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A Land of Her
on 27 October 2008
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), American feminist and writer, best known for her seminal work Women and Economics (1898) and The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), based on her own experience of being treated for depression.
Herland was originally published as a serial in The Forerunner during 1945. It did not see book form until 1979. In the novel, Gilman envisages a utopian society comprised entirely of women who reproduce through parthenogenesis. Gilman was emphatic in constructing Herland's social structure as having grown out of the presence of women only, rather than simply the absence of men. Unlike her other works, Herland was largely forgotten until its book publication in 1979, when it was then acclaimed as a fresh and funny satire with insights that still speak to the condition of American women, even in now more emancipated times.
Herland was written against the background of campaigns for equal rights for women that were going on during the early years of the 20th century and is a call for social equality. The utopian nation of Herland demonstrates the capabilities, greatness, and potential of womanhood, and not simply as inferior to masculinity. The three male protagonists are, at first, suspicious of Herland, and assume a society run by women would be chaotic and disorganised, believing that women cannot survive without their male-halves.
Jeff, Van, and Terry represent the achievements of male constructed civilisation, which is full of suffering, war, disease, and other imperfections. The fact that the female inhabitants of Herland can reproduce asexually, and that their utopia far surpasses anything men have built, implies that women do not need men and can surpass them. In the end, Jeff and Van do not want to leave this perfect utopia for their own male-constructed civilization, which they are now disillusioned with, further reinforcing womanhood is greater than manhood ... or, at least, be accepted as equal.
This is further explored in the relationship three men have with their chosen wives in Herland. There is conflict between the partners regarding sexual discourse; the women see it as solely for procreation, while the men promote sex as also being a purely recreational engagement. Jeff and Van do overcome these disagreements, with Jeff conceiving a child with his chosen wife. However, Terry's attempted rape of his partner leads to him being banished. Van and his wife, Ellador, leave with Terry on their seaplane, because the vehicle needs two to operate, and because Ellador wants to experience the outside world. She flies off with them into the unknown.
The narrative structure of Herland portrays Jeff and Terry at different ends of the male spectrum. Jeff appears in touch with his female side and is unafraid to show his emotions. Terry's instinct is to dominate, which results in his unacceptable behaviour. Gilman signals this character trait in Terry when the three first meet inhabitants of Herland. Terry's instinct is to lure one nearer by dangling a necklace, before trying to make a grab for her. Gilman probably saw this as the act of a predatory, possessive male attempting a sexual conquest. Luring the female with trinkets, then claiming her as personal property.
In contrast, Van appears more neutral in his sexual traits and functions more as an observer of what is developing around him. This puts him in a position where he can accept and evaluate new ideas that may not initially conform his own experiences. In that sense, he functions as Gilman's male voice in the narrative. Through Van, the writer promotes the ideals of Herland and its positive function as a Utopian society, where the influence of womanhood eliminates the strife of male aggression and its manifestations in such things as war or greed.
Gender and its definition is the central dynamic of Herland, Gilman's argument being that gender is socially constructed rather than fixed and unchangeable. The women of Herland may conform to the role of motherhood, but they are also strong and independent. Some even display masculine qualities, such as short hair. Interestingly, which would have been considered abnormal at the time that the story was written. It should also be noted that, when the three men are incarcerated by the women of Herland, their hair grows long, which is one of a number of gender reversals that occur throughout the story; the women teach, the men learn; the women prove physically stronger than the men, which undermines their definition of womanhood even further. By It is through these challenges to the perceptions of the male protagonists that the definitions of gender are shown to be problematic and not as clear cut as male patriarchy would have us believe.
As a feminist and what would have been viewed at the time as radical, Gilman believed the domestic environment was constructed to oppress women. This is very apparent in The Yellow Wallpaper in which the female protagonist, who happens to be a writer, is prescribed a rest cure for a nervous condition by her physician husband. This "cure" not only involves confinement and electric impulse treatments, but forbids all creative activity - including writing - as he professes that this would only add to her distress. What he actually fears is that creative activity for a wife is a distraction from domestic duties, and also represents a form of female independence that is a threat to his patriarchal authority. Therefore, female creativity and the independence this brings must be suppressed by convincing the woman that it is bad for her, thus maintaining the social order.
The story was based on Gilman's own personal experience of a "rest cure", prescribed when suffering depression following the birth of her daughter, Katherine. This was during an age when women were seen as hysterical and claims of post natal depression sometimes viewed as invalid. Gilman was told to keep intellectual engagement minimal and never to pick up a pen and write again. The experience proved devastating and Gilman nearly ended up going into complete emotional collapse. It ended her first marriage to Walter Stetson and it was only after leaving him that the depression lifted. The Yellow Wallpaper amplifies her resentment to the way she was treated, and Gilman even sent a copy to the physician who had put her through the experience in the first place.
In Herland, Gilman expands this theme of repression with a larger scale story that articulates the concern that male aggression and prescribed maternal roles for women were not only artificial, but no longer necessary for society's continuation. Gilman believed that only economic independence could really achieve freedom for women and ensure equality with men. In Herland and Beyond (1980) Ann J. Lane asserts "Gilman offered perspectives on major issues of gender with which we still grapple; the origins of women's subjugation, the struggle to achieve both autonomy and intimacy in human relationships; the central role of work as a definition of self; new strategies for rearing and educating future generations to create a humane and nurturing environment." While The Yellow Wallpaper exposed these concerns, Herland offered a model for a possible solution. Or, at least, an ideal.