Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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.
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!