A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Monthly Archives: April 2011

An Introduction to “Herland”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived from July 3, 1860 to August 17, 1935. She was an American socialist and a utopian feminist, who wrote both non-fiction and fiction (poetry, short stories and novels). She was widely known during her lifetime, but (at least, from my non-American point of view) not so well-known today. Women and Economics and The Yellow Wallpaper are her best known works. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution is a work of non-fiction about the necessity for women to change their cultural identities: to become more independent and specialised so as to become better mothers, wifes, etcetera. The Yellow Wallpaper is, I’m sure, the best known work by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the world of book blogging. It describes a woman who suffers from mental illness and is locked in her room by her husband for her own health. In this room she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper on the walls. The short story is said to be based on Charlotte’s own experiences with mental illness and the rest cure treatment she was prescribed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.

The biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman is worth looking into for this project. Charlotte’s life is interesting, to say the least, but also seems to have been very tough. Charlotte, born as Charlotte Anna Perkins, married twice. She first married Charles Walter Stetson, with whom she has a daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson. After the birth, Charlotte suffers from depression (not recognised back then as post-partum depression) and is prescribed the rest cure treatment, which involved not being allowed to write and a sharp limitation of her reading time. She ends up rejecting this treatment and fled to California, without her husband and child. Four years after marrying Charles, they separate, and the child ends up living with her father. Charlotte’s reputation suffers from the separation from her husband (being considered to be on no valid grounds, as they were still friends and there was no adultery) and the fact that she left her child behind. [It is nice to see how all of these books fit together, A Doll’s House flashed before my eyes while reading this]. Charlotte’s second marriage is to Houghton Gilman, her first cousin. They get married in 1900 and live in New York until 1922, when they move to Connecticut. In 1934 Houghton dies, just after Charlotte is diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. In 1935, she commits suicide with chloroform.

During her lifetime, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was active in several social reform movements. She considered herself a socialist and humanist from the Nationalist variety. Nationalism is described on wikipedia as: “a movement which worked to end capitalism’s greed and distinctions between classes while promoting a peaceful, ethical, and truly progressive human race.” She was also part of Social Darwinism, in the variety of Lester Frank Ward, which believed that despite evolution, human beings could influence and change society for the better. Gilman rejected Marx’s ideas of violent revolutions, but instead believed in a peaceful change of society. Charlotte Perkins Gilman especially believed that women had a large role to play in the movement towards a better society. She believed that only when women take it upon themselves to be independent (and are allowed to be so), society can change for the better. As Ann J. Lane says on page xv of the Women’s Press introduction to Herland:

Describing herself as a humanist, Gilman argued that since “it is only in social relations that we are human… to be human, women must share in the totality of humanity’s common life.” Women, forced to lead restrictive lives, retard all human progress. Growth of the organism, she said, the individual, or the social body requires the use of all of our powers in four areas: physical, intellectual, spiritual, and social. In each women are denied their share of human activities. (..) “Women are not underdeveloped men,” Gilman said, “but the feminine half of humanity is underdeveloped humans.”

As more feminist of this area, Gilman’s feminism and social Nationalism, involved ideas on preserving national and racial purity, which she observed was being threatened by immigrants that came from non-American or British descent.

Almost all of the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman were serialised in her 32 page magazine, The Forerunner, which she wrote and edited on her own between 1909 and 1916. Even the advertisements were from her own hand. It was in this magazine that Herland was first published. Herland describes an isolated society that exists of only women, who reproduce through parthenogenesis. The society is presented as ideal: it is free of war, conflict or domination. The story is told from the viewpoint of three men who stumble upon Herland by accident. Throughout the story, the social construction of gender is the main theme. The women, in Herland, are represented as loving mothers as well as strong and independent. On the other hand, the men slowly become more feminine: thy, for example, grow their hair long, while all the women in Herland have short hair. Herland is the second out of three utopian novels written by Gilman. The first is titled Moving the Mountain and was published in 1911. The third is called With Her in Ourland (1916), and is a sequel to the in 1915 published Herland.

I have to admit that I have never read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before, even if The Yellow Wallpaper is waiting patiently for me on my bookshelves. I am curious to see whether I will enjoy Herland as much as I have seen others like The Yellow Wallpaper. The plot summary looks promising and thought-provoking. I will post discussion questions in a week to 10 days time. I also want to apologize for putting this post up a little late, my life is a bit chaotic at the moment.

Have you read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before? Have you started reading Herland yet? Are you enjoying it so far, or looking forward to it? Which edition are you reading?

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