Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Written in 1915 by an author born in the 1800s, it is striking and poignant how this work is still very relevant today. The short novel chronicles 3 men’s journey to find a civilization of just women and children–no men. Skeptical, during their expedition they comment on what they might find: they don’t expect the women to be civilized and they don’t believe women could survive without men.

Once they find “Herland,” they are surprised that that is exactly what the women are doing. Not only are they surviving, they’re thriving. Fiercely intelligent and able to reproduce without men, they are completely self-sufficient. The three men, Van, Jeff, and Terry are forced to reexamine what they believe to be masculine and feminine as well as the power politics related to gender–namely the expected submissiveness of women. Two of the three males (Van and Jeff) are more open-minded than the third, Terry. Terry embodies a sexist pig, encapsulating all of the disgustingly stereotypical beliefs that women are things to be possessed, controlled, and conquered. He views “natural yielding” as a woman’s “greatest charm” and a wife as belonging to a man. On the other hand, Jeff places women on a pedestal to the point that he scarcely views them as human any more than Terry does. Van is somewhat in the middle of the two and is able to at least partly examine some of his long held beliefs about women and their place in the world. However, even some of his thoughts and actions are troubling at best. For example,  when Terry commits an unforgivable transgression against of the inhabitants of Herland, an attempted rape, he is banished– Van feels fleeting sympathy for Terry which also speaks to the problematic way rape is viewed (then and now). This alludes to how even the most progressive of males still have unconscious and underlying biases that need to be worked out and examined.

Even though I obviously found some characteristics of the story unrealistic, the premise and idea of everything I thought was brilliant. Overall, I thought this was a wonderful work to guide its reader in examining gender, gender roles, femininity/masculinity, morality, and romantic love. I thoroughly enjoyed the connection between Van and his woman friend as sex didn’t need to be part of it.

5 out of 5 stars.

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