the narrator’s response to the third act. Worth a read.