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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Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

*This is the first of many book reviews I hope to write. I want to write book reviews to become a more critical reader and to better connect what I’m reading to my personal experiences and the world at large. These reviews will contain spoilers and are all my personal opinions.*

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I’ll admit, the first time I “read” this book, I listened to it with x1.5 speed for the first ~100 pages and Sparknoted the rest. I didn’t really get into the plot, seeing that I dismissed Raskolnikov as being strange, depraved, narcissistic, and exceedingly arrogant. His theory that some people were just born extraordinary and were thus exempt from all moral justice didn’t appeal to me—I had gone through the nihilistic and egotistic phase in life, and came out realizing that no one person is above another. He was so delusional, and though I understood his motives on a rational level, I never saw his plight in an emotional way.

Despite this terrible initial impression, I chose to do Crime and Punishment as one of my rereads in my English class (mostly because of my guilt for never actually reading the book and partly because I read some raving reviews on Goodreads and was intrigued by how people found value in it).

Senioritis hit me pretty hard, and I finally sat down with a resolve to read the book after coming to terms that I only had three days left to write an essay on it. It was hard to get through the first hundred pages—I know it’s supposed to be a page-turner, but honestly, I was quite bored. Several times, I questioned why I didn’t just choose a shorter, less tedious book to write about (and one that I had already read and had pages of notes on). Raskolnikov got on my nerves and was remarkably two-dimensional for someone who commits murder. The book seemed to try to be deep without really being too philosophical.

It was only in the later half of the book when I started getting really into the novel. As I started reading slower—finally absorbing the book—I began to feel real sympathy for all of the characters: Raskolnikov, Dounia, Sonia, Katerina, Marmeladov, and even Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov’s murders, though the central focus of the novel, weren’t what I found the most interesting—it was the complexity of the side characters and what drove them to do such strange and unexpected things.

I saw Katerina’s dignity as she spent her last rouples on an excessive dinner that was well beyond her means—how she danced on the street and proclaimed her ties to aristocracy. Instead of dismissing her as overly proud and shallow, I pitied and respected her. I saw Marmeladov as a good-for-nothing drunk of a father who let his daughter sell herself to prostitution while he sucked her money away, but I also saw his deep love for his family and respected him for that. I saw the parallels between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, and between Sonia, Dounia, and even Lizaveta. I loved and admired Dounia—her strength, her unwavering love and devotion for Raskolnikov, and simple practicality. Though he was a vile man, I even sympathized with the despicable Svidrigailov, and the motivation behind his suicide fascinated me. As I continued reading, I saw the layers of the book and realized that these subplots and characters, interwoven together, were what made this book a powerful masterpiece.

There were so many things I could have written about for my essay, and had I more time, I may have thought more deeply about how poverty affected Katerina or about the role of women in the novel. (Instead, I wrote about similarities and significance of Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov’s dreams—which were interesting in their own right, but not what gripped me when reading the novel.)

In all, though this book was extremely tedious (and had way too many long names), it was worth the effort. It was only when I let my guard down—when I turned off my rationalizing, judgmental brain and started to feel sympathy for the characters—when I actually started to comprehend the greatness of the novel. (Ironically, I suppose that is how Raskolnikov also became redeemed—through abandoning his over-rationalized theory.) This book challenged me in unexpected ways and made me think more deeply about poverty, justice, and morality. I’m thinking of reading this book again—this time letting it wash over me and without an impending deadline for an essay—and I’ll have no doubt that I will grow to appreciate it even more.