Monday, April 11, 2011
Feminist Challenge: Herland
Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a Victorian feminist writer, most famous for her rather creepy short novella The Yellow Wallpaper. Herland was published serially in her magazine, The Forerunner, and was Gilman's attempt to show that only feminism and socialism could produce a just and peaceful society. Three men on an exploring trip find a long-lost civilization where, amazingly, there are no men. (The men were killed off 2000 years ago, and the women are miraculously parthenogenic, all descended from the single woman who developed that trait.)
This women-only society is the most peaceful and advanced ever seen. Without the constant pressure of sex roles, the women have banded together and planned their society. After over 1500 years of work, they have accomplished much. Motherhood is the focus of their society, which is centered around the children, and everything is done collectively. Working together, the women have eradicated disease, perfected education, psychology, and agriculture, and produced a society with almost no crime. They know little of the outside world, of course, but they are very wise in all other ways. And, not being burdened with expectations about feminine frailty, all of them are remarkably strong and athletic.
Of course, being a utopian novel, it's all rather idealized. Gilman wanted to sell socialism along with feminism, and she imagined the best result--an impossible result, given that human beings are supposed to make up the Herland society. She used some Victorian progressive ideas that proved less than beneficial in practice: physical problems and bad characteristics have been weeded out by selective breeding, and criminal or anti-social acts are treated as illness instead of choice. (The problem with treating disapproved acts or beliefs as an illness was summed up very well by C. S. Lewis: "For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as a crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty. For our masters will not be using the concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure. ...Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic. In ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal operations; so in this. But because they are ‘treatment’, not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice. ")
Herland offers some really interesting ideas to chew on, though. The women of Herland have never had to worry about femininity or attracting men, or differentiating themselves from men in any way. The narrator of the story points out that in his own American society, women and men feel the need to differentiate themselves from each other, and so each side exaggerates certain characteristics and tends to see each other as women and men, instead of human beings with various preferences and talents. The women of Herland are all primarily human beings, and are unable to relate to the three explorers in any other way. (This reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' book, Are Women Human?, which I reviewed a couple of months ago.) Two of the men adapt, but one cannot; he simply can't get away from his ideas about women, and fails to learn the lessons of Herland.
This was a really interesting and thought-provoking book to read. I am just having a very good time with this reading challenge!
PS: On my map of reading, I put this book into remote Brazil, where the explorers find Herland, but I feel like I'm cheating; there's nothing that's actually South American about the book, and in fact Gilman makes it clear (embarrassingly) that the people of Herland are of European descent.