The civilized sex – about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland from 1915
22. maj 2020
“Why this is a civilized country!” I protested. “There must be men.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for her classic feminist short
story The Yellow Wallpaper, in which
she illustrates the mental decay of a woman who has been ordered by her husband
to rest in bed in order to cure her postpartum depression… I know, right?! (insert excessive eye-roll).
Herland is very different from Gilman’s other works, but it is just as
interesting, and if you ask me, it has not received the attention and praise it
deserves. It is fun and thought-provoking in many ways.
Here is a short, short resume without too many spoilers for you:
Herland is a utopian (or ustopian, if you ask Atwood) novel about three
pioneers (Terry, Van and Jeff – all male, of course) going on an expedition to
Herland, the notorious land in the middle of the Latin-American jungle, which
is supposedly inhabited by women. Only women, no men! Can you imagine that?
Well, Gilman could.
At the beginning of their trip, the three men discuss their expectations
of this country with no men. These discussions illustrate three very different,
yet all very stereotypical, views on women, and they also draw out the author’s
sarcastic mockery of the male ignorance, lingering in the backdrop of every
sentence. Here are some quotes to give you a taste:
“They would fight among themselves,” Terry insisted. “Women always do.
We mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization.” “You’re dead
wrong,” Jeff told him. “It will be like a nunnery under an abbess – a peaceful
harmonious sisterhood.” I snorted derision at this idea. “These are just women,
and mothers and where there’s motherhood you don’t find sisterhood – not much.”
Terry (the cockier one of the men) is convinced that all the women of
Herland will fall in love with him because these women have never seen a man
and are about to meet a flawless and magnificent specimen:
“You’ll see,” he insisted. “I’ll get solid with them all… I’ll get
myself elected king in no time,”
…and oh boy is he wrong! Because as it turns out, Herland is not a
country filled with pink roses and cute babies, it is not a wonderland of
“Girls, Girls, Girls” as Terry thought, it is not a giant harem-like sanctuary
where the men just pop in when they want to procreate either. Something quite
unthinkable (to the three men) awaits them, and this is where I stop and urge
you to go read the novel for yourselves – you simply have to meet the
However, I have to mention this, because… gender-equality, feminism,
intersectionality… Gilman is very old school in relation to gender! And of
course she is, I mean, the novel was written in 1915, so it is literally old
school – but it still bugged me a little while reading. The entire story is built
around three very stereotypical male characters and their very stereotypical
views on women. This creates a dynamic that enforces the binary genders in an
exhausting (and in 2019) quite provoking way. But since Gilman lived in another
century and had good and feminist intentions (I know, intentional fallacy… blah
blah) I can forgive her, and I would argue that this hundred-year-old literary
mirror reflects some of the more tiresome tendencies of western society, and
therefore is an important read.
This novel has my highest recommendation! Because even though there is a
risk of catching the binary-gender-flu if you are not careful, she does portray
the gender stereotypes of her time, and they are ridiculously close to some of
the gender stereotypes that are still alive and kicking today!
Furthermore, Gilman takes you on a magical and kind of crazy trip to a country inhabited by really awesome and inspirational women. That was all, now go read it!