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Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

April 27, 2011

Title: Herland
Author: Perkins Gilman, Charlotte
Length: 124 pages
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy / Science Fiction
Publisher / Year: Dover Thrift Editions / Originally published in 1915
Source: A Christmas gift from my parents.
Rating: 3/5
Why I Read It: It is our April read for the Year of Feminist Classics project.
Date Read: 24/04/11

Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote many feminist texts, both fiction and non-fiction, through her lifetime. The best known of these are the non-fiction treatise Women and Economics and the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The latter especially has been getting a lot of attention around the blogosphere and I may have to read it one of these days. Iris wrote a great introduction to Gilman and to the book on the Year of Feminist Classics blog which has been generating some interesting discussion. I’d recommend that you check it out here.

This book is the story of three young men who stumble upon a hidden land populated entirely by women. It is written as a kind of feminist utopia. Populated by only women who are entirely self-sufficient, have evolved to be able to give birth without men, and who have managed the land and everything perfectly. They are portrayed as highly evolved, highly intelligent, kind, caring, resourceful, patient, etc. Basically everything good and nothing bad.

Through the story Gilman uses this female only world as a means of contrasting what she says could be the case if women had more say and more independence. She portrays how many traits considered “feminine” are learned cultural traits and that women aren’t really inferior and are actually quite bright, or could be if allowed to be. She portrays how motherhood, sexuality, gender roles and community could be looked at in different ways to make things run more smoothly. She also shows how the men can adapt to this and how different attitudes work better than others and how what women want in men isn’t always what is best for them (i.e. Terry is the most desired back home, but can’t adapt in Herland).

Honestly, I found the story rather disturbing. I like men and I dislike babies. A society built completely around motherhood sounds, to me, a bit like a horror story! I loved what Gilman did in the discussions of gender roles, but the idealized version of woman as a mother really didn’t sit well with me and kept putting me off. I also had issue with the racism that was evident through the short novel (i.e. the constant mentioning of the savages outside the borders and how Herland was civilized like their own as opposed to the lands of the savages).

There was also a rather anti-choice message that showed quite strongly in one point I found (page 59 in my version) where Somel and the narrator are having a conversation and he asks how the population stays the size it is, as they surely aren’t destroying the unborn, and she says:

“Destroy the unborn – !” she said in a hard whisper. “Do men do that in your country?”

“Men!” I began to answer, rather hotly, and then saw the gulf before me. None of us wanted these women to think that our women, of whom we boasted so proudly, were in any way inferior to them.

That made me rather uncomfortable as it seems to imply that any woman who for any reason may choose an abortion is somehow inferior to those who don’t. Both this and the racist undertones show that while Gilman may have been ahead of her time in many ways, she was still a product of her own generation in other ways, unfortunately.

Through the book there were many times that I had to laugh at the way the women and their questioning about the outside world confused the men so much. About how women weren’t allowed jobs and why. About the poor who make up so many of the women and who do have to work. About the term virgin and how, well, they suppose it would be for both sexes but it really isn’t used as much for males. And each time they came to a point that didn’t quite make sense they would realize that and try to skip over it – though of course the women noticed!

A really interesting book that I’m glad to have read. I’ll be looking for more from the author now in hopes of finding a message for all females rather than only those who want babies!

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2011 9:41 am

    The only thing by Gilman I’ve read is The Yellow Wallpaper, but I did enjoy her writing. It was a short story, so I’m not sure if I’d like her longer novel the exact same. I like your honest review of this book. The sound of a world with only women and babies does sound quite disturbing. I wish that pro-women works didn’t have to go to such an extreme….a world of equality, not supremacy would be my ideal.

    • April 28, 2011 8:11 am

      Yes, that would be my ideal as well Jenna. Though sometimes an author has to go too far to make a point, if you get my meaning. Makes you see things that a book that is ideal to us might not make as clear for others.

  2. April 27, 2011 9:57 am

    This sounds like such an interesting book – only women and babies… eek. My favorite line from this post has to be, “I like men and I dislike babies” LOL!!!

  3. April 27, 2011 10:16 am

    My husband read this a couple years back and had many of the same issues with it. He described it as a good book for what it was trying to do, but rather imperfect in execution.

    • April 28, 2011 8:12 am

      I wouldn’t call it imperfect in execution but just that I am already a convinced feminist so don’t need an extreme example to make me consider it, ya know what I mean Amanda? But I could see that as an issue too.

  4. April 27, 2011 10:50 am

    I have had this book on my shelves for quite a long time, and after reading your review, I am curious enough to add it to my TBR stack. It does sound interesting, though I am also sure that I would not want to live in a world full of women and babies with no men. I think it’s kind of funny that Gilman uses a world full of women as a house for her platform, but do admit that the story sounds very intriguing. Great review Amy, I will have to let you know what I think when I am done.

    • April 28, 2011 8:13 am

      I hope that you give it a try zibilee, would love to hear your thoughts on it :)

  5. April 27, 2011 12:46 pm

    Interesting story. Do we find complementarities in Man-Woman existence? This fits a poem I wrote last year “Middle Sex”.

    • April 28, 2011 8:13 am

      Yes a big thing she was showing was that what is often considered ‘feminine’ behavior is just learned social niceties rather than how women actually are. It was interesting Nana. As was your poem :)

    • April 28, 2011 8:14 am

      (I think you had shared it? I seem to remember something along those lines anyway! I must go search now :) )

  6. April 27, 2011 11:10 pm

    I had the same issues as you regarding the perfection of Herland (and the strange elevation of motherhood to some sort of godlike ideal) but once I wrapped my head around the idea that Gilman used exaggeration to make some pretty intelligent points, it made more sense to me.

    • April 28, 2011 8:14 am

      Yes that is a good point Trisha, does make it make more sense. And I can see why she did it that way too.

  7. April 28, 2011 9:38 pm

    It’s interesting to see how dystopian/utopian stories can remain unbelievably timely — 1984 only feels dated because it hangs it hat on an actual, you know, date — or else feel dated in only a few decades (or a few years). Anyway, there’s always “The Yellow Wallpaper”, my love for which I don’t have to qualify. :p

  8. April 30, 2011 6:56 am

    Yes, it is crazy how they can still feel so timely Jenny. One of these days I really must read The Yellow Wallpaper myself :)

  9. May 4, 2011 1:37 pm

    I didn’t mention it in my review but the relentless and overwhelming emphasis on motherhood really turned me off as well, especially since most of these women don’t even raise their own children! I’m none too fond of children either and would find this society pretty horrifying too. It’s quite ironic that this otherwise feminist book would reinforce such a damaging stereotype of women: that we all want nothing more than to bear children and are innately and primarily maternal. I know for many women motherhood is an extremely important part of their lives, and concern for their children’s future is a big driving point behind their activism, but it’s important to acknowledge that women aren’t all the same. But, as I’ve said, utopias require sameness among their populations or else we have DISSENT and maybe CHANGE.

    • May 5, 2011 6:55 am

      Yes, I kept thinking that too EL Fay. Here we have a “feminist” book but yet motherhood is necessary and the whole point of existence? Sure these women could have other jobs but motherhood was the pinnacle. Utopias = scary, scary places :)

  10. May 11, 2011 7:52 pm

    now I do like babies and I still found the cult of motherhood a bit disturbing. Definitely not a uptopia in my opinion either! It wasn’t a favorite for me either but I certainly was quite interested in it and have read it twice now.

    • May 12, 2011 11:06 am

      Perhaps it was supposed to be disturbing to us all, I don’t know Rebecca. Definitely an interesting read just… scary!! heh

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  1. April 2011 Reading Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

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