Herland: Imagining a Female-Only Society

It’s fascinating how science fiction can show us how different our world can be. I think that’s also why I love history—I want to see and compare the different possibilities of how we can structure a society.

I’m currently taking a science fiction class taught by Prof. Steph Burt, and it’s been really amazing. There’s a lot more reading than I expected (and quite frankly, more than I can keep up with), but the diversity in books we read—with topics ranging from spaceships and Mars colonization to feminism and artificial intelligence—has been incredibly stimulating. This course has expanded my understanding of what science fiction is, and has made me see how science fiction can shed a light on current political and social issues.

One of the most intriguing works I’ve read so far during Thanksgiving Recess has been a novella called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman*. Herland, which was published in 1909, is a thought-provoking tale about three men who venture into a society filled with only women. These three men have wildly different temperaments that reflect the different attitudes of men—one hoping to conquer the women, one idolizing them, and one with an air of scientific curiosity—and their reactions tell us much about our modern world.

For two thousand years, these females have been isolated from the outside world after a volcano erupted and created a seal around their society. They reproduce asexually and value motherhood above all. This single-gender society is depicted as a utopia—a world without poverty, war, or strife. The streets are immaculate, every female is equally well-educated, and the division of labor is clear and purposeful.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • On veganism: “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” (41).
  • On femininity: “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 real fulfillment of their great process” (50).
  • On cooperation: “You see, they had no wars. They had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united action” (51).
  • On Motherhood: “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” (57).
  • On education: “The Herland child was born not only into a world carefully prepared, full of the most fascinating materials and opportunities to learn, but into the society of plentiful numbers of teachers, teachers born and trained, whose business it was to accompany the children along that, to us, impossible thing—the royal road to learning” (92).

 

While I don’t think having a society consisting of only females will solve all of our issues, this book forced me to recognize that many flaws of humankind—including violence, competition, and jealousy—can be traced primarily to the existence of men. Though this sounds sexist and extreme, I think we must confront the reality that for much of human history, wars have been started by men, and even our capitalistic society—which is derived from the masculine ideals of survival of the fittest—creates systemic poverty and lack of cooperation for protecting the environment.

I’m not arguing for the extinction of men, of course, and I don’t think that’s what Gilman is trying to show us. Instead, I think the takeaway of the novelette is that there has to be a healthy balance between this utopia and the world we live in. This story shows us that there is much to be learned from females, and that for much of the history of humankind, females have been underserved. It also shows us that gender is as much a social construct as it is biological. This work made me think about why we need more women in technology and in government.

I suppose the questions that follow are: what is equality if females and males are biologically different? And what even is gender, for that matter? I have many questions still to answer, but I’m glad that this book—using the elements of science fiction—helped me imagine a completely different world as well as expose the issues of today’s society.

* I also read Houston, Houston, Do You Read during Thanksgiving Recess. This story is very much like Herland—except set in the future and involves a time warp and spaceships. It was written by a woman named Alice Sheldon who published under the pseudonym of James Tiptree. Sheldon’s short stories are haunting, vibrant, and masterful, and she is now one of my favorite authors—if you get the chance, read her other short stories from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

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