Essay on Herland as a Feminist Work
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Herland as a Feminist Work Feminism is the advocating for social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men (Random House College Dictionary). This story depicts just that. It is about a society made entirely of women with no need for men. We see the perspective of men through the eyes of our narrator. He gives us the point of view from three different men about women. Herland takes the traditional stereotypes about women and reverses them entirely. Everything that was once regarded by feminine and masculine standards was taken away. The women had short hair and athletic bodies. Their clothing was not provocative but built for comfort and convenience. They were not coy and flirtatious. They did not need men.…show more content…
And why shouldn’t a woman carry anything. To her it was the funniest idea. If none of them carried anything, nothing would get done!
The men who “invade” Herland are filled with typical boyish fantasies of wild maidens in waiting. Their ideals about this place are comical. They expect to find a collection of wild women that are waiting to be tamed by men. They imagine a world of pure, untainted women. They cannot imagine a civilized world without the presence of men. “ They would fight amongst themselves, Women always do. We mustn’t look for any sort of order and organization” (10). This statement was made by Terry, as we come to know him. He is the most “manly” of the three men. His ideals are the most Victorian and chauvinistic. Jeff’s ideas about the women they would come to find were different than Terry’s. He believed that women should be sheltered and protected without a care in the world. “Jeff idealized women in the most Southern style. He was full of chivalry and sentiment, and all that. And he was a good boy; he lived up to his ideals” (11). Van’s ideals about their venture were the most practical in nature. He looked over every detail and tried to make the most sensible explanations. I believe he was the voice of reason. We could also compare the three to Freud’s Id (Terry), Ego (Jeff), and Superego (Van). But that is another paper.
Perhaps one of the most forthcoming feminist aspects is the fact that the women of Herland
Nobody likes feminists. You know it’s true. Even in 2015, the word feminism still has a chilling effect on most rooms: in certain internet circles, it’s thrown around like a slur; female pop stars and actors bend over backwards to emphasise that they’re into equality and stuff, but not in a scary way. Cultural messaging is powerful, and for decades (centuries?) the message, not coincidentally, has been that being a feminist is profoundly not cool. It’s not “cool” to call out your friend’s racist joke. It’s not “cool” to complain about sexism in the current blockbuster movie. Body positivity is not a “cool” segment of identity politics. “Cool” people let things go. “Cool” girls don’t complain.
As a loud, stubborn, happily non-cool girl, I’ve grown accustomed to almost never seeing myself represented in media (except as a hairy, bra-burning punchline). I think that’s what is so deeply, viscerally empowering about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novella Herland, in which three swaggering male explorers discover a lost civilization populated entirely by women. Though it reads like a plucky sci-fi adventure serial, at Herland’s heart is an unapologetically feminist treatise. Gilman goes for it in a way that even some 21st-century progressives shy away from in the name of diplomacy.
Let’s turn to another feminist classic | Letters
The narrator, Vandyck “Van” Jennings, and his two companions, Terry O Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, are such perfect, brutal caricatures of masculinity, they feel fresh and relevant enough to populate any sarcastic modern-day feminist blog post. Terry is all puffed-up sexual entitlement; Jeff oozes chivalric “nice guy” condescension; and Van is your bog-standard faux-innocent demanding to be educated.
These are tropes that I still see actual human men falling into now, 100 years later, in my social media feeds and in my physical life. Just look at the language they use, speculating about what they might find once they reach Herland – so imperious, so presumptuous:
“‘They would fight among themselves,’ Terry insisted. ‘Women always do. We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.’
‘You’re dead wrong,’ Jeff told him. ‘It will be like a nunnery under an Abbess – a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.’
I snorted derision at this idea.
‘Nuns, indeed! Your peaceful sisterhoods were all celibate, Jeff, and under vows of obedience. These are just women, and mothers, and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.’
‘No, sir – they’ll scrap,’ agreed Terry. ‘We mustn’t look for inventions and progress; it’ll be awfully primitive.’”
What they find, of course, confounds all of those expectations. Herland is a paradise: no war, no crime, no hunger, no waste, no vanity, no jealousy, no heartbreak. The nation functions, essentially, as one cohesive family unit (albeit a family with three million members). Everyone is valued, everyone is cared for, everyone is a vegetarian, and everyone wears flattering but unisex woven tunics. Technology, education and art all flourish. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and they’re doing it better.
The brazen suggestion that a world peopled only with women (men phased out even from procreation) would be not only functional, but a flawless, gleaming, quasi-socialist utopia is an exhilarating bit of constructive hyperbole. It has shades of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous comment that the Supreme Court will finally have “enough” female justices “when there are nine”. After all, Ginsburg explained, “For most of the country’s history, there were nine and they were all men. Nobody thought that was strange.” In a culture so circumscribed by male fear (of obsolescence, of loss of power, of girls in the clubhouse) that even something as innocuous as an all-female Ghostbusters reboot caused widespread teeth-gnashing, it’s vital to lodge this message in the public consciousness: women have been drastically underrepresented in media, commerce and the seats of power for hundreds of years. We’re running at such a deficit that achieving real gender parity would require overcompensation. Since we are generous, we will settle for equality. You’re welcome.
Being a product of its time, Herland is also excruciatingly antiquated – rife with gender essentialism, white supremacy and anti-abortion rhetoric. Gilman was born in 1860, a fiercely independent firebrand who chafed against the 19th-century expectations of her gender. She drew vitality and purpose from work in a way that was coded, at the time, as distinctly masculine; and when, consumed by her writing, Gilman eventually sent her daughter away to be raised by her ex-husband, she was labeled an “unnatural” mother. With that in mind, Herland’s depersonalisation of motherhood – which becomes, instead, a collective effort, a sort of ambient magical gift, a religion – feels somewhere between atonement and rationalisation.
But despite Gilman’s relative radicalism in her day, characterising women as mystical earth mothers is not exactly groundbreaking in 2015. Nor is populating your book entirely with white people, except for a few vague references to jungle “savages”; nor is promoting the idea that womanhood is an anatomical designation instead of an innate personal one; nor is meeting the line “you surely do not destroy the unborn!” with a look of “ghastly horror”. So what is the utility of Herland, as a feminist text with so many decidedly un-feminist ideas?
Well, we can use it as a foil to examine and critique what feminism looks like now. Who is being underserved? We can identify and amend Herland’s shortcomings and imagine: what would a feminist utopia look like in 2015? I know that some people see such analysis as nitpicking, as “political correctness”, but to me, it’s beautiful and essential. What I love most about feminism is feeling it shift and evolve in my hands – and to feel myself get better by association. Because, as I’ve learned over the past 15 years, feminism is alive.
Contrary to what your friends’ hyper-consciously constructed Facebook updates would have you believe, life isn’t a series of discrete, pivotal, deeply meaningful lily pads. Life is a smear. It’s messy, indistinct and disorienting: pinball, not chess. For me, only a handful of moments stand out as undeniable hard-returns – moments where before, I was one person, and after, someone else: watching my father die, realising that my boyfriend would be my husband and learning (the hard way) that I’m a feminist.
Professor Eric Newhall, who taught my freshman seminar at Occidental College in Los Angeles, shamed me into feminism in the spring semester of 2001. I remember him asking the class, eyes twinkling, how many of us identified as feminists. I remember only one person – out of 15 – raising their hand. I remember that it wasn’t me.
I certainly wasn’t anti-feminist – my parents were good Seattle liberals – but I was a fat, lonely, insecure freshman. I needed to be cool more than I needed some abstraction of “equality.” And being a feminist, as discussed above, was not very cool.
Professor Newhall went around the room and cornered us each in turn. I’m sure I mumbled something about “being all for equality and everything, but just not really into labels”, or possibly even the old classic, “I’m not a feminist – I don’t hate men!” Professor Newhall grinned. It was time to spring his trap. “Well, let me ask you this,” he said. “Do you believe that you [he pointed to me] deserve the same rights as him [he pointed to a male student]?”
Well, of course. But ...
He barrelled ahead. “Then you’re a feminist.”
Oh. Fine, I’m a feminist. And, apparently, kind of a jerk.
But though that moment was pivotal, it’s the smear that came after it that really changed my life. Because what I’ve discovered in the intervening years is that what Professor Newhall told me that day wasn’t precisely true. Or, at least, it isn’t true anymore. Because feminism isn’t static – it’s a process.
What is a “woman”? Who gets to be one? Who gets to decide who “counts”? In our quest for equality, should feminists strive for the right to embody even the toxic aspects of masculinity, or should we focus on dismantling it before reaching for equality at all? Why should women who have traditionally been underserved or exploited by mainstream feminism (women of colour, trans women, sex workers) have that label foisted upon them? What do we do with the uncomfortable truth that many women’s rights pioneers were explicitly, actively racist? How do we honour their contributions without erasing the oppression of women of colour that still taints feminism today? How do we reconcile the tension between celebrating womanhood and rejecting gender essentialism? How do we reconcile the tension between fighting oppressive beauty standards and wanting to express ourselves through makeup and clothes?
What would a modern-day Herland look like?
Well, here’s my short answer: my 21st-century Herland would be intersectional. My 21st-century Herland would dismantle all systems of oppression – not just those that affect straight, white, cis, able-bodied neurotypical women. And my 21st-century Herland would be a little more messy than Gilman’s original – because women are people, not a hive mind. A little chaos is what makes us human.
- This article was amended on Monday 30 March 2015 to remove a reference to Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal.