Review: ‘Herland’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

herland_cover01Imagine there is a country run by only women. There are no men. It’s a matriarchal society, isolated from the rest of the world.

Can you picture it?

This feminist utopia is what Charlotte Perkins Gilman (author of “The Yellow Wallpaper”)  explores in “Herland,” which was serialized in The Forerunner from 1909 to 1916 and published in book form in 1979. The story follows three male explorers — Vandyck Jennings, Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave — who stumble upon the country, hidden from the world somewhere in South America. They notice the advanced state of the civilization they’ve found and think to themselves, “there must be men.” Spoiler alert: There aren’t any men.

When I first picked this book off the shelf in our living room, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going to happen. Then I remembered that William Moulton Marston based part of Wonder Woman off of Gilman’s writing. I kept expecting a “Diana” to show up somewhere in the narrative after that.

I thought this book would be more of an “exciting” read, but it really wasn’t. The more I think about ways that Gilman could have “spiced up” the narrative, I stop myself. This isn’t a thrilling page turner like a lot of fiction books that many people enjoy. This is a book that makes you stop and think. There were many times when I was reading it when I closed the book to think about the way Gilman wrote certain sections. Or because I was getting angry with Terry O. Nicholson and wanted to punch him in the face (that happened a lot).

One thing that has stuck in my mind the past couple days since finishing the book is Terry’s comment from chapter one:

They would fight among themselves … Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization. (7)

How many times had I thought similar things about girls? Especially in junior high. I don’t think that way now, but reading that passage brought those thoughts back. Why is it assumed so often that women are always catty among each other? This is so prevalent in various reality TV shows. I can’t count how many times there was some sort of “girl drama” on “America’s Next Top Model” — practically every episode.

But when the three men arrive in Herland and are there for months, no such thing is true. Terry’s assumption was wrong: “We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness beside which our nations looked like quarreling children — feebleminded ones at that. We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel. We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance was impossible to explain — we tried it.” (69)

Another passage I found interesting is when Terry, Jeff and Van marry women from Herland: Alima, Celis and Ellador. Van talks about the difficulties each of them had with their marriages, particularly because there haven’t been men in Herland for nearly two thousand years, which means there haven’t been marriages. Not like the men are expecting, anyway. Years after, Van comes to this realization:

We men have our own world, with only men in it; we get tired of our ultra-maleness and turn gladly to the ultra-femaleness. Also, in keeping our women as feminine as possible, we see to it that when we turn to them we find the thing we want always in evidence. (110)

But the women in Herland were not “ultra-feminine,” as the men assumed and/or wanted. Especially Terry.

At the beginning of the book when the men are telling their tutors more about American and the world outside Herland, they begin censoring certain information. As more questions are asked, they realize how much they have to censor to make sure their women (the ones not from Herland) seem just as good as the women in Herland. Toward the end, when the three of them had been living in Herland for more than a year, Van says, “I began to see both ways [living in America and living in Herland] more keenly than I had before; to see the painful defects of my own land, the marvelous gains of this … We were now well used to seeing women not as females but as people; people of all sorts, doing every kind of work” (116-117).

It is ridiculously sad that it takes well over a year of learning and living in Herland, not in their world, for them to recognize women as people. Herland was written 100 years ago, and there’s still a long way to go.

When I finished the last page, I just sat on my bed, wondering about what I had just read. I wondered why it had to be three men who stumbled across Herland? Sure, there are lessons for men to learn from a country of all women. But what would have happened if three women had stumbled upon such a society? What norms would they have to unlearn?

“Herland” is a book that everyone should read at some point, preferably earlier rather than later. While there are imperfections (as with many books), the writing, ideas and vision Gilman had really make you wonder.

What if there were a society where only women existed?


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