I just finished reading a book called Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Published initially as a serial from 1909-1915 in a publication called “The Forerunner” (written and produced entirely by Gilman), I came across this feminist portrait of gender difference as a “Dover Thrift Edition” in a bookstore in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a smallish fishing town grown into a tourist escape. Gordene (my partner) and I had spent a glorious day riding our bicycles through the oldest artist colony in the country residing adjacent to the harbor, then along a stretch of rocky seacoast pounded by a modest surf. Herland was one of several books I purchased from this small, independent bookstore, where I found a rack of books priced from one to three dollars, mostly early twentieth century classics.
I selected Herland in part because I had read another work of Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper, many years ago. Sadly, I don’t remember a thing about it, except that at the time I found it intellectually stimulating and enlightening. What more could one want from a reading?
According to the back cover, Herland is “Gilman’s vision of a feminist utopia;” Gilman was “decades ahead of her time” and “has been rediscovered and warmly embraced by contemporary feminists.” As one who is seeking to better understand our society’s gender experience, I have for many years paid close attention to the subject. Yet I still sometimes become aware of feelings arising, both within myself and in the culture at large, that relate to gender difference – feelings of hurt, or anger – whose source I can’t seem to easily unravel. At the same time, I know that my upbringing as male exposed me to an undercurrent of male perspective which differed significantly from a female perspective, and that there are important aspects of growing up female that yet escape me. For whatever reason, it is clear to me that revealing the mystery of these issues is somehow central to the core of my being. Clearly, as one who has changed from living as a man to living as a woman, it is consistent with my life priorities.
So, trying to better illuminate for myself the terrain of our culture’s relationship with its gender, and feeling particularly good after a day’s bicycle ride, I gratefully took advantage of the opportunity provided to me by this small store and purchased the book. Having now finished reading her work, I am rewarded for my decision with a feeling of having discovered an overlooked gem (which also happens to be published in a simply beautiful and earth-friendly manner on inexpensive, lightweight paper, with no wasted pages). Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who died in 1935, gave us all a gift a long time ago, planting a seed which continues to bear a fruit which I just tasted and found pleasing.
Herland is the story of an expedition of three men, set in the early 1900s, who discover a land populated solely by women. The explanation provided for how such a thing came to pass and how it is maintained provided just enough plausibility to allow this reader to overlook its more obvious flaws without too much discomfort. The point of the book, as I choose to interpret it, is not that such a thing might actually occur, but rather to set the stage for an exposition of some of the gender differences that such a situation might highlight. On that basis, Gilman’s explanations suffice, if sometimes barely. Her storytelling, though, entertains throughout.
A device employed by Gilman that seemed quite wise was her inclusion of three male characters of varying gender perspective. The narrator is most centrist politically; over the course of the book, he seems to judge most wisely of the three, finding a good balance between his past experience and his new observations. The others included a wealthy patriarch named Terry, and a poet doctor named Jeff. Over the course of the story, Terry embodies the domineering male, while Jeff quickly integrates himself into a feminist reality. The most prominent dimension of difference here, within the male gender, seems to be one of control: Terry seeks to control everything, Jeff is always willing to serve, and the narrator seems to seek out a practical balance between belief-driven imperatives and circumstances.
This illumination of the dimension of control begs the question, how is control related to gender? Clearly Gilman is saying that the men of her day control the women of her day, and Herland is a world in which she has grown two thousand years of women without the controlling presence of men, growing free and strong. Over the course of the book, the three men develop relationships with three of Herland’s young women, providing an opportunity for Gilman to render clearly her view of what happens when men seek to serve, control, or balance with, women whose lives are built upon a foundation of strength, self-reliance and healthy self-esteem. The results are not surprising, but her narrative spans a wealth of issues and social areas that served for me as a surprisingly fresh and welcome rebuttal to voices that sometimes surface uncomfortably from my past.
I grew up in a world where there was (along with many good things) much cross-gender fighting, injustice and blame, much of which sadly echoes still. The ubiquitous-ness of cross-gender misunderstanding, distrust and hostility tainted every aspect of my life, a stain so tightly woven into the fabric of my being that it can never be fully eradicated, though I shall probably always endeavor to do so. My commitment to truth as a central empowering life principle engenders within me an acute awareness of disparity between my inner feelings and external realities, especially in this area of gender. I find that, still, cross-gender feelings sometimes arise. I become aware of them when I hear myself thinking things like “those women/girls are…” and “those men/boys are…”. If I can figure out where these feelings come from, I stand a better chance of avoiding getting swept away by them in the future. Those times when such feelings gain control over me are not my proudest moments by any stretch of the imagination. Nor are they my most effective. Reason complements emotion quite nicely, and the absence of either at the wrong time can be costly. So, I seek the source of such disempowering feelings as tend to arise, so that I can always act out of consciousness, never by reaction (except, of course, when the speed of a reflex action is required).
When it comes to social issues (which would encompass all gender issues), this is a central aspect of our behavior: we seek to formulate ideals, fed by theories, on which to base our actions (ignoring those areas in which rules are provided as a substitute for, and to the exclusion of, ideals and theories). We are more or less constantly frustrated by the less-than-ideal-driven actions of ourselves and, most unforgivably, others, a situation which provides one of the central challenges in life.
What makes Gilman’s work so interesting is her illumination of the dimension of control. While an update to such would certainly be welcome, and no doubt already exists, I must admit that this is the first such I have encountered – or perhaps understood.
Gilman depicts her feminist paradise as a tended garden. In Herland, nothing is wild; it is all under control. While I have observed in my own life a tendency in myself and some others to occasionally blame men more than women for being overly controlling, it is interesting that Gilman’s women are equally controlling, but more effectively – and happily – so. Gilman’s women are experts at changing the focus of attention as a means of controlling others without arousing resistance. They also control their environment, by tending to all of nature as a garden, and simply eliminating animals they find inconvenient or incompatible. 1
Gilman seems to take issue not with the desire to control, but with the methods employed. Her methods are always friendly and painless, if not always in concert with total freedom of choice, whereas men’s methods range from blatant dishonesty to brutal cruelty. Particularly fascinating about this is her willingness to adopt a level of social control against which consideration many in our culture would recoil in horror, but which, I think, represents a perspective worthy of serious consideration.
In Herland, two thousand years’ absence of male interference has allowed the women to make great progress in social science, founded on a basic perspective that the purpose of life is parenting. Given this imperative, social engineering is not just an accepted practice, it is the joy and purpose of life. People’s fitness as parents determines their role in parenting. There are no bad parents who insist on parenting, presumably a result of kind, loving and thoughtful upbringing which leaves no individuals feeling needy in that way. Children are taught principally by those who are adept at nurturing qualities of strength, intelligence and love of life. Those whose children are principally taught by others are not cruelly isolated from their children, but voluntarily limit their influence, welcoming assistance in child-rearing. Because society is dedicated to parenting for all of its members, no individual need fear being uncared for in their old age, so ownership of (or loyalty from) children becomes a non-issue, freeing parents from the need to control their own children, and children from the burden of coercion.
Because of the limited land area of Herland, population control is practiced, but not by killing anything or using medical or mechanical contrivances. Women raised with an improved self-confidence and awareness become more sensitive to their own body processes and rhythms, and develop increased awareness of when they might conceive. At such times they then exercise intelligent, responsible behavior, losing themselves in work and other activities that preclude conception by changing their bodies’ balance.
At this point my heart is wrenched by desperate longing for such a world. If only we cultivated as a primary value in all of our children an intelligent reverence for life that would lead to more responsible behavior! If only our culture would accept the idea that raising children is a privilege, not a right! If only we could eliminate the mind-numbing brutalities of everyday life that cultivate cynicism, if only we could predicate our economic system on health rather than wealth, if only we could prioritize respect for all life over selfish interests, if only we could expend our lives in service of beauty rather than money!
As I float gradually back down to earth, I renew once again my resolve to find the best compromise possible between the world in which I find myself, and one more beautifully wild.
Interestingly, wildness is conspicuously absent from Gilman’s vision. Her forests are carefully cultivated, predators and anything which might harm a human are long since gone. Can a world apparently without the usual physical risks of snake bite or bear attack or poison ivy satisfy the human need for risk and adventure? Is such a level of safety desirable? Or is Gilman’s point that women desire and, if left alone, would create such a world? Clearly, in her view, the world of men is a much more dangerous, violent place then Herland. She seems to be saying that men are more dangerously violent than women – physically and otherwise – but also that they are not as successful at controlling others.
In the end, Herland’s residents opt for integration of men back into their society. Whether or not Gilman believes that such a result is the best possible decision remains, for me, a mystery, but my emotional pull is clear: as much as I like the beauty and serenity of Herland, I think I would probably not enjoy living there. It seems too pre-determined.
Science fiction is full of stories of regular people like you and me encountering utopian places like Herland. Usually we are told that the protagonist rejects the over-controlled life in favor of one with greater uncertainty and correspondingly greater flavor and potential. A flaw in this vision is that the potential is usually apparent only as difference from the status quo. In other words, Herland’s society has achieved great accomplishments as a result of greater cooperation among its members and, presumably, less departure by its individuals from successful methods. So, to a person from our culture, Herland’s individuals could seem so burdened by the expectation of a high degree of cooperation that their personal freedom is compromised. The flaw is that in a healthy society where doing what works is the norm, the absence of people choosing dysfunctional behaviors doesn’t indicate a lack of freedom. In the context of a highly flawed society, the absence of visible rebellion might indeed be unhealthy. But in the context of a far healthier society, a healthy degree of rebellion might be far less apparent, enough so that someone from a less healthy culture might not notice it, and perceive its apparent absence as unhealthy.
In our dominant culture, fierce independence is often (if not usually) depicted as more heroic than cooperation with the ‘establishment’. Established ways are often depicted as stagnant and limiting, against which rebellion is more desirable than cooperation. It certainly makes for some exciting storytelling. But such stories foster the kind of loose-cannon mentality that periodically tends to destroy whatever social progress has been made. They also obscure the revolutionary potential of collaboration, instead championing an individualism reacts rather than carefully considering potential consequences. As such, these stories tend to lead us towards a less thoughtfully progressive, more reactionary society. They serve, I would argue, the culture of control by the privileged, that regards most of us as little more than servants of the rich and powerful, and that keeps us predictably manageable by keeping us in a reactionary state of being. The contrast between this and Gilman’s vision is striking.
Because the kind of social engineering practiced in Herland – group parenting towards developing capable, thoughtful and creative individuals adept at collaboration and conflict resolution – must by its very nature take place across generations, it is impossible to accomplish without submission of the individual need before the society’s well-being. Only the society’s lifetime spans generations (arguments about immortality through descendancy notwithstanding), providing opportunity for control by influencing the development of new generations.
Since our legal imperatives go little further than “do no harm”, and our rhetoric worships at the altar of individual liberty, we nurture within ourselves a stubborn resistance to group mind and responsibility for each other. Hence, we are quite distantly removed from accomplishing any degree of Herland’s kind of social engineering, however imperative the need. Instead, we adhere to a social Darwinist doctrine that not just allows, but encourages some to dominate others by the accumulation of wealth synonymous with the much-vaunted “American Dream.” Any consideration of alternative perspectives is labeled “socialist” and targeted with the most cynical and fearful fierceness.
We justify this approach with the supposition that absence of survival incentive breeds weakness, as if survival of any individual could ever be assured. In fact, societies more cooperative than ours have always existed, but they have not proven as able – and willing – to dominate others. Ours, by being arguably the most violent, has become the most dominant. The question is, can we remain healthy without dominating? Can we evolve our domination to more harmonious, gentle means, as the residents of Herland are portrayed as having done? Or must our health always be assured by preying on others?
Herland’s women hint at some inner dissatisfaction by their repeated suppositions that the rest of the world must be in some ways better than the one in which they live. The centrist male narrator, though blessed with a new partnership whose love surpasses anything he could have previously imagined, elects to return to his land of origin. His new partner accompanies him, driven by her own quest for discovery. This seems an acknowledgement by Gilman of either the inadequacy of her utopian vision of the world as a tended garden, or of separatist living.
While Gilman’s women seem less than completely comfortable with their world, we are never told exactly why. Could it be that a world without wildness, without some things – and creatures – beyond the control of humanity, would be something less than a utopia? Certainly there are plenty of people alive today who believe so, and I’m inclined to agree. For all of civilization’s pleasures, there is none to me more pleasingly sublime than a walk in an area of the world that is not planned and manipulated by people. Although fear of wildness was embedded in us by millennia of conditioning, it no longer truly reflects reality. Today, the situation has reversed, and the continued existence of wilderness is endangered by mankind. As the engine that created life in the first place, and that continually renews and refreshes our planet, wilderness is essential to planetary health. And yet, few of us would want to abandon all civilization, and so we are left to consider ways that we can make it work in harmony with wilderness.
Despite our most egotistical visions, our science remains woefully inadequate at managing a system as complex as planetary life, most glaringly apparent in our inability to render truly effective management of our own social relationships. Indeed, I would argue that, until we are able to practice more effective social (and political) science on every level, we cannot trust any other science fully, as it will always be corrupted and/or misapplied by socio-political influences.
Herland’s society is far more advanced then ours in its ability to guarantee positive social outcomes. In our culture, we are actually discouraged from exercising the kind of social control which Gilman showcases. Witness, for example, our prohibitions against population control and parental selection. Such discouragement disempowers and renders us more susceptible to covert social control by those in positions of privilege. Certain religions come to mind as particularly egregious practitioners of such, although unfettered capitalism seems an even more potent tool to the same end.
Returning to Herland’s election to integrate with male society, an obvious alternative reason could be dissatisfaction with the absence of men. Whether or not Gilman is making a statement on the undesirability of gender separatism, though, is never made explicitly clear. But there is little indication of anything that the men provide to Herland that she did not have without them.
A more compelling reason that Herland’s leadership seeks contact and integration with the rest of the world is a recognition of their responsibility to their society. If they are to plan the health of its future, they cannot presume to be unaffected by what happens outside of their part of the larger world, and hence must learn about what goes on beyond their borders and, as needed, participate. This seems the reasoning most consistent with the expressed values of her women characters, who never express any sense of loss at the absence of men, but do express a strong interest in knowing what is transpiring in the outside world, an interest readily understood in our own world.
Another interesting facet of Gilman’s vision is the sexuality of her women. The relationship between the poet Jeff and his new partner is quite sexual, and produces a pregnancy. The central partnership, though, is sexless, justified by their impending journey together, which would preclude an appropriate focus on child-rearing. This supremacy of reason over sex drive is refreshing, but it goes quite a bit deeper than simply a matter of control. Gilman addresses the sexualization of women, commenting repeatedly on the way in which Herland’s inhabitants’ appearance departs from the usual fostering of a focus on sex. Their clothing does not draw attention to their breast or crotch areas. In Herland, the sex act is something performed in order to conceive, and recreational sex is nowhere apparent. Women are profoundly loving beings, but apparently feel no need to copulate more often than required for such reproduction as is responsibly allowed. This seems a somewhat discordant departure from the realities of nature (such as I understand them), comparable to the forest being turned into an all-cultivated garden and inconvenient animals being eliminated.
Most people I know think that sex is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. While such assertions may not be scientifically proven, neither have they been proven wrong. This is not to say that sexual relations with another person is the only answer. Clearly, masturbation has its place in relieving the need for sexual release. But Gilman makes no mention of, or allusion to, such.
Could a society learn to entirely avoid the development of sexual tension? And how would that affect loving relationships? In Gilman’s story, one of the new partnerships produces an offspring apparently outside of their usual cycle of reproduction. Maybe she is saying that women tend towards periodicity, while men tend to be less harmonic. Or maybe our society is so unbalanced in proliferation of sexual imagery and constant tugging at our chains that a more healthy balance has been rendered beyond our imagination. Our popular cultural messages are mostly predicated on the desirability of more sexual activity and families structured around child-rearing. Increased sexuality is such a powerful theme in advertising that the unspoken mantra for our culture has become: “More sex would be better.” Can we even imagine it otherwise?
Maybe Gilman’s vision is just so much wishful fantasizing on her part. After all, who has not had, or heard of, the experience of sex spoiling a good friendship? At the same time, though, there seems to exist some connection between sexuality and the kind of love that makes partnerships enduring. Gilman’s Herland, though, seems to challenge the nature of that connection in ways which I do not yet fully comprehend.
In search of answers about ourselves, we sometimes compare our behavior to that of the animal world (please, not kingdom!). There, we see generally (though not always) shorter life expectancies, higher birth rates, more death, and sex practiced seasonally, as did Gilman’s women. Our culture seems to have adopted a premise that postponement or elimination of death, and performance of sex, is endlessly desirable. Gilman’s vision presents an interesting alternative. Can we, who have grown up amongst an onslaught of advertising (buttressed by copious peer reinforcement) aimed at mobilizing our sexuality in service of consumption, fairly judge the desirability of such a state? Clearly, I think, not. And so I am forced to consider this alternate vision as a distinct possibility. And in that prospect, I find myself curiously fascinated.
I have long felt that, in order to not condemn future generations to ever more tightly-packed existence, our death rate should roughly match our birth rate. To the extent that we decrease our death rate (via science, medicine, ‘clean’ living, etc), we must correspondingly decrease our birth rate. It’s the simplest of math, but, apparently, not so simply obvious that it can’t be easily ignored by many people. Maybe they don’t really care about future generations, or don’t mind being unable to escape the crowd. Maybe too many of our people are living lives based on such a cynical outlook, distancing so much from others, that the physical closeness of crowding supplemented by pornographic sexual gratification becomes a substitute for intimacy. That certainly seems a growing trend. One I’ll be pleased to leave behind at any time.
I don’t know all the right choices, and would not want the responsibility of having to make them for others. If I had a time machine, though, it would sure be interesting to travel into our future and see the consequences of the social choices we’re making today. I’d also want to go back about ninety years and thank Charlotte Perkins Gilman for the tasty fruit she left us.
1 – Reflecting considerable naïveté towards the balance of nature, Herland’s cats are bred to kill the rodents (who would otherwise eat their food stocks) but not the birds, for whose beauty the residents are apparently willing to overlook their food source, which would include the nuts and berries on which the residents themselves depend.
Originally published in “The New Goddess”, edited by Gypsy Teague