Herland – What Makes a Woman?

Warning – Here Be Spoilers!

This book has been around for about a century, and there’s a good chance you were assigned to read it anyway. “Herland” does not have any Shyamalan-like twists, so reading this review will not mar the experience for you if you haven’t read it. In fact, it might help prepare you for a few random… let’s call them Speed Bumps Of Problematicalness (or SBOP).

I did not do a lot of research on this book. I knew of author Charlotte Perkins Gilman mainly from her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I found Poe-like in its ability to convey the horrific claustrophobia (and gas-lighting! whee!!) of its setting in clear prose. It was one of the first stories with that particular thread of horror that spoke to me, with a specific accurate viewpoint from the feminine experience.

This book is not a horror. It begins as a gentle satire of the colonialist narrative, told in first-person by a member of a three man exploration team from America who have just learned that a mythical land of women is in fact a reality. Humor and enlightenment are derived from the men and women trying to explain their cultures to each other.

First off, within about three pages I was unable to un-see this as a Star Trek away mission, with Jeff, a “Southern Gentleman” who views womankind on a pedestal as “Bones” McCoy, Terry, a hot-headed womanizer as Kirk, and Van, our narrator who believes he is the most unbiased and logical, as Spock. I found this to be an enjoyable way to read the story, and I would encourage anyone else similarly afflicted with fan-fic brain hamsters to do the same. It sure helped when I ran into some of those SBOPs, and I could conveniently blame them on Gene Roddenberry.

The Away Team are quickly captured by the women, and held in gentle captivity while a group of elders learn how turn of the century American society works. The men are more than willing to tout the wonders of mid-stage capitalism, proud of their masculinity and drive, while Van realizes with each boast that “our” society is much less advanced than Herland’s.

We never learn what the women call their own utopia, but the men refer to it as “Herland”. The women have a society going back about 2000 years, when a patriarchal system, wars and natural disasters convened and geographically cut them off from neighboring countries. The men all died off and the population began to dwindle, until one ur-mother produced five daughters via parthenogenesis. Each of these  five daughters bore five more daughters and so on, until the place was quite well populated. Rather than struggle, conflict and competition which the Americans believe makes their society superior, the women of Herland work cooperatively in a socialist Utopia.

Reproduction happens when a woman really, really wishes for it. As it is explained, the land could not support a five-fold increase with each generation, so at a certain point, the women agreed to only have one child, for the good of the community. Those who had “unsuitable” qualities, such as being quarrelsome or otherwise bad were forbidden by the state to reproduce. Eventually, they voluntarily took themselves out of the gene pool.

Sooo… you can see where these SBOPs start showing up. While the faults of post-Victorian society are well-explored, Herland is always presented by the narrative as a clearly superior Utopia. And yet there is a thread of eugenics (a popular, even respectable idea in the early years of the 20th century) woven through this story that made me deeply uncomfortable. The women are described as “Aryan”, with none of them darker than a tan white lady. They refer to the people in neighboring lands as “savages”.

Attempting to ignore the racism, I was still looking forward to how a matriarchal society would differ from the Victorian motherhood ideal exemplified in this article (go ahead and click through – I’ll still be here when you’re done) http://pictorial.jezebel.com/child-free-and-loving-it-a-turn-of-the-century-look-at-1794004492 Unfortunately, Herland seems to suffer the same narrow view of femininity as turn of the century US.

Herland denizens define gender by parental status; women are Mothers, men are Fathers. Even in references to non-human animals, they use Mother or Father where Female or Male would otherwise be used. The idea that a woman in Herland would not want to have children is not even countenanced. Every women wants to be a mother (unless they are so aberrant that they self-eugenicize) and that is each woman’s highest purpose. That the raising of the children older than one year is held in common seems to generate a lot of debate in the book, as if Gilman was trying to convince the reader that pre-school or daycare was not so radical an idea. However, I remained much more disturbed by the exaltation of Maternity Above All that was continuously praised throughout. I felt quite judged by an author who had been dead decades before I was born.

The next SBOP that I tripped appeared when the men were released from captivity and allowed to be selected by women as mates. Our hero, Van, spends so much time attempting to convince his partner, Ellador, that sex was a positive thing (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what he was referring to, with all the florid language about “the highest form of love”, and whatnot) and then learning to enjoy a celibate marriage as diverting and even exhilarating, and that also made me uncomfortable. Far be it for me, a contented asexual lady, to knock celibacy as some kind of prison, but as I recall, sex was pretty much its own reward, even moreso if you believe pregnancy and motherhood is the literal best thing that could happen to you. All the “convincing” started to sound like coersion, like you don’t expect women to actually enjoy the act, but c’mon, it’s how we demonstrate love!  it won’t hurt at all, just lie back and think of Herland (I’m paraphrasing). As much as such entreaties indicate Van really wouldn’t know about a woman’s pleasure, Ellador is not unique in her lack of sexual desire. There is no lesbianism in Herland, not because Gilman would never have been published by suggesting such things, but because the women never experience sexual desire. I don’t want to get crude, but assuming we are all the same species with the same anatomy, I find this as difficult to believe as reproduction via parthenogenesis.

By the end, Terry (the Kirk) attempts to rape his partner, which is rather satisfyingly put down by a group of women, and is expelled from Herland. Jeff/McCoy stays in Herland, having settled happy and with a pregnant wife. Spock and Ellador join Kirk in exile, and I understand there is a sequel called “Ourland”, which will follow Ellador and Van’s relationship. I can’t say I’m super-psyched to continue the story, but I’m glad I read this. The writing was charming, and the central frame-work of the story – that of the civilized White Man bringing “enlightenment” to benighted savages, and being shown his own ass in the process – was amusing and reminded me of a family legend that Our People in Samoa are responsible for some of the more specious observations Margaret Mead made, because they were messing with her. As someone who comes from a long line of sarcastic folks with a problem with authority, I have to say on this point I heartily approve of Gilman’s perspective. So maybe rather than reading the sequel, I’ll re-write it as my very own, doubly derivative Star-Trek/Gilmanverse fic, with childfree women, asexual men, and lesbianism for everyone!

Next Up: Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”.


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