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. 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 and comprised critical articles, book reviews, essays, poetry and fiction. Herland was the second in a trilogy of utopian novels – Moving the Mountain, Herland and With Her in Outland -which challenged the social mores of her own time, specifically the role of women in society and how they were treated by men and what femininity and masculinity actually meant when examined dispassionately.
Herland begins with three male travellers – Vandyck, Terry and Jeff – flying by biplane to a rumoured land of women. (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 garden- 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” 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 killed hhem–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 anaesthetize 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 the 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 sexes.
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.