REVIEW: Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland

Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

UK Publisher: This is now public domain, so it can be got for free from Project Gutenberg. There are also various editions available from different publishers, but I found the kindle edition from Project Gutenberg very readable.

Genre: Speculative fiction, feminist literature, classics

I can’t even remember how I heard about this book, but when I did I knew I had to read it. Written in 1915, it tells the story of three men who discover a hidden country populated entirely by women. The women have learned to reproduce without men, and for two thousand years have lived in peace and prosperity, with progress comparable to that of the West.

Naturally, because they are so advanced, for a long time the men who have discovered them cannot honestly believe that this can be a solely female society, and insist that there must be men hidden somewhere.

Shocker – there aren’t.

The three men represent a spectrum of attitudes to women. Terry, the rich and handsome one, sees women as entirely there for his pleasure, to obey him, and envisions that he will instantly be made king if it really is a country of women.  Jeff is a romantic, believes that women are angels, delicate women to be cared for and protected, wooed gently. The narrator, Van, provides the middle perspective – a sociologist, the impression we are given is that he is telling us the accurate truth, unbiased by opinions on women, because he is so well educated in the ways of other societies in the world. There’s nothing in the narrative to suggest he isn’t to be trusted, but that’s because that isn’t the point of the story, so for the purposes of this we will accept his word as truth.

This is actually a great book to read alongside the Power in terms of considering the realities of a matriarchal society. Herland includes all the tropes that the Power pointedly subverts, and as a pair provide a really great contrast to each other. Having read Herland, I look back on the Power with more enjoyment.

It’s very much a product of its time. Whilst some bits feel very modern, and there are some delightful moments where the women call the men out on their biases and ridiculously sexist ideas, Herland still doesn’t quite manage to entirely escape some societal expectations of women. The society is full of pacifists, and the only aim and care in life is that of motherhood and raising children. The citizens of Herland can reproduce through parthenogenesis, which occurs when they find themselves feeling particularly broody. But they are only permitted to have one child – always a daughter – and so they have built their society around communal mothering. They have engineers and farmers and architects and doctors, but the teachers are most revered, and everyone is everyone else’s daughter or sister.

I think this is where my main gripe with the book lies. This society of pacifists and wise women is entirely asexual and entirely maternal. There is no real distinct variety in the characters we see, although we are told that some women are more gentle, some are more combative, in general they are all calm and wise and intelligent and peaceful. There is no allowance for a woman who may not want to be a mother – some women are asked not to be mothers because they are deemed less suitable, and there is that sort of talk of genetic policing which smacks a little of eugenics in a slightly uncomfortable way – no allowances for women to be sexual. For these women, the only point of sex would be for progeneration, and since they can do that on their own, there is no point in it.

Whilst asexuality is a valid and underrepresented sexual orientation, given as this is from 1915 it seems less a case of representation and more a case of time-specific prudery preventing women from being shown as having sexual inclinations of their own, particularly not with each other. The men in the novel are allowed to want and enjoy sex as an activity aside from having children, but the women of Herland, mothers all of them, are not sexual at all. And the single, brief mention of abortion in countries outside of Herland is met with horror and revulsion by these women for whom motherhood is everything.

This is why I think it makes an excellent companion piece to The Power, which shows a matriarchal society that is the complete opposite of that in Herland, violent vs peaceable, sexual vs asexual. The characters in The Power seem more well-rounded, more human even as I found myself increasingly horrified by the story; whilst I prefer the idea that a matriarchal society would be like that of Herland, there is a certain blandness to this utopia, a lack of spirit and character which is offputting. The two balance perfectly, and written a hundred years apart, it’s fascinating to see how expectations of women, and what women can do and be in society has changed.

So yes, in summary, More Lesbians Required.

 

Briefly:

  • Very ahead of its time, and a surprisingly easy read. There are also points where you know the author has had a specific thing said to her several times, and is getting great personal satisfaction was dismantling the comment in her writing.
  • It does give a very one-dimensional view of women, however, and despite arguing that women are more intelligent, organised and capable than men expect, falls back on the stereotype of the asexual mother-figure.
  • Seriously, a society of entirely women, for nearly 2000 years, and there are no lesbians.
  • It would be interesting to see if this could be rewritten with room for women to be strong and complex and still maintain the utopia. I think it’s unlikely, but then Wonder Woman and the Amazons seemed to do well enough.
  • Pairs really well with The Power as two extremes of matriarchal societies, written a century apart.

 

Rating: 4/5 – I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would, and it has the bonus of being totally free.

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