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.
Being at last considered sufficiently tamed and trained to be trusted with scissors, we barbered ourselves as best we could. A close-trimmed beard is certainly more comfortable than a full one. Razors, naturally, they could not supply.
“With so many old women you’d think there’d be some razors,” sneered Terry. Whereat Jeff pointed out that he never before had seen such complete absence of facial hair on women.
“Looks to me as if the absence of men made them more feminine in that regard, anyhow,” he suggested.
“Well, it’s the only one then,” Terry reluctantly agreed. “A less feminine lot I never saw. A child apiece doesn’t seem to be enough to develop what I call motherliness.”
Terry’s idea of motherliness was the usual one, involving a baby in arms, or “a little flock about her knees,” and the complete absorption of the mother in said baby or flock. A motherliness which dominated society, which influenced every art and industry, which absolutely protected all childhood, and gave to it the most perfect care and training, did not seem motherly — to Terry.
We had become well used to the clothes. They were quite as comfortable as our own — in some ways more so — and undeniably better looking. As to pockets, they left nothing to be desired. That second garment was fairly quilted with pockets. They were most ingeniously arranged, so as to be convenient to the hand and not inconvenient to the body, and were so placed as at once to strengthen the garment and add decorative lines of stitching.
In this, as in so many other points we had now to observe, there was shown the action of a practical intelligence, coupled with fine artistic feeling, and, apparently, untrammeled by any injurious influences.
Our first step of comparative freedom was a personally conducted tour of the country. No pentagonal bodyguard now! Only our special tutors, and we got on famously with them. Jeff said he loved Zava like an aunt — “only jollier than any aunt I ever saw”; Somel and I were as chummy as could be — the best of friends; but it was funny to watch Terry and Moadine. She was patient with him, and courteous, but it was like the patience and courtesy of some great man, say a skilled, experienced diplomat, with a schoolgirl. Her grave acquiescence with his most preposterous expression of feeling; her genial laughter, not only with, but, I often felt, at him — though impeccably polite; her innocent questions, which almost invariably led him to say more than he intended — Jeff and I found it all amusing to watch.
He never seemed to recognize that quiet background of superiority. When she dropped an argument he always thought he had silenced her; when she laughed he thought it tribute to his wit.
I hated to admit to myself how much Terry had sunk in my esteem. Jeff felt it too, I am sure; but neither of us admitted it to the other. At home we had measured him with other men, and, though we knew his failings, he was by no means an unusual type. We knew his virtues too, and they had always seemed more prominent than the faults. Measured among women — our women at home, I mean — he had always stood high. He was visibly popular. Even where his habits were known, there was no discrimination against him; in some cases his reputation for what was felicitously termed “gaiety” seemed a special charm.
But here, against the calm wisdom and quiet restrained humor of these women, with only that blessed Jeff and my inconspicuous self to compare with, Terry did stand out rather strong.
As “a man among men,” he didn’t; as a man among — I shall have to say, “females,” he didn’t; his intense masculinity seemed only fit complement to their intense femininity. But here he was all out of drawing.
Moadine was a big woman, with a balanced strength that seldom showed. Her eye was as quietly watchful as a fencer’s. She maintained a pleasant relation with her charge, but I doubt if many, even in that country, could have done as well.
He called her “Maud,” amongst ourselves, and said she was “a good old soul, but a little slow”; wherein he was quite wrong. Needless to say, he called Jeff’s teacher “Java,” and sometimes “Mocha,” or plain “Coffee”; when specially mischievous, “Chicory,” and even “Postum.” But Somel rather escaped this form of humor, save for a rather forced “Some ’ell.”
“Don’t you people have but one name?” he asked one day, after we had been introduced to a whole group of them, all with pleasant, few-syllabled strange names, like the ones we knew.
“Oh yes,” Moadine told him. “A good many of us have another, as we get on in life — a descriptive one. That is the name we earn. Sometimes even that is changed, or added to, in an unusually rich life. Such as our present Land Mother — what you call president or king, I believe. She was called Mera, even as a child; that means ‘thinker.’ Later there was added Du—Du-Mera — the wise thinker, and now we all know her as O-du-mera — great and wise thinker. You shall meet her.”
“No surnames at all then?” pursued Terry, with his somewhat patronizing air. “No family name?”
“Why no,” she said. “Why should we? We are all descended from a common source — all one ‘family’ in reality. You see, our comparatively brief and limited history gives us that advantage at least.”
“But does not each mother want her own child to bear her name?” I asked.
“No — why should she? The child has its own.”
“Why for — for identification — so people will know whose child she is.”
“We keep the most careful records,” said Somel. “Each one of us has our exact line of descent all the way back to our dear First Mother. There are many reasons for doing that. But as to everyone knowing which child belongs to which mother — why should she?”
Here, as in so many other instances, we were led to feel the difference between the purely maternal and the paternal attitude of mind. The element of personal pride seemed strangely lacking.
“How about your other works?” asked Jeff. “Don’t you sign your names to them — books and statues and so on?”
“Yes, surely, we are all glad and proud to. Not only books and statues, but all kinds of work. You will find little names on the houses, on the furniture, on the dishes sometimes. Because otherwise one is likely to forget, and we want to know to whom to be grateful.”
“You speak as if it were done for the convenience of the consumer — not the pride of the producer,” I suggested.
“It’s both,” said Somel. “We have pride enough in our work.”
“Then why not in your children?” urged Jeff.
“But we have! We’re magnificently proud of them,” she insisted.
“Then why not sign ’em?” said Terry triumphantly.
Moadine turned to him with her slightly quizzical smile. “Because the finished product is not a private one. When they are babies, we do speak of them, at times, as ‘Essa’s Lato,’ or ‘Novine’s Amel’; but that is merely descriptive and conversational. In the records, of course, the child stands in her own line of mothers; but in dealing with it personally it is Lato, or Amel, without dragging in its ancestors.”
“But have you names enough to give a new one to each child?”
“Assuredly we have, for each living generation.”
Then they asked about our methods, and found first that “we” did so and so, and then that other nations did differently. Upon which they wanted to know which method has been proved best — and we had to admit that so far as we knew there had been no attempt at comparison, each people pursuing its own custom in the fond conviction of superiority, and either despising or quite ignoring the others.
With these women the most salient quality in all their institutions was reasonableness. When I dug into the records to follow out any line of development, that was the most astonishing thing — the conscious effort to make it better.
They had early observed the value of certain improvements, had easily inferred that there was room for more, and took the greatest pains to develop two kinds of minds — the critic and inventor. Those who showed an early tendency to observe, to discriminate, to suggest, were given special training for that function; and some of their highest officials spent their time in the most careful study of one or another branch of work, with a view to its further improvement.
In each generation there was sure to arrive some new mind to detect faults and show need of alterations; and the whole corps of inventors was at hand to apply their special faculty at the point criticized, and offer suggestions.
We had learned by this time not to open a discussion on any of their characteristics without first priming ourselves to answer questions about our own methods; so I kept rather quiet on this matter of conscious improvement. We were not prepared to show our way was better.
There was growing in our minds, at least in Jeff’s and mine, a keen appreciation of the advantages of this strange country and its management. Terry remained critical. We laid most of it to his nerves. He certainly was irritable.
The most conspicuous feature of the whole land was the perfection of its food supply. We had begun to notice from that very first walk in the forest, the first partial view from our ’plane. Now we were taken to see this mighty garden, and shown its methods of culture.
The country was about the size of Holland, some ten or twelve thousand square miles. One could lose a good many Hollands along the forest-smothered flanks of those mighty mountains. They had a population of about three million — not a large one, but quality is something. Three million is quite enough to allow for considerable variation, and these people varied more widely than we could at first account for.
Terry had insisted that if they were parthenogenetic they’d be as alike as so many ants or aphids; he urged their visible differences as proof that there must be men — somewhere.
But when we asked them, in our later, more intimate conversations, how they accounted for so much divergence without cross-fertilization, they attributed it partly to the careful education, which followed each slight tendency to differ, and partly to the law of mutation. This they had found in their work with plants, and fully proven in their own case.
Physically they were more alike than we, as they lacked all morbid or excessive types. They were tall, strong, healthy, and beautiful as a race, but differed individually in a wide range of feature, coloring, and expression.
“But surely the most important growth is in mind — and in the things we make,” urged Somel. “Do you find your physical variation accompanied by a proportionate variation in ideas, feelings, and products? Or, among people who look more alike, do you find their internal life and their work as similar?”
We were rather doubtful on this point, and inclined to hold that there was more chance of improvement in greater physical variation.
“It certainly should be,” Zava admitted. “We have always thought it a grave initial misfortune to have lost half our little world. Perhaps that is one reason why we have so striven for conscious improvement.”
“But acquired traits are not transmissible,” Terry declared. “Weissman has proved that.”
They never disputed our absolute statements, only made notes of them.
“If that is so, then our improvement must be due either to mutation, or solely to education,” she gravely pursued. “We certainly have improved. It may be that all these higher qualities were latent in the original mother, that careful education is bringing them out, and that our personal differences depend on slight variations in prenatal condition.”
“I think it is more in your accumulated culture,” Jeff suggested. “And in the amazing psychic growth you have made. We know very little about methods of real soul culture — and you seem to know a great deal.”
Be that as it might, they certainly presented a higher level of active intelligence, and of behavior, than we had so far really grasped. Having known in our lives several people who showed the same delicate courtesy and were equally pleasant to live with, at least when they wore their “company manners,” we had assumed that our companions were a carefully chosen few. Later we were more and more impressed that all this gentle breeding was breeding; that they were born to it, reared in it, that it was as natural and universal with them as the gentleness of doves or the alleged wisdom of serpents.
As for the intelligence, I confess that this was the most impressive and, to me, most mortifying, of any single feature of Herland. We soon ceased to comment on this or other matters which to them were such obvious commonplaces as to call forth embarrassing questions about our own conditions.
This was nowhere better shown than in that matter of food supply, which I will now attempt to describe.
Having improved their agriculture to the highest point, and carefully estimated the number of persons who could comfortably live on their square miles; having then limited their population to that number, one would think that was all there was to be done. But they had not thought so. To them the country was a unit — it was theirs. They themselves were a unit, a conscious group; they thought in terms of the community. As such, their time-sense was not limited to the hopes and ambitions of an individual life. Therefore, they habitually considered and carried out plans for improvement which might cover centuries.
I had never seen, had scarcely imagined, human beings undertaking such a work as the deliberate replanting of an entire forest area with different kinds of trees. Yet this seemed to them the simplest common sense, like a man’s plowing up an inferior lawn and reseeding it. Now every tree bore fruit — edible fruit, that is. In the case of one tree, in which they took especial pride, it had originally no fruit at all — that is, none humanly edible — yet was so beautiful that they wished to keep it. For nine hundred years they had experimented, and now showed us this particularly lovely graceful tree, with a profuse crop of nutritious seeds.
They had early decided that trees were the best food plants, requiring far less labor in tilling the soil, and bearing a larger amount of food for the same ground space; also doing much to preserve and enrich the soil.
Due regard had been paid to seasonable crops, and their fruit and nuts, grains and berries, kept on almost the year through.
On the higher part of the country, near the backing wall of mountains, they had a real winter with snow. Toward the south-eastern point, where there was a large valley with a lake whose outlet was subterranean, the climate was like that of California, and citrus fruits, figs, and olives grew abundantly.
What impressed me particularly was their scheme of fertilization. Here was this little shut-in piece of land where one would have thought an ordinary people would have been starved out long ago or reduced to an annual struggle for life. These careful culturists had worked out a perfect scheme of refeeding the soil with all that came out of it. All the scraps and leavings of their food, plant waste from lumber work or textile industry, all the solid matter from the sewage, properly treated and combined — everything which came from the earth went back to it.
The practical result was like that in any healthy forest; an increasingly valuable soil was being built, instead of the progressive impoverishment so often seen in the rest of the world.
When this first burst upon us we made such approving comments that they were surprised that such obvious common sense should be praised; asked what our methods were; and we had some difficulty in — well, in diverting them, by referring to the extent of our own land, and the — admitted — carelessness with which we had skimmed the cream of it.
At least we thought we had diverted them. Later I found that besides keeping a careful and accurate account of all we told them, they had a sort of skeleton chart, on which the things we said and the things we palpably avoided saying were all set down and studied. It really was child’s play for those profound educators to work out a painfully accurate estimate of our conditions — in some lines. When a given line of observation seemed to lead to some very dreadful inference they always gave us the benefit of the doubt, leaving it open to further knowledge. Some of the things we had grown to accept as perfectly natural, or as belonging to our human limitations, they literally could not have believed; and, as I have said, we had all of us joined in a tacit endeavor to conceal much of the social status at home.
“Confound their grandmotherly minds!” Terry said. “Of course they can’t understand a Man’s World! They aren’t human — they’re just a pack of Fe-Fe-Females!” This was after he had to admit their parthenogenesis.
“I wish our grandfatherly minds had managed as well,” said Jeff. “Do you really think it’s to our credit that we have muddled along with all our poverty and disease and the like? They have peace and plenty, wealth and beauty, goodness and intellect. Pretty good people, I think!”
“You’ll find they have their faults too,” Terry insisted; and partly in self-defense, we all three began to look for those faults of theirs. We had been very strong on this subject before we got there — in those baseless speculations of ours.
“Suppose there is a country of women only,” Jeff had put it, over and over. “What’ll they be like?”
And we had been cocksure as to the inevitable limitations, the faults and vices, of a lot of women. We had expected them to be given over to what we called “feminine vanity” — “frills and furbelows,” and we found they had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and good taste.
We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours.
We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarreling children — feebleminded ones at that.
We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel.
We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper, to which the habit of profanity, for instance, was impossible to explain — we tried it.
All these things even Terry had to admit, but he still insisted that we should find out the other side pretty soon.
“It stands to reason, doesn’t it?” he argued. “The whole thing’s deuced unnatural — I’d say impossible if we weren’t in it. And an unnatural condition’s sure to have unnatural results. You’ll find some awful characteristics — see if you don’t! For instance — we don’t know yet what they do with their criminals — their defectives — their aged. You notice we haven’t seen any! There’s got to be something!”
I was inclined to believe that there had to be something, so I took the bull by the horns — the cow, I should say! — and asked Somel.
“I want to find some flaw in all this perfection,” I told her flatly. “It simply isn’t possible that three million people have no faults. We are trying our best to understand and learn — would you mind helping us by saying what, to your minds, are the worst qualities of this unique civilization of yours?”
We were sitting together in a shaded arbor, in one of those eating-gardens of theirs. The delicious food had been eaten, a plate of fruit still before us. We could look out on one side over a stretch of open country, quietly rich and lovely; on the other, the garden, with tables here and there, far apart enough for privacy. Let me say right here that with all their careful “balance of population” there was no crowding in this country. There was room, space, a sunny breezy freedom everywhere.
Somel set her chin upon her hand, her elbow on the low wall beside her, and looked off over the fair land.
“Of course we have faults — all of us,” she said. “In one way you might say that we have more than we used to — that is, our standard of perfection seems to get farther and farther away. But we are not discouraged, because our records do show gain — considerable gain.
“When we began — even with the start of one particularly noble mother — we inherited the characteristics of a long race-record behind her. And they cropped out from time to time — alarmingly. But it is — yes, quite six hundred years since we have had what you call a ‘criminal.’
“We have, of course, made it our first business to train out, to breed out, when possible, the lowest types.”
“Breed out?” I asked. “How could you — with parthenogenesis?”
“If the girl showing the bad qualities had still the power to appreciate social duty, we appealed to her, by that, to renounce motherhood. Some of the few worst types were, fortunately, unable to reproduce. But if the fault was in a disproportionate egotism — then the girl was sure she had the right to have children, even that hers would be better than others.”
“I can see that,” I said. “And then she would be likely to rear them in the same spirit.”
“That we never allowed,” answered Somel quietly.
“Allowed?” I queried. “Allowed a mother to rear her own children?”
“Certainly not,” said Somel, “unless she was fit for that supreme task.”
This was rather a blow to my previous convictions.
“But I thought motherhood was for each of you—”
“Motherhood — yes, that is, maternity, to bear a child. But education is our highest art, only allowed to our highest artists.”
“Education?” I was puzzled again. “I don’t mean education. I mean by motherhood not only child-bearing, but the care of babies.”
“The care of babies involves education, and is entrusted only to the most fit,” she repeated.
“Then you separate mother and child!” I cried in cold horror, something of Terry’s feeling creeping over me, that there must be something wrong among these many virtues.
“Not usually,” she patiently explained. “You see, almost every woman values her maternity above everything else. Each girl holds it close and dear, an exquisite joy, a crowning honor, the most intimate, most personal, most precious thing. That is, the child-rearing has come to be with us a culture so profoundly studied, practiced with such subtlety and skill, that the more we love our children the less we are willing to trust that process to unskilled hands — even our own.”
“But a mother’s love—” I ventured.
She studied my face, trying to work out a means of clear explanation.
“You told us about your dentists,” she said, at length, “those quaintly specialized persons who spend their lives filling little holes in other persons’ teeth — even in children’s teeth sometimes.”
“Yes?” I said, not getting her drift.
“Does mother-love urge mothers — with you — to fill their own children’s teeth? Or to wish to?”
“Why no — of course not,” I protested. “But that is a highly specialized craft. Surely the care of babies is open to any woman — any mother!”
“We do not think so,” she gently replied. “Those of us who are the most highly competent fulfill that office; and a majority of our girls eagerly try for it — I assure you we have the very best.”
“But the poor mother — bereaved of her baby —”
“Oh no!” she earnestly assured me. “Not in the least bereaved. It is her baby still — it is with her — she has not lost it. But she is not the only one to care for it. There are others whom she knows to be wiser. She knows it because she has studied as they did, practiced as they did, and honors their real superiority. For the child’s sake, she is glad to have for it this highest care.”
I was unconvinced. Besides, this was only hearsay; I had yet to see the motherhood of Herland.
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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”