Updated: Dec 13, 2018
I've been researching the concept of feminist utopias, both real and imagined. I read Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which I had heard of, but hadn't yet got around to reading. Despite being written in 1915 it is possible it could be mistaken for being a contemporary novel - if it weren't for the gross racism and other problematic themes - it addresses many feminist issues we are all talking about and fighting for today (still, over 100 years later). There are plenty of reviews and articles written about the book, which will articulate the premise and the problems much more eloquently than I can, so I'll leave the analyses up to the professional writers and link to some articles at the end of the post. But I wanted to write a little about some of my own thoughts, to work out how her idea of a feminist utopia fits in with mine.
Click to read Herland, listen to the audiobook, or read the plot.
I'll get the things that irked me out of the way first, before moving to to the parts which humoured or inspired me. Firstly, the racism. It is gross and does not add anything to the storyline or to the empowerment of the women represented in the book. Herland was ahead of its time when it came to equality of the sexes, but clearly not when it came to issues of race and eugenics. Also, the anti-choice themes, and the women of Herland's main purpose to be a mother, are problematic - not all women want or need to be mothers, and women who want to be a mother but do not have the perfect genetic makeup should still have that right.
I was saddened by the lack of sexuality and gender diversity present in Herland. However, I don’t think this was necessarily due to ignorance or neglect on behalf of the author - but more to do with the time of publishing. Lesbian themes, or any book exploring female sexuality, even heterosexuality for that matter, quite possibly just would not have been published in 1915; so an asexual society is possibly as far as the author could take it. And as far as gender goes, we didn’t even know as much or could write about gender diversity 10 years ago compared to today, let alone 103 years ago. So, I’m not really surprised these themes were not explored.
Regarding the historical context of the novel further, the stereotypical feminine and masculine traits of the main characters was a little trite. The three male protagonists are caricatures of masculinity, set up to be ridiculed. The strong, independent girls (how old are they?) we were introduced to early in the story - Alima, Celis and Ellador - go on to marry the three male protagonists, despite it not being their culture or understanding exactly what it means for them. They have been persuaded by the men into marriage and then required to act as their wives, yet they do not know what romantic love is.
Having said that, I wish it explored more complex emotions - the children did not cry, the women did not show anger, even when one of their own was sexually attacked by her ‘husband’. The women and girls of Herland are lucky that they are universally happy, and they don’t know fear. But part of being human is having a full range of emotions. How can they know what joy feels like if sadness isn’t also felt? Their lack of complex emotions made them come across as passive, and more akin to a how the patriarchy dictates women and girls to behave - happy, compliant, quiet. These women were smart, resourceful and strong - their emotional characteristics needed to match their intellectual and physical characteristics.
Now, on to the inspiring things about the novel. Obviously, sisterhood is such an important theme running through the narrative. The village bringing up the children. Education is the highest priority. A commune of women and girls working together, for each other, for no other gain but for the happiness and thrivability of their community. It is a socialist society, which seems to be common in utopian fictions.
It was interesting how the women interacted with the male intruders - they were curious, they studied them, they asked questions (which initially came across as naive, but was actually more of an act of intense scrutiny). They questioned everything, and instead of accepting what the men told them, they questioned some more and exposed how naive and ridiculous some of the men’s ‘truths’ were. How the men stubbornly dug their own hole deeper and deeper, while staying so resolved in their imperfect arguments and irrational beliefs, echo MRAs, racists and religious fanatics of today. The mirror was held up, but they were unable to see their reflection.
A couple of exceptionally poignant quotes which amused and delighted me:
“treated not like men but like people” - yes please! How nice would it be if women, transfolk, and men alike, were all treated as people, rather than their assigned gender!
“Do your women have no names before they are married?” - poignant comment delivered with such hilarious perfection. Why are women still getting married and changing their names, even today? It would have been a stronger narrative arc had Ellador, Alima and Celis not married Van, Terry and Jeff (in a triple wedding); it was reductive, and again played into the tired patriarchal trope that women are the property of men, despite Gilman posing this valid question so perfectly.
In Herland, everyone has her own name, not based on matriarchal lineage (afterall, they are all decedents of the same mother 2000 years earlier), but from their birth name their name is added on to according to what she achieves in her life and the respect she has earned.
It is a progressive society, rational and reasonable. They don’t require forms of punishment, but instead rely on honesty, prevention and education. They acknowledge that they are more advance than their ancestors, and have a rational and questioning view of religion and belief in self determination. They are custodians of the land, and take care of it for future generations. There is a lot we could learn from the women of Herland.
One hundred years after it was published, the novel became the manifesto for a feminist community in America, called the Herland Feminist Ecovillage. The community will be an isolated sustainable village, free for women (including trans-folk) from all over the world to live there, with food provided from the land. The last update I can see on their social media and website is from May 2016 where they were scouting for land; I am wondering if this did end up going ahead, and how it is going. This would not be the first (and probably not the last) attempt (or fruition) of a real life feminist utopia, or Womyn's Land, the first of which came about in 1870s and popularised one hundred years later in the 1970s, which seem to come in waves along with new movements of feminism.
Other than Herland, there are plenty of other feminist utopian fictions that are seminal pieces of writing. As science fiction, some are set in the future or on another planet, but they are all products of their time - Herland riddled with problematic language, racism, and anti-choice themes, The Female Man (Joanna Russ, 1975) with vestiges of the 'women's lib' movement of the '70s. And they are imperfect - but that is ok, a lot of sociological criticism is - taking a too narrow view of the hugely embedded social structures, the status quo and biases, we are accustomed to, and too often neglect or are unable to challenge, because the world and life are complex and diverse. Utopias are purely the vision of the creator, it is their attempt at an idealised version of a society, informed by their own experience and history. It is not unexpected to note that writing utopian fiction is extremely more difficult than writing dystopian fiction (BBC Radio 4).
I longed to read a contemporary account of a utopia, one of the kind of feminism I know, one that is intersectional and not reductive. So I have just ordered The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future, edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff - a collection of more than fifty voices challenging the status quo that accepts inequality and violence, in essays, art, poetry and creative writing. I am excited to read it and let it filter into my consciousness as I develop my project during my residency in rural Wales.
This is not, by any means, a full analysis of Herland - I would love to spend more time perfecting my response, reading more about it, formulating the perfect paragraphs, dissecting all of the interesting and thought provoking point of the story - but time is limited my friend! I must move on and start to be creative. The links below will provide further reading (or listening) on Herland.
The Guardian: Herland: the forgotten feminist classic about a civilisation without men
BBC Radio 4: Herland
The Point Magazine: Leaving Herland
The Literary Omnivore: Review
Herland and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Social Vision of Women and Society
Utopian Separatism: Feminism and Science Fiction by Anette Myrestøl Espelid