This Utopian novella, originally published serially in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s monthly magazine, The Forerunner, offers a tantalizing and humorous insight into the stifling restrictions of early 20th century American women. The most striking parts of Gilman’s novella lie in her direct critiques of the lingering Victorian gender distinctions that dictated a rigid code of gendered behavior. She uses fiction to critique the same injustices that Susan Brownmiller tackles in Femininity: the inescapable feminine standard. Gilman tells her story through the perspective of three American male travelers. The men begin their journey with an arrogant sense of superiority, certain that a land ruled by women must be primitive and even amusing. Once they find the advanced civilization of Herland, they are convinced that the men of the land are hiding. Jerry, the least progressive of the three men, declares that “no woman built it, I can assure you” (29).
Throughout the novel, the men’s arrogance comically turns to shame, as the many imperfections and injustices of their own civilization become alarmingly apparent in contrast. One of the most disappointing things about Herland for the three explorers is that the women they encounter are not “feminine.” Their clothing is practical (ugly), their timidity is nonexistent (“none of that natural yielding which is woman’s greatest charm”), and their hair is (horrors!) short and unstyled. On this issue of hair, to which Brownmiller devoted an entire chapter of Femininity, Gilman writes:
‘If their hair was only long,’ Jeff would complain, ‘they would look so much more feminine.’
I rather liked it myself, after I got used to it. Why we should so admire ‘a woman’s crown of hair’ and not admire a Chinaman’s queue is hard to explain, except that we are so convinced that the long hair ‘belongs’ to a woman. Whereas the ‘mane’ in horses is on both, and in lions, buffalos, and such creatures only on the male. (30)
Gilman uses the perspective of her male characters to illuminate the glaring inconsistencies of traditional gender roles, which she insists are entirely constructed rather than biologically natural. Concerning the clothing of Herland, Gilman is swift to point out that “these women had pockets in surprising number and variety” (38), emphasizing the utilitarian method over the aesthetic one. When offered an explanation of the strict gender distinctions present in the outside world, the woman are curious, asking questions for which their visitor have no answers. They ask whether the word “virgin” is used to describe men as well as woman (“the same term would apply, but was seldom used”) and whether men also wear feathers in their hats (“Only Indians”). The men feel their responses growing more and more absurd and inadequate during their lengthy stay.
Gilman’s self-conscious creation of a world where “femininity” does not exist involves a systematic deconstruction of what her male characters expect and demand in women. As the men’s prejudices slowly break down in the face of such humanness, Gilman takes advantage of this opportunity to theorize on the unreality of feminine/masculine distinctions.
These woman, whose essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture, were strikingly deficient in what we call ‘femininity.’ This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity—developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of great process. (59)
This idea of “reflected masculinity” struck me as novel when I read about it in Femininity. To see it analyzed here, nearly 70 years earlier, was incredible. Unfortunately, Gilman’s socialist attitude toward minorities seems to extend no further than white women. The utopia she creates is “civilized” in comparison to the “savage” tribes in the surrounding country. “There is no doubt in my mind,” she explains through the male narrator, “that these people were of Aryan stock, and were once in contact with the best civilization of the old world” (54). Her utopia cannot expand beyond a first-wave dreamland of white, physically agile women. Furthermore, the absence of men in Herland necessitates a historical account of the development of “virgin birth.” All the women of the land are “virgins” who do not understand their visitor’s possessive jealousy and obsession with marriage and sexual lust. This disconnect is comedic, but the absence of sex in the utopia begs the question: Is Gilman claiming that sexual love is destructive to women’s freedom?
Gilman’s satirical utopia is effective because it is humorous. Her carefully crafted exposure of the absurdity of gender roles is at times hilarious, which adds an edge to what could have been a sterile story. I will end on a moving quotation from the last chapter of the book.
When we say men, man, manly, manhood, and all the other masculine derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vague crowded picture of the world and all its activities…full of marching columns of men, of changing lines of men, of long processions of men; of men steering their ships into new seas, exploring unknown mountains, breaking horses, herding cattle…managing great businesses, teaching in all the colleges, preaching in all the churches; of men everywhere, doing everything—‘the world.’
And when we say women, we think female—the sex. (137)