When young Van Jennings and his friends — Terry and Jeff — invade an isolated society composed entirely of women, they carry with them not only brightly colored scarves and beads but sexist ideological baggage. Jeff is an idealist who regards women as things to be served and protected; Terry is a cynic who views women as conquests. Van, a sociologist, is uniquely able to apprehend the social construction of gender roles… and the fact that a woman-only social order is superior in every way to western civilization. Written by sociologist and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Herland was first serialized in 1915.
I had always been proud of my country, of course. Everyone is. Compared with the other lands and other races I knew, the United States of America had always seemed to me, speaking modestly, as good as the best of them.
But just as a clear-eyed, intelligent, perfectly honest, and well-meaning child will frequently jar one’s self-esteem by innocent questions, so did these women, without the slightest appearance of malice or satire, continually bring up points of discussion which we spent our best efforts in evading.
Now that we were fairly proficient in their language, had read a lot about their history, and had given them the general outlines of ours, they were able to press their questions closer.
So when Jeff admitted the number of “women wage earners” we had, they instantly asked for the total population, for the proportion of adult women, and found that there were but twenty million or so at the outside.
“Then at least a third of your women are — what is it you call them — wage earners? And they are all poor. What is poor, exactly?”
“Ours is the best country in the world as to poverty,” Terry told them. “We do not have the wretched paupers and beggars of the older countries, I assure you. Why, European visitors tell us, we don’t know what poverty is.”
“Neither do we,” answered Zava. “Won’t you tell us?”
Terry put it up to me, saying I was the sociologist, and I explained that the laws of nature require a struggle for existence, and that in the struggle the fittest survive, and the unfit perish. In our economic struggle, I continued, there was always plenty of opportunity for the fittest to reach the top, which they did, in great numbers, particularly in our country; that where there was severe economic pressure the lowest classes of course felt it the worst, and that among the poorest of all the women were driven into the labor market by necessity.
They listened closely, with the usual note-taking.
“About one-third, then, belong to the poorest class,” observed Moadine gravely. “And two-thirds are the ones who are — how was it you so beautifully put it? — ‘loved, honored, kept in the home to care for the children.’ This inferior one-third have no children, I suppose?”
Jeff — he was getting as bad as they were — solemnly replied that, on the contrary, the poorer they were, the more children they had. That too, he explained, was a law of nature: “Reproduction is in inverse proportion to individuation.”
“These ‘laws of nature,’” Zava gently asked, “are they all the laws you have?”
“I should say not!” protested Terry. “We have systems of law that go back thousands and thousands of years — just as you do, no doubt,” he finished politely.
“Oh no,” Moadine told him. “We have no laws over a hundred years old, and most of them are under twenty. In a few weeks more,” she continued, “we are going to have the pleasure of showing you over our little land and explaining everything you care to know about. We want you to see our people.”
“And I assure you,” Somel added, “that our people want to see you.”
Terry brightened up immensely at this news, and reconciled himself to the renewed demands upon our capacity as teachers. It was lucky that we knew so little, really, and had no books to refer to, else, I fancy we might all be there yet, teaching those eager-minded women about the rest of the world.
As to geography, they had the tradition of the Great Sea, beyond the mountains; and they could see for themselves the endless thick-forested plains below them — that was all. But from the few records of their ancient condition — not “before the flood” with them, but before that mighty quake which had cut them off so completely — they were aware that there were other peoples and other countries.
In geology they were quite ignorant.
As to anthropology, they had those same remnants of information about other peoples, and the knowledge of the savagery of the occupants of those dim forests below. Nevertheless, they had inferred (marvelously keen on inference and deduction their minds were!) the existence and development of civilization in other places, much as we infer it on other planets.
When our biplane came whirring over their heads in that first scouting flight of ours, they had instantly accepted it as proof of the high development of Some Where Else, and had prepared to receive us as cautiously and eagerly as we might prepare to welcome visitors who came “by meteor” from Mars.
Of history — outside their own — they knew nothing, of course, save for their ancient traditions.
Of astronomy they had a fair working knowledge — that is a very old science; and with it, a surprising range and facility in mathematics.
Physiology they were quite familiar with. Indeed, when it came to the simpler and more concrete sciences, wherein the subject matter was at hand and they had but to exercise their minds upon it, the results were surprising. They had worked out a chemistry, a botany, a physics, with all the blends where a science touches an art, or merges into an industry, to such fullness of knowledge as made us feel like schoolchildren.
Also we found this out — as soon as we were free of the country, and by further study and question — that what one knew, all knew, to a very considerable extent.
I talked later with little mountain girls from the fir-dark valleys away up at their highest part, and with sunburned plains-women and agile foresters, all over the country, as well as those in the towns, and everywhere there was the same high level of intelligence. Some knew far more than others about one thing — they were specialized, of course; but all of them knew more about everything — that is, about everything the country was acquainted with — than is the case with us.
We boast a good deal of our “high level of general intelligence” and our “compulsory public education,” but in proportion to their opportunities they were far better educated than our people.
With what we told them, from what sketches and models we were able to prepare, they constructed a sort of working outline to fill in as they learned more.
A big globe was made, and our uncertain maps, helped out by those in that precious yearbook thing I had, were tentatively indicated upon it.
They sat in eager groups, masses of them who came for the purpose, and listened while Jeff roughly ran over the geologic history of the earth, and showed them their own land in relation to the others. Out of that same pocket reference book of mine came facts and figures which were seized upon and placed in right relation with unerring acumen.
Even Terry grew interested in this work. “If we can keep this up, they’ll be having us lecture to all the girls’ schools and colleges — how about that?” he suggested to us. “Don’t know as I’d object to being an Authority to such audiences.”
They did, in fact, urge us to give public lectures later, but not to the hearers or with the purpose we expected.
What they were doing with us was like — like — well, say like Napoleon extracting military information from a few illiterate peasants. They knew just what to ask, and just what use to make of it; they had mechanical appliances for disseminating information almost equal to ours at home; and by the time we were led forth to lecture, our audiences had thoroughly mastered a well-arranged digest of all we had previously given to our teachers, and were prepared with such notes and questions as might have intimidated a university professor.
They were not audiences of girls, either. It was some time before we were allowed to meet the young women.
“Do you mind telling what you intend to do with us?” Terry burst forth one day, facing the calm and friendly Moadine with that funny half-blustering air of his. At first he used to storm and flourish quite a good deal, but nothing seemed to amuse them more; they would gather around and watch him as if it was an exhibition, politely, but with evident interest. So he learned to check himself, and was almost reasonable in his bearing — but not quite.
She announced smoothly and evenly: “Not in the least. I thought it was quite plain. We are trying to learn of you all we can, and to teach you what you are willing to learn of our country.”
“Is that all?” he insisted.
She smiled a quiet enigmatic smile. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Mainly on yourselves,” she replied.
“Why do you keep us shut up so closely?”
“Because we do not feel quite safe in allowing you at large where there are so many young women.”
Terry was really pleased at that. He had thought as much, inwardly; but he pushed the question. “Why should you be afraid? We are gentlemen.”
She smiled that little smile again, and asked: “Are ‘gentlemen’ always safe?”
“You surely do not think that any of us,” he said it with a good deal of emphasis on the “us,” “would hurt your young girls?”
“Oh no,” she said quickly, in real surprise. “The danger is quite the other way. They might hurt you. If, by any accident, you did harm any one of us, you would have to face a million mothers.”
He looked so amazed and outraged that Jeff and I laughed outright, but she went on gently.
“I do not think you quite understand yet. You are but men, three men, in a country where the whole population are mothers — or are going to be. Motherhood means to us something which I cannot yet discover in any of the countries of which you tell us. You have spoken” — she turned to Jeff, “of Human Brotherhood as a great idea among you, but even that I judge is far from a practical expression?”
Jeff nodded rather sadly. “Very far—” he said.
“Here we have Human Motherhood — in full working use,” she went on. “Nothing else except the literal sisterhood of our origin, and the far higher and deeper union of our social growth.
“The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them — on the race. You see, we are mothers,” she repeated, as if in that she had said it all.
“I don’t see how that fact — which is shared by all women — constitutes any risk to us,” Terry persisted. “You mean they would defend their children from attack. Of course. Any mothers would. But we are not savages, my dear lady; we are not going to hurt any mother’s child.”
They looked at one another and shook their heads a little, but Zava turned to Jeff and urged him to make us see — said he seemed to understand more fully than we did. And he tried.
I can see it now, or at least much more of it, but it has taken me a long time, and a good deal of honest intellectual effort.
What they call Motherhood was like this:
They began with a really high degree of social development, something like that of Ancient Egypt or Greece. Then they suffered the loss of everything masculine, and supposed at first that all human power and safety had gone too. Then they developed this virgin birth capacity. Then, since the prosperity of their children depended on it, the fullest and subtlest coordination began to be practiced.
I remember how long Terry balked at the evident unanimity of these women — the most conspicuous feature of their whole culture. “It’s impossible!” he would insist. “Women cannot cooperate — it’s against nature.”
When we urged the obvious facts he would say: “Fiddlesticks!” or “Hang your facts — I tell you it can’t be done!” And we never succeeded in shutting him up till Jeff dragged in the hymenoptera.
“’Go to the ant, thou sluggard’ — and learn something,” he said triumphantly. “Don’t they cooperate pretty well? You can’t beat it. This place is just like an enormous anthill — you know an anthill is nothing but a nursery. And how about bees? Don’t they manage to cooperate and love one another? as that precious Constable had it. Just show me a combination of male creatures, bird, bug, or beast, that works as well, will you? Or one of our masculine countries where the people work together as well as they do here! I tell you, women are the natural cooperators, not men!”
Terry had to learn a good many things he did not want to. To go back to my little analysis of what happened:
They developed all this close inter-service in the interests of their children. To do the best work they had to specialize, of course; the children needed spinners and weavers, farmers and gardeners, carpenters and masons, as well as mothers.
Then came the filling up of the place. When a population multiplies by five every thirty years it soon reaches the limits of a country, especially a small one like this. They very soon eliminated all the grazing cattle — sheep were the last to go, I believe. Also, they worked out a system of intensive agriculture surpassing anything I ever heard of, with the very forests all reset with fruit- or nut-bearing trees.
Do what they would, however, there soon came a time when they were confronted with the problem of “the pressure of population” in an acute form. There was really crowding, and with it, unavoidably, a decline in standards.
And how did those women meet it?
Not by a “struggle for existence” which would result in an everlasting writhing mass of underbred people trying to get ahead of one another — some few on top, temporarily, many constantly crushed out underneath, a hopeless substratum of paupers and degenerates, and no serenity or peace for anyone, no possibility for really noble qualities among the people at large.
Neither did they start off on predatory excursions to get more land from somebody else, or to get more food from somebody else, to maintain their struggling mass.
Not at all. They sat down in council together and thought it out. Very clear, strong thinkers they were. They said: “With our best endeavors this country will support about so many people, with the standard of peace, comfort, health, beauty, and progress we demand. Very well. That is all the people we will make.”
There you have it. You see, they were Mothers, not in our sense of helpless involuntary fecundity, forced to fill and overfill the land, every land, and then see their children suffer, sin, and die, fighting horribly with one another; but in the sense of Conscious Makers of People. Mother-love with them was not a brute passion, a mere “instinct,” a wholly personal feeling; it was — a religion.
It included that limitless feeling of sisterhood, that wide unity in service, which was so difficult for us to grasp. And it was National, Racial, Human — oh, I don’t know how to say it.
We are used to seeing what we call “a mother” completely wrapped up in her own pink bundle of fascinating babyhood, and taking but the faintest theoretic interest in anybody else’s bundle, to say nothing of the common needs of ALL the bundles. But these women were working all together at the grandest of tasks — they were Making People — and they made them well.
There followed a period of “negative eugenics” which must have been an appalling sacrifice. We are commonly willing to “lay down our lives” for our country, but they had to forego motherhood for their country — and it was precisely the hardest thing for them to do.
When I got this far in my reading I went to Somel for more light. We were as friendly by that time as I had ever been in my life with any woman. A mighty comfortable soul she was, giving one the nice smooth mother-feeling a man likes in a woman, and yet giving also the clear intelligence and dependableness I used to assume to be masculine qualities. We had talked volumes already.
“See here,” said I. “Here was this dreadful period when they got far too thick, and decided to limit the population. We have a lot of talk about that among us, but your position is so different that I’d like to know a little more about it.
“I understand that you make Motherhood the highest social service — a sacrament, really; that it is only undertaken once, by the majority of the population; that those held unfit are not allowed even that; and that to be encouraged to bear more than one child is the very highest reward and honor in the power of the state.”
(She interpolated here that the nearest approach to an aristocracy they had was to come of a line of “Over Mothers” — those who had been so honored.)
“But what I do not understand, naturally, is how you prevent it. I gathered that each woman had five. You have no tyrannical husbands to hold in check — and you surely do not destroy the unborn—”
The look of ghastly horror she gave me I shall never forget. She started from her chair, pale, her eyes blazing.
“Destroy the unborn — !” she said in a hard whisper. “Do men do that in your country?”
“Men!” I began to answer, rather hotly, and then saw the gulf before me. None of us wanted these women to think that our women, of whom we boasted so proudly, were in any way inferior to them. I am ashamed to say that I equivocated. I told her of certain criminal types of women — perverts, or crazy, who had been known to commit infanticide. I told her, truly enough, that there was much in our land which was open to criticism, but that I hated to dwell on our defects until they understood us and our conditions better.
And, making a wide detour, I scrambled back to my question of how they limited the population.
As for Somel, she seemed sorry, a little ashamed even, of her too clearly expressed amazement. As I look back now, knowing them better, I am more and more and more amazed as I appreciate the exquisite courtesy with which they had received over and over again statements and admissions on our part which must have revolted them to the soul.
She explained to me, with sweet seriousness, that as I had supposed, at first each woman bore five children; and that, in their eager desire to build up a nation, they had gone on in that way for a few centuries, till they were confronted with the absolute need of a limit. This fact was equally plain to all — all were equally interested.
They were now as anxious to check their wonderful power as they had been to develop it; and for some generations gave the matter their most earnest thought and study.
“We were living on rations before we worked it out,” she said. “But we did work it out. You see, before a child comes to one of us there is a period of utter exaltation — the whole being is uplifted and filled with a concentrated desire for that child. We learned to look forward to that period with the greatest caution. Often our young women, those to whom motherhood had not yet come, would voluntarily defer it. When that deep inner demand for a child began to be felt she would deliberately engage in the most active work, physical and mental; and even more important, would solace her longing by the direct care and service of the babies we already had.”
She paused. Her wise sweet face grew deeply, reverently tender.
“We soon grew to see that mother-love has more than one channel of expression. I think the reason our children are so — so fully loved, by all of us, is that we never — any of us — have enough of our own.”
This seemed to me infinitely pathetic, and I said so. “We have much that is bitter and hard in our life at home,” I told her, “but this seems to me piteous beyond words — a whole nation of starving mothers!”
But she smiled her deep contented smile, and said I quite misunderstood.
“We each go without a certain range of personal joy,” she said, “but remember — we each have a million children to love and serve — our children.”
It was beyond me. To hear a lot of women talk about “our children”! But I suppose that is the way the ants and bees would talk — do talk, maybe.
That was what they did, anyhow.
When a woman chose to be a mother, she allowed the child-longing to grow within her till it worked its natural miracle. When she did not so choose she put the whole thing out of her mind, and fed her heart with the other babies.
Let me see — with us, children — minors, that is — constitute about three-fifths of the population; with them only about one-third, or less. And precious — ! No sole heir to an empire’s throne, no solitary millionaire baby, no only child of middle-aged parents, could compare as an idol with these Herland children.
But before I start on that subject I must finish up that little analysis I was trying to make.
They did effectually and permanently limit the population in numbers, so that the country furnished plenty for the fullest, richest life for all of them: plenty of everything, including room, air, solitude even.
And then they set to work to improve that population in quality — since they were restricted in quantity. This they had been at work on, uninterruptedly, for some fifteen hundred years. Do you wonder they were nice people?
Physiology, hygiene, sanitation, physical culture — all that line of work had been perfected long since. Sickness was almost wholly unknown among them, so much so that a previously high development in what we call the “science of medicine” had become practically a lost art. They were a clean-bred, vigorous lot, having the best of care, the most perfect living conditions always.
When it came to psychology — there was no one thing which left us so dumbfounded, so really awed, as the everyday working knowledge — and practice — they had in this line. As we learned more and more of it, we learned to appreciate the exquisite mastery with which we ourselves, strangers of alien race, of unknown opposite sex, had been understood and provided for from the first.
With this wide, deep, thorough knowledge, they had met and solved the problems of education in ways some of which I hope to make clear later. Those nation-loved children of theirs compared with the average in our country as the most perfectly cultivated, richly developed roses compare with — tumbleweeds. Yet they did not seem “cultivated” at all — it had all become a natural condition.
And this people, steadily developing in mental capacity, in will power, in social devotion, had been playing with the arts and sciences — as far as they knew them — for a good many centuries now with inevitable success.
Into this quiet lovely land, among these wise, sweet, strong women, we, in our easy assumption of superiority, had suddenly arrived; and now, tamed and trained to a degree they considered safe, we were at last brought out to see the country, to know the people.
“And we never succeeded in shutting him up till Jeff dragged in the hymenoptera.” — The hymenoptera are one of the largest orders of insects, comprising the sawflies, wasps, bees and ants.
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READ HERE AT HILOBROW: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “The Moon Men” | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss”