HERLAND and Feminism

“Herland” Pantheon 1979

We were not in the least “advanced” on the woman question, any of us, then.” (pg.9)

I had the pleasure of discovering this book by accident. As one of the many books that get donated to Bogart’s every day, I recognized the name Charlotte Perkins Gilman right away. In college I was lucky enough to read (and, thanks to the Gutenberg website, you can too ) “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a few times. Each reading left me with a new insight about the story and its writer. It’s a complicated short story written in a time when women’s health was left to doctors who, it seemed anyway, had never spoken to a woman about her health. Consequently, ridiculous “cures” were prescribed for quite a number of mental health issues that we have a somewhat better grasp on today. The fact that the main theme is sanity means that the story reads very jumbled and I believe many readings are necessary to get a grasp on what Gilman was really talking about. I also think she felt restrained by society on what she could really discuss about women and childbirth. No one was allowed to say that they were depressed by the arrival of a child. Motherhood was a joy alone. Certainly postpartum depression is only recently being studied and diagnosed. 

At the time of publication of Herland (1915) the discussion of “the women question” was still at its height. And let’s face it, the fact that there was even a “question” is so disturbing. Women in America had yet to get the vote and were still expected to stay happily indoors and never complain. This tiny novel, in no uncertain terms, bashed the idea that this is acceptable for all women. In fact, throughout the novel Gilman put a strong emphasis on vigorous outdoor living. Many of the similes and metaphors are nature related. For example, many of the young women are compared to a variety of wild birds, from parrots to hawks. And these attributes were mentioned with a positive connotation. Her position was that the realm of the household did not satisfy the needs of every woman. They needed more than the “social duties” and “hospitality, entertainment and various interests” (pg.97) that the men describe as the expectations for a woman of wealth. While she damns so many aspects of female roles, it is interesting that she still put such a significance on motherhood. A lot of her contemporaries were working to also remove motherhood from the definition of female and femininity. 

However, I do not think women were the only portion of the population that she was trying to improve the world for. She was trying to change all of society, from the education system to the prison systems. She wanted to do a total overhaul of the way that the States operated. Unfortunately, no one was willing to listen to a woman because her ideas were amazing. A lot of the points that she raised almost 100 years ago still ring true for the world that we live in today. Her diagnosis of the education especially intrigued me. The school system we have now is severely flawed as it works to punish children instead of helping them discover their own intelligence. We have forced them to believe that if one way of learning does not work that they are stupid and therefore incapable of learning. It is so absurd. Gilman presents a way of teaching that works with each child individually to create an open environment for asking questions and learning from mistakes.  If you are interested in teaching, or have a friend that is, I highly suggest reading this for the education theories, even if you can’t necessarily employ them in a normal academic setting just yet. In fact, many of the ideas presented are completely ridiculous and would never work in a real world setting. But exaggeration is necessary to make a valid point sometimes.

I really enjoyed the book, though, I’m not sure how successful I believe the novel is on just a literary basis. It is a little too overt for my taste. And most of the characters are only basic stereotypes as there was both a man that revered women and the kind that demean women. Of course, the narrator is *just* right, as if they were bowls of porridge before a little blonde girl. But the ideas are so interesting that I am willing to overlook the technical failure. If people are willing to discuss important subjects after reading this book then I think Gilman achieved the goal for which she was aiming. I appreciated that I was made to think about the greater world around me after I finished. 

If you liked this, then you might like…

Edith Wharton

Lily Bart from The House of Mirth is one of my favorite characters of all time. If Gilman’s novel fall short on a technical level then this novel will far exceed any expectations. It is beautifully crafted; every character is purposeful and complex. Lily exemplifies the idea that not every woman has to have a child to be fulfilled in life but the society around her would not allow that to happen. Most of Wharton’s novels deal with a similar theme but I feel that The House of Mirth is the most successful at exploring that particular issue. You’ll probably need a dictionary for most of her works because she’s totally brilliant and great at showing that off. But get through the difficult vocabulary and you’ll be rewarded with a moving portrait of the struggle against “the woman question.”

Laurie R. King

If you’re in the mood for something not so heavy handed try a little Mary Russell on for size. She’s the strong female hero in King’s series that continues the Sherlock Holmes saga. She’s young, feisty, naturally brilliant and can match wits with the great Sherlock. It wonderfully written by a talented mystery writer and I was hooked from book one, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Mary makes you proud to be a part of the female sex as the other writers are far more bleak. They are filled with characters that can not really change their destinies while Mary would never dream of doing so. I really love how powerful she is portrayed even if the story is set in the same era as the other novels. 

Tell me your favorite feminine heroes! 

See you later, see you soon.

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