Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I’m never sure what I’m going to get when I pick up a classic novel. Will it be stuffy? Surprisingly funny? Dated, in my opinion, because it focuses so heavily on finding a husband? Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is billed as a “feminist Utopian novel.” Narrated by Vandyke Jennings, an uppity white man name if I ever heard one, the novel begins with apologies. Van has no photos, no diary, no record or papers of his time in Herland. Everything we read is written years later from memory. With his two friends, Terry and Jeff, Van goes exploring with an expedition. Mostly, they can afford to do this on Terry’s dime, and Terry’s ego matches his wealth: it’s ridiculous. Jeff is actually a doctor who wanted to be a poet and botanist, and Van is somewhere in the middle. While on expedition, they hear rumors from a tribesman of a place where only women live, but no man has returned to tell the tale.

After planning, Terry procures a steam yacht, motorboat, and biplane to scout the civilization from the sky and then use a boats to get in closer. Surprisingly, it isn’t long on the hike before the three men hear giggling. There are women in the trees, and they are laughing at these strangers. Throughout this scene, readers learn that the women of Herland are solid, capable humans, and that Terry feels the need to tame and possess them while Jeff wants to serve and keep them safe. Van is in the middle in true the-three-bears fashion.

Herland is a highly developed civilization of around 3,000,000 women that has reproduced without men for over 2,000 years. They have a language, rules, philosophy, family planning, sciences — all marks of an intelligent people. And yet Terry cannot fathom why they aren’t feminine, nor does Jeff grasp their independence. Wanted by the leaders as a connection to the rest of the world, the three men are kept in Herland, not quite like prisoners, but they definitely cannot leave. In fact, their one escape attempt is rather hilarious.

Both highly readable and a thinker, Herland was a great pick to read with Biscuit. I asked questions like, “If men see femininity as masculinity reflected, what might women start or stop doing today to break that reflection?” A long conversation about deodorant followed, and I quit wearing the stuff. (Thankfully, the spouse said I only “smelled like armpits” and not that I “stank like B.O.”). Would I still shave my legs, my chin, my armpits? Wax my eyebrows? (I’m starting to see there’s a lot of hair removal in femininity). We talked about how there is a small movement to stop wearing bras again, and how would men respond to the look of natural breasts? (Answer: it doesn’t matter). Terry sees the leaders of Herland, women about age forty, as “grandmas.” Where are the real women he wonders.

And here’s the problem with Terry, as published in Herland in 1915, who has

…practical theories that there were two kinds of women — those he wanted and those he didn’t; Desirable and Undesirable was his demarcation. The latter as a large class, but negligible — and had never thought about them at all.

This male idea of Desirable and Undesirable (or fuckable and unfuckable in Dietland by Sarai Walker) has not changed since 1915. Women in entertainment still fight for roles after age 35 that aren’t bitchy mother-in-law or bitter ex-wife. Sometimes they are the mother of a male character who is, in real life, played by an actor who is almost the same age (e.g. Sally Field is only nine years older than Tom Hanks, yet she played his mother in Forrest Gump). After 40 comes witch and grandma. I love that scene in First Wives Club when Goldie Hawn’s character thinks she’s auditioning for the love interest only to learn she’s reading for the role of love interest’s mother, which perfectly captures Hollywood’s age bias. And the beauty of Gilman’s novel is that you don’t forget we haven’t come far at all.

Though published in 1915, it reads like a guide on how to respond to the patriarchy. I’ve got my Feminism 101 down, but Gilman’s characters have responses to what Van, Terry, and Jeff say to them that I hadn’t thought of. Even something like, “Can I help you carry your basket?” is met with an appropriate response that left me smiling and the male character flabbergasted. Or the way Terry is challenged in his notion of femininity; wouldn’t a society developed around mothering be the ultimate feminine place? Terry argues mothering isn’t feminine, not if a man can’t expect to be a father. Which is confusing, given the lack of role men play in child rearing in 1915, but I know what he means. If he’s not having sex with her, a woman isn’t feminine under his definition. When a woman doesn’t want to have sex with him, he doesn’t know his place in the world.

Herland ends in such a way that you can stop there, or you can read With Her in Ourland, the follow-up novel that continues immediately after the end of Herland. While Gilman penned yet another feminist Utopian book, Moving the Mountain, and all three are lumped as a trilogy, Moving the Mountain is a separate work.

An excellent, addicting novella that reflects society for what it is, yet shines back possibility and a new way of thinking.

26 comments

  1. Thanks for this. I have the book but haven’t read it yet. I was a little sceptical, to be honest, but will give it a read, based on your review.

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  2. I’m not sure how I haven’t read this, somehow – will definitely source a copy! What interesting discussions you had, too. As a runner and active walker, I don’t think I could ditch my deodorant; as a worker-at-home and settled wife, other stuff has gone by the wayside. And feminist, yes, it’s because I’m a feminist. Well, the fact I have these choices is, and because of the feminists before me!

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    • If I were doing physical activities that made me sweat, I would definitely wear deodorant, but I’m not that person. I enjoyed how Gilman makes equality sounds so natural, as if people who believe in differences in the sexes are just obstinate.

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  3. It’s hard to believe that a short novella can have so much to discuss. Your review has made me very intrigued. So glad you and your mom read it together. It would be awful not to have someone to discuss it with.

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  4. Keep going and you’ll have me persuaded that not all American writers think women should end up as housewives. I’ll get myself a copy asap. It’s on Project Gutenberg, quite a few of Gilman’s are, but I’ll see if my library has it.

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    • My library had a ton of e-book copies because it’s in the public domain and publishers try to use that to make money. I’m currently reading the follow-up novella, With Her in Ourland, and the focus is much more on the U.S. I do believe you would enjoy both.

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  5. If I could go without deodorant, I would do it in a heart beat. But, I have this one pit, my right one that I call my man pit, because it can manage to stink like a teenage boy. About two years ago, I stopped wearing bras with underwire and THAT was revolutionary for me. I switched to bralettes which is between a sportsbra (not tight though) and a regular bra (with a little bit of padding, I’m not ready to show the world my nips when it’s cold), although I still go braless at home because that is a supreme state of being. I love that women are going braless again, I’m just not ready yet. :3
    Sounds like a great read!

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  6. Glad you enjoyed this one – Terry sounds like an infuriating character! I think the anti-bra people are overlooking the fact that lots of us (including me) get lower back pain when we don’t wear one. It’s all very well for people with smaller assets but I think I would find going braless much more uncomfortable physically than socially/psychologically!

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    • Bras can be frustrating because you’ll spend most of your life in one, though you may never have the correct fit, style, material, support, etc. I’ve watched many YouTube videos about how to get the perfect fit, and what I’ve mainly learned is that everything I thought was incorrect.

      You would enjoy this book, Lou. I’m currently reading the follow-up novella, With Her in Ourland, and though it continues in the same spirit, it reads more like a philosophy text than a story, like Herland did. Still interesting, though!

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  7. This sounds so interesting! It is rather disappointing to think how relevant this book is one hundred years later. As I enter my late 30s and raise 2 girls, I do think a lot about femininity and what is innate versus what is laid on us by social norms and expectations. I think I’ll try and read this.

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    • I always think I’m fairly well-informed about gender inequality, but then a book like this goes and challenges what I thought I knew, or what I knew but could not explain. The book is free on Project Gutenberg if it’s not at your library.

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      • Some times I wonder if the typically feminine things I like (like wearing dresses) are things I like because they’re enjoyable or because I’ve been traditionally awarded and complimented for liking those things. I’m often amazed at the comments Peter and I get as the parents of 2 girls; I had kind of thought we were doing better as a society but we still have far to go.

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  8. ha! I loved the part (answer: it doesn’t matter). That made me LOL
    This book sounds really fascinating, and truly, not much has changed. Men lumping women into either the desirable and undesirable category is so painfully familiar sounding. Sigh.

    Not that this is an important thing to mention, but I use a natural deodorant called ‘routine’ which is essentially a paste that I swipe onto my pitties. It’s made by a local Calgary company run by women, and their scents are delicious. I’ll get a whiff of it every once in a while during the day and it makes me happy. I will say I don’t wear it everyday though, only when I’m going into the office 🙂

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