Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915)

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Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915).

Score: Interesting and still current.

Herland is a curious little book. Written by a first wave feminist and usually described as a feminist utopia, it didn’t sound very entertaining at first. But I have to admit I had fun with this little mind experiment, equally encouraging and frightening due to how much we’ve achieved and we’ve still got left to do.

Herland is narrated by Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist who discovers an isolated society comprised only of women while in an expedition with two of his friends, Terry and Jeff. The three men are welcomed as guests and encouraged to a cultural exchange with this ideal society, who managed to eradicate crime, war, disease and scarcity.

Gilman does many things here. The most obvious one is having the three men represent different stereotypes and attitudes in men: Terry is a blatant misogynist, while Jeff starts out as a romantic and is effectively converted into a feminist by the end, while Van, serving as a narrator, stands in-between. You’ve gotta love Terry, in the sense that you want to punch his sorry face. He starts up assuming that there must be no technology in a place run by women, then refuses to believe women made it on their own when he sees their highly developed technology. He tries to lure a girl by presenting her with a piece of jewellery, because, obviously, all women love jewels, just like magpies. He assumes that these women must be young, attractive, submissive and dumb, and when they’re not, he proceeds to try to degrade and subdue them. Fortunately, they’re having none of it.

It’s surprising how many features of Terry’s worldview are still present in society exactly a hundred years later. If you think about it too much it’s actually infuriating. Gilman does a great work at writing the dialogue between the men and of the men with the women. Most of her ideas and portrayal of sexism happen through dialogue and it feels surprisingly fluid and natural for this kind of work.

On a deeper level, the utopia in Herland serves another purpose: being, to a limited extent, an inversion of a patriarchal society. Terry, as well as Van and Jeff, occasionally, shows frustration for being in situations that women have actually endured for a very long time. “Here we are cooped up as helpless as a bunch of three-year-old orphans, and being taught what they think it’s necessary– whether we like it or not”, he complains. Also: “The only thing they can think of about a man is FATHERHOOD! FATHERHOOD! As if a man was always wanting to be a FATHER!” That sounds kind of familiar.

But that’s not all that the book is. Because Gilman does a fair bit of mouthpiecing her own reformist ideas here. I think it’s a mistake to think that she believes this is what a society without men would look like, or that men should be excluded or even worse, exterminated. She’s using the context as an excuse to show what a society where everyone is equal could be like. That is, a feminist society. A society where there are no toxic gender roles. Gilman does two things regarding her utopia: she upholds, develops and praises traditionally feminine qualities, such as nurturing, patience, sweetness or constructiveness. In the other hand, she shows that her women also have some positive qualities that are traditionally attributed to men: they are physically fit and strong, practical, expeditious, curious and thorough. This means these qualities are not exclusive to any one of the genders, as well as the flaws of character that are usually gendered: we would be better off if we rejected them.

All in all, an interesting read if you are interested in feminism, utopias or just sociology or politics in general.

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