Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman, 1915
Herland is a terrible book, a utopian novel that alternates between
summary ("through her sympathetic intelligence I became more and more
comprehending of the spirit of the people of Herland, more and more
appreciative of its marvelous inner growth as well as outer perfection")
and Socratic dialogue ("It is a convention." "Does it work?"). The male
characters are nothing but types, and the women don't get even that much
are in full flower.
Really just not good.
So, on to the content. Herland is the tale of three
explorers — roguish Terry, genteel Jeff, and "scientific"
Van — who hear talk of a land inhabited entirely by women and
decide to investigate. Much to their (or at least Terry's) chagrin, they
turn out not to be eightscore blondes and brunettes all between 16 and
19½, but rather three million short-haired, athletic women in
sensible shoes, most of them middle-aged. Terry, with all the disappointment
of a fratboy discovering for the first time that real lesbians aren't like the
ones in porn, calls them "epicene neuters." He's basically right!
Elizabeth and I have had this on our reading list for a while, but I suggested
we finally give it a look because I wanted an excuse to talk about gender
essentialism. A few weeks ago I watched some interviews with photographer
Jock Sturges and some of the women he photographs, and they were full of
examples of the sort of thing I mean:
"I think that what might be described as the feminine in me, in my character,
is the best part of me. Women, I mean, as a Darwinian, adaptive characteristic,
women are intensely good at reading subtle things, whereas men are into grosser
effects and care less about that, which is also adaptive, because historically,
for hundreds of thousands of years when the species was younger, they couldn't
care about things like that, because they had to go out and kill something and
bring it back and be competitive with other males, etc. I mean, the behavioral
science of all that I'm not that smart about, but I tend to care more about what
women can do and do do between themselves than I do about, well, talking about
sports and cars. In my own mind, actually, I find women a bit superior to us.
They're a lot less likely to invade Iraq."
"There are several things that I think that the male drive or the male...
whatever it is that makes men men... contributes to war, a lot of strife and
bad things that happen in the world. I believe that if women, or people
who believe themselves to be women, ran the world, we wouldn't be in the
mess we're in."
I imagined that Herland, which I'd seen billed as a "feminist utopia,"
would basically be out to illustrate the thesis these two are
propounding — that it'd be an attempt to demonstrate the superiority
of a society built on peaceful, empathic, feminine principles. And I had the
mechanism right — it really could not be less nuanced in setting
forth a society and saying, "Look! It's perfect!" — but, despite the
title, Herland does not purport to be a vindication of the feminine.
Allow me to digress for a moment. When I was a very small child, I saw a
when I asked my mother about it, she explained that some people were prejudiced
against others because of their skin color and that that was very, very
wrong. This jibed with the message I received pretty much
school, in books — that race didn't matter, that everyone was the
same. And this seemed to be borne out by the evidence, as my classes were
full of people of all different races and everyone was completely assimilated.
Then I got to Berkeley and was suddenly confronted with the charge that the
color-blindness that had been inculcated in me was itself racist, that the
melting pot was just code for making everybody white, and one should not
ignore the racial background of others but be hyper-sensitive to it. (Now
imagine the person expounding these ideas sipping a Crystal Pepsi while doing
So when I read Herland, I found myself wondering about the extent to
which modern feminists (or, I suppose more accurately, early-90s feminists)
would level a similar argument against Gilman. The residents of Herland may
not be sexless, exactly — though they explicitly have no sex drive
and reproduce via parthenogenesis — but they are said to be
genderless: they have no stereotypes about how their sex should act because,
having had only the one sex for 2000 years, they don't consider being female
part of their identity any more than being oxygen-breathers is part of ours.
But doesn't calling this utopic leave Herland open to attack from a
couple of directions? I had to plow through an awful lot of readings in
college and grad school arguing on behalf of distinctly feminine patterns of
thought and modes of communication as an alternative to masculine hegemonic
discourse... I can't imagine that those authors would take too kindly to yet
another dismissal of the feminine. On the other hand, my understanding is
that there are stripes of feminism that do indeed seek the abolition of gender
as a concept — that believe that it's a fairly trivial matter
whether your crotch is an innie or an outie and that it has nothing to do with
the way you think or behave. And yet wouldn't even people who take this
stance say that each individual human should be able to choose from the entire
range of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics? In Herland
everyone's a tomboy. That may just be Gilman being a crappy writer but
it does seem to suggest a mindset in which, just as "unmarked by race"
defaults to white, "unmarked by gender" defaults to male.
So I don't know that I'd really call this a feminist utopia. The best case
for it being one seems to me to go like this: (1) Gilman's chief complaint
about the world was that women were shackled to home and family; (2) she
created a world in which there were no homes bigger than a two-room
apartment and in which women turned their babies over to professional
child-rearers and went back to work; (3)
But I think this is missing the bigger picture. I'd say that Herland
is not so much a feminist utopia as a Progressive one — capital P,
as in the Progressive era. Feminism was part of Progressivism, but only part,
and Gilman seems pretty clearly to have signed on to the entire package. If
you ask me, the key lines were:
"Have you no respect for the past? For what was thought and believed by
"Why, no," she said. "Why should we? They are all gone. They knew less
than we do. If we are not beyond them, we are unworthy of them —
and unworthy of the children who must go beyond us."
One of the standard arguments against utopianism is that a perfect society
requires perfect people. But the Progressives didn't really see that as an
objection, merely as one of their mission parameters. Surely a combination
of , comprehensive education,
and an healthy disdain for tradition should do the trick! And of course, in
fiction, saying makes it so, so naturally in Herland these measures
have effortlessly produced a society in which everyone is intelligent,
practical, and kind, has no vices whatsoever, and lives in harmony and
friendship with all of her compatriots. Works like Y:
the Last Man and The Disappearance
at least tried, with varying degrees of success, to imagine a world of women.
Herland doesn't. Women bear the same relationship to the residents of
Herland that horses bear to Houyhnhnms.
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