A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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?

38 responses to “An Introduction to “Herland”

  1. SilverSeason April 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I am about 30% through Herland so won’t comment on that yet. In the past I have read The Yellow Wallpaper, and I have also seen it done as a dramatic reading. You can probably read it in an hour, as it is really a long short story. In it, the “mental illness” of the woman locked in her room is ambiguous. Is she locked up for her own protection, or is she going crazy because she has been locked up? It can be interpreted either way, which is part of the powerof the story. The link between The Yellow Wallpaper and A Doll’s House is in the fact the the woman in question is being defined, judged and controlled by a man. She is not free to decide for herself who she is and what she wants to do.

    The sanitarium treatments of Weir were famous in their day and extremely controlling. He defined women as “weak” and treated their depression as exhaustion brought on by intellectual demands that women are unfit to handle. Thus: bed rest, dark room, no reading, no writing, no exercise.

  2. dangermom April 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I just finished reading it. Mine is a Pantheon edition from 1979. I have read The Yellow Wallpaper before, and probably should again; it’s on my shelf so maybe I’ll pick it up in a bit. I enjoyed Herland, but I think it’s a complete fantasy that idealizes women (or human nature) and collectivism. Thanks for putting this on the list–I’d never heard of it before!

  3. Trisha April 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I am about half-way through, and I am really surprised by the story so far. It’s so strange to see the idealistic way Gilman is portraying the women. I’m not annoyed by it – I usually would be – but at the same time, I’m wondering where the story is headed.

  4. wendy April 8, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I agree with the previous posters – this is such a sanitized view of women…but I also found it interesting and I think it is a good text for jumping off into discussion (I also find it an interesting book to compare to Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale…which was much better done, but also looks at what happens in a world dominated by men vs. a society totally controlled by women). I’ve reviewed the book here. Also, I should mention, I read the Penguin Classics version which also includes many of Gilman’s short stories (which I plan on reading at some point).

  5. Kay Clarke April 10, 2011 at 5:53 am

    I purchased a bundle of Penguin 60s Classics at a Book Fair, amongst them being an “Old Fashioned Thanksgiving” and other stories by Louisa May Alcott. I loved her heroine Jo, in Little Women, long before I knew anything about feminism and the struggle by women for independence and recognition.
    One of the other books I purchased was “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist writer unknown to me before then. I found the short story disturbingly chilling in its portrayal of the man’s subtle power over his wife. I look forward to borrowing Herland and reading it.

  6. Annie April 10, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    I just write and send my post on my blog. Thanks to you for these explanations !

  7. Nymeth April 10, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I’ve read The Yellow Wallapaper and The Man-Made World (non-fiction) and really enjoyed them both. Can’t wait to get started on Herland – hopefully before the end of the month I’ll have time to read for fun again (sigh).

  8. dangermom April 13, 2011 at 12:34 am

    Here are my thoughts on the book. I did find it to be a really interesting and thought-provoking work.

  9. Pingback: Herland / Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Read Irresponsibly

  10. Jayme (Beachreader) April 17, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I just finished Herland and The Yellow Wall-Paper and have posted my thoughts http://beachreader48.blogspot.com/2011/04/thoughts-on-herland-by-charlotte.html
    One thing that I’ve noticed is that when people write about Gilman they always mention that she committed suicide, but rarely the reason why. Gilman wrote that she was committing suicide because she did not want to suffer a lingering painful, death with breast cancer. I wish our language had a different word that could be used in such situations – just my meandering thoughts 😉

    • Iris April 18, 2011 at 7:37 am

      Wouldn’t you call it euthanasia (as in, before it was legal?) I think that sounds less judgemental. I should have put that in my introduction in the way you stated it.

    • EL Fay April 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm

      She advocated the euthanasia of people with terminal illnesses. It’s one thing if you choose to end your own life but quite another you’re pressured to do so because caring for you is a useless waste of energy.

    • Stanley Sokolow December 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      She wrote that she preferred chloroform over cancer. That was in 1935. Imagine what it was like to die from cancer back then. This was a very rational woman.

  11. Jayme (Beachreader) April 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    I completely forgot about the term euthanasia – maybe because it isn’t legal in the United States, yet.

    • Iris April 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm

      That makes sense. I always forget about that. To strengthen the stereotype: I’m from the Netherlands, hence my being used to the word.

  12. Shelley April 18, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    How women kept their sanity during this period in history is beyond me.

  13. LonerGrrrl April 21, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    I didn’t really enjoy Herland as much I thought I would, but it still got me thinking about a few things. More here: http://lonergrrrl.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/charlotte-perkins-gilman-herland/

  14. Pingback: Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland « A Slice of Hope

  15. amymckie April 25, 2011 at 2:49 am

    I just finished the book and yikes – being one of those ‘crazy’ (insert wink face here) women who are not a fan of children and has never wanted children, this book read to me a bit like a horror!! LOL Really enjoyable and gives a lot to think about! I’m working on my post now and will link to it when I get it written.

    I also have to mention re the conversation about between Iris and Jayme, my edition did mention in the notes why she chose to commit suicide. It says: “She chose to end her life with chloroform in 1935, three years after being diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer, when she concluded that dwindling interest in her ideas left her “no longer of service” as a writer and lecturer.”

    I find that really interesting and the way that she states it makes me think how that, the right to end ones own life, could really be seen as a basic right. Makes me sad that many sources aren’t mentioning why she chose suicide, as Jayme points out.

    • dangermom April 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm

      Breast cancer (well, any cancer I suppose but particularly breast cancer) was a horrific way to die before we came up with treatments. It’s no wonder she chose suicide.

      One thing I found interesting about the book was the whole motherhood theme. She seems to have had quite a difficult time with motherhood herself, and yet she wrote this story where motherhood is the preoccupation and glory of every woman. But then she gets around it by having the children brought up communally by the ‘parenting experts’ so that all the women get to have their cake and eat it too. I don’t know that real life would ever get that easy.

      • amymckie April 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm

        Yes I thought that was interesting as well dangermom – the theme of motherhood when she had a difficult time with it. But then, she sent her child back to her husband and his new wife (her friend) for them to raise because she thought / knew they would raise her better. So I can see why she had that in the book that children should be brought up by those who will do it best. Interesting concept, I like it. Though I still don’t want kids 😉

        • dangermom April 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm

          Yes, I can see why she put that in. But then she has all these women who want nothing more than to be mothers–but apparently hardly differentiate between the actual children, who belong to everyone. So the majority of the women apparently give birth once and then go back to their life-work without actually doing much of the work of motherhood (does the book say they stay with them for a year or anything? I don’t remember…) or spending much time with their children.

          To me this is kind of an odd definition of motherhood; the pregnancy and birth part is amazing and life-changing, but it’s only the very first step, and widely considered to be optional in the case of adoption. I think most people would say that parenting is really found in living with and caring for the child, which these women apparently do not do much of at all. (I’m not dissing daycare here; working parents do live with and care for their kids.)

          So while she sets motherhood up as the center of this civilization, it appears to be more of a theoretical, idealized–even distant–image of motherhood than an actual society of people who make motherhood their focus in a concrete way. They arrange their society to be future-centered, they have perfected child education–but only a few people really act as mothers at all. And of course none of it is very individual–it’s all collective. You never have an individual mother connecting with a particular child and forming a unique relationship.

          All that strikes me as very weird. If you had a group of women, all of whom truly wanted to be mothers (since not all do), I don’t think any of them would go for this plan.

        • amymckie April 30, 2011 at 11:02 am

          I think the book said a year or so yes dangermom. You are right, those who long to be mothers likely wouldn’t like it much. Those with less desire to be mothers, though, would see it as more interesting. Of course, it also sort of mimics those who simply send their kids to boarding school and etc as well!

  16. Care April 25, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    I enjoyed these comments and also learning about CPG. I read Herland last year and recall that it took more struggle to finish than I expected; it was fun to re-read my review post on my thoughts. {http://bkclubcare.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/herland/} I called it clever, keen and original.

  17. Pingback: Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman « Amy Reads

  18. EL Fay April 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    My post is here. All I can say is UGH. Racist, heterosexist, and ableist.

  19. Nymeth May 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Better late than ever, right? My two cents. I agree with the UGHs but found some points of interest.

  20. Ellie May 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Hey guys, is this still going on? I appreciate you must all be very busy, but things seemed to have dried up a bit on the blog – a shame because I was really enjoying the posts and discussions!

    • dangermom May 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm

      I’ll bite! IMO the part that still had the most relevance was the bit about how the women of Herland saw each other (and the men) not primarily as women, but as human beings–individuals with talents and preferences and so on. The narrator realizes that in his own society, people define themselves primarily as men or women, and even exaggerate the differences.

      This, of course, is still something we all do to some extent, though I do actually think it’s gotten better. A couple of months ago I read Dorothy Sayers’ book Are Women Human?–which is really two essays, very short and I enjoyed them–and she tackled the same problem, how women are always perceived primarily as women, not as individuals and members of the human race. Some of the incidents she mentions would be ludicrous today, so at least we’ve made some progress.

      I think it might be an interesting topic to discuss, since Virginia Woolf also has a bit to say on it in A Room of One’s Own. I just finished that–I was quite prepared to snark at her through the whole thing, since I’d just read several examples of her blatant snobbery and wasn’t in a mood to like her, but dang if she didn’t have some really good points.

  21. Connie May 23, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I realize I’m way behind the times, but my post about Herland just went up today.

    Read it here at http://thebluebookcase.blogspot.com/2011/05/review-herland-by-charlotte-perkins.html

  22. Selene May 24, 2011 at 7:43 am

    I’m late, too, but here’s my post on Herland and its sequel! http://shaggydogsstory.blogspot.com/2011/05/herland-and-with-her-in-ourland.html

    Thanks for the recommendation to the book! I’m looking forward to reading the other reviews!

  23. Pingback: Herland: Women without Wallpaper | onereadleaf

  24. onereadleaf June 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Well, I’m not the only one to be late, but it looks like I’m the only one to wait until June to post. Sorry about that–Google ate my first blog and I had to start afresh. My thoughts are here: http://onereadleaf.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/herland-women-without-wallpaper/

  25. Stanley Sokolow December 24, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Herland and the sequel With Her In Ourland are now available for free downloading from Feedbooks. If you read Herland, you should finish the rest of the story by reading the sequel. The first is about the utopian ideals, but the second shows Gilman’s critique of the world and US as they were in 1916 when the sequel was serially published in her self-written, self-edited, and self-published magazine Forerunner. She prescribes her ideas for correcting the ills of the human condition at that time in history. Some of the prescriptions have actually been realized since then, others haven’t yet been accomplished, and some are harsh and probably never would be done. Here are the direct links:

  26. Pingback: Good-place, No-place, My Place or Yours? : Herland | A Slice of Hope

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