The first Utopia was written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the name coined from the Greek eu-topos, meaning ‘a good place’ – or perhaps ou-topos meaning ‘no place’. As this inherently conflicted word moved beyond the original text into common parlance describing any perfect society, we owe a debt to More’s original pun – for can there ever be such a thing? Over at the feminist classics reading project, April’s read is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopian novel Herland, first published in 1915.
As with all utopian literature, plot-wise the reader is in no fear of passing out from excitement – lengthy descriptions of societal structures are key to the entire purpose of Herland. In a nutshell, three young male Americans, fresh from a tipoff from a “savage” on a previous exploration, set off in a “flying machine” to discover a fabled country comprised only of women. Terry is bulging of bicep and majestic of mustache and very much a ‘man’s man’, which then as now is a nice way of saying ‘arrogant lout’. Jeff, bless ‘im, is a southern gentleman who places the fairer sex on a pedestal (to his credit, not to look up their skirts), while our narrator, Van, is a sociologist more than a little blinded to how partial his “scientific” thinking can be. Upon arriving in Herland, they soon encounter the ‘natives’, whom they find to be dignified, rational and alarmingly athletic. Our intrepid trio are taken prisoner in the nicest way possible (“…we were borne inside, struggling manfully, but held secure most womanfully in spite of our best endeavours”) and are taught the native language while simultaneously teaching their appointed guides English. It transpires that all the men of Herland were wiped out in a catastrophe some 2000 years ago. Shortly after this, one young woman discovered she could reproduce by parthenogenesis and the current population of some three million women are all descended from her. The Herlanders have no history of or interest in sexual intercourse with the men, yet motherhood is the cornerstone of the Herland culture, and children treasured. Their society is without classes or competitiveness, vanity, illness, war, greed or crime.
Many bugbears of Perkins Gilman are of her time, and thankfully not ours – the right of women to work outside the home has long been secured while equal pay has not. As a result, the points of feminist interest for me came primarily from mentions of age and appearance that, rather than disappearing are constantly worsening in contemporary society. As Terry despairs that his imagined rampage through a panting population of sex starved virgins is not coming to pass, Van has an epiphany:
“In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way I fancy. ‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it all together. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother”.
This is sentiment that rings oh so true to anyone who has seen anything other than Dove Pro-Age advertised in the last decade, while Tina Fey’s recent biography Bossypants puts the same problem much more bluntly: “I’ve known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves and they still work. The women, though, they’re all ‘crazy’… I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in showbusiness is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her any more.”
Of still more interest, and one developed far more in the text, is the contrast between ‘woman’ and ‘feminine’ – or the biological and the artificial. Van again:
“These women, whose essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture, were strikingly deficient in what we call ‘femininity’. This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the fulfillment of their great process”.
Poor Terry finds the lack of girly girls to make his manly man seem important quite the blow to the libido and psyche – although less than the literal (excuse my crudity) kick in the balls he gets when he pushes his luck. Gentleman Jeff has problems of his own when he tries to woo his intended through his usual means:
“When Jeff said, taking the fruit basket from his adored one “A woman should not carry anything” Celis said “Why?” with the frankest amazement. He could not look that fleet-footed, deep-chested young forrester in the face and say “Because she is weaker”. She wasn’t. One does not call a race horse weak because it is visibly not a cart horse.”
However I was most interested in how much Herland works on an environmental level, instead of the intended feminist socialist ones. Once the generational increase of population began to be a strain on native resources, the entire society agreed upon a form of ‘negative eugenics’ (a sort of parthenogenetic birth control through use of will). The population is vegan, and while some grain is grown as trees give the highest yield per acre their forests are entirely comprised of food yielding trees. All waste is recycled “everything which came from the earth went back into it”. They have also managed something that inexplicably continues to elude us – an unobtrusive road network and fast efficient electric cars.
Herlander Somel explains the absence of livestock to Van by simply stating “They took up too much room and we need our land to feed our people”. Terry isn’t quite able to cope with having to clarify that he doesn’t mean breast milk when he responds by asking why they don’t want milk, and his bluster leads to the first of many revelations the gents are forced into making:
“It took some time to make clear to those three sweet-faced women the process which robs the cow of her calf, and the calf of its true food; and the talk led us into a further discussion of the meat business. They heard it out, looking very white, and presently begged to be excused.”
Darko Suvin has defined utopian literature as “…a literary genre or verbal construction whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence of a particular quasi-human community where socio-political institutions, norms and individual relationships are organized on a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based out of an alternative historical hypothesis”. Herland certainly qualifies under this, yet I found the inherent suggestion that a feminist utopia can only be achieved in perfect isolation (to the point of biological mutation) more than a little dystopian. In fact, for me Herland bears echos of utopia’s original good place/no place – since feminism is defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men”, Herland actually feminises itself out of feminism and into science fiction without any of the lingering questioning of the status quo that critical utopias/dystopias should offer. I’ll take continuing the good fight in the current desperately unequal world any day.