Chasing perfection in a world without men

herlandFor its time (1915), “Herland” was revolutionary, both in terms of its science fiction content and its skewering of gender stereotypes. “Herland” was one of the first novels to explore utopianism within the context of a single-sex society, an idea that become more common with the rise of radical feminism and lesbian separatism in the 1970s.

The novel centers on a small society that has been cut off from the rest of humanity by a natural disaster. That disaster kills off many of the land’s male inhabitants; the remaining men are killed off by the women, who rise up against being subjugated. The women are initially convinced this will be the end of their race, until a woman bears a child through parthenogenesis. The society continues and evolves in this way, up until the 20th Century, when three male explorers – Vandyck Jennings, Jeff Margrave and Terry Nicholson – “discover” Herland and are taken in by its inhabitants.

Herland is not so different from what our land was like at the beginning of the last century. The women have gone through their own industrial revolution, and have been able to produce automobiles and other modern marvels. They have a system of agriculture, and value orderliness in public spaces. The women, however, behave much differently than a Victorian woman (and even differently than many modern women). They are strong, athletic, intellectual – and they only wear pants! The society itself is nearly a utopia. Thanks to years of common education, most “bad” qualities are rarely exhibited. In this respect, the novel teeters perilously close to promoting eugenics.

Throughout, the novel walks a fine line between representing the female society as a complex, hard-fought endeavor painstakingly built by its inhabitants (through education yes, but also through a limited program of eugenics) – and as simply a perfect world that is the result of woman’s natural good grace, intelligence and patience.  

This was the novel’s big drawback for me: the sheer, unrealistic perfection of the society it presents. Obviously I think there are a lot of regressive ideals that are easily fed by the current binary society we inhabit: Two different types of people, obviously different physically – it’s convenient to pit men against women and paint women as inferior by prescribing to each sex vastly different social roles.

But I don’t actually think we’d live in a gyno-topia if men disappeared from the face of the earth. There are some nasty aspects of human nature – extreme egotism, hatred, violence – that I think certainly exist innately within women and men. We (women) have just become really good at suppressing those urges in order to better play our prescribed gender role. Would the world be better if we erased the brutish masculinity that’s at the root of the stereotypical male gender role? Absolutely (just as we would live in a much better world if we erased the passive femininity that’s at the root of the stereotypical female gender role). Would we live in a world without war, strife and passionate conflict?

I doubt it.

While Perkins Gilman imbues her all-female society with an almost-undiluted perfection, in the relationships that her three male protagonists form with the women of Herland she also explores how a more practical, more feminist dual-sex society might operate. Jeff and Terry represent two dominant forms of sexism while Van represents the middle ground of mutual respect and friendship that is possible in the real world if men and women are reared outside the influence of strict gender stereotypes.

Jeff (the “benevolent” sexist) treats women as beautiful, delicate objects, but still objects more so than individuals with complex personalities. When he marries Celis, she is puzzled that he treats her as if she is weaker or in need of special care. Jeff also idealizes women to an almost comical degree, an attitude that represents a female chauvinism that, while a natural reaction to society’s overt male chauvinism, is still a pretty wrong-headed interpretation of female empowerment. He and Celis eventually produce the first “fathered” child Herland has seen in thousands of years.

Terry, on the other hand, is an outright misogynist. He makes no attempt to mask the hatred he feels for the elders who watch over and tutor him during his stay in Herland. Terry also views the women as objects, but rather than prize and idolize these objects like Jeff, Terry treats them as mere consumables to be used for his sexual and egotistical gratification. His desire to seduce and conquer the maidens of Herland represents a violent vision of masculinity that is still disturbingly prevalent in our public discourse.  Toward the novel’s end he attempts to rape Alima and is banished from Herland.

Van’s relationship with Ellador is much different than either of these. She is intellectually curious, like Van, and the two develop a deep, guileless friendship. When Terry is banished from Herland, Van feels he must go with him (Jeff is perfectly happy to live the remainder of his days in Herland). Ellador has no reservations about going with Van to his homeland and becoming the first of her people to explore the world outside of Herland.

Besides feminism (and to a lesser extent, eugenics) another socio-political theme “Herland” addresses is the rise of communitarian, anti-capitalist ways of looking at the world. Herland exhibits many of the characteristics of a socialist utopia as presented in literature – specialized, rewarding work programs and equal distribution of the fruits of those programs. Perkins Gilman also presents a communitarian form of child rearing that causes Van to react with horror: a few years after birth children are taken from their mothers and reared by select women who spend their lives training to teach and care for children.

This leads me to a criticism that can still be laid at the doorstep of modern society: the lack of formalization of child rearing. In our society “women’s work” – teachers, nannies, maids – is viewed as barely worthy of monetary compensation, let alone professionalization. In Herland, however, these jobs are the most envied and involve the strictest training. Society’s best and brightest prepare for years to be allowed to teach and care for the society’s next generation.

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