Herland

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ann J. Lane

A neglected work by the author of 'The Yellow Wallpaper'. Opinions here are split on 'Herland', recognizing it as a seminal (uh) work of feminist thought at the start of the 20th century, and yet ultimately limited in its vision of female freedom. Too, as an adventurer's tale of Utopia, its awfully dry and didactic.

I agree with most of that, but when it wasn't lecturing you, 'Herland' was a riot. I wish it had seen a wider publication then in the pages of Gilman's magazine, because I would like to know how contemporary men viewed the work. The preconceived notions of gender - a hundred times more rigid then compared to now - are constantly challenged. Vandyk, our sociologist narrator, Edwardian 'bro' Terry, and sensitive guy Jeff (but not too sensitive, you understand) at the start of their expedition all scoff at the idea that any group of women could ever agree enough to accomplish anything before tearing each others eyes out over a man, or shoes, or something.

When they breach the borders of Herland and view the tamed landscape and superior infrastructure they know a man must be nearby. It perhaps takes months for even gentle Jeff to believe the Herlanders tales of asexual reproduction. The men, mostly led by the dissatisfaction of Terry at these cold matrons refusing to fall breathless at the sight of his sparkly baubles, are foiled at every turn in their efforts to escape, or even hide some of the truths about their male-dominated world. Vandyk is forced to admit that in every way the women of Herland are superior to the leaders of the outside world. Surprisingly, the area they're most deficient in are the arts which, without war or romantic motives, are reduced to insipid pageants celebrating children.

The women of Herland demonstrate strength, coordination, dramatic vision in civil planning, and advanced agriculture and breeding programs. That last thought leads to some troubling conclusions about eugenics enthusiastically embraced by two of the three adventurers. Vandyk assures the reader that these women are of distant Aryan origin despite their South American location. In another less-flattering monument to equality Gilman proves that women are as susceptible to the prejudices of their time as any men.

With these flaws, 'Herland' is still a marvelous achievement in raising questions against the assumptions of gender in a, yes, entertaining way. There is a sequel, 'With Her in Ourland' but I've heard it lacks charm.