With Them in Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Sociologist and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman is probably best known for her story about a woman driven made by writing.

Well, no, maybe not, it’s a woman has been told not to write or she’ll have a breakdown.

But she is writing and the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is her writing and her grip on reality is loose — so much so that she seems to switch places with the woman in the wallpaper. Clearly patriarchy is a factor — man’s fear of thinking/creative woman.

There’s some ambiguity, mind.

Herland is one of a number of utopian novels she wrote and serialised in The Forerunner, her magazine. A group of male explorers go on a expedition to South America and hear that there is an all-female society hidden away, producing superior textiles. They decide to go the, using a biplane, and find themselves first captured and then getting to know this new society. These men, the first in this culture for centuries, all fall in love and connect up with individual women. But their patriarchal tendencies don’t sit well in a matriarchy.

There’s a problem with utopia — it tends to be dull. Thomas More set the tone in 1516, with his Henrician satire or his hidden reform blueprint, where a European tourist is given a guided tour of the island. The tendency is to have the guide lecture the visitor, and the tourist to be sceptical or embarrassed, and slowly be convinced of the wisdom of this new world. Jack Lodon’s The Iron Heel is still doing this in 1908, even if there is a fascinating conversation about the end of capitalism.

Herland does have a degree of this, as Ellador tells Van Jennings their history and their societal structure. The three are captured, escape, are held captive again and start their relationships. Whilst their agency is limited, the plot does become about them. But there is more forward plot than I recall from an earlier reading some years ago.

The society was formed as the result of a volcanic explosion some centuries earlier — many of the men were killed and a slave rising killed more of the men. With the male population severely depleted, the women fought back and killed the slave. Then came a point when five key women gave birth to five daughters and those daughters in turn had five daughters. Since then, only women have been born. This seems to be by some form of parthenogenesis.

Is the history true? Is two thousand years long enough to breed the women like this — as well to make cats leave birds alone but chase mice and rats? We only know what they tell Jennings, of course.

Before the three men find the society, they have speculated on what it would be like. One of them thinks it will be like some kind of pornotopia, a holiday camp of sun, sea and sex, another that it will be a abbey-like austere structure. The women they find show solidarity and cooperation, with the key values being motherhood and education — with individuals educated toward their strengths.

Education had been a topic of women’s writing since at least the eighteenth century, with Mary Wollstonecraft arguing for coeducation, in part so that women were not strange erotica captures to men. Wollstonecraft feared reproduction — child birth could be deadly (and she died from complications a few days after becoming mother to the future Mary Shelley). But here, presumably, midwifery is a key art and contraception or sterilisation seems a taboo. ETA: I need to revisit this comment on contraception.

On the one hand, then, this is a radical book, with a possibility of an all female society that would be explored again in 1970s feminist utopias; on the other hand there does seem to be an essentialism of women as nurturing and fulfilled by motherhood. It’s not the be all and end all of the society, but it is a key activity. There is also a celebration of eugenics.

But the key thing, of course, is to raise the theme of the differences between the sexes and to reveal, through estrangement, the degree to which these are cultural rather than natural.

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