Herland 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is often applauded as a feminist utopian narrative ahead of its time. The story was first published in The Forerunner, a literary magazine owned by Gilman, and later, in the 1970s, as an independent novel, the second wave of the feminist main focus was Gilman’s work (Tavera 1). Herland has been a center of attention since its first publication and received renewed interest at the peak of the women’s power crusade in the 1970s due to Gilman’s ideal women’s society in the novel. Cultural feminism is the idea of female essence or women’s nature restructured by feminists in a struggle to recertify female traits in society (Tavera 1). While Gilman’s ideologies were ahead of time, she proposed feminist forms of thinking, such as excluding men from societies, a pro-women attitude, and the essence of a community run by women.
The novel starts with three men (Van, Jeff, and Terry) who stumble on a nation that women only inhibit. One of the men is a womanizer, another Southern gentleman obsessed with women as domestic angels, and the third is a storyteller who embodies an unbiased opinion (Gilman 13). The land is highly developed through civilization and full of feminine imagery (Gilman 13). It is a land that upholds peace, advancement, and especially, order. The men become increasingly embarrassed of the man-dominated land they left in the US as they adapt to their embryonic existence (Kim 80). The men finally adjust to their new nation with time, associating it with the defective patriarchy they left behind.
Gilman depicts feminism in Herland by how she presents gender in the novel. The entire female population in Herland can be contemplated as a feminist haven to some people and misandry and tragedy reliant on stereotypes to others. Gilman gives women such traits as intelligence, leadership skills, agency, and societal organization in the novel. These personalities, among others that Herland exemplifies, were not connected to women when the story was being written (Kim 82). By Gilman giving such qualities to women, she attempts to break cultural barriers. She depicts women as competent and strong humans capable of running an entire nation on their own.
Another thing that is clear to the reader is the use of a male narrator in Herland. The use of a male narrator is revealed in numerous methods. For instance, readers realize that they have to assess the feminist utopia from the viewpoint of a male character. Moreover, humor is maintained by the recurrent revelation of the three men’s prejudices concerning a nation dominated by women. Jeff, Van, and Terry travel to Herland in a manly way with their glasses, biplane, camera, guns, and food supply (Gilman 11). Nevertheless, when they meet the women in Herland, they feel like they have been transformed. They view themselves “like small boys, very small boys, caught doing mischief in some gracious lady’s home” (Gilman 18). The three visitors are faced with a reversal of their daily life, leading them to a liminal transition condition.
Feminism is similarly depicted in how the women in the novel handle the three men after Terry uses his gun. The three men face unusual imprisonment since they are effortlessly seized by the women who are not armed “lifted like children, straddling helpless children” and “borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully […]” (Gilman 20). When surrounded by the women, the three men start to observe them mutually, and they immediately get confused due to sex distinctions, which leads to panic. Nonetheless, they swiftly determine that the women are in some ways dissimilar from their expectations (Gözlet 21).
Van narrates, “They were not young, they were not old, they were not, in the girl sense, beautiful” (Gilman 18). These women were not easily dazzled by pieces of jewelry that Terry had presented to them (Gilman 18). It appeared as if they were unresponsive to their ornaments as men Gilman (18). The three men further noticed that the women had a robust athletic appearance. They acted the same way, creating an impression of women who can handle manly duties.
The way the three men struggle to determine if the females in Herland are indeed women indicates feminism. There are many incidences where there is seemingly desperation to ascertain sex and distinguish and uphold gender differences. These struggles are evident when Jeff complains that the females in Herland would look more feminine if they had long hair, and all the men approve that lengthy hair belongs to females (Gilman 25).
According to Van and his friend’s description, a woman is young and charming, and as they age, they move on to the next stage (Gilman 18). When the men meet Alima, Celis, and Ellador at first, the men’s biasness towards females is revealed; to them, women are not human beings and are supposed to be chased and enjoyed (Gilman 18). How Van and his friend’s ideology of how women should be is reversed in Herland shows feminism.
Despite Gilman’s exemptional work portraying a feminist world, her utopia has some problematic aspects: classism, sexualism, and racism. While Herland mainly focuses on womanhood, it describes a woman from an exact niche: white, young, and wealthy (Gözlet 22). One of the major criticisms directed at first-wave on feminism is its shallowness. When the three men talk about women in their nation, who are depicted as domestic angels, they disregard the millions of color females and those existing in abject poverty (Gözlet 24). Van’s initial depiction of Amazonian women resembles a sorority family: sexually submissive and young women. The emissaries find a land whose women do not match their expectations but are beautiful and Aryan.
Gilman’s demonstration of a perfect community is a narration of way ahead in the history of feminists. The first wave associated with feminism encompassed women who were fortunate enough to attain education. From a sociological perspective, these type of women was mainly white and from wealthy backgrounds. This socio-demographic is contained in Herland, which completely overlooks the predicament of radicalized women (Gözlet 25). Van undermines women from poor backgrounds by satirical sarcasm, contrasted to Gilman’s understated, real racism. From a contemporary reader’s perception, it is satirical that while feminineness is portrayed as a social paradigm, the insinuations of ethnicity are established in Gilman’s modern perspective.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a pioneer for feminists’ writings that came after it. When Gilman was writing the novel, she broke barriers to the extent of regaining relevance during the second feminist wave due to Gilman’s future prediction of what an ideal society should look like for women. Nonetheless, Gilman’s classism, sexualism, and racism necessitate being addressed when researching Herland. Ignoring these issues does nothing in helping contemporary society learn from past mistakes.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Dover Publications, 1915.
Gözlet, Cansu Ozge. “Cultural Ecofeminism in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Feminist Utopian Vision and its Limitations.” Homeros, vol.4, no.1, 2021, pp. 21-28.
Kim, Mijeong. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’ Herland and Feminist Utopia.” The Criticism and Theory Society of Korea, vol 25, no. 3, 2020, pp. 79-100. The Criticism and Theory Society of Korea. Web.
Tavera. “Her Body: Reproductive Health and Dis/Topian Satire in Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Utopian Studies, vol 29, no. 1, 2018, p. 1. The Pennsylvania State University. Web.