Learning from a feminist utopia

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, published in 1915, created a new sub-genre, the feminist utopia. There’s something delightfully ironic about the creation, for there’s no doubt her world, an all-female one getting along very nicely thank you, would have horrified the original creator of the form, Sir Thomas More, and indeed it initially horrified her three main characters, men of her own time, who in best traditional style, set out to explore this unknown, mysterious land.

The narrator is Vandyke, clearly the most sensible and level-headed of the three; it’s a marker of the age of the text, and its liberal origins, that he’s trained in sociology. The character who is a symbol of the “typical” man of his age, and the one who fails utterly to cope with a society where women aren’t automatically his prey, is Terry, who supplies the aircraft and the funds for the expedition into this hidden land, sealed off by a volcanic eruption some two millennia previously.

The atypical man, the one who finds himself at home in Herland,
is Jeff, the expedition doctor and science lover, the sensitive, poetic type not entirely at home in his own society.

It’s a society that’s constantly striving to perfect itself: “Moadine told him. ‘We have no laws over a hundred years old, and most of them are under twenty’.” The society is a democracy, if rather too fond of the decisions of the elders for modern tastes.

It’s developed what Vandyke finds is an entirely acceptable science, from astronomy to physiology, but where it has really excelled is agriculture, turning its limited environment into a veritable Garden of Eden (no accident that surely), in which every tree produces a crop and lives in managed harmony with is environment. In terms of another modern genre, they’ve terraformed it perfectly.

There’s only one thing it relies on from the time before the women were left – by combination of conflict and natural disaster – on their own to cope: a few huge old buildings, including the now largely redundant fortress.

As the author surely had no choice – and really as in science fiction today the science isn’t really the point – she skips over the essential development of virgin birth. It happens, and the women, understandably enough, come to revere it, putting motherhood at the centre of their society (although later, when they understand the limits of population growth controlling it by social pressure). But there’s little focus on heredity, and no desire for personal glory in it.

If there’s one main criticism of the nature of Herland today it is that as a society it is rather too perfect, impossibly so (even the men are forced to admire the practicality and suitability of the dress – although Perkins Gilmann’s concern with this, at the start of the 20th century, is understandable enough).

The 21st-century world is rather less sanguine about the perfectibility of human nature and indeed the possibility of perfection at all – Ursula Le Guin’s utopia/dystopia The Dispossessed in being a case in point.

Yet Perkins Gilmann can be excused in this: she wrote in a more innocent age – before the horrors of two world wars – and more importantly, she wrote at a time when women were barely allowed, and by most, thought possible of much practical constructive effort at all (although then as now, women on average worked harder and longer than their menfolk with the double burden of home and employment).

She was facing a huge mountain of public disbelief, and any flaw in the world of Herland would have been a fissure of opportunity for the enemies of feminism.

Although long neglected, Herland is indeed one of the founding texts of feminism, and anyone who’s interested in being a feminist should read it – but don’t worry, it is mercifully short and to the point, not at all flowerily “literary”. Its author is non-nonsense, getting on with the job, writing for purpose, not ego, just as her characters, and so often women generally, do.

4 Comments

  • September 21, 2009 - 12:14 am | Permalink

    Very nice synopsis. I usually try to mention speculative fiction in my World surveys; I’ll have to add this to the Verne-Wells-etc. discussion.

  • david ware
    September 21, 2009 - 2:40 am | Permalink

    I second Jonathan’s sentiments; I’ve used Verne and Wells as context for a discussion of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, but Perkins Gilman sounds like a better choice. Most of my students don’t know what to make of utopian speculative fiction, at least at first, but this may be on account of their expecting _history_ texts (with all the usual horrors contained therein) in history courses. I don’t feel obliged to meet their expectations.

    Back to my locally-grown sweet potatoes, liberally dotted with local butter….

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