Charlotte Perkins Gilman worked hard to envision a better world for you to live in. Gilman lived and wrote most actively in the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century, penning economic treatises and fiction that explored her ideas that a more peaceful, just, happy world depended on the equality, especially economically, of women. Her general ideas have been validated by studies that show that everyone is healthier and better educated in societies in which women work and have control over their pay because women tend to spend their money on their family’s well being.
She seemed to disappear till 1979 when her novel, Herland, was reprinted. Much of her work is now back in print, but too few women know about her still. She wrote three novels about perfect societies, or utopias, but Herland is, to me, the most compelling. In Herland, three men come upon an all-woman society. They assume that, because Herland is “civilized,” it must include men. Instead they find that the women are doing quite well by themselves, thank you very much, even reproducing girl-babies without benefit of men at all.
In Herland, the focus is on community, but a caring community in which respect for each person abounds but all is shared, and raising children is honored as a profession for those who are specially trained. Herland views the whole world through eyes that do not see gender and we come to see all that still makes no sense in our time, a hundred years later. Originally, Herland has only women, but as the women and men visitors find out, it is possible for a Herland to continue even with men, as long as everyone respects everyone else without limiting them due to gender.
I read Herland many years ago and loved it because I, like many women, I think, had created my own “women-only” utopia. I chose a job where I worked almost exclusively with women; I had only women friends; I spent my free time volunteering for women’s organizations or gathering women poets for readings in my living room. I was “of the world” in that I had a mainstream job, but I loved the freedom of being able to be myself because I was with only women. Now that I can no longer live that way, I miss it and constantly try to recreate that sense of lightness that comes from being out from under society’s narrow ideas about what I should or should not be and do simply because I am a woman.
If I could, I would give copies of Herland to everyone in the world for it is needed now more than ever, whether the answer is a society like Herland’s or not. Our world is changing quickly and decisions made now will determine what our future will be. It seems to me that in the century since Herland was published, we have become afraid to “dream big,” to give voice to our belief that we can live in peace and joy, that everyone can be respected for who they are, that no one needs to go to bed at night hungry, cold, or alone, that all we have to do is determine that this is what we will do and it can be done.
To those who find that task daunting, I would give a copy of her short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. She is possibly better known for The Yellow Wallpaper, but it is a very different kind of story than Herland. It talks about the descent into insanity of a woman who is kept away from people and forbidden to work as a cure for her depression, a practice common in Gilman’s time. It is a kind of anti-utopian story, except that it really happened and still happens to some degree whenever a woman is denied the chance to use her talents to benefit herself and others. If we do not choose to look upward, as Herland does, we risk descending into The Yellow Wallpaper.
I hope that, if you haven’t, you will read Herland and think about it. Would an all-woman society, or at least one where there were no gender differences, be the best way to live? Would it really be peaceful with everyone content and fulfilled? What can we take from Herland to apply to our own efforts to make a better future? How can we make our own lives more like the free and happy women in Herland? How can we make a world that may not be perfect, but is better than what we now imagine is possible?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of those rare authors whose work seems to become even more important a century after she lived. Unlike the women of her time, we must not only work towards a better future, but towards having any future at all. We need strong, clear voices to lead us, we need our own voices, and Charlotte’s Herland is like a calling from the past “Dream, dream, and don’t stop till you have made the future you dream of.”
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ann J. Lane, ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.