I was recently doing some reading around Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein’s Sultana’s Dream and thought I’d revisit Herland as another example of a women-ruled society in fiction.
From last week’s column:
A number of the adventure novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have their protagonists stumbling upon parts of the world that had been cut off from the rest of it for centuries. Sometimes these lost worlds contain prehistoric animals (as with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Conan Doyle’s The Lost World); the late nineteenth century saw a number of geological discoveries that fuelled a fascination with the prehistoric. But as empires expanded the Victorians also discovered the ruins of lost empires, and many of these books have their explorers encountering completely new civilisations. This is what happens to the protagonist of Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, as well asto Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain (and, indeed, to a number of other Haggard protagonists).
It’s this tradition that makes the beginning of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland feel very familiar. Three young American men of varying temperaments (the Southern gentleman, the rakish chauvinist, and our narrator, a levelheaded sociologist) are travelling in some undisclosed continent when they hear from the natives rumours of a land populated only by women hidden in the mountains. Refusing to believe this is true –how, for example, would such a population reproduce?—they nonetheless investigate, and find themselves among the women of the country they call Herland. They discover that the country has been cut off from the world for thousands of years, since a volcanic eruption cut off the one route leading into their valley. By some miracle the women have developed the power of parthogenic births, and their whole society revolves around the protecting and educating of their children.
Two of the men settle into this new society comparatively well but Terry, who appears to see all women as prey, finds it hard to adjust. Terry’s complaint, constantly reiterated, is that the women here are not “womanly”; even though they are beautiful, nurturing, and devote their lives to their children. Much of this has to do with Terry’s own inability to see women as real people, but with this Gilman also suggests the difficulty of conceiving of a definition of woman that does not stand in opposition to man, when man is the cultural default.
The three men provide three different models for interaction between the sexes; Jeff’s idealization of women, Terry’s insistence on seeing them as only the inferior partners in male-female relationships, and Vandyk’sinteraction with them as equals. This creates an interesting tension within the book itself. While Vandyk’s narration suggests that the women find his own conversation preferable to Jeff’s adoration, Jeff is the one who seems best fitted to this world, and the only one of them men not to leave it. Perhaps this is because the book itself idealises the women. Much of the story takes place as what would have been a sort of Socratic dialogue, had the three men been able to think of any attractive points about their own civilisation. Gilman gives them none—though they might have noted, for example, that their people did not practice eugenics (as the women of Herland do, with the text’s seeming approval).
The three men fall in love with, and marry citizens of the country, but sex is another fraught area, as the women of Herland seem to see it only as a means of procreation. In the book’s climax Terry attempts to rape his wife, and is banished from the country as a consequence. In 1915, when the book was published, marital rape was still legal in Gilman’s native USA (as it still is in India). Here, it is not only depicted as unthinkable and despicable to the women of Herland, but the American men (even, one gets the impression, Terry himself) are able to instinctively see its wrongness. I don’t know how radical an argument for women’s right to bodily autonomy and against marital rape would have been in 1915—in 2014 some of us still haven’t figured it out.
(Sultana’s Dream is way better, not that that’s the point.)