Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Years ago, I bought Herland after reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, craving that same satisfied woman-centered feeling that I was left with as I closed Chopin’s book.  As I read the first few pages of Gilman’s Utopian text about a land of only women, I noticed that it was from a man’s point of view and immediately lost interest.  I had very little interest in a man’s perspective, even if it was written by a woman. Recently, Herland has been on my mind and decided to pick it up again.  This time around, I decided to read the preface, which is what I hear adults do and was delighted to learn that it was satirical in nature and thought I’d give it a go.  Within a first few pages, I was hooked and looking back, maybe at 21 I just wasn’t ready.

Herland begins with three American men exploring through an unknown continent and during their travels, they hear of a land where only women, female children and babies live and additionally, men go and never come back.  While there, the men are discovered and imprisoned so that the two cultures can learn from one another.  The men are in the aptly named, “Herland” for over a year and we go on this journey with them as the narrator describes their interactions with the women, the land, and how each one of the three men navigates and adjusts to their surroundings.  One of them comes to idolize the women, one acclimates but always keeps a critical eye, and the third rejects the customs of a gender-neutral land completely, feeling himself without identity if he cannot exude masculinity.

The writer of Herland is a woman, but the story is told from a man’s and therefore a masculine point of view and through him, CPG (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) relays her own social commentary on America in the early 20th century.  When the narrator describes his own country and what he thinks of women, much of what he relays seems comical.  Here, Gilman takes the liberty of poking fun at how she believes men to view women.  For example, when the three men discuss what lies ahead in this woman-only land, uber-masculine Terry fantasizes that he will be fawned over and doted on by the women, and that he’ll “be elected king”.  In this instance Gilman critiques patriarchy by suggesting that all women need a man to take charge. The narrator and also the more scientific of the group suggests that it will be a savage and undeveloped society.  His point of view is that women need to be studied as objects, and this mirrors Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper, which is semi-autobiographical.  Gilman’s husband sent her to a doctor after she gave birth who subsequently prescribed her a “rest cure” where he eschewed any creative expression.  What’s interesting about the three men’s fantasies is that they reinforce the old saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  When I read this, I immediately thought about the modern-day equivalent of men thinking women only pillow fight in their brassieres when they get together, or otherwise they are inherently meek and helpless.  CPG’s interpretation of the masculine and feminine gender has not changed over the past 95 years and proves that it’s not so far from the gender assumptions that persist today.

A major theme in this text is an indirect analysis of masculine and feminine gender, which is analyzed via the comparison of American society to the women-only society.  This is expressed through the observations of the narrator and in conversations between the three men and the women.  One of the earliest comments that Terry, the most traditionally masculine of the male characters exclaims at the continual absence of men as they walk through the new country is, “this is a civilized country, there must be men!”  As the three walk further through the land and first encounter three young women, they motion for the men to leave forever and instead of doing so, Terry pulls out a piece of jewelry in order to try and entice the women, believing that all women are inherently drawn to material possessions.  After the men are captured by a horde of strong women, they couldn’t believe that the beautiful house they were imprisoned in was built by women, which convinced them that men had to be living on the land because women could not be natural or even learned architects and builders.  In early descriptions of the physical attributes of the Herland women who kept them in captivity, some of them had short hair that was only a few inches long.  This particularly irritated masculine Terry because the women looked “unfeminine”, and were also described as plain looking as opposed to being “femininely beautiful.”   He wanted to be back by the “feminine women…the mothers” and younger and more beautiful women previously seen upon arrival.  He additionally hated that they were being taught things that they (the men), had no choice of whether or not to learn.   This again resonates with Gilman’s real life when she was forced to adhere to a treatment that she didn’t agree with.  Another gendered aspect of modern society present in 1915 America is gender exclusive language.  When the men refer to “men”, or “man” as an all inclusive term, such as “a dog is man’s best friend”, of which I will discuss later, the women ask them about the women outside of Herland, and the men always have to backtrack and explain that they are referring to both men and women.

When the men finally learn the native language, they ask the women about the lack of the male sex, as well as where their animals were (besides cats and birds).  The women explain that there are none and women give birth on a schedule.   Birth is also their own choice through a process similar to what Christians call Immaculate Conception.  With regard to animals, one of the women replies that cows and horses use up too many resources and they need the land to grow food. Here, we can assume that they are a vegetarian culture, though it is not explicitly mentioned in the novel.  The men are shocked to learn that there are no cows used for milk production and the women assure them that they do have milk in plenty-their own.  The men scoff and explain the importance of cows’ milk for mass production to feed people and for profit.  This leaves the women stunned with the concept that a cow gives birth, the baby is taken away, and the milk is distributed for human use when women themselves produce milk.

In addition to CPG’s feminist ideals, you can see the presence of her socialist beliefs as well.  In a conversation between some of the men’s tutors, they exchange information about the society of the “bisexual” men.  The men glorify industrialization and competition, while the women question its usefulness with regard to educating only some while many suffer.  When certain groups of people are favored in a society and others are not, such as the poor, then everyone suffers; all groups of people should be working as a cohesive unit for the benefit of all  people who live within the same society.

The women also inquire a good amount as to the role of the women in their society, and they ask if the women work as well.  The men assure them that women are glorified and protected in their society, to be kept to the home to watch the children.  They then follow-up with the fact that some women, “wage-earning women” do work, but are usually poor.  The women of Herland are confused by the idea that the women who work are poor and alternately, the women who are “praised…protected” and don’t work to earn a wage, also known as the “housewives”, are the ones who are wealthy.  This leaves the women confused, as it is confusing today with the prevalence of unequal pay between men and women.  We can further witness this paradox today through the idolizing celebrities who gain fame and fortune not through work, but from having excessive amounts of children, or from gaining fame via antics similar to “Snooki” Nicole Polizzi.

Another critique on an capitalism that CPG makes through her comparison of Herland to America is that the residents of Herland believe that education should not be withheld from any person; it is taught to all with specialization in specific fields.  The women explain that it is for the good of their community that everyone is educated and further, that they learn new skills in specialized segments of science, for example, as they age so that parts of their minds do not atrophy.

CPG also addresses issues of early composting.  The three men are amazed that instead of a barren plot of land being fenced off to fall into disuse, the women take materials from other parts of the earth, such as fruits and other organic matter and till it back into the soil.  This process makes the land fertile and able to bear fruit.  Obviously, the process of composting is fairly commonplace today, but in 2011 it seems all the more important given the lack of not only land space, but also the lack of nutritious food for children that comes from the earth.

One of the main focuses of Herland is that of motherhood, and the residents respect it above all because it means the continuation of their race.  As stated earlier, a woman has a choice whether or not she wants to give birth, though all work together in raising and educating the children.  However, not all women, like in a “bisexual society”, are fit to be mothers and the women of Herland recognize this.  In this society though, they have worked out a system to remedy this; if a woman is known to go against the principles of Herland, she is persuaded to not give birth and instead become a worker.  If she insists on having children, then they are raised and educated by other women so that the baby doesn’t inherit its mothers bad habits and perpetuate the negative cycle as she grows.

When the three men discuss the many dissimilar aspects of the two societies, the women often point out that there is little functionality to their methods.  The female society is based on reason and pragmatism, which is typically seen a masculine trait.  Here, CPG flips this gender assumption by making the all-female society seem reasonable and the industrialized society seem wasteful and illogical.  For example, when the men discuss animals and praise dogs, referred to as “man’s best friend” and discuss how some dogs are mean, carry disease, and don’t serve a work purpose.  The women question as to why they would keep breeding such animals that have little positive influence in their society, leaving the men unable to think of a justifiable reason.  Here, we also see early animal rights activism when the women discuss how they breed only cats and condition them to be docile and loving towards children.  The men ask them if they drown their kittens at birth because there are so many and the women reply with horror, questioning why people wouldn’t control animal breeding and then make the animals suffer as a result.

Perkins Gilman was way ahead of her time when she wrote this book and her insights were as such that we are still battling all of them today.  One could easily transplant this book into the 2000s and it would not feel antiquated in the least.  The issues that strike me the most are the ones concerning gender assumptions and relationships between masculine and feminine personalities.  When I reflect back to Jill at 21, I think one of the reasons that I could not enjoy this book is that I didn’t have enough life and dating experience, and therefore did not get to experience those large and small battles to figure out who I was as a female in our society.  Unlike in Herland, women and men in our “bisexual” culture grow up with these labels assigned to us.  Given this, when women and men act like People instead of feminine women or masculine men and make the conscious choice to identify as one or the other, they are truly exercising a feminism and to quote the movie Frida, “is truly revolutionary.”