RSS Feed

A country without men: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Originally published in the USA in 1915, Herland was published in the Women’s Press science  fiction series in 1986,  with an introduction  by Ann J Lane.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)  was a suffragist, a socialist, a writer on women in society  eg Women and Economics,   and a  poet,  amongst  many  other  things. She   defied social  convention by leaving her husband and getting a divorce,  earning her own living  by running a boarding house and later  by travelling the country as  lecturer.  a Charlotte  ended her own life with chloroform in 1935  after being diagnosed with cancer.

Herland first appeared in monthly instalments in Gilman’s magazine  The Forerunner which she wrote entirely herself, comprising critical articles, book  reviews, essays, poetry and fiction. It was the second  in a trilogy of utopian  novels  –  Moving the Mountain, Herland and With Her in Outland  -w hich  challenged the social mores of her own time, specifically  the role of women in society,  how they treated by men and what femininity and masculinity really meant when examined dispassionately.

Herland begins with three  male travellers   – Vandyck, Terry and Jeff  – flying by biplane  to a land  of women  that they had  had heard rumours of.  It  is Vandyck’s account of their adventure that we are reading. After landing  they encounter their first women:

We saw short hair, hatless, loose, and shining; a suit of some light firm stuff, the closest of  tunics and kneebreeches, met by trim garters.  As bright and smooth as parrots and as unaware of danger, they swung before us, wholly at ease, staring as we stared, till first one, and all of them burst into peals of delighted laughter.

Making their way  to a town of fine stone buildings, set among tilled fields and tended gardens, they meet a crowd of older  women:

They were not young. they were not old. They were not, in the girl sense, beautiful. They were not in the  least  ferocious. And yet, as I looked, from face to face, calm,  grave,  wise , wholly unafraid, evidently assured and determined, I had the funniest feeling…It was the sense  of being hopelessly in the wrong that I had often felt in early youth…We felt like small boys, caught doing some mischief in some gracious lady’s house.

When they refuse to go into a building  resisting,  and even firing  a shot in the air,  they are  seized  by the women and bundled in. ” We were borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully, in spite of our  best endeavours.” It’s  the first of many  demolitions by Gilman  of male authority, in this  case the supposed superior strength of men.

Held  captive in congenial  surroundings over the next few months they learn the language of the women  – and teach their own to thrree women, Somel,  Zava and Moadine. Faced with a new kind of society they flounder,  with   Jeff observing, “They don’t seem to notice our being men…they treat us – well – just as they do one another. It’s as if being men was a minor accident.”

They learn that  there have been no men in this country for two thousand years, but after they died off the women left began giving birth to girls.  The ideal of “motherhood” is the centre  of the civilisation, the women worship a Mother Goddess. You see, they had had  no wars. They had had no kings, and no priests, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters – and as they grew  together – not by competition, but by united action.

In these  session the gentle  but  persistent  questioning of the women   exposes the  hypocrisies of the society of 1915, despite the  stuttering  efforts of the men to justify the status quo.   The women  are shocked at the treatment  of cattle,  and the way that dogs  are left to roam the street at will.  They are puzzled that  many women  work and yet are  still poor, and have the most children.  Moadine explains

The children in this country  are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every stage 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.

Terry rejects this. “it’s impossible!” he would insist, “Women cannot coooperate, it’s against nature.”…Terry had to learn a good  many  things he did not want to…Terry’s idea of motherliness was the usual one, involving a babe in arms;  a motherliness which  dominated soiety, which  influenced every  art and  industry, which  absolutrely  protected all  childhood, and gave it the most perfect care and training, did not seem motherly – for Terry.

Eventually  the three men are considered  safe enough to be let out to see the country, accompanied by their three  tutors. It is the size of Holland with a population of three million. Vandyck contrasts  the reality of what they see with what they had imagined:

We had expected them to be given over to what we called “feminine vanity”–“frills and furbelows,” and we found they had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and goodtaste.

We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring sociali nventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours.

We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarreling children–feebleminded ones at that.

We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel.

We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance, was impossible to explain–we tried it.

...What left us even more at sea in our approach was the lack of any sex-tradition. There was no accepted standard of what was “manly” and what was “womanly.

…They loved their country because it was their nursery, playground, and workshop–theirs and their children’s. They were proud of it as a
workshop, proud of their record of ever-increasing efficiency; they hadmade a pleasant garden of it, a very practical little heaven; but most of all they valued it–and here it is hard for us to understand them–as a cultural environment for their children.

The three men do succeed  in starting relationships with three women, the women they had  first met on landing:  Jeff  with Celis, Vandyck with  Ellador,  Terry with  Alima. However the women  have a  very different  idea of what is going on, and what the future might hold:

To these women we came, filled with the ideas, convictions, traditions,of our culture, and undertook to rouse in them the emotions which–to us–seemed proper. However much, or little, of true sex-feeling there was between us, it phrased itself in their minds in terms of friendship, the one purely personal love they knew, and of ultimate parentage. Visibly we were not mothers, nor children, nor compatriots; so, if they loved us, we must be friends.

Despite this,  the six are “married” at the  insistence of the men in  a ceremony  they have made up,  attended by a vast,  curious   crowd. The women refuse to change their name those of their  “husbands,” though, and have no concept of what being  “a wife” in the men’s terms means. They  carry on with their work as foresters, and  reject the notion of living with their “husbands” in a separate house.

We ARE alone, dear,” Ellador explained to me with gentle patience. “We are alone in these great forests; we may go and eat in any little
summer-house–just we two, or have a separate table anywhere–or even have a separate meal in our own rooms. How could we be aloner?”

This was all very true. We had our pleasant mutual solitude about our work, and our pleasant evening talks in their apartments or ours; we had, as it were, all the pleasures of courtship carried right on; but we had no sense of–perhaps it may be called possession.

“Might as well not be married at all,” growled Terry. “They only got up that ceremony to please us–please Jeff, mostly. They’ve no real idea of being married.”

Then  there is the question of sex. Vandyck discusses this  with Ellador.

Then I did my earnest best to picture to her the sweet intense joy of married lovers, and the result in higher stimulus to all creative work.

“Do you mean,” she asked quite calmly, as if I was not holding her cool firm hands in my hot and rather quivering ones, “that with you, when people marry, they go right on doing this in season and out of season,with no thought of children at all?”

“They do,” I said, with some bitterness. “They are not mere parents. They are men and women, and they love each other.”

“How long?” asked Ellador, rather unexpectedly.

“How long?” I repeated, a little dashed. “Why as long as they live.” …She was silent, thinking.

…“If I thought it was really right and necessary, I could perhaps bring myself to it, for your sake, dear; but I do not want to–not at all. You would not have a mere submission, would you? That is not the kind of high romantic love you spoke of, surely? It is a pity, of course, that
you should have to adjust your highly specialized faculties to our unspecialized ones.”

Whilst Vandyck reluctantly accepts this comradely  non-sexual relationsship. Terry  will not. “You needn’t talk to me,” he snapped at Jeff one day, just before our weddings. “There never was a woman yet that did not enjoy being MASTERED. All your pretty talk doesn’t amount to a hill o’beans–I KNOW.”   Terry  tries to take Alima by force.

It did not work. I got a pretty clear account of it later from Ellador, but what we heard at the time was the noise of a tremendous struggle,
and Alima calling to Moadine. Moadine was close by and came at once; one or two more strong grave women followed.

Terry dashed about like a madman; he would cheerfully have killedt hem–he told me that, himself–but he couldn’t. When he swung a chair over his head one sprang in the air and caught it, two threw themselves bodily upon him and forced him to the floor; it was only the work of a few moments to have him tied hand and foot, and then, in sheer pity for his futile rage, to anesthetize him.

Alima wants Terry killed but instead, after a trial,   he is sentenced to being expelled from the country. Jeff elects to stay with Celis.  Vandyck also decides to go accompanied by Ellador and what happens  when they go to the USa is recounted in the sequel With Her in Outland.

Herland is an  elegant sustained  attack  by Gilman on the received wisdom of her own  era, the notion that men and women  are destined by their   biology to play very  different roles in society; that men are naturally  destined to rule over women; that men are athletic whilst women are delicate; that men are the explorers, philosophers and   scientists while women are the homemakers and nurturers. It also confronts an ugly truth; that the supposed chivalry shown by men  towards  women  is a charade and can be torn aside  in a moment. Gilman  suggests that “masculinity” and “femininity” are entirely social constructs which could be changed so that we could  become human beings who happen to be  of different genders.

Forgotten for many years, Herland was rediscovered by  the 1970s feminist  movement  as were many of Gilman’s  other writings such as The Yellow Wallpaper.

You can read Herland online here.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: