Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A world without Darcy…

😐 😐

Three young men are part of an expedition in some obscure unexplored corner of the planet when they hear rumours of a country where all the inhabitants are women. They don’t believe this, of course. Firstly, they’ve heard all about the birds and the bees and they know such a society couldn’t exist for more than one generation. But more importantly, they know that women are too silly and incompetent to run a whole country on their own. If the country exists at all, they decide, the men must live elsewhere and visit for… ahem… a bit of the old nuptials every now and again. However, the prospect is tantalising – all those women must be pretty desperate for a bit of male company, what? So they decide to investigate…

The book starts off quite well, rather in the broad wink-wink tone of my introduction, full of male stereotypes of females, and incidentally managing to stereotype the three males pretty heavily at the same time. Then, unfortunately, they arrive in the country they dub Herland. And from there on in it’s an utterly tedious description of how this all-female society operates. Gilman even remarks at one point, in the voice of the male narrator, that nothing much actually happened to them during their stay, so presumably she was well aware of the narrative deficiencies of the book as a novel. Pity she felt a glancing reference to them was sufficient.

And odd! Because what I learned from this book is that women are perfect in every single way, excel at everything they do, and the only thing that causes misery, disease or turmoil in the world is men! Horrible men. Gosh, don’t you just hate them all? With their cruelty and their grubbiness and their greed, and all that nasty, nasty sex business. Women build nicer houses in beautifully clean, well-ordered cities, and they never fight or quarrel or get unhappy. They are naturally far, far better than men, because their capacity for motherhood makes them want to make the world a better place for their children. Unlike nasty men, who only see children as an unfortunate by-product of sex.

The unfortunate thing about some strands of feminism, this included, is the tendency to go well beyond the desire for equality and harmony, towards replacing a world where women are subject to men with one where men are disparaged and despised by women. I’m more of a happy-medium kind of girl myself. At risk of being drummed out of the sisterhood once and for all, I’ll admit my guilty, shameful secret. I like men. Not all of them, obviously – Trump, Hitler and Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be my idea of a fun night down the pub – but then, Thatcher, Kellyanne Conway and Myra Hindley wouldn’t be my first choices for dinner guests either. But on the whole, I think most men are just bumbling along, behaving the way society has taught them, and most women are doing much the same. And most of us, of both genders, are trying to do better.

The idea of a world with no men in it (or no women) is my idea of hell. Most of our art and ninety percent of our literature is in some way about the interaction of the sexes, even going back past Shakespeare and on to the Bible. Flirting is fun, as is the whole falling in love thing. I’ve even heard the occasional woman admit to enjoying sex! Motherhood is brilliant and for some women it is indeed the most important thing in their lives (just as fatherhood is the most important thing for some men) but it’s not the only or even necessarily the ultimate ambition for womankind. In fact, I thought part of feminism was to get us away from the idea that women are incapable of thinking about anything except having babies and bringing them up, important roles though those are.

So some feminists may see this as a great feminist tract. I saw it as adding fuel to the worst of feminism – the kind that aims to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, where women rule and men become the subjects. Of the three men in the book, one is utterly convinced of male superiority and that women are primarily sex toys; one wants to worship at the feet of femininity; and the third is shown as rational, considering both sides of every argument. (Not that women ever argue, of course, because we’re all lovely when we’re not being jealous over silly men.) He, the rational one, becomes convinced along the way of the innate superiority of women and realises that what all men really want to do is surrender to a mother figure. And that that’s what all women aspire to be. Yeah.

(I have never wanted to be Darcy’s mother…)

But apart from the inanity of the ideas expressed in the book, which I try to forgive because I’m sure Gilman must have had some bad experiences to have become quite so misandristic, it commits the even worse sin of being almost entirely dull. It’s like reading a Rough Guide to Herland, without the humour and the photographs. I kept expecting her to tell me how much I should tip restaurant staff. Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much. I’d rather be driven up the wall by pesky men than bored to death by these unrealistically idealised Herland women.

Book 27 of 90

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54 thoughts on “Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  1. Not one for me. I’m not much into men-bashing even given how horrid some men can be (the same could probably be said for women). I wonder if this would have been better as a piece of non-fiction – an essay on the ‘perfect’ feminist world?

    • Yes, I’m all for bashing the men (and women) who ought to be bashed and trying to live in harmony with the rest! It almost reads as if it is an essay for large swathes – the fictional element of the three young men seems tacked on. I must say I’d probably have been even more critical of it as an essay, though – at least as a novel I could keep reassuring myself that she wasn’t really hoping this kind of society would come to pass. Maybe.

  2. Hmm…No, thanks. Wait…thinking about it….nope – still no. I agree with you, FictionFan, that our society moves ahead because of the interactions between the sexes. To paint men as ‘all bad’ makes no more sense than to paint women that way. I wouldn’t want that kind of a world at all. Oh, and don’t think we didn’t notice those ‘photos of Clooney, Cruise, and Mr. Darcy….

    • Even if men were all bad (which they’re not), I’d still find a world with them more interesting than one without them, especially if all the women decided the only thing that mattered was bringing up children. I always struggle with feminist literature because so much of it tends to rely on disparaging men rather than disparaging the system we live in. Imagine how dull my blog would be if there were no men to enhance my posts… 😱

  3. Isn’t it funny how swiftly “equality” turns into “power in our favor which we will pretend is equality”?? Thanks for standing up for the voice of reason, where we all try to work through life together! 😀

    • Isn’t it? Makes me think that if women ruled the world it probably wouldn’t be very different after all. I’ve felt for years that the feminist movement is in danger of becoming as dictatorial as the existing patriarchy. Just give me equal opportunities and equal pay and leave me to make my own decisions about how I feel about men and motherhood!!! 😉

  4. Welcome back – I hope you feel sufficiently Raffafied to survive until Wimbledon 🙂
    I thought you would hate this one: this has never been my kind of feminism either – I know plenty of decent men and, unfortunately, plenty of awful women.
    Equal rights for everybody!

    • Eleven!! I may have to find a way to squeeze in a picture very soon… 😀

      Yes, I suspected I wouldn’t like it much so at least I wasn’t disappointed, but ugh! Yeah, I couldn’t imagine women suddenly all becoming sweet and perfect if all the men suddenly disappeared…

    • It was its dullness more than its message that annoyed me – my general philosophy of life is, if you’re going to force me to read political theory, at least disguise it in a good story! 😉

  5. Since context is everything this was a remarkable book for 1915, written as a sort of response to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which though a utopian novel still portrayed women as they were in the 19th century with no advancement at all. Gilman also wrote an important book called The Yellow Wallpaper, which chronicled her frightening experience with ‘the cure’ when she was diagnosed with hysteria, a diagnosis and treatment many well-educated women were put through who wanted more in life than to get married and stay at home. I think she had her era in mind when she wrote this and it may not transfer well to many modern women!

    • Interesting – thanks for that background. I’ve read and enjoyed The Yellow Wallpaper, but long ago, and without really thinking of it as a feminist text at the time. I felt the twin suggestions in this – that without men all would be harmony and happiness, and that women’s sole interest is in child-rearing – made for a world no better than the existing one, and considerably less interesting! I found it intriguing that even in the book she admitted that art and literature would be dull, and that having achieved a perfect system of child-rearing (their sole interest) they had nothing left to strive for.

      • I think what I liked about the whole child-rearing aspect (and she sure went into it a lot, didn’t she!), was that not every women in Herland gave birth or raised children, as was true in Gilman’s time. Only those who really wanted to. And because children were raised communally, a mother could go off and have a career knowing her kids were getting excellent care.

        Gilman herself gave up her daughter to be raised by her ex husband and his new wife, because she didn’t feel her home was as stable as his. She was excoriated in the press as being a bad mother, because what woman would give up her child? Although raising children communally could have its own issues, I guess I see this book as a commentary on the times Gilman lived in, including her own life.

        I was so bowled over by The Yellow Wallpaper that I did a lot of research on her, which I don’t normally do when I read a book!

        • It’s funny, isn’t it, how two people can read the same thing and yet take such different things away from it? To me, it seemed as if motherhood was the only thing that was prized and that every woman had one child, with the lucky ones – the best mothers – being allowed to have two. And the girls were selected for a working role as they reached adolescence and then indoctrinated into it (as in Brave New World) so that they had no real free choice, although they felt they were doing what they loved. And all the jobs simply served the idea of child-rearing – she even said they gave up science once they’d found a cure for all childhood diseases, and admitted they had no interesting literature… ugh!

          I knew she had suffered from post-natal depression but didn’t know she’d given up her daughter. Even divorce was scandalous back then, so I can see she must have gone through a lot. And of course those experiences would have influenced her writing. But if a man had a bad relationship and then rubbished all women, we’d call him a misogynist. Sauce for the gander… 😉

          But thank you for putting a different perspective on it – it’s clearly a book that divides opinion so it’s always good to hear the other side… 😀

  6. Oh dear — how dreadful. Glad you waded through this one so I wouldn’t have to. It’s nice to see you back here, FF — guess you were glued to the French Open, right? Wasn’t Rafa splendid?!!

  7. Hmmm what a strange little book. I totally agree with you-I like men too, and equality is a great thing to strive towards, so we should just keep at it and try out best along the way!

  8. Oh, man, I bought this one in a used book store a few months ago and was excited to read, I hoped, some futuristic/crazy peacemaking skills it watch Herland (the place) fail because women have just as many flaws as men.

    In the past year, I read a book called Kingdom of Women in which women completely take over, but they have identical flaws as men and things fell apart. There are also moral questions about how to treat the men they’ve captured, and readers discover both genders can be brutal. I didn’t enjoy the novel because it covered too much time too fast.

    • You might like it more than me – maybe not for the ideas but because of its place in the history of feminism. Mind you, I was really more annoyed by the dullness than the ideas…

      Yeah, I haven’t read that one, but certainly find it sounds more credible. I suspect that if things were reversed, women would pretty soon be much the same as men are now. I want to be an Alpha Female… 😀

  9. And there was me thinking you wanted to be Darcy’s mother 😂😂 This Books sounds dreary and depressing as someone who surprised herself at how much I enjoyed being a mother, I do like to think that now my child-rearing year’s are behind me (and while they were in full swing) that I have other things to offer the world!

    • Aaaarghhhhh! I’m nowhere near old enough to be his mother! He must be 200 by now!! 😉 I never did the motherhood thing but I know loads of women – and men – find it very fulfilling. But there’s still room in life for other things! Like books, and chocolate-tasting… 😉

  10. How disappointing! I’m curious though how a society of women would survive past a single generation! What would happen if one of them gave birth to a boy? I’m all for motherhood and personally find it very fulfilling but it’s only one part of who I am.

    • Yes, she kind of glossed over the technicalities – suddenly women just developed the ability to breed without men, and all children were girls. Exactly! I felt her society probably restricted women’s options even more than the real society of the time, or at least as much…

  11. Disclaimer first: I fear I am about to write an essay – so much so that I’m writing my reply in Word to make it easier to go back and forth between your brilliant blog and the insightful responses…
    And now I see that it’s manifested as a rant. Oh dear. 🤦‍♀️

    You have been warned. Eat chocolate.

    I was so pleased to note Laurie @ RelevantObscurity’s comments. Gilman Perkins was writing at a time very different to now; there have, I understand, been umpteen ‘waves’ of feminism since then. (I was asked a year or so ago by a young and presumably well-informed woman which ‘wave’ of feminism I subscribed to. I had nothing to answer with but launched forth anyway, hoping what I said was so waffly that it would fit into any wave. Or storm. I remain scarred by the experience: how could I be so ignorant of the travails of my own kind…)

    On a more serious note, The Yellow Wallpaper is seared into my memory because it was so close to the bone. My daughter suffered with severe postnatal depression; I know what it looks like. As I recall, TYW had some autobiographical relevance: Charlotte really struggled with her child. I had forgotten that she ‘gave up’ her daughter; Laurie’s information is fascinating and no doubt true – but I suspect that Charlotte’s experiences when her child was a newborn may also have been a factor.

    I’m fascinated by my own need to ‘defend’ this book (which I haven’t read). I can accept that personal experience may explain why I’m feeling just a tad sensitive! But also, it feeds into my need for context. Perkins Gilman struggled in her aspirations for personal fulfilment, hampered by the restrictions placed on her at the time, by men. I can understand her desire to pen something that she saw as utopian. Pity her idyll was evidently so boring! 😣

    None of which takes away from your enviably witty and clever review 😊 I’m in awe of how carefully you balanced remarks regarding the sexes 😉

    At the start of this rant I was happily convinced that I would end by saying that I shall never read Herland. Now I’ve ranted I find myself thinking that maybe I should read the wretched thing, in order to get some context on early feminist waves… Oh dear…. Maybe I’ll just focus on my preparation for Wimbledon….

    🎾🎾🎾🎾🎾

    • Haha – I have my chocolate ready… 😉

      It’s funny – I read The Yellow Wallpaper years ago without being aware that it’s seen as a feminist text and I simply thought it was an excellent portrayal of madness. I really must read it again sometime.

      As far as feminism goes, I have no idea what wave I’m in either! My feminism is perfectly simple – women should be allowed to choose what to do with their own lives, within the normal restrictions of having to live in a society, and they should earn equal pay for work of equal worth. That incudes choosing whether to marry, divorce or have children, and freedom from real sexual harassment (as opposed to getting offended when some poor schmuck tries to pay them a compliment). Otherwise I don’t really get het up over all the other trivia that seems to be part of feminism now. Feminist I may (or may not, depending on definition) be, but anti-man I’m not!

      I sympathise with Gilman’s experiences – really, I do. But if some man had a bad experience with women – abused by his mother, let’s say – and then wrote a book disparaging all women and suggesting they were an inferior species, we’d declare that he had no right to be horrible about women and call him misogynist. If it’s sauce for the gander…

      Haha! Do read it! I’d love to hear what you think. 😀

  12. I shall read it! I’ll add to the very end of the list. Which should mean I’ll get to it ….. 🤔 🤔 ….. some time in the next century I think! 😇

    I am absolutely with you when it comes to the distinction between it being ‘ok’ for women to air their experiences at the hands of men and apparently not ok when the tables are turned. And I’m even more with you in your stance on feminism. You’ve described my position too – only when it matters, I can’t express it as well as you have 😣 (In the face of an ardent young feminist, I couldn’t manage more than an incoherent mutter 😵)

    I’ve also learned a new word from this thread: misandristic. How come I know all about misanthropic and have never given a thought to its twin? Slightly worrying…. I shall watch additional men’s matches at Wimbledon to compensate. And I shall learn your paragraph on feminism by heart – then I’ll be ready for the next time someone puts me on the spot! 😁

    • I expect they’ll have discovered the secret of immortality by then, so you’ll have plenty of time… 😉

      Haha – I must admit I have some heated debates from time to time with ardent young feminists on twitter – they do my head in! When it gets to the ridiculous stage of them defending pornography as a perfectly acceptable career choice when Stormy does it, (but obviously not when some creepy sexist pig of a man watches it), then you know they’ve really lost the plot. I’ve even seen them defend prostitution on the “woman’s right to choose” bandwagon – do they really think women choose to become prostitutes??? In the weird world of modern feminism, apparently it’s fine for a woman to be a prostitute, but sexist and abusive for a man to use a prostitute. I despair… 😂😂😂

      I love using the word misandry – I only discovered it a year or so ago, and I now have a tag for it! I’m carrying out a one-woman campaign to even up the score for the poor downtrodden males of this world… I’m a proud masculinist! 😉

  13. A quality review, FF! Most entertaining! Now, I could forgive the fawning feminism (maybe) if it wasn’t such a dull book. People are perfectly entitled to share their opinions (especially those I disagree with) but it is such a bore when they don’t make them interesting or even believable. A society filled with only women would be horrendous, as would a society where women subjugate men – any book along those lines should either be presented with tongue firmly in cheek (Carry On style!) or be upfront about the awfulness of tyranny. Bring on the men and their lovely bums and forearms! Let them flirt with us and make cheeky comments! Flirting and dalliances are joys of life and cost nothing. Feminism be hanged. We real women just don’t need it 🙂

    • Hahaha – exactly!! 😂 If the world becomes a place where men are too frightened to flirt with women, what a truly horrible place it would be! Somebody once suggested I was sexist by posting pics of gorgeous hunks – apparently I’m “objectifying” men. I gave it some thought, decided they were quite right, and that I bet men just love to be objectified, so I make sure I post even more now… 😉

      It was the dullness of the book that did for me though – if you’re going to preach nonsense to me, at least make it entertaining nonsense!! I don’t think I’m cut out for the modern world…

  14. Well said, FF! What a masterpiece!
    I’ve had this book on my list since reading The Yellow Wallpaper, thinking it sounded kinda cool. But in addition to the over-the-top feminism (which I’m not sure that is even my definition of feminism) and the boredom factor, I think it would also bother me to no end that there’s no exploration into how they’ve figured out how to have babies without men and how they all turn out to be female babies. The book would have probably been made much more interesting if males were still born and they had some sort of “solution” for them. Probably nastier, but also more interesting. 😉

    • Thank you! 😊

      I loved The Yellow Wallpaper, though I didn’t realise at the time that it was seen as a feminist piece – I thought of it more as horror. Must re-read it sometime. But this one I didn’t love at all! Yes, there was no real attempt to explain how all of a sudden one of the women developed the ability to become pregnant, nor why they all only bore daughters. Nor indeed why all these descendants of a single woman managed to have different hair and eye colour and suchlike… Ha! Yes, I’d have liked it more if there had been poor boys, sacrificed to the Great Mother God, or maybe allowed to grow up to become slaves! Aren’t we horrible? 😉

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