Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Summary: An all-female society is discovered somewhere in the distant reaches of the earth by three male explorers who are now forced to re-examine their assumptions about women’s roles in society.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s quite small but it is packed with so much food for thought and I’m left in complete awe a week after finishing it. I don’t know how I’m going to sum it all up in order to do it justice but I’ll give it my best shot.
This book is often described as a feminist book but I don’t feel educated enough to really speak to that. So I’ll just be looking at it from a perspective of how fascinating it was to me as an average reader.
The book starts out with three friends on an adventure to discover the mysterious land of women they’ve heard about. These three men seem to embody different male perspectives. There’s Terry who is a playboy and womanizer, Jeff who idolizes women, and Vandyck who is the narrator and falls somewhere in the middle.
Of course the men are curious about whether a world of women really exists. When they find it and fly over, they are surprised to find that it looks civilized, that there are buildings and farms and things in order. Terry is especially skeptical that there really aren’t any men in this place because he just can’t believe women are capable of building things and creating a civilized society.
After entering the place the men begin referring to as Herland, they feel threatened by the women and try to escape which leads to them being captured. Although they aren’t treated badly, they are contained in a sort of castle where they are given quite a bit of freedom but are constantly watched to ensure they aren’t a threat. They are also assigned tutors and they begin learning the language, culture, and history of Herland.
They quickly become accepted into the society as they continue to learn. Much of the book entails them exploring Herland and learning about the ways of the women there. The women also want to learn of the outside world and there is quite a bit of comparing and contrasting. It seems the author wanted to create some kind of commentary on the shortcomings of life in the outside world (the world as we know it).
What impressed me the most is the world building of this book. The women of Herland answer all the men’s (and readers) questions so thoroughly and I found myself totally convinced of everything they did, how they came to certain conclusions, and how their society developed the way it did. After having read The Giver which I thought had a very poorly built world that wasn’t well explained, I was just blown away by all the thought that went into creating Herland.
This book is incredibly thought provoking as well as it comments on society and the way things are. In Herland the community is very collectivistic and everyone works together to improve their society. They have a collective identity of “we” and think of themselves as a whole, without individual families or needs. Instead,
“all the surrendering devotion our women have put into their private families, these women put into their country and race. All the loyalty and service men expect of wives, they gave, not singly to men, but collectively to one another.” (pg. 95)
When the women realize their land can only support so many people, they work together to control the population. Although some women might desire motherhood, they realize it wouldn’t be in the best interest of all involved. Instead, they channel all their motherly love into nurturing other children and caring for the people around them. This seems to be a judgment on our own overpopulation and what some might regard as a person’s jealous desire to have their own biological children.
Another interesting thing was the way the men perceived the women of Herland. They were expecting them to fit their idea of women and be very feminine. But if there are no men then the concept of masculinity and femininity doesn’t really fit. How can a person be feminine if there is no other way of being (masculine) to contrast with? One of the women observed that, “in a bi-sexual race the distinctive feature of each sex must be intensified.” (pg. 89)
So is femininity just a concept and would women really act in “feminine” ways if there weren’t any men? Would they need to differentiate themselves by dressing differently and having long hair?
The men also realize how much they view women as women instead of just people. Because the women of Herland aren’t feminine, they begin to see them as people, not as women. At one point it is stated, “We were now well used to seeing women not as females but as people; people of all sorts, doing every kind of work.” (pg. 137)
There were so many other things to think about that this blog post could go on forever. But I’ll stop there and hopefully I’ve given you a glimpse of all the things you’ll encounter in this book. I personally didn’t find it to be overly preachy or declaring that women were superior to men. There were a lot of interesting ideas and I think anyone can learn a lot from reading this book and get ideas about how our world could be improved if everyone looked out for one another, for example.
So I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction. The world building is excellent and there’s plenty of food for thought. I think I could easily re-read this several times and come away with something new each time.