Nobody likes feminists. You know it’s true. Even in 2015, the word feminism still has a chilling effect on most rooms: in certain internet circles, it’s thrown around like a slur; female pop stars and actors bend over backwards to emphasise that they’re into equality and stuff, but not in a scary way. Cultural messaging is powerful, and for decades (centuries?) the message, not coincidentally, has been that being a feminist is profoundly not cool. It’s not “cool” to call out your friend’s racist joke. It’s not “cool” to complain about sexism in the current blockbuster movie. Body positivity is not a “cool” segment of identity politics. “Cool” people let things go. “Cool” girls don’t complain.
As a loud, stubborn, happily non-cool girl, I’ve grown accustomed to almost never seeing myself represented in media (except as a hairy, bra-burning punchline). I think that’s what is so deeply, viscerally empowering about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novella Herland, in which three swaggering male explorers discover a lost civilization populated entirely by women. Though it reads like a plucky sci-fi adventure serial, at Herland’s heart is an unapologetically feminist treatise. Gilman goes for it in a way that even some 21st-century progressives shy away from in the name of diplomacy.
Let’s turn to another feminist classic | Letters
The narrator, Vandyck “Van” Jennings, and his two companions, Terry O Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, are such perfect, brutal caricatures of masculinity, they feel fresh and relevant enough to populate any sarcastic modern-day feminist blog post. Terry is all puffed-up sexual entitlement; Jeff oozes chivalric “nice guy” condescension; and Van is your bog-standard faux-innocent demanding to be educated.
These are tropes that I still see actual human men falling into now, 100 years later, in my social media feeds and in my physical life. Just look at the language they use, speculating about what they might find once they reach Herland – so imperious, so presumptuous:
“‘They would fight among themselves,’ Terry insisted. ‘Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.’
‘You’re dead wrong,’ Jeff told him. ‘It will be like a nunnery under an Abbess – a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.’
I snorted derision at this idea.
‘Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.’
‘No, sir – they’ll scrap,’ agreed Terry. ‘We mustn’t look for inventions and progress; it’ll be awfully primitive.’”
What they find, of course, confounds all of those expectations. Herland is a paradise: no war, no crime, no hunger, no waste, no vanity, no jealousy, no heartbreak. The nation functions, essentially, as one cohesive family unit (albeit a family with three million members). Everyone is valued, everyone is cared for, everyone is a vegetarian, and everyone wears flattering but unisex woven tunics. Technology, education and art all flourish. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and they’re doing it better.
The brazen suggestion that a world peopled only with women (men phased out even from procreation) would be not only functional, but a flawless, gleaming, quasi-socialist utopia is an exhilarating bit of constructive hyperbole. It has shades of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous comment that the Supreme Court will finally have “enough” female justices “when there are nine”. After all, Ginsburg explained, “For most of the country’s history, there were nine and they were all men. Nobody thought that was strange.” In a culture so circumscribed by male fear (of obsolescence, of loss of power, of girls in the clubhouse) that even something as innocuous as an all-female Ghostbusters reboot caused widespread teeth-gnashing, it’s vital to lodge this message in the public consciousness: women have been drastically underrepresented in media, commerce and the seats of power for hundreds of years. We’re running at such a deficit that achieving real gender parity would require overcompensation. Since we are generous, we will settle for equality. You’re welcome.
Being a product of its time, Herland is also excruciatingly antiquated – rife with gender essentialism, white supremacy and anti-abortion rhetoric. Gilman was born in 1860, a fiercely independent firebrand who chafed against the 19th-century expectations of her gender. She drew vitality and purpose from work in a way that was coded, at the time, as distinctly masculine; and when, consumed by her writing, Gilman eventually sent her daughter away to be raised by her ex-husband, she was labeled an “unnatural” mother. With that in mind, Herland’s depersonalisation of motherhood – which becomes, instead, a collective effort, a sort of ambient magical gift, a religion – feels somewhere between atonement and rationalisation.
But despite Gilman’s relative radicalism in her day, characterising women as mystical earth mothers is not exactly groundbreaking in 2015. Nor is populating your book entirely with white people, except for a few vague references to jungle “savages”; nor is promoting the idea that womanhood is an anatomical designation instead of an innate personal one; nor is meeting the line “you surely do not destroy the unborn!” with a look of “ghastly horror”. So what is the utility of Herland, as a feminist text with so many decidedly un-feminist ideas?
Well, we can use it as a foil to examine and critique what feminism looks like now. Who is being underserved? We can identify and amend Herland’s shortcomings and imagine: what would a feminist utopia look like in 2015? I know that some people see such analysis as nitpicking, as “political correctness”, but to me, it’s beautiful and essential. What I love most about feminism is feeling it shift and evolve in my hands – and to feel myself get better by association. Because, as I’ve learned over the past 15 years, feminism is alive.
Contrary to what your friends’ hyper-consciously constructed Facebook updates would have you believe, life isn’t a series of discrete, pivotal, deeply meaningful lily pads. Life is a smear. It’s messy, indistinct and disorienting: pinball, not chess. For me, only a handful of moments stand out as undeniable hard-returns – moments where before, I was one person, and after, someone else: watching my father die, realising that my boyfriend would be my husband and learning (the hard way) that I’m a feminist.
Professor Eric Newhall, who taught my freshman seminar at Occidental College in Los Angeles, shamed me into feminism in the spring semester of 2001. I remember him asking the class, eyes twinkling, how many of us identified as feminists. I remember only one person – out of 15 – raising their hand. I remember that it wasn’t me.
I certainly wasn’t anti-feminist – my parents were good Seattle liberals – but I was a fat, lonely, insecure freshman. I needed to be cool more than I needed some abstraction of “equality.” And being a feminist, as discussed above, was not very cool.
Professor Newhall went around the room and cornered us each in turn. I’m sure I mumbled something about “being all for equality and everything, but just not really into labels”, or possibly even the old classic, “I’m not a feminist – I don’t hate men!” Professor Newhall grinned. It was time to spring his trap. “Well, let me ask you this,” he said. “Do you believe that you [he pointed to me] deserve the same rights as him [he pointed to a male student]?”
Well, of course. But ...
He barrelled ahead. “Then you’re a feminist.”
Oh. Fine, I’m a feminist. And, apparently, kind of a jerk.
But though that moment was pivotal, it’s the smear that came after it that really changed my life. Because what I’ve discovered in the intervening years is that what Professor Newhall told me that day wasn’t precisely true. Or, at least, it isn’t true anymore. Because feminism isn’t static – it’s a process.
What is a “woman”? Who gets to be one? Who gets to decide who “counts”? In our quest for equality, should feminists strive for the right to embody even the toxic aspects of masculinity, or should we focus on dismantling it before reaching for equality at all? Why should women who have traditionally been underserved or exploited by mainstream feminism (women of colour, trans women, sex workers) have that label foisted upon them? What do we do with the uncomfortable truth that many women’s rights pioneers were explicitly, actively racist? How do we honour their contributions without erasing the oppression of women of colour that still taints feminism today? How do we reconcile the tension between celebrating womanhood and rejecting gender essentialism? How do we reconcile the tension between fighting oppressive beauty standards and wanting to express ourselves through makeup and clothes?
What would a modern-day Herland look like?
Well, here’s my short answer: my 21st-century Herland would be intersectional. My 21st-century Herland would dismantle all systems of oppression – not just those that affect straight, white, cis, able-bodied neurotypical women. And my 21st-century Herland would be a little more messy than Gilman’s original – because women are people, not a hive mind. A little chaos is what makes us human.
- This article was amended on Monday 30 March 2015 to remove a reference to Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal.
- Length: 496 words (1.4 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Are men seen as the problem with our society in Herland?
The novel is described as a feminist novel. Yet, this is not exactly acurate. The absence of men in the utopian society may seem extreme to some, and it is. This is how Gilman makes her point. She does not create a world without men because men are terrible creatures who have corrupted the world. The utopia which lacks men is a clean peaceful place, which surpasses in almost every way the competitive societies that we live in. But, it is neither the absence of men nor the presence of women that makes this to be the case. Gender, in this novel, is symbolic for the most part. Gilman does separate the two genders to destroy stereo types, but also to establish a concrete difference between the two worlds. The male world is not bad, and the female good is not good. The world in which people are defined by others and limited is bad, while the world in which people are free to grow without being defined or compared to others, and are able to see the unity of all people is good. Comparing Herland to the real world, Gilman begins destroying gender based stereotypes. Because there are no distinctions of gender in Herland, nor any superficial characteristics which accompany gender, Herland women take on the roles of all people without considering any limitations. These women are strong, agile, nurturing, intelligent, cooperative, and able to rely on themselves. They are not "typical" females. As Gilman explains through the male character Van, "Those 'feminine charms' we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process" (p59). In the same way, stereotypes about men can be thrown up as well. Gilman shows the reader that if people stop basing their identities on what others want, they will no longer be slaves to limitations. They will be free to discover their true selves and will allow others to do the same. Gilman shows readers that men and women are distinct people, but reminds us that they are people first. This can be seen when one of women of Herland named Somel, questions the men by saying, "But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People, aren't there?
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Feminist Novel Utopian Society Real World Corrupted Extreme Nurturing Concrete Stereo Discover Genders
Focusing more on these characteristics, those belonging to "People," allows humans to fulfill their personal potential without fear of jealousy. The women of Herland are able to live in "such universal peace and good will and mutual affection" (99) because "they lacked the sex motive and, with it, jealousy" (99). The women of Herland are free and equal because they are secure enough in themselves to offer and accept help for a joint cause, the betterment of their world. Would a world with all men work just as well as Herland?