Reading Group Report for Herland

Image used to accompany a 2016 BBC Radio 4 broadcast on Herland.

On the 1st July, the LSFRC reading group convened to discuss Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short novel Herland (1915).

The book follows a sociology student,  Vandyck (Van) Jennings, and his two friends, Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, on an expedition to investigate rumours of a country solely populated by women in uncharted south american territory. After reaching this nation (called Herland), they are taken into compassionate captivity and receive education from their hosts, in the process coming to understand (to varying extents) the shortcomings of their own society and patriarchy-imposed gender roles.

Despite the absence of several regulars, attendance was good and enjoyable and productive conversation ensued. With Tom Dillon and Katie Stone unable to attend, Francis Gene-Rowe put together the following report, divided into loosely themed sections:

Context

  • The text engages with and is informed by contemporary theories of evolution and species development, as well as Eugenicist thinking. While largely Darwinist in its outlook, Herland also draws upon early 20th century mutationism in order to explain how Herlanders are more varied in their characteristics than might be expected, given their parthenogenetic heritage.
  • While the Eugenicist aspects of the text feed into several of its problems (see below), it is worth being aware that eugenics was a framework widely adopted and thought through across the political spectrum, by both progressives on the left and individuals on the far right. While Gilman herself was in many respects highly progressive for her time, her views were more racist than those of some of her eugenics-embracing contemporaries.
  • In terms of the text itself, in addition to the underlying premise behind Herland as a society, species development-related content arises in how the Herlanders have selectively bred their cats to be quiet and to leave birds unmolested, as well as in the frequent analogies drawn between Herlander society and species such as ants and bees.
  • The text also appears to draw upon contemporary anthropological theorising of matriarchy, whereby the pre-historic default social model was matriarchal, such that the society of Herland presents a return to something natural. The concept of originary matriarchy (associated with earth mother worship) later superseded by heliocentric patriarchy continued to have currency well into the post-war era and still has its proponents today.
  • Child raising and pedagogy is a key theme in the text and was an area receiving great attention in the early twentieth century. In addition to Gilman’s references to Montessori education, members of the reading group referenced The Dalton Plan and Anna Freud’s work as either contemporary or near-contemporary instances of this attention to raising and educating children.
  • When considering Herland’s influences on subsequent writing, it is worth noting that it was not published in book form until 1979, and was little known after Gilman’s death until its rediscovery. With that said, it was preceded by other feminist utopian texts from the late 19th century and early 20th century, including Mizora (1890) and New Amazonia (1889), some of which will have been known to and influential upon later writers.

Problems

  • As can often be the case with older texts, when read by a 21st century reader Herland proves to be problematic in several ways. Perhaps the most immediately evident of these is the racism of the text, which characterises indigenous peoples as “savages” and emphases the fact that the Herlanders are aryan (white), despite the fact that they live in the tropics. Whilst these perceptions are related via the perspective of the text’s unenlightened male characters, Gilman expressed deeply problematic views of race in other writings, mostly notably “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem” (1908).
  • Later on in the text, abortion and infanticide are conflated with each other, with the implication being that abortion is infanticide. Herlander society privileges motherhood over any other practice, value or virtue, and whilst it is made clear that motherhood is collective and not exclusively related in biological maternity, the biological framework of reproduction remains prominent. Gilman’s concept of Herlander culture doesn’t allow for either individuals not wanting to have children (the suggestion being that Herlanders have to deliberately resist their natural desire for procreation so as to maintain a stable population) or those who may struggle to have them. Herland is certainly not a trans-inclusive nation, although the Jungle 2 Jungle project (a currently active community seeking to create a Herland-like society) is trans-inclusive.
  • There also seems to be an attitude of being able to approach children as blank slates for education (as in some of Robert Heinlein’s work some decades later), although it appears that Gilman was aware of this as a potential problem arising in Montessori and similar approaches, criticising such views in a later essay.

Satire and Humour

  • While Herland is clearly written with a political-ethical agenda, there was some uncertainty as to what extent it is intended to be satirically comedic, as opposed to more earnestly didactic. The characterisation of the male characters (Terry in particular) in the earlier chapters came across as downright parodic to some reading group members, although it was observed that Gilman may have intended for them to serve as focal points for an instructive satire that would not necessarily be amusing to a contemporary reader.
  • A useful comparison was drawn to Gulliver’s Travels, in the sense that we are given a viewpoint character that is ignorant to the point of naivety. Given the utopianist agenda of the text, Van and his fellows’ often silly opinions and actions can operate as heuristics for the reader. Van in particular comes across as a character that is intended to be a lens through which both education and critique can ensue; he is continually positioned in a middle ground between Jeff and Terry, the overlap in their Venn diagram. At the same time, there is also a sense that Van is intellectually superior to Jeff and Terry, as he puts more stock in reason than they do. This intersects with the valorisation of reason in the text (see below).
  • Amongst the jokes and gags shared in the session were the trenchant observation that Herland is literally a nanny state, as well as the image of Terry becoming a men’s rights activist upon his return to patriarchal civilisation.

Economy and Work

  • The reading group discussed the ways in which Herland does and doesn’t portray different forms of work, as well as its vagueness on the specifics of how Herland’s economy operates. At several points in the text Van flags up the fact that he isn’t going to explain Herland’s economy (for a variety of reasons), which indicates a deliberate decision on Gilman’s part. Aside from Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper, perhaps Gilman’s most famous piece of writing is Women and Economics – A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), in which she outlines forms of work and labour that tend to be disregarded in traditional (typically male-authored) economic studies. Van’s restraint in describing the economics of Herland may in part be a function of his own ignorance, but it also serves to de-emphasise normative expectations of what is or isn’t work. Something similar can be seen in how the men try and fail to provide a logical explanation of wifely housework to their prospective Herlander wives.
  • With this said, Gilman’s approach does create a slight vacuum in the worldbuilding of Herland. Ellador, Alima and Celis are foresters (and the men ultimately learn to work as their assistants) whose work takes them across the land, and we also encounter teachers and priestess/therapist figures. However, builders and farmers are conspicuous by their absence, despite the highly built and cultivated nature of Herland as a nation. This may well be a function of what Van and his friends take an interest in/are exposed to, but it also suggests that Gilman is less interested in exploring manual labour than in showing us a world that feels detached from patriarchal economic models.
  • One framing suggested was that Herland operates on an economy of ethics, following a slightly modified version of the old communist adage: “from each according to their ability and desire to work in a particular way, to each according to their needs as they see them.”

Knowledge and Herland Society

  • Herlander theatre is supposedly dull due to a lack of violence, culture and fear. This perception on the part of the men may well indicate a lack of imagination on their part (as, for instance, Beckettian drama would be perfectly viable in Herland). Ultimately, Herland is not a text much concerned with aesthetics, although the contrast drawn between Herlander and the men’s names does emphasise the superiority of Herlander names.
  • To follow up on this, there was some discussion as to what extent Herland is a boring place. Sexuality appears to be altogether absent and the underlying tone of Herlander society appears to be relentlessly polite and calm. One participant questioned to what extent a monoculture was in operation, which raised the consideration of how a woman outsider would be received in Herland, and what her experience might be like. With this said, gameplaying is referenced several times in the text, giving the impression that Herlanders draw upon ideas of play throughout their lives. Humour also seems to be present in Herland, and Ellador, Alina and Celis are entirely capable of finding the men risible when they encounter them.
  • Knowledge is a prominent theme in Herland, as Gilman sets a lot of stock by scientific reason. Herlanders are shown to be consistently rational and even minded, whilst it’s the men who come across as personal, irrational and so on (characteristics that they consider typical of women in their own homeland). At the same time, the Herlanders possess much more emotional intelligence than Van and company. The men’s ignorance and lack of self-awareness is epitomised by the fact that the Herlanders construct highly accurate spider diagrams of unspoken facts about the outside world, based on points of hesitation and omission in their conversations with the men.
  • Whilst Herland can be considered a separatist feminist text, the nation of Herland is not presented as separatist so much as a natural development following the natural and human events which led to its isolation and to all its men dying. In that sense, it resembles Joanna Russ’s Whileaway more than Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres. The comparisons to animal species further reinforce the sense that Herland, and the methodical rationality of its inhabitants, is a product of natural law more than any historical or human contingency.

Comparisons and References

  • The BBC Four series “Victorian Sensations” (currently available on iPlayer) was recommended as companion viewing, particularly the second episode, which is entitled “Decadence and Degeneration.”
  • Parallels between Herland and wellbeing economics/economics of happiness were drawn, with a specific reference to Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005).
  • Herland’s convenient Californian climate and other Californian characteristics suggests parallels with Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975).
  • John Wyndham’s novella “Consider her Ways” (1956) was mentioned as a more instrumentalist envisioning of a Herland-type society, with stronger parallels between its society and ant species behaviour.

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