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.