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.
We had all meant to go home again. Indeed we had not meant — not by any means — to stay as long as we had. But when it came to being turned out, dismissed, sent away for bad conduct, we none of us really liked it.
Terry said he did. He professed great scorn of the penalty and the trial, as well as all the other characteristics of “this miserable half-country.” But he knew, and we knew, that in any “whole” country we should never have been as forgivingly treated as we had been here.
“If the people had come after us according to the directions we left, there’d have been quite a different story!” said Terry. We found out later why no reserve party had arrived. All our careful directions had been destroyed in a fire. We might have all died there and no one at home have ever known our whereabouts.
Terry was under guard now, all the time, known as unsafe, convicted of what was to them an unpardonable sin.
He laughed at their chill horror. “Parcel of old maids!” he called them. “They’re all old maids — children or not. They don’t know the first thing about Sex.”
When Terry said sex, sex with a very large S, he meant the male sex, naturally; its special values, its profound conviction of being “the life force,” its cheerful ignoring of the true life process, and its interpretation of the other sex solely from its own point of view.
I had learned to see these things very differently since living with Ellador; and as for Jeff, he was so thoroughly Herlandized that he wasn’t fair to Terry, who fretted sharply in his new restraint.
Moadine, grave and strong, as sadly patient as a mother with a degenerate child, kept steady watch on him, with enough other women close at hand to prevent an outbreak. He had no weapons, and well knew that all his strength was of small avail against those grim, quiet women.
We were allowed to visit him freely, but he had only his room, and a small high-walled garden to walk in, while the preparations for our departure were under way.
Three of us were to go: Terry, because he must; I, because two were safer for our flyer, and the long boat trip to the coast; Ellador, because she would not let me go without her.
If Jeff had elected to return, Celis would have gone too — they were the most absorbed of lovers; but Jeff had no desire that way.
“Why should I want to go back to all our noise and dirt, our vice and crime, our disease and degeneracy?” he demanded of me privately. We never spoke like that before the women. “I wouldn’t take Celis there for anything on earth!” he protested. “She’d die! She’d die of horror and shame to see our slums and hospitals. How can you risk it with Ellador? You’d better break it to her gently before she really makes up her mind.”
Jeff was right. I ought to have told her more fully than I did, of all the things we had to be ashamed of. But it is very hard to bridge the gulf of as deep a difference as existed between our life and theirs. I tried to.
“Look here, my dear,” I said to her. “If you are really going to my country with me, you’ve got to be prepared for a good many shocks. It’s not as beautiful as this — the cities, I mean, the civilized parts — of course the wild country is.”
“I shall enjoy it all,” she said, her eyes starry with hope. “I understand it’s not like ours. I can see how monotonous our quiet life must seem to you, how much more stirring yours must be. It must be like the biological change you told me about when the second sex was introduced — a far greater movement, constant change, with new possibilities of growth.”
I had told her of the later biological theories of sex, and she was deeply convinced of the superior advantages of having two, the superiority of a world with men in it.
“We have done what we could alone; perhaps we have some things better in a quiet way, but you have the whole world — all the people of the different nations — all the long rich history behind you — all the wonderful new knowledge. Oh, I just can’t wait to see it!”
What could I do? I told her in so many words that we had our unsolved problems, that we had dishonesty and corruption, vice and crime, disease and insanity, prisons and hospitals; and it made no more impression on her than it would to tell a South Sea Islander about the temperature of the Arctic Circle. She could intellectually see that it was bad to have those things; but she could not feel it.
We had quite easily come to accept the Herland life as normal, because it was normal — none of us make any outcry over mere health and peace and happy industry. And the abnormal, to which we are all so sadly well acclimated, she had never seen.
The two things she cared most to hear about, and wanted most to see, were these: the beautiful relation of marriage and the lovely women who were mothers and nothing else; beyond these her keen, active mind hungered eagerly for the world life.
“I’m almost as anxious to go as you are yourself,” she insisted, “and you must be desperately homesick.”
I assured her that no one could be homesick in such a paradise as theirs, but she would have none of it.
“Oh, yes — I know. It’s like those little tropical islands you’ve told me about, shining like jewels in the big blue sea — I can’t wait to see the sea! The little island may be as perfect as a garden, but you always want to get back to your own big country, don’t you? Even if it is bad in some ways?”
Ellador was more than willing. But the nearer it came to our really going, and to my having to take her back to our “civilization,” after the clean peace and beauty of theirs, the more I began to dread it, and the more I tried to explain.
Of course I had been homesick at first, while we were prisoners, before I had Ellador. And of course I had, at first, rather idealized my country and its ways, in describing it. Also, I had always accepted certain evils as integral parts of our civilization and never dwelt on them at all. Even when I tried to tell her the worst, I never remembered some things — which, when she came to see them, impressed her at once, as they had never impressed me. Now, in my efforts at explanation, I began to see both ways more keenly than I had before; to see the painful defects of my own land, the marvelous gains of this.
In missing men we three visitors had naturally missed the larger part of life, and had unconsciously assumed that they must miss it too. It took me a long time to realize — Terry never did realize — how little it meant to them. When we say men, man, manly, manhood, and all the other masculine derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vague crowded picture of the world and all its activities. To grow up and “be a man,” to “act like a man” — the meaning and connotation is wide indeed. That vast background is full of marching columns of men, of changing lines of men, of long processions of men; of men steering their ships into new seas, exploring unknown mountains, breaking horses, herding cattle, ploughing and sowing and reaping, toiling at the forge and furnace, digging in the mine, building roads and bridges and high cathedrals, managing great businesses, teaching in all the colleges, preaching in all the churches; of men everywhere, doing everything —”the world.”
And when we say women, we think female — the sex.
But to these women, in the unbroken sweep of this two-thousand-year-old feminine civilization, the word woman called up all that big background, so far as they had gone in social development; and the word man meant to them only male — the sex.
Of course we could tell them that in our world men did everything; but that did not alter the background of their minds. That man, “the male,” did all these things was to them a statement, making no more change in the point of view than was made in ours when we first faced the astounding fact — to us — that in Herland women were “the world.”
We had been living there more than a year. We had learned their limited history, with its straight, smooth, upreaching lines, reaching higher and going faster up to the smooth comfort of their present life. We had learned a little of their psychology, a much wider field than the history, but here we could not follow so readily. We were now well used to seeing women not as females but as people; people of all sorts, doing every kind of work.
This outbreak of Terry’s, and the strong reaction against it, gave us a new light on their genuine femininity. This was given me with great clearness by both Ellador and Somel. The feeling was the same — sick revulsion and horror, such as would be felt at some climactic blasphemy.
They had no faintest approach to such a thing in their minds, knowing nothing of the custom of marital indulgence among us. To them the one high purpose of motherhood had been for so long the governing law of life, and the contribution of the father, though known to them, so distinctly another method to the same end, that they could not, with all their effort, get the point of view of the male creature whose desires quite ignore parentage and seek only for what we euphoniously term “the joys of love.”
When I tried to tell Ellador that women too felt so, with us, she drew away from me, and tried hard to grasp intellectually what she could in no way sympathize with.
“You mean — that with you — love between man and woman expresses itself in that way — without regard to motherhood? To parentage, I mean,” she added carefully.
“Yes, surely. It is love we think of — the deep sweet love between two. Of course we want children, and children come — but that is not what we think about.”
“But — but — it seems so against nature!” she said. “None of the creatures we know do that. Do other animals — in your country?”
“We are not animals!” I replied with some sharpness. “At least we are something more — something higher. This is a far nobler and more beautiful relation, as I have explained before. Your view seems to us rather — shall I say, practical? Prosaic? Merely a means to an end! With us — oh, my dear girl — cannot you see? Cannot you feel? It is the last, sweetest, highest consummation of mutual love.”
She was impressed visibly. She trembled in my arms, as I held her close, kissing her hungrily. But there rose in her eyes that look I knew so well, that remote clear look as if she had gone far away even though I held her beautiful body so close, and was now on some snowy mountain regarding me from a distance.
“I feel it quite clearly,” she said to me. “It gives me a deep sympathy with what you feel, no doubt more strongly still. But what I feel, even what you feel, dearest, does not convince me that it is right. Until I am sure of that, of course I cannot do as you wish.”
Ellador, at times like this, always reminded me of Epictetus. “I will put you in prison!” said his master. “My body, you mean,” replied Epictetus calmly. “I will cut your head off,” said his master. “Have I said that my head could not be cut off?” A difficult person, Epictetus.
What is this miracle by which a woman, even in your arms, may withdraw herself, utterly disappear till what you hold is as inaccessible as the face of a cliff?
“Be patient with me, dear,” she urged sweetly. “I know it is hard for you. And I begin to see — a little — how Terry was so driven to crime.”
“Oh, come, that’s a pretty hard word for it. After all, Alima was his wife, you know,” I urged, feeling at the moment a sudden burst of sympathy for poor Terry. For a man of his temperament — and habits — it must have been an unbearable situation.
But Ellador, for all her wide intellectual grasp, and the broad sympathy in which their religion trained them, could not make allowance for such — to her — sacrilegious brutality.
It was the more difficult to explain to her, because we three, in our constant talks and lectures about the rest of the world, had naturally avoided the seamy side; not so much from a desire to deceive, but from wishing to put the best foot foremost for our civilization, in the face of the beauty and comfort of theirs. Also, we really thought some things were right, or at least unavoidable, which we could readily see would be repugnant to them, and therefore did not discuss. Again there was much of our world’s life which we, being used to it, had not noticed as anything worth describing. And still further, there was about these women a colossal innocence upon which many of the things we did say had made no impression whatever.
I am thus explicit about it because it shows how unexpectedly strong was the impression made upon Ellador when she at last entered our civilization.
She urged me to be patient, and I was patient. You see, I loved her so much that even the restrictions she so firmly established left me much happiness. We were lovers, and there is surely delight enough in that.
Do not imagine that these young women utterly refused “the Great New Hope,” as they called it, that of dual parentage. For that they had agreed to marry us, though the marrying part of it was a concession to our prejudices rather than theirs. To them the process was the holy thing — and they meant to keep it holy.
But so far only Celis, her blue eyes swimming in happy tears, her heart lifted with that tide of race-motherhood which was their supreme passion, could with ineffable joy and pride announce that she was to be a mother. “The New Motherhood” they called it, and the whole country knew. There was no pleasure, no service, no honor in all the land that Celis might not have had. Almost like the breathless reverence with which, two thousand years ago, that dwindling band of women had watched the miracle of virgin birth, was the deep awe and warm expectancy with which they greeted this new miracle of union.
All mothers in that land were holy. To them, for long ages, the approach to motherhood has been by the most intense and exquisite love and longing, by the Supreme Desire, the overmastering demand for a child. Every thought they held in connection with the processes of maternity was open to the day, simple yet sacred. Every woman of them placed motherhood not only higher than other duties, but so far higher that there were no other duties, one might almost say. All their wide mutual love, all the subtle interplay of mutual friendship and service, the urge of progressive thought and invention, the deepest religious emotion, every feeling and every act was related to this great central Power, to the River of Life pouring through them, which made them the bearers of the very Spirit of God.
Of all this I learned more and more — from their books, from talk, especially from Ellador. She was at first, for a brief moment, envious of her friend — a thought she put away from her at once and forever.
“It is better,” she said to me. “It is much better that it has not come to me yet — to us, that is. For if I am to go with you to your country, we may have ‘adventures by sea and land,’ as you say [and as in truth we did], and it might not be at all safe for a baby. So we won’t try again, dear, till it is safe — will we?”
This was a hard saying for a very loving husband.
“Unless,” she went on, “if one is coming, you will leave me behind. You can come back, you know — and I shall have the child.”
Then that deep ancient chill of male jealousy of even his own progeny touched my heart.
“I’d rather have you, Ellador, than all the children in the world. I’d rather have you with me — on your own terms — than not to have you.”
This was a very stupid saying. Of course I would! For if she wasn’t there I should want all of her and have none of her. But if she went along as a sort of sublimated sister — only much closer and warmer than that, really — why I should have all of her but that one thing. And I was beginning to find that Ellador’s friendship, Ellador’s comradeship, Ellador’s sisterly affection, Ellador’s perfectly sincere love — none the less deep that she held it back on a definite line of reserve — were enough to live on very happily.
I find it quite beyond me to describe what this woman was to me. We talk fine things about women, but in our hearts we know that they are very limited beings — most of them. We honor them for their functional powers, even while we dishonor them by our use of it; we honor them for their carefully enforced virtue, even while we show by our own conduct how little we think of that virtue; we value them, sincerely, for the perverted maternal activities which make our wives the most comfortable of servants, bound to us for life with the wages wholly at our own decision, their whole business, outside of the temporary duties of such motherhood as they may achieve, to meet our needs in every way. Oh, we value them, all right, “in their place,” which place is the home, where they perform that mixture of duties so ably described by Mrs. Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon, in which the services of “a mistress” are carefully specified. She is a very clear writer, Mrs. J.D.D. Bacon, and understands her subject — from her own point of view. But — that combination of industries, while convenient, and in a way economical, does not arouse the kind of emotion commanded by the women of Herland. These were women one had to love “up,” very high up, instead of down. They were not pets. They were not servants. They were not timid, inexperienced, weak.
After I got over the jar to my pride (which Jeff, I truly think, never felt — he was a born worshipper, and which Terry never got over — he was quite clear in his ideas of “the position of women”), I found that loving “up” was a very good sensation after all. It gave me a queer feeling, way down deep, as of the stirring of some ancient dim prehistoric consciousness, a feeling that they were right somehow — that this was the way to feel. It was like — coming home to mother. I don’t mean the underflannels-and-doughnuts mother, the fussy person that waits on you and spoils you and doesn’t really know you. I mean the feeling that a very little child would have, who had been lost — for ever so long. It was a sense of getting home; of being clean and rested; of safety and yet freedom; of love that was always there, warm like sunshine in May, not hot like a stove or a featherbed — a love that didn’t irritate and didn’t smother.
I looked at Ellador as if I hadn’t seen her before. “If you won’t go,” I said, “I’ll get Terry to the coast and come back alone. You can let me down a rope. And if you will go — why you blessed wonder-woman — I would rather live with you all my life — like this — than to have any other woman I ever saw, or any number of them, to do as I like with. Will you come?”
She was keen for coming. So the plans went on. She’d have liked to wait for that Marvel of Celis’s, but Terry had no such desire. He was crazy to be out of it all. It made him sick, he said, sick; this everlasting mother-mother-mothering. I don’t think Terry had what the phrenologists call “the lump of philoprogenitiveness” at all well developed.
“Morbid one-sided cripples,” he called them, even when from his window he could see their splendid vigor and beauty; even while Moadine, as patient and friendly as if she had never helped Alima to hold and bind him, sat there in the room, the picture of wisdom and serene strength. “Sexless, epicene, undeveloped neuters!” he went on bitterly. He sounded like Sir Almwroth Wright.
Well — it was hard. He was madly in love with Alima, really; more so than he had ever been before, and their tempestuous courtship, quarrels, and reconciliations had fanned the flame. And then when he sought by that supreme conquest which seems so natural a thing to that type of man, to force her to love him as her master — to have the sturdy athletic furious woman rise up and master him — she and her friends — it was no wonder he raged.
Come to think of it, I do not recall a similar case in all history or fiction. Women have killed themselves rather than submit to outrage; they have killed the outrager; they have escaped; or they have submitted — sometimes seeming to get on very well with the victor afterward. There was that adventure of “false Sextus,” for instance, who “found Lucrese combing the fleece, under the midnight lamp.” He threatened, as I remember, that if she did not submit he would slay her, slay a slave and place him beside her and say he found him there. A poor device, it always seemed to me. If Mr. Lucretius had asked him how he came to be in his wife’s bedroom overlooking her morals, what could he have said? But the point is Lucrese submitted, and Alima didn’t.
“She kicked me,” confided the embittered prisoner — he had to talk to someone. “I was doubled up with the pain, of course, and she jumped on me and yelled for this old harpy [Moadine couldn't hear him] and they had me trussed up in no time. I believe Alima could have done it alone,” he added with reluctant admiration. “She’s as strong as a horse. And of course a man’s helpless when you hit him like that. No woman with a shade of decency—”
I had to grin at that, and even Terry did, sourly. He wasn’t given to reasoning, but it did strike him that an assault like his rather waived considerations of decency.
“I’d give a year of my life to have her alone again,” he said slowly, his hands clenched till the knuckles were white.
But he never did. She left our end of the country entirely, went up into the fir-forest on the highest slopes, and stayed there. Before we left he quite desperately longed to see her, but she would not come and he could not go. They watched him like lynxes. (Do lynxes watch any better than mousing cats, I wonder!)
Well — we had to get the flyer in order, and be sure there was enough fuel left, though Terry said we could glide all right, down to that lake, once we got started. We’d have gone gladly in a week’s time, of course, but there was a great to-do all over the country about Ellador’s leaving them. She had interviews with some of the leading ethicists — wise women with still eyes, and with the best of the teachers. There was a stir, a thrill, a deep excitement everywhere.
Our teaching about the rest of the world has given them all a sense of isolation, of remoteness, of being a little outlying sample of a country, overlooked and forgotten among the family of nations. We had called it “the family of nations,” and they liked the phrase immensely.
They were deeply aroused on the subject of evolution; indeed, the whole field of natural science drew them irresistibly. Any number of them would have risked everything to go to the strange unknown lands and study; but we could take only one, and it had to be Ellador, naturally.
We planned greatly about coming back, about establishing a connecting route by water; about penetrating those vast forests and civilizing — or exterminating — the dangerous savages. That is, we men talked of that last — not with the women. They had a definite aversion to killing things.
But meanwhile there was high council being held among the wisest of them all. The students and thinkers who had been gathering facts from us all this time, collating and relating them, and making inferences, laid the result of their labors before the council.
Little had we thought that our careful efforts at concealment had been so easily seen through, with never a word to show us that they saw. They had followed up words of ours on the science of optics, asked innocent questions about glasses and the like, and were aware of the defective eyesight so common among us.
With the lightest touch, different women asking different questions at different times, and putting all our answers together like a picture puzzle, they had figured out a sort of skeleton chart as to the prevalence of disease among us. Even more subtly with no show of horror or condemnation, they had gathered something — far from the truth, but something pretty clear — about poverty, vice, and crime. They even had a goodly number of our dangers all itemized, from asking us about insurance and innocent things like that.
They were well posted as to the different races, beginning with their poison-arrow natives down below and widening out to the broad racial divisions we had told them about. Never a shocked expression of the face or exclamation of revolt had warned us; they had been extracting the evidence without our knowing it all this time, and now were studying with the most devout earnestness the matter they had prepared.
The result was rather distressing to us. They first explained the matter fully to Ellador, as she was the one who purposed visiting the Rest of the World. To Celis they said nothing. She must not be in any way distressed, while the whole nation waited on her Great Work.
Finally Jeff and I were called in. Somel and Zava were there, and Ellador, with many others that we knew.
They had a great globe, quite fairly mapped out from the small section maps in that compendium of ours. They had the different peoples of the earth roughly outlined, and their status in civilization indicated. They had charts and figures and estimates, based on the facts in that traitorous little book and what they had learned from us.
Somel explained: “We find that in all your historic period, so much longer than ours, that with all the interplay of services, the exchange of inventions and discoveries, and the wonderful progress we so admire, that in this widespread Other World of yours, there is still much disease, often contagious.”
We admitted this at once.
“Also there is still, in varying degree, ignorance, with prejudice and unbridled emotion.”
This too was admitted.
“We find also that in spite of the advance of democracy and the increase of wealth, that there is still unrest and sometimes combat.”
Yes, yes, we admitted it all. We were used to these things and saw no reason for so much seriousness.
“All things considered,” they said, and they did not say a hundredth part of the things they were considering, “we are unwilling to expose our country to free communication with the rest of the world — as yet. If Ellador comes back, and we approve her report, it may be done later — but not yet.
“So we have this to ask of you gentlemen [they knew that word was held a title of honor with us], that you promise not in any way to betray the location of this country until permission — after Ellador’s return.”
Jeff was perfectly satisfied. He thought they were quite right. He always did. I never saw an alien become naturalized more quickly than that man in Herland.
I studied it awhile, thinking of the time they’d have if some of our contagions got loose there, and concluded they were right. So I agreed.
Terry was the obstacle. “Indeed I won’t!” he protested. “The first thing I’ll do is to get an expedition fixed up to force an entrance into Ma-land.”
“Then,” they said quite calmly, “he must remain an absolute prisoner, always.”
“Anesthesia would be kinder,” urged Moadine.
“And safer,” added Zava.
“He will promise, I think,” said Ellador.
And he did. With which agreement we at last left 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”