I have always been fascinated by accounts of societies that are different from ours, whether they be real or imagined. They serve as a reminder that things need not be as they are in our world today and that our lives need not be one endless round of compromise with the grim and confusing reality that surrounds us.
Women’s Utopias such as Herland and the more recent Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy describe forms of social organization that historical and anthropological research has shown to be possible. They also represent a development of the ideas of Marx and Engels but as is the case with much that women have to say, and perhaps because it is not expressed in the dry, pseudo-scientific style of political philosophers, these Utopian visions, firmly rooted in material possibility, are vastly underrated.
Herland was written in 1915, twenty-five years after William Morris published his News from Nowhere. Both novels describe a world where private property and class privilege no longer exist.
News from Nowhere however barely explores the role and status of women in its Utopia and, in failing to do so, throws little insight into a deeply-engrained power relationship of present-day society. As a consequence, it is limited in exploring how people can bring about social change. In that respect, Herland is a less comfortable read than News from Nowhere as it reminds us of how deeply crippled most of us are by social conditioning and how much there is to overcome in order to bring about the necessary fundamental changes in society if we are to survive on this planet. Fortunately, what could be profoundly depressing is leavened by sparkling wit, and the book is a really entertaining read.
Personal is Political
For the author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the personal was also political and her own life and ideas were intimately connected. Like William Morris, she was familiar with the ideas of Marx and Engels and other prevailing political and economic theories of the time. She was involved in the American Socialist Movement and saw herself as a socialist-humanist. She always brought her own experiences to bear on her work and studied ideas in order to understand her own insecure and intensely unhappy early life and first marriage and to gain control of her own destiny.
She had little time for the psychological leadership of experts and the detached, academic and so-called scientific approach to understanding human behaviour, in particular that of women. In Herland, she exposes the fallibility of the sociologist who makes assumptions about the society he is about to experience on the basis of observing a single fact. He notices some women climbing trees and deduces thereby that the inhabitants of the society he us about to involve himself in must be arboreal. In fact they are not, and all his scientific insight and his role as commentator on human behaviour is about to be rendered useless as he is gently drawn into ways of living and relating that are completely new to him.
The author after coming close to losing her mind, herself rejected the authority of the psychiatrist who attempted to cure her depression by advising her to rest, to live as domestic a life as possible, to limit her intellectual life to two hours a day and to never touch pen, brush or pencil. Instead, she faced the fact that she was not happy in her marriage or in her role as a mother, left home and divorced her husband. He promptly married her best friend and the couple took on the care of Charlotte’s child. Charlotte, from a position of great financial insecurity launched herself into a career as a writer. The three adults remained close friends for the rest of their lives but Charlotte was severely censured by the press for divorcing her husband amicably and for no apparent reason, for maintaining a warm relationship with his new wife and for, as the media saw it, abandoning her child.
This very honest working out of relationships finds a different interpretation in Herland. The community of Herland is characterized by sisterly solidarity and friendship which is not destroyed even when the men appear. In their world it is also recognized that while every woman may at some point feel the urge to be a mother, not every woman is either interested in or suited to bringing up children and children are better off with those who are.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s experience as a woman under capitalism forced her to recognize that our society is not merely class divided but patriarchal in nature as well. For her, the subordination of women dehumanized half of the human race and retarded all human progress and this has important implications for how we organize for change. In order to make our society truly human, women need to regain power over their minds and bodies and challenge the centuries of dominance that men have become used to. This is the central theme of Herland. Unlike News from Nowhere, Herland is not a static Utopia that we arrive at after a period of social upheaval – it is a society that has spent generations perfecting itself and remains always open to change. It is both a strategy for change and a complete way of life.
Herland is written in the style of a Boys’ Own adventure story. Deep in the Amazon jungle, three amateur explorers, men of course, find their way into a world inhabited only by women. Instead of meeting with exciting adventures in which they can display their superior macho skills – one man even has notions of ending up King of all the women – they are gently disarmed of all their prejudices and pre-conceptions about women and two of them are re-educated into new ways of thinking and relating to women. This is altogether a much more painful and demanding experience. far from behaving like detached and culturally-superior observers of an alien culture as did many of the anthropologists of Charlotte’s day, all three of the men become heavily involved in the lives of the Herlanders and learn to adjust to their ways.
Herland is a matriarchal society. A matriarchy is not simply a reflection of a patriarchal society which is also hierarchical in nature. It is an egalitarian society, a sisterhood in which women’s capacity to bear children is of central importance and held in high regard. The anthropologist Evelyn Reed in her book Woman’s Evolution has shown that many of the earliest human societies are likely to have been matriarchal and such societies continue to exist – just about – to this day.
There have been no men in Herland for centuries. This has given the women the much-needed personal and social space to recover their autonomy as women. Every woman needs that space for herself. Women should always be able to organize as women as well as with men. In Aboriginal society, individual members of a group might express their need for personal space by going on a walkabout. Men and women retained control over separate spaces for themselves as two distinct and autonomous groups. They often led much more separate lives than we understand in our society and Aboriginal women tend not to be impressed with women who are dependent on the views and approval of men.
The women of Herland reproduce simply by responding to the urge to be a mother. This biological urge is the driving force behind all their creative activity. Indeed in the interests of population control, collectively agreed by the community, the women restrict themselves to one child each and channel their mother urge into other activities. They are not at the mercy of their childbearing capacity although the idea of abortion is abhorrent to them. In many of the matriarchal societies described by Evelyn Reed, it would appear that women had similar control over their fertility. They knew about contraceptive medicines and practised periods of abstention from sexual intercourse. It is possible that they had a better sense of their biological rhythms than we do and knew when they were most likely to be fertile. Travellers noted that women in some Native American communities only had three or four children and they were shocked to hear that women in our society sometimes had ten or more children.
All the women of Herland are single mothers – like many lesbian mothers today, they are not dependent on a relationship with a man for their sexual pleasure or in order to become mothers. Unlike for most women in our society there is no tension between their responsibilities as mothers and fulfilling a socially-useful and challenging role in the community. This is because in matriarchal societies, child-rearing is a communal and public activity. No mother is separated from other members of the society with solitary responsibility for her children.
The women of Herland have managed to fulfil their need for food, shelter and transport in ways that are technologically developed as well as ecologically-sustainable. As far as food production is concerned, they are gatherers and cultivators. But there are no farms on Herland and virtually no domesticated animals, apart from a few cats left over from a previous era. The idea of eating meat and drinking the milk of animals other than themselves strikes the women of Herland as a rather cruel and abhorrent idea. Instead, they live on the rich variety of fruits and nuts which they have gathered from the forest which surrounds their dwellings. The trees bear the marks of cultivation. Their branches are trained so as to make the fruits easily accessible and species have been bred so as to obtain a high yield. While Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s vision of food production might seem a little twee by comparison with real-life examples, it is not dissimilar from the way some forest-dwelling peoples use their environment even to this day. In fact, the destruction of the forests by large-scale capitalist development projects such as dams and mines has particular implications for the lives of women among indigenous forest dwelling communities around the world. For the women who used the forest as a source of food, fuel, as a hygienic place to relieve calls of nature and a place of spiritual retreat, it represented social and economic independence. The impact of capitalism on their lives has thrust them into dependence on the wage-slavery of the men in a matter of months in some instances.
There are no schools in Herland but learning as an ongoing process is of central importance in the women’s lives. They are all open-minded and critically receptive to new ideas and fail to understand how religious beliefs going back thousands of years continue to hold such a powerful grip on the minds of people in our society. They set out to teach the men about Herland by enquiring about the world they have come from. Teaching for them is about sharing ideas and experiences, a much more egalitarian process than we experience in our schools and colleges. They meet the most conservative and sexist views of the men with patience and respect and draw them gently away from their prejudices and preconceptions with questions and information that might open their minds to alternative ways of thinking.
Having captured the three explorers, the women of Herland decide that it is in their interests to allow this contact with men to develop. Nevertheless, they continue to retain their material and intellectual independence. Three of the women form intimate relationships with the men. Two of the couples marry but retain independent living quarters. Their relationships, particularly that of Ellador who marries the former sociologist who is perhaps the most receptive to the women’s culture without feeling either that he has to challenge it or lose his own cultural and sexual identity in the process, are not dogged by the possessiveness and insecurity that so dogs relationships in our society today. Instead, they have an easy-going friendship based on shared interests, a meeting of minds, mutual trust and pleasure in each other’s company. As far as Ellador is concerned, sex does not figure very highly in the relationship. It is an aspect of our culture, which she says she has yet to understand but she treats their different sexual needs with honesty and sensitivity and her partner finds himself being drawn into a calm and deeply-rewarding understanding such as he has never experienced with a woman before.
Terry on the other hand who is the most macho of the three men attempts to impose his desires on his partner during a much more stormy relationship. Unlike in our society where rape within marriage and date rapes are only just beginning to be recognized as such, the whole community of Herland responds to this attempted rape and Terry is asked to leave with no hope of reconciliation with his partner. Even the other two men recognize that they have a responsibility to deal with this man who they liked at the beginning of the book and whose behaviour they tolerated as long as it did not implicate their own wives, sisters and daughters.
Although it was written nearly eighty years ago, Herland continues to have relevance today. In News from Nowhere there is a chapter on “How the Change Came About”. We read of much that is familiar, of workers organizations, of mass demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and much more.
In Herland the author reminds us of the central role that women have to play in bringing about a revolution. We should bear in mind that during the period when Charlotte Perkins Gilman and William Morris were writing, women had already made an enormous contribution to the working-class movement. Yet that is barely acknowledged today.
In the early days of the trade union movement, their role as workers as dependent on a wage as the men was not recognized by those who advocated the family wage as opposed to equal pay. The enormous amount of unpaid work that women do continues to remain largely unrecognized and the women who do it largely unorganized. Any efforts to organize by such groups of women such as the wages for housework campaign is viewed with suspicion even by many of the male-dominated organizations on the left. The women who so staunchly supported the Miners’ strike of 1984 were denied membership of the NUM. These are just a few symptoms of the deep-rooted sexism in our society that continues to exclude women from political action by failing to recognize the particular ways in which capitalism affects their lives.
Herland demonstrates how class conscious women in full control of their minds and their bodies can organize themselves in peaceful co-operation and overcome this sexism and how they must play an important role in bringing about and maintaining the revolution. Men, deprived of their patriarchal role, will find for themselves a much more meaningful existence in the process.
(The article elicited a response in the July 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard).