Herland: Women without Wallpaper

Cover of Herland


Charlotte Perkins Gilman



I’ve been reading along with the Year of Feminist Classics, but being without a blog, I didn’t write anything about the books that I read for the first three months.  Now, it’s almost the end of May (or it was when I wrote this), and here is my blog for the April book.  Don’t worry. I’m catching up.

The book for April was Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian work about a country inhabited exclusively by parthenogenetic women.  Gilman is better known for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which depicts the sufferings of a woman who is diagnosed with a mental disorder and prohibited from participating from society in a male-based culture. Herland is the opposite: a story about a group of women who enjoy the freedom to make their own society, and good health into the bargain.

Utopian fiction is an interesting genre and one about which I know little. In this case, the idea of describing a highly idealized society is made a little more complicated by the fact that all of the members of that society are women.  This isn’t exactly isolating the variables; it’s not always obvious whether the characteristics of this society exist because it is a utopia, or because everyone in it is female.  It makes me wonder whether Gilman could imagine that other hidden female societies could exist, and whether she would expect them to be similar to Herland, or very different.

The basic premise is this: A group of male explorers stumble upon a country that has been inhabited only by women for the past two thousand years. Oddly, these women all seem to be asexual rather than lesbian, and they reproduce asexually as well.  In any case,  they teach the men about their society and eventually three of the women decide to marry the explorers (mostly, I think, in order to give Gilman an opportunity to discuss how sexual relationships might work with women who are not encouraged to center their lives around them).

So, what kind of country is Herland?

Well, embarrassingly enough, it’s located on a remote mountain in South America and explicitly inhabited by white women. I don’t want to gloss over the racism here; the inhabitants of Herland are repeatedly (and favorable) compared with the “savages” who live at the base of the mountain, and the story’s male narrators repeatedly express astonishment at the existence of a “civilized” country that is also run by women.  There’s a light implication that Gilman is aware of other matriarchal societies in the world, but this one is different, because these women are, y’know… civilized, aka white.  In other circumstances, this could perhaps be passed off as yet another prejudice on the part of the narrators. After all, they, in what I expect is a utopian tradition, exist mainly so that they can be shown that they are from a very flawed society and have absorbed a lot of useless ideologies.  But this can’t be argued convincingly because of the eugenicist philosophy elsewhere in the book. The women of Herland are very healthy and intelligent and strong—all of them—and it’s attributed to their genetics over the period of however long they have been isolated.  Certain women are not allowed to give birth because they are deemed likely to produce criminal or mentally ill children, and indeed crime itself is looked on as a mental illness.  Highly problematic ideologies of this sort are very common in late nineteenth/early twentieth century writing, but the book shouldn’t get a free pass on this; I wanted to at least point it out, and to link to a good analysis of it.

However, there are indeed some interesting characteristics of this culture that I’d like to discuss. There’s also much made of hardworking and cooperative nature of the women of Herland, which was exactly the opposite of current gender stereotypes, but there’s more to Herland than that.  I was deeply amused to find that its inhabitants seem to be Eurogamers:

They had games, too, a good many of them, but we found them rather uninteresting at first. It was like two people playing solitaire to see who would get it first; more like a race or a—a competitive examination, than a real game with some fight in it.

I philosophized a bit over this and told Terry it argued against their having any men about. “There isn’t a man-size game in the lot,” I said.

“But they are interesting—I like them,” Jeff objected, “and I’m sure they are educational.”

This is funny for two reasons. First, utopia has lots of eurogames–of course it does! Mine would! Secondly, however, it’s interesting to think of Euros as the kind of games that women might design if left to their own devices, since the gaming hobby as I’ve experienced it (Euro-centered, but in the United States) is fairly male dominated, even if Euros aren’t as strongly coded as masculine as some other games.

They also use games for education:

“With the babies, as you may have noticed, we first provide an environment which feeds the mind without tiring it; all manner of simple and interesting things to do, as soon as they are old enough to do them; physical properties, of course, come first. But as early as possible, going very carefully, not to tax the mind, we provide choices, simple choices, with very obvious causes and consequences. You’ve noticed the games?”

I had. The children seemed always playing something; or else, sometimes, engaged in peaceful researches of their own. I had wondered at first when they went to school, but soon found that they never did—to their knowledge. It was all education but no schooling.

“We have been working for some sixteen hundred years, devising better and better games for children,” continued Somel.

I sat aghast. “Devising games?” I protested. “Making up new ones, you mean?”

“Exactly,” she answered. “Don’t you?”

Then I remembered the kindergarten, and the “material” devised by Signora Montessori, and guardedly replied: “To some extent.” But most of our games, I told her, were very old—came down from child to child, along the ages, from the remote past.

All education but no schooling is an interesting model—and a good one to keep in mind.

It’s also notable, in this dialogue but also in others, that these women have no respect for tradition. Here, they invent new games instead of relying on traditional ones, and elsewhere, they reject explanations of the way that things are done based on tradition.

From this, as from many other things, I grew to see what I finally put in words.

“Have you no respect for the past? For what was thought and believed by your foremothers?”

“Why, no,” she said. “Why should we? They are all gone. They knew less than we do. If we are not beyond them, we are unworthy of them—and unworthy of the children who must go beyond us.”

This set me thinking in good earnest. I had always imagined—simply from hearing it said, I suppose—that women were by nature conservative. Yet these women, quite unassisted by any masculine spirit of enterprise, had ignored their past and built daringly for the future.

This willingness to jettison the past is necessary in a utopian work, of course, since you need to see that the way things happen in the utopia are more logical even if they are different.  However, I also wonder if it’s because tradition often doesn’t serve women well in our world; the idea of tradition is to continue doing things in the same way, and the same way is often patriarchal.  Certainly, we are led to believe that the country that eventually became Herland was so at one point.

They are perhaps their most antipatriarchal in the total absence of a rape culture.  In a society free of violence, this is not surprising at all.  However, pointing this out is one of the more valuable things about this book. Despite their apparent asexuality, which I’ve mentioned above, three of the women eventually decide to marry the three male explorers.  Two of the three couples get along very well, although the primary narrator is disappointed at the lack of exclusive emotional ties.  However, Terry, the third explorer, is highly dissatisfied with his marriage to Alima.  Unlike the other two, he clings to his notions about how men should relate to women, remarking that

“there never was a woman yet that did not enjoy being mastered. All your pretty talk doesn’t amount to a hill o’beans – I know.”

Alima, in fact, does not enjoy it. His behavior just after his marriage takes place offstage, but causes Alima to avoid him and begin keeping, in essence, a bodyguard. Soon afterward, Terry hides in her room and tries to rape her, but is stopped.

This is where rape culture kicks in where it exists, but here it doesn’t. Alima doesn’t feel ashamed or try to convince herself that he had a right to do so; instead, she “was in a cold fury. She wanted him killed—actually.”  Not only that, the women of Herland put together a court which is utterly unimpressed with the justifications that Terry presents for his actions, even though he explains that “they were incapable of understanding a man’s needs.” Instead, they sentence him to exile.

Van, the narrator, is not free of rape culture. Rather, he is coming from a culture with a tradition of marital rape. He admits that “In a court in our country he would have been held quite ‘within his rights,’ of course”,  due to what he calls “the custom of marital indulgence among us.”  He even feels some sympathy for Terry, faulting their friend Jeff for “not being fair” to him, and later reflecting:

Well—it was hard. He was madly in love with Alima, really; more so than he had ever been before… And then when he sought by that supreme conquest which seems so natural a thing to that type of man, to force her to love him as her master—to have that sturdy athletic furious woman rise up and master him—she and her friends—it was no wonder he raged.

The question of what “love” means in this sentence just sort of hangs there.

One thing utopias can do is reflect upon the reader’s own culture. Here, it’s used to illustrate pretty vividly what a rape culture is; it’s that which encourages and excuses Terry, and which seems so natural to Van.  I wonder if the original readers of the book understood this.


Filed under Literary thoughts

3 responses to “Herland: Women without Wallpaper

  1. Wow, what a fantastic wrap-up post! I’m so glad that you created a blog and posted this because you really gave me a lot to think about. The eugenics and racism were both off-putting and I really enjoyed EL Fay’s post as well that you linked to as well. I hadn’t thought as much about the implications of the attempted rape and how it really highlights rape culture as it exists currently. Brilliant, I too wonder if the original readers understood it… I think possibly not as even I glossed over it sadly!

  2. Thanks for your kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

  3. Stanley Sokolow

    Herland and its sequel With Her In Ourland are both available now for free downloading from Feedbooks. Here is the link to all of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novels at Feedbooks:

    If you read Herland, you should read the rest of the story in the sequel.

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