Feminism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel "Herland"

Bachelor Thesis, 2018
28 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of contents


Utopian features of Herland

Feminist features in Herland

Feminism in Herland and Charlotte Perkins Gilman




Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of the most significant Western feminist theorists from the year 1890 to 1920 (Allen 1). “Feminism makes a practice of questioning hierarchical structures and divisions of labor, power, and discourse.” (Bartkowski 14) This is what Gilman questioned, too. Degler calls her “the major intellectual leader of the struggle for women’s rights […] during the first two decades of the twentieth century” (11). As a confirmed suffragist, she considered the question of women in society as her province (Degler 11). She assumed suffrage advocacy to be an obvious marker of the growing unrest among women, no longer willing to be parasites, dependents, living through their sex functions alone.” (Allen 135-136) Nevertheless, progress for women should not be measured only by the number of states that grant suffrage to women but rather by the legal, social, mental, and physical changes (Degler 11). She was a feminist theorist who identified women as a sexed group subordinated by and in the interests of men (Allen 2). She provided a theoretical account of the roots and reasons of women’s ‘sex subjection’ and devised reform proposals designed to stop women’s subordination (Allen 2). In her writing, she examined existential issues that were problematic for the women of her time (Kessler 1). She elaborated on the major issues of gender, which are still problematic today. She not only explained the origins of women’s subjugation but also focused on the struggle to achieve both autonomy and intimacy in human relationships (Lane 3-4). Moreover, she worked on new strategies for rearing and educating future generations to achieve a humane and nurturing environment (Lane 3-4). Although she is today known as a feminist, she saw herself as a humanist and even argued that the term ‘feminism’ should be retitled as ‘humanism’ (Allen 5). She said that the world was masculinist as the male dominance has been extended to all areas of life, including language; thus, she argued being a humanist who wished to bring about a fair balance (Lane 5). However, this attempt to distance her from feminism was mostly ignored by her contemporaries (Allen 163). Lane argues that Gilman was in fact both, a feminist and a humanist who combined socialism and feminism (Lane 230, 5).

Her feminist utopian novel Herland is one of the last texts that belong to the early- twentieth- century wave of feminism (Bartkowski 23). Kessler argues that “Herland (1915), joins a tradition in the United States extending from 1836, the date of the first known utopian fiction by a woman, to 1880, when a first all-female society was imagined by a compatriot.” (36) Gilman wanted to reveal a world full of possibilities and potentials available to women as a sex instead of presenting a sex-separatist society as a final utopian solution (Kessler 69). In fact, the feminist novel should demonstrate “what women can be and do when they are free to develop as persons, rather than as females in a patriarchal society” (Jones 117). She wanted to change women’s work, marriage, home, and child-rearing, which are all part of Herland (Lane 249). “Charlotte Perkins Gilman creates a more explicitly utopian and a more fully feminized world in Herland.” (Berkson 107) She created a female wild zone totally cut off and removed from the dominant culture; in fact, Herland contains nothing but women’s culture (Berkson 107). By creating a socialistic community of women in the book, Gilman wanted to bring her readers a step closer to change their way of thinking and also achieve a society of autonomous and self-actualising women in their real world (Hall 161). Hall states that “Gilman’s vision is both future and past: a reflection of her dreams for the future, shaped by her own life experience.” (162) According to Kessler, “to read Herland is to experience echoes of Gilman’s living”, which reveals that there are various connections between the plot of Herland and the life of Gilman (83). “For Gilman, utopian writing was her ‘sensational design’ […] for the transformation of women’s condition in the United States, if not her world.” (Kessler 3) Also, Herland is by many seen as the ‘mother-text’, vindicating her mothers’ and her own maternal experience (Kessler 19). Thus, the utopian novel is worth being analysed in terms of its feminist features and the life experiences of Charlotte Gilman herself. In Herland, the typical patriarchy becomes reversed to a utopian matriarchy. Herland depicts feminism from the viewpoint of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The goal of this paper is to demonstrate Charlotte Gilman’s personal view on feminism, and her realisation of feminism in the utopian novel Herland.

Utopian features of Herland

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, utopian fiction was a genre at the height of its popularity (Bartkowski 24) . Herland is one of these utopian novels. According to Claeys and Lyman, a utopia is “a non-existent society described in detail and normally located in time and space” (1). The word itself has a Greek origin and means ‘no (or not) place’ and is “the imaginative projection, positive or negative, of a society that is substantially different from the one in which the author lives.” (Claeys and Lyman 1) The utopian impulse is the “need to dream of a better life, even when we are reasonably content” (Claeys and Lyman 2). Vieira explains that utopia is seen as a “strategy for the questioning of reality and of the present” by picturing another reality, in a virtual present or in a hypothetical future (23). Charlotte Perkins Gilman suggests that utopias should be rather seen as guides than as blueprints (Kessler 1). Basically, they represent a programme for change or betterment of the present, which can operate at different levels leading to political, social, moral, economic, and pedagogical reorientation (Vieira 23).

Vieira situates a utopia somewhere between reality and fiction as the traveller departs from a real place, visits an imagined place, and goes back home (8). In Herland, the three travellers, Vandyck Jennings, Terry O. Nicholson, and Jeff Margrave, also leave their home in the United States, visit Herland, and go back again, at the end of the novel. Bartkowski states that Herland is a utopian world, which traces back to Gilman’s previous book Woman and Economics.

In Woman and Economics, at a certain moment we can see the wish-fulfillment impulse behind utopian thought. At one point in this book Gilman imagines ‘an extraterrestrial sociologist, studying human life and hearing for the first time of our so-called ‘maternal sacrifice’ as a means of benefiting the species.’ Some seventeen years later another sociologist, Vandyck Jennings, appears as narrator of Herland. In a reversal of the earlier character, Van is of the Earth, and Herland is somewhere else, exotic and mysterious in the minds of Van and his two fellow explorers, Jeff, the genteel survivor of the chivalric hero, and Terry, the wealthy womanizer. (Bartkowski 27-28)

Moreover, it becomes clear that Herland is an imagined place when the three men get told about some legends and folk myths by the savages and hear rumours about “a strange and terrible Woman Land in the high distance”; this is a place which nobody had ever seen, whereas the United States are the real world of the travellers (Gilman 6). When they first enter Herland, the protagonist describes the “perfect cultivation” of the land and the forests and the “clean” little town with its “ordered beauty”, its “well-built roads”, and its “attractive architecture” (Gilman 12). He notices that there are flowers everywhere and that highly skilled people are caring for the country, which is “too pretty to be true” (Gilman 16). Jeff mentions astonished, “There’s no dirt,”, “There’s no smoke,”, “There’s no noise”, which is different from their own home (Gilman 17). After being captured by the women of Herland, the three men get served with plenty of delicious, rich flavoured and highly satisfactory food, which is why they state, “We had plenty of time to get tired of those women!” (Gilman 23) As soon as they get taught the language of the Herlanders, Van notices their subtle way of teaching and admits that he had never seen a better way of being taught (Gilman 27). When the travellers try to escape from Herland, they are glad to see that they could live off the country as even the margins of the forests were rich in foodstuffs (Gilman 31). Throughout the novel the narrator gets more and more impressed by the country. Van once mentions, “the more I saw of it, the better I liked it” (Gilman 34). He gets to know that this country will never be overpopulated due to the fact that the women of Herland “did effectually and permanently limit the population in numbers, so that the country furnished plenty for the fullest, richest life for all of them: plenty of everything, including room, air, solitude even”; they improved their population in quality rather than quantity (Gilman 53). Moreover, sickness is mostly unknown to the Herlanders as they have perfected their physiology, hygiene, sanitation, and physical culture (Gilman 54). The protagonist describes that “They were a cleanbred, vigorous lot, having the best of care, the most perfect living conditions always.” (Gilman 54) Later on, Van also gets to know the women’s feeling of community when he states that “To them the country was a unit—it was theirs. They themselves were a unit, a conscious group; they thought in terms of the community”, making clear that this is different in his home country, the United States (Gilman 59). Furthermore, the climate of the country is perfect for cultivation of various foods as there are cold temperatures on the one side and hot temperatures on other (Gilman 59). The Herlanders have “worked out a perfect scheme of refeeding the soil with all that came out of it” and are therefore protecting the environment (Gilman 59). The protagonist is also very much impressed by the form of education in Herland. He is fascinated by the materials and opportunities that are offered to the children and their way of educating them without schooling (Gilman 79). Van explains how different their notion of education is in the following way:

They had faced the problems of education and so solved them that their children grew up as naturally as young trees; learning through every sense; taught continuously but unconsciously—never knowing they were being educated. In fact, they did not use the word as we do. Their idea of education was the special training they took, when half grown up, under experts. Then the eager young minds fairly flung themselves on their chosen subjects, and acquired with an ease, a breadth, a grasp, at which I never ceased to wonder. But the babies and little children never felt the pressure of that “forcible feeding” of the mind that we call “education” (Gilman 71).

“Education became the Herlander’s solution to making ‘the best kind of people’.” (Kessler 73) Herland seems to be a paradise for children as “the houses and gardens planned for babies had in them nothing to hurt—no stairs, no corners, no small loose objects to swallow, no fire—just a babies’ paradise” (Gilman 79). There way of believing is also impressive to Van. He describes, “Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion.” (Gilman 84) All these features described above are utopian features, due to the fact that they are worse in the country where the travellers come from. The three men admitting the drawbacks of the United States like the diseases, the unrest, and sometimes combat proof that they also find that Herland is the improved or better country (Gilman 104-105). Kessler states, “The more the three men learn about Herland as they are escorted about, the more modest they become about their land, which appears increasingly less reasonable in comparison.” (74) In fact, they realise that their own and also the prejudices of other people are wrong.

Herland qualifies as a feminist utopia, which turned out to be the prototype for later feminist utopias, according to Bartkowski (16). Libby Falk Jones defines a feminist utopian fiction the following:

a feminist utopian fiction is one which a. contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time or space); b. offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions; c. sees men or male institutions as a major cause of present social ills; and d. presents women not only as at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions. (116)

As mentioned above, utopias can be seen as strategies; Gubar argues that utopian strategies have an important place in feminist intellectual history as they solve two major problems:

rather than attacking what women have been, they celebrate what women can yet become; instead of admitting that the political and economic strategies for creating a different world are unclear, they imagine them already having taken place in a different dimension, a world elsewhere. (199)

The task of feminist utopias is “to seek out the past, to examine the present critically, to posit a future, and to tell a tale of and for that imagined future” (Bartkowski 24). Bartkowski claims that Charlotte Perkins Gilman chose the utopian voice to represent her view of feminism as a philosophy of growth, which is only conceivable if it posited the whole humanity of women as subjects rather than objects of the world (24).

Feminist features in Herland

One of the first things that become clear to the reader of Herland is that there is a male narrator. According to Bartkowski, this choice of a male narrator is revealing in various ways (28). “When we realize that we are to view this feminist utopia through the gaze and voice of a man – albeit the most receptive of the three male characters – some of the ideological trappings of early- twentieth- century feminism are set in relief for us.” (Bartkowski 28) Humour is maintained through the repeated exposure of the travellers’ prejudices about how a world of women could or would be; readers are situated with the protagonist as outsiders, distanced from him in their responses to a woman’s world (Bartwoski 28). Van, Terry, and Jeff travel to Herland ‘manfully’ with their big biplane, a camera, glasses, a supply of concentrated food and of course guns (Gilman 11). However, when they first meet the women of Herland and are surrounded by them, they seem to be transformed (Bartkowski 29). They feel “like small boys, very small boys, caught doing mischief in some gracious lady’s home” (Gilman 18). Kessler states that the three men are confronted with reversals of their previous sense of everyday life and that this confrontation leads them into a liminal state of transition (71).

As soon as Terry uses his gun, the three adventurers experience a bizarre imprisonment. They are easily captured by the unarmed women of Herland, “lifted like children, straddling helpless children”, and “borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully […]” (Gilman 20). The women overcome the men with anaesthesia as the chapter closes. When the three men are surrounded by a large group of women, mutual observations start, and sex distinctions immediately lead to confusion and panic among them (Bartkowski 29). “Discussion during the confinement reveals that each man’s belief about how they will be treated accords once again with his attitude toward women: each projects onto the women his own model of ideal gender.” (Kessler 72) However, they quickly notice that these women are somehow different from what they had expected. Van describes, “They were not young. They were not old. They were not, in the girl sense, beautiful.” (Gilman 18) These women also could not be much impressed by jewels Terry offered them; it seemed as if these women were indifferent to their charms as males, exclaiming “as if our being a man was a minor incident” (Gilman 18). Furthermore, they notice their strong and athletic appearance, and that they are “moved by precisely the same feelings […]” (Gilman 20). Van explains,

Never, anywhere before, had I seen women of precisely this quality. Fishwives and market women might show similar strength, but it was coarse and heavy. These were merely athletic – light and powerful. College professors, teachers, writers – many women showed similar intelligence but often wore a strained nervous look, while these were as calm as cows, for all their evident intellect. (Gilman 20)

Actually, these are not women as Van and his friends have learned to see and recognise. However, due to the fact that they are ‘only’ women, they cannot fight them (Bartkowski 29). There are lots of moments “of seemingly desperate need to determine sex and recognize and maintain gender differences” (Bartkowski 29). Once, Jeff desperately complains that they would look much more feminine if their hair was longer, and they all agree that long hair simply belongs to a woman (Gilman 25). Van’s description reveals what the word ‘woman’ suggests, and states that most men think that way. According to them, “Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether.” (Gilman 18) Already the initial interaction between the three girls and the three men reveals their bias against women; to them, “women are not human as they themselves are, but rather mere game to be chased or pets to be enjoyed […]” (Kessler 72).

They soon get to know the women and their way of life and for a long time refuse to believe that there are no men in this country. They themselves are “feeling like a lot of neuters”, when they wake up the place where the women brought them, finding indigenous clothing that everyone wears in Herland (Gilman 22). After having realised, how strong these women are and that they are descending from one ‘wonderwoman’, Van describes them as “ultra-women” (Gilman 44). Already at the beginning, Van mentions, “There was something attractive to a bunch of unattached young men in finding an undiscovered country of a strictly Amazonian nature.” (Gilman 8) They also notice soon, that they can easily out-run and out-climb them (Gilman 32); they are even afraid of them or at least anxious, which is shown when they try to escape from Herland.

Here we had been risking our lives, hiding and prowling like outlaws, living on nuts and fruit, getting wet and cold at night, and dry and hot by day, and all the while these estimable women had just been waiting for us to come out. (Gilman 35)

Moreover, when Terry asks the older women if they are afraid that they could hurt the young girls if they meet them, he gets as a respond that the danger is rather the opposite. The three men are the ones who could be hurt by the young girls and of course millions of mothers (Gilman 50). Gubar explains that the men experience a culture shock when they realise that they are treated as or are, in fact, the minority of Herland; they are secondary creatures, “herded in like cattle, bedded down like babies, and put on display as anatomical curiosities marketable only for matrimony” (193). After a while, the three men become irritable, jealous, and vain of their physical appearance, longing for reassurance, approval, which Gilman defines as the disease called ‘marginalization’ that normally occurs among women (Gubar 193). This is in fact a society, in which “the word ‘woman’ conjures up the whole world of exploring and toiling that have made two-thousand-year-old civilization, while the word ‘man’ means only male, the sex.” (Gubar 194)

The three adventurers assume that there must be men as “this is a civilised country”, but the visitors must yet understand the Herlander view of civilisation (Kessler 72). Especially Terry is sceptical and tries to convince the others. “’Of course there are men,’ said Terry. ‘Come on, let’s find ’em.’” (Gilman 12) The men show a dehumanising and objectifying manner of address; “to them, women […] incapable of the ‘civilized’ heights they consider natural to themselves.” (Kessler 72) Kessler states that they are “exposing the shallowness of their humanity, the thin veneer of their civilization, in their sexist words and manipulative or violent acts.” (72) After a half year of learning about the country in confinement, the adventurers are finally permitted to meet the younger women; they meet the three girls again which they first saw in the trees and learn how wrong their first estimates of them were in terms of their reception (Kessler 74). They especially experience that with these women they can only depend on their personalities due to the fact that the women show too much self-esteem to be manipulated by tactics (Kessler 74). According to Kessler, the self-confidence of the women of Herland derives from their mode of life, namely the communal integration from birth to death (75).

Finally, they find out that the women of Herland have a special way of reproduction. “The reproductive practices of Herland take up more than one conversation; in fact, the rest of the novel continually returns to motherhood as the primary institution and even the religion of the society.” (Bartkowski 30) They get to know how everything came about, which reveals the importance of motherhood in Herland.

For five or ten years they worked together, growing stronger and wiser and more and more mutually attached, and then the miracle happened—one of these young women bore a child. Of course they all thought there must be a man somewhere, but none was found. Then they decided it must be a direct gift from the gods, and placed the proud mother in the Temple of Maaia—their Goddess of Motherhood—under strict watch. And there, as years passed, this wonderwoman bore child after child, five of them—all girls. (Gilman 43)

The three men find that motherhood found a new race in Herland as all women are descended from one mother; thus, they are all one big family (Gilman 43-44). The women of Herland “function as a family of mothers and sisters, devoted to ‘Beauty, Health, Strength, Intelligence, Goodness’ – all supported by a religion of Maternal Pantheism.” (Kessler 73) The significance of motherhood becomes especially clear after the marriage of Van and Ellador, Jeff and Celis, and Terry and Alima. It is seen as the ‘great change’ although the men are the ones who insist on the ceremony (Gilman 87-88). But it becomes clear that motherhood alone is not enough for a man in this world by stating that “What a man wants of women is a good deal more than all this ‘motherhood’!” (Gilman 45) The women cannot understand what the men actually expect from a marriage, which gets explained by Van in the following way:

This tradition relates the woman to the man. He goes on with his business, and she adapts herself to him and to it. Even in citizenship, by some strange hocuspocus, that fact of birth and geography was waved aside, and the woman automatically acquired the nationality of her husband. (Gilman 89)

The men’s ideas about marriage are described in words that have no currency in Herland, namely home, wife, privacy, and possession. The men, for instance thought that the housekeeping duties were “inherently appropriate to women.” (Gilman 89) Furthermore, they mention that they do not allow their women to work as women are loved, idolized, honoured, and kept in the home to care for the children (Gilman 46). In their view, it was also inappropriate that the women continued with their profession as foresters after their marriage; instead, they themselves were the ones without a profession, which they disliked; “We had to do something, if only to pass the time, and it had to be work—we couldn’t be playing forever.” (Gilman 91) In fact, Van notices, “All the surrendering devotion our women have put into their private families, these women put into their country and race.” (Gilman 71).


Excerpt out of 28 pages


Feminism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel "Herland"
University of Salzburg
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Herland Charlotte Perkins Feminism, Utopia, Gilman
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Silvia Dreiling (Author), 2018, Feminism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel "Herland", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/496842


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