Sunday, May 22, 2011
Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a Victorian feminist writer, most famous for her rather creepy short novella The Yellow Wallpaper. Herland was published serially in 1915 in her magazine, The Forerunner, and was Gilman's attempt to show that only feminism and socialism together could produce a just and peaceful society. Three men on an exploring trip in Brazil find a long-lost civilization where, amazingly, there are no men. (The men were killed off 2000 years ago, and the women are miraculously parthenogenic, all descended from the single woman who developed that trait.)
This women-only society is the most peaceful and advanced ever seen. Without the constant pressure of sex roles, the women have banded together and planned their society. After over 1500 years of work, they have accomplished much. Motherhood is the focus of their society, which is centered around the children, and everything is done collectively. Working together, the women have eradicated disease, perfected education, psychology, and agriculture, and produced a society with almost no crime. They know little of the outside world, of course, but they are very wise in all other ways. And, not being burdened with expectations about feminine frailty, all of them are remarkably strong and athletic.
Of course, being a utopian novel, it's all rather idealized. The author wanted to sell socialism along with feminism, and she imagined the best result--an impossible result, given that human beings are supposed to make up the Herland society, but Gilman was a believer in social Darwinism and the improvement of the race. She used several progressive ideas of the time that proved less than beneficial in practice: in Herland, physical problems and bad characteristics have been weeded out by selective breeding, and criminal or anti-social acts are treated as illness instead of choice. Embarrassingly, she makes it clear that the citizens of this society are of European descent, and not native to South America.
Herland offers some really interesting ideas to chew on, though. The women of Herland have never had to worry about femininity or attracting men, or differentiating themselves from men in any way. The narrator of the story points out that in his own American society, women and men feel the need to differentiate themselves from each other, and so each side exaggerates certain characteristics and tends to see each other as women and men, instead of human beings with various preferences and talents. The women of Herland are unable to treat the three explorers as men; they don't know how. Two of the men adapt, but one cannot; he simply can't get away from his ideas about women, and fails to learn the lessons of Herland.
This was a thought-provoking book to read and offered a great window into early progressivist thinking about socialism. Gilman had all the most cutting-edge philosophies of the time covered: socialism, social Darwinism, and a form of nationalism as well as feminism. It's always interesting to me to see how fashionable ideas work out over time.