Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Herland" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Summary: In this feminist utopian satire, three early 20th century men set out and "discover" Herland: an isolated land in existence for 2,000 years and comprised of only women.  Free of male and "traditional" societal influence, the society has flourished.  The three men--the narrator Van (a thoughtful sociologist), Terry (a misogynist unable to accept the women's strengths), and Jeff (who idolizes the women)--struggle to understand the perfect world the women have crafted and acknowledge the failures of their own society.

Musings: I first read this book for an amazing course I took at Duke University during a summer program for high school students.  The class was on "Island Utopian Literature" and focused on various authors' conceptions of an ideal world and the problematic aspects of crafting a perfect society.  Feeling a bit of resurgence in my feminism (not that it left, but perhaps became complacent), I decided to see what a reread would offer.

Gilman's work is a fascinating study, both for its critique of gender norms and for the insight it provides into early 20th-century feminism.  It's highly problematic from a modern perspective (particularly in its assumptions about sexuality), but wholly enjoyable.

Through a history I won't get into here (but the book provides), Herland became an isolated community of only women.  Instead of dying out, however, one woman developed philoprogenetiveness--the ability to self-produce a child.  In this way the society was able to continue throughout many generations.  Through communal work and effort, the women achieve a society that is free of poverty, disease, and violence.  Because Herland is founded on a "virgin" birth, it is a society centered around the deification of motherhood.  Again, from a contemporary perspective I find this problematic (Ann Lane, in the introduction, notes that "Gilman seems to assume that the desire for motherhood, thought not the ability to be a good mother, is inherent in the female condition" [xiii]).  Nevertheless, the way in which Gilman frames motherhood is progressive for its time.  Motherhood does not involve personal brooding and self-sacrifice for one's own child or carry associations of "staying at home with the kids" as opposed to completing other also fulfilling work.  Instead, in Herland, childrearing is shared and valued above all else, thus giving both responsibility and freedom to every woman.

It's easy to be pretty cynical about the perfection and lack of struggle the women have in the novel, and I think that continued pessimism while reading can be a distraction at times (it's hard to take everything in if you're constantly assuming it's impossible).  And I would probably agree with Terry, who argues unsuccessfully that "If there is no struggle, there is no life" (99).  After all, can you really experience joy without also experiencing grief?  However, one of the strengths of Gilman's text is the way in which Herland's perfection is used to expose the fallacies and weaknesses of the men's (our) society.  Gilman is especially adept as unmasking the illogical nature of our gendered assumptions.  Through Van's documentation of the questions the Herland women ask, Gilman breaks down the ideas that women are "weak" and "illogical" or that "male" institutions like war and poverty are inevitable.  She does this in a way that is often funny, which gives the book an unexpected lightness.

One of my strongest reactions against the book came in Gilman's depiction of sexuality.  As Lane notes in the introduction, Gilman operates from the idea that "sexual freedom led to another form of female subordination" (xvi).  Because of this, Gilman has completely removed female sexuality from Herland.  According to the novel, without men, women would have no "sex feeling"!  The women of Herland are completely asexual and, even when they marry the three men (for the purpose of bisexual mating), they are unable to see the purpose of sex beyond conception.  I loved that the women refused to consent to sex with the men when they truly did not understand the need or desire it, but the heteronormativity and the assumption that sexuality is solely a male domain are clearly problematic.

Herland is an excellent read, not as a solution for modern problems, but as a primary source case-study for early 20th century feminism and socialism.  It's also easy to see the kind of highly gendered-biased world Gilman was writing in and admire her strength to defy conventional roles and challenge dominant assumptions.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.


  1. It's always great to find a good book with gender studies as a main topic. I know Ursula Le Guin has some interesting ideas about it all in some of her novels.

  2. I've heard of Le Guin quite a bit, but I don't think I've actually read any of her work. I'll have to check it out.

  3. Hi, I was just cruising the web trying to figure out what on earth Gilman's ideas on sex-only-for-procreation and found your blog. Interesting comments on Herland. I finished the book yesterday and hope to write some thoughts on it today or tomorrow (depending on how long it takes me to figure out what I think). :)

    I had the impression from an introduction I read in The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader that Gilman was a fan of healthy sexuality. So I'm trying to figure out if she meant for the men to have something to teach the women of Herland after all. (Maybe they weren't QUITE perfect?) But it seems out of character for the men to have something useful to teach the women, doesn't it? ;)

  4. Thanks for stopping by! It almost seems a catch-22 if the men teach the women about the joy of sexuality. If they do, there's a positive message: that sexuality is good and possible for any person. But, at the same time, there'd be a negative message: women need men to experience sexual pleasure. Maybe that's why Gilman stayed away from it?