Pretty much every English literature student has read or at least heard of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s semi-autobiographical short story of feminist literature that highlights the archaic contemporary attitudes towards women and mental illness. Gilman herself, who suffered from depression, was also active in the suffrage and labour movements of the time, as well as a vocal opponent of society’s patriarchal values, writing, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.” Given how many self-help guides and puerile TV chat show hosts still push the “Women are from Venus, men are from Mars” line, it’s a pleasant surprise to see someone refuting this idea over a hundred years ago (and how depressing it is to see how little has changed since then).
Do you think gendering toys for young boys and girls is stupid and reasserts outdated and harmful stereotypes later in life? So did Gilman. She also supported economic independence for single men and women as much as married couples. All in all, she was a pretty damn inspiring instance of a first wave feminist. Sadly, she was also an example of how damn racist said generation of feminists were, believing that white people were just progressing faster on the social evolution curve than black people, and that black people beneath “a certain grade of citizenship” — those who were not “decent, self-supporting, [and] progressive” — “should be taken hold of by the state.” Yeah, it was like that.
One of Gilman’s more underrated works, Herland, is a pretty good summary of her life’s work: strong prose, strident support for a utopian feminist ideal that defines gender as a socially constructed concept and not a biological one, a firm belief in the power of education, and a dose of racism with a side order of ‘eugenics are the best thing ever’.
Herland, the middle book in a trilogy, is the story of a group of male explorers who find an isolated society run entirely by women, where they are quickly captured and imprisoned. The women have been living free of men for over 2000 years after the majority of them died in a volcanic eruption, with the remaining male slaves being killed by the women after a failed uprising (take a drink for the racist bits to make it easier). With no men around to help with reproduction, the society quickly evolved to reproduce asexually. Teachers are the most revered of the women and improving one’s mind is considered the top priority for the women. Herland is a utopia through and through. Even after the men arrive, nobody’s lives are really disrupted except for the men, who must deal with living with women who do not fit their expectations of the gender. Eventually, the three men all end up starting relationships with women from the island, which causes more difficult for some than others. While Vandyk ‘Van’ Jennings overcomes his patriarchal expectations and is truly grateful for the love and equal standing he shares with his new wife Ellador, his fellow explorer Terry is not so easily accepting and tries to rape his wife Alima. It’s interesting to note how even in a utopian feminist story, the themes of male sexuality and abuse still shine through. Interesting and depressing. Terry is sentenced by the women’s legal system to return home where rape is less of a big deal.
Herland reminds me a lot of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, which I’ve discussed before. While they’re separated by a few hundred years and all the societal advances made in that time, they both advocate for the education of women in ages where it was considered less of a priority. They both see the benefits of women in positions of power, but they’re also both weirdly into eugenics. In Herland, only the most virtuous women can be mothers and Gilman seems pretty devoted to the idea that humanity’s flaws can be bred out. It’s a strange novel that’s simultaneously ahead of and of its time, combining radical ideas with stereotypes, fighting against the idea that biology defines you, but only if you’re a white woman. The sequel With Her In Ourland follows Van and Ellador as she navigates the patriarchy driven world of her husband during World War 1. While these stories were published as a serial during Gilman’s time, it wasn’t until the 1970s that they received a reprint and a little more academic attention, although The Yellow Wallpaper remains her best known work (hey, it’s easier to get students to read 12 pages than twelve or so times that).
Herland is available on Project Gutenberg and is definitely worth your time.