Herland revisited: narratives of motherhood, domesticity, and physical emancipation in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist utopia.
Article Type:
Women's rights (Portrayals)
Women authors (Works)
Women authors (Influence)
Women authors (Criticism and interpretation)
Feminism (Portrayals)
Lathrop, Anna
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Name: Vitae Scholasticae Publisher: Caddo Gap Press Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Humanities Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Caddo Gap Press ISSN: 0735-1909
Date: Annual, 2006 Source Volume: 23
Named Person: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins; Gilman, Charlotte Perkins; Gilman, Charlotte Perkins
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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On April 2, 2006, in the Toronto Star, a feature article entitled "Working Girls, Broken Society" is published. This article examines a recent theory by Professor Alison Wolf, a professor of public sector management at King's College, London, and the author of Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth. Her thesis contends that women's gradual access to equal opportunity in the workplace has led to serious negative consequences. Wolf argues that the end of the 'marriage bar' in many industrialized Western nations--precipitated in 1945 by English legislation that permitted female teachers and civil servants to stay employed if they married--constituted "a rupture in human history." (1) She claims that although employment opportunity for women has brought enormous benefits, "... its repercussions are not all positive." (2) Access to education and employment, she argues, has resulted in the death of feminist sisterhood, the erosion of female altruism, and a negative impact on childbearing. The path once largely followed by Nineteenth Century White, middle-class women across the developed world entailed access to higher education and a profession in teaching; followed by motherhood, homemaking, and voluntary work in the community. Modern Twenty-First Century women, however, are now "too busy." (3) Wolf comments, "One could interpret today's feminist assumptions as reflecting the appetite of global capitalism for all talent, female and male, at the expense of the family." (4)

American economist Shirley Burggraf in her book, The Feminine Economy and Economic Man: Reviving the Role of the Family in the Postindustrial Age, further echoes this concern, and states that financial disincentives to childbearing in the Twenty-First Century have now become so high for upper middle income women, that it is a puzzle why they have any at all. Burggraf states, "professional women will have to give up most if they have children, and so will be the least inclined to so." (5) Has the "occupational emancipation" of women created intransient problems for the future of society? Burggraf argues that the tension between the modern workplace and family well-being is real and irresolvable as long as capitalist societies place no financial value on the activities that take place in the home.

How would a Nineteenth Century feminist respond to these concerns? What would Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of Women and Economics: The Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), say to a Twentieth Century author such as Shirley Burggraf? Would she be surprised that over a century later, the great discourses of motherhood, domesticity, and economic emancipation are still major issues of gender and society with which we grapple?


Born in 1860, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent example of a 'new woman' of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Described as highly educated, economically autonomous, and often supportive of radical economic and social reforms, these 'new women' of the Progressive Era typified the first wave of White, middle-class feminists who advocated women's emancipation. They claimed the identification of 'new women' (and were often described as such) because they demanded release from rigid behavourial expectations and they wanted control of their reproductive lives. A central theme for many of these 'new women' was the pursuit of health and wholeness. Control of the physical body--activity, health, dress, and, by extension--sexual activity, childbearing, and domesticity--were physical and social constraints that severely limited women in the Nineteenth Century. These 'new women' sought both physical autonomy and intellectual fulfillment.

Only recently has the serious and fictional writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman been rediscovered and reclaimed by feminists of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century. (6) A prolific writer, philosopher, and social critic, Gilman's serious writing presents an extraordinary political analysis of the physical and cultural determinants that shaped female subordination and confinement during her lifetime. Her fictional writing also explored these themes--as they echoed her own personal struggle to reconcile, what she described, as "the woman's problem": "A woman could have love and lose life, or she could have life and lose love, but never could she have them both." (7) In the foreword to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's autobiography, Zona Gale writes:

Although Charlotte Perkins Gilman's international reputation is certainly attributed to her non-fictional writing (texts such as: Women and Economics: The Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898); Concerning Children (1900); The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903); and Human Work (1904); her fictional work also received considerable public acclaim. Of her fictional scholarship, two works have subsequently received particular scholarly interest: The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)--a dark and disturbing short story that describes a woman's descent into madness; and Herland (1915)--a light and whimsical romantic novel about a women-centred utopia. The Yellow Wallpaper describes Gilman's own decent into near insanity as the result of Dr. Weir Mitchell's 'rest cure' imposed upon her to treat symptoms of depression. (9) The novel was so chilling that the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, upon his review of the manuscript commented, "I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself! (10)

In Herland, however, Gilman adopts a decidedly different literary strategy to convey her social critique. As Helen Cixous suggests, Gilman "breaks up truth with laughter." (11) She presents the story of a feminist utopia--a humane social order founded upon the gynocentric values of nurturance and community--that is fanciful, less shocking, and more accessible to an early Twentieth Century readership. In both The Yellow Wallpaper and Herland, however, through the fiction of storytelling, one may see the interconnections between private life experiences and public discourse. Storytelling reveals the powers that establish reality. As Carol Christ notes, "In a very real sense, there is no experience without stories... stories give shape to experience, experience gives rise to stories." (12) Charlotte Perkins Gilman believed that women needed to tell their own stories. She also believed that stories were critical to self-revelation, self-understanding, and a way to understand social relations with others.

This article examines the interconnections between Charlotte Perkins Gilman's vision of a feminist utopia described in her fictional novel, Herland, with her own experiences of life, love, family, and work. Themes of motherhood, domesticity, female physicality and gender relations are explored.

Herland: A 'Lost' Feminist Utopian Novel

Herland has been described as "the first truly feminist work in American Utopian tradition." (13) Although published in serial form in 1915, the novel was never published separately until 1979, recovered by Gilman biographer Ann Lane who described it as a "lost" feminist utopian novel. (14) Herland is described as a feminist utopia because, as Theresa De Lauretis argues, it follows in the tradition of a feminist aesthetic that offers the opportunity to reveal misogynist assumptions and deconstruct androcentric norms. (15) As Lucy Freibert explains, Herland also shares similar principles with other feminist utopias in that it examines issues such as social assistance, child-care, and community responsibility that are central to the discourse of women. (16) In this novel, Gilman echoes the twin themes forwarded her serious work, Women and Economics, with regard to socialism and sexual equality. Influenced by Looking Backward: 2000-1887--one of the country's best selling novels of the period by Edward Bellamy--Gilman advocated a form of American socialism that was less threatening to the middleclass because it did not advocate Marxist revolutionary change. Like Bellamy, her world-view supported social evolutionary change and imagined a gradual movement toward political and economic equality for men and women. (17) For Gilman, economic independence was more important than suffrage. She commented, "As to women, the basic need of economic independence seemed to me of far more importance than the ballot; though that of course was a belated and legitimate claim, for which I always worked as opportunity offered." (18)

Herland was the second of three Utopian novels written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Moving the Mountain (1911) was followed by Herland (1915), and With Her in Our Land (1916). In Moving the Mountain and With Her in Our Land, Gilman presents the possibilities that exist between men and women in a world that is fundamentally recognizable. Moving the Mountain, set in the 1940s, imagines a socialist world where child-rearing and public responsibility allow for new and equitable relationships between men and women. In With Her in Our Land--the sequel to Herland--the protagonists from Herland leave their utopia and enter a post-World War I historical context. Here, they debate the issues of gender and socialism in the familiar world of early Twentieth Century America. In Herland, however, the social utopia described by Gilman is far more radical and less recognizable. Gilman takes her greatest leap into the world of utopian possibility, for she imagines a world without men. Herland is a world without the primacy of the private 'home' (comprised of one man and one woman) and traditionally configured as the central reproductive unit of society.

Herland is a tale of thee male American adventurers who stumble upon a lost female utopia. Gilman appropriates the male voice of the third member of the expedition, Vandyck Jennings, and proceeds to tell the story through his eyes--the male discourse of patriarchy. Through dramatic confrontations between the women of Herland and these men from 'outside,' the reader is taken on a journey that presents androcentric norms as marginal, and gynocentric norms as universal. In Herland, there is no warfare, hatred, violence, greed, poverty, or jealously. By asking questions about the presumed 'civilized' world that lies outside of their utopia, Herlanders expose cultural norms rooted in patriarchy as ridiculous, nonsensical, and unreasonable. Why is long hair not considered womanly? Why are pets imprisoned on leashes? What do women do in the outside world if they are not permitted to work? Why are dead bodies buried, not cremated? Why are cows robbed of their milk? Why are children given names of their fathers?

Within the pages of Herland, Gilman challenges androcentric narratives that relate to motherhood, domesticity, community, work, and female physicality. Just as a "clear-eyed, intelligent, perfectly honest and well-meaning child will frequently jar one's self esteem by innocent questions," (19) so Gilman hopes that innocent questions posed in her novel will challenge the reader to question universal gender assumptions. She proposes a feminist utopian world based on socialism and gynocentric values as "a not unnatural enterprise." (20)

Motherhood, Domesticity, and Child Culture

The story of Herland is the tale of a lost undiscovered world. As the story opens, three male characters from 'our' world (Vandyck Jennings, Terry Nicholson, and Jeff Margrave) find a 'lost' world while on a geographic expedition. They soon discover that this world is inhabited exclusively by women. When they meet the inhabitants--called Herlanders--they are told that this country was once inhabited by men and women, but that 2,000 years earlier, a volcanic event killed all the men and cut off the country's access to the sea. Developing independently from all other human contact, the women of Herland evolved into a caring and mutually supportive community. Eventually, a miracle occurred, and one woman gave birth to a child through parthenogenesis--a process that produces only female children.

In Herland, childbirth and mothering is the highest calling. "Here we have Human Motherhood--in full working use" (21) as one Herlander explains. Women carry the life force of procreation, and at the age of twenty-five, give birth to girl children. Without heterosexual sex, the potential for motherhood is no longer "helpless involuntary fecundity." (22) Notably, the choice to bear and nurture children is "not a brute passion [or] a mere 'instinct.'" (23) In Herland, the virgin birth capacity renders heterosexuality incidental, and allows Gilman the opportunity to re-imagine a new configuration for human relationships. As biographer Ann Lane suggests, this possibility reflects Gilmans' own belief that the sexual relationship between men and women is profoundly economic in nature, and as such, economic dependence has led to "excessive sex-indulgence." (24) Herland therefore, challenges the aberration that women have been bred to sex-activity. Motherhood is so central to the life and purpose of Herland society, that it becomes their religion--a form of "Maternal Pantheism." (25) When Herland women bear children, it is the result of "a great tender limitless uplifting force" (26) and "a period of utter exaltation [when] the whole being is uplifted and filled with concentrated desire." (27) Herlanders do not worship a separate deity; instead, they honor the life force all around them. Birth, therefore, is a central experience that forms the core of their religious belief. They hold no theory of eternal punishment nor do they believe in an afterlife. (28) As a form of realized eschatology, life was to be lived fully in the present:

For Herlanders, the concept of the afterlife is understood in terms of their duty to their children, and thereby the future of their community. Motherhood was their contribution to their society. As Friebert suggests, Herland is a utopian novel that is based on the metaphor of motherhood. (30)

In Herland, the centrality of motherhood leads to a different philosophy of child care and education. As Vandyck Jennings came to discover, "You see, children were the--the raison d'etre in this country" (31) and all Herlanders shared child-raising duties. Children were not considered private property, but rather, the responsibility of the community. As children grew, they were taught "...Peace, Beauty, Order, Safety, Love, Wisdom, Justice, Patience, and Plenty. (32) "The big difference," as Jennings describes, "... was that whereas our children grow up in private homes and families, with every effort made to protect and seclude them from a dangerous world, here they grew up in a wide, friendly world, and knew it for theirs, from the first." (33) Herland babies stayed with their mothers for the first year, but were thereafter cared for by the rest of the community. Herland spaces were also designed to be safe for infants and children. "The houses and gardens, planned for babies, had in them nothing to hurt--no stairs, no corners, no small loose objects to swallow, no fire--just a babies' paradise." (34)

The theme of motherhood and domesticity was also a pivotal theme in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's pubic writings. Shortly after her marriage to Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, Gilman had a daughter, Katharine, and subsequently fell into mental depression. She describes this experience in The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and later offers a social critique of marriage as an oppressive institution for women in her serious work, Women and Economics (1898). In her writing, she argues that marriage impairs the mental and physical development of women, and that motherhood is not a 'natural' endowment for which all women are equally suited. When Gilman and Charles eventually divorce, she relinquishes the care of her daughter to her former husband, who marries her best friend Grace Channing. She faces public outrage as a mother who has abandoned her daughter. In 1916, perhaps in response to public criticism, Gilman publishes a fictional short story entitled, The Unnatural Mother. The story describes a mother's choice to save the lives of over fifteen hundred townsfolk at the expense of her own child's life. The Unnatural Mother is Gilman's response to the public's allegation that she was "an unnatural wife [and] an unnatural mother." (35)

This problematic image of the 'unnatural' wife and mother also extends to Gilman's early childhood experiences. By her own account, Gilman describes her mother as restrained and non-demonstrative in her affections toward her as a child. She interprets her mother's absence of the "expression of affection" as a way of sheltering the young Gilman from eventual disappointment and suffering in later life. (36) This problematic rationale may have contributed to Gilman's subsequent critique that the passage into motherhood does not guarantee the possession of knowledge which is necessary for the provision of a healthy child-care environment. She observed, "If love, devotion to duty, [and] sublime self-sacrifice, were enough in child-culture, mothers would achieve better results; but there is another requisite too often lacking--knowledge." (37) Here, Gilman reveals her view that a child's education should not fall under the exclusive control of parents. As is the case in Herland, children should be educated and nurtured by a loving extended community--a community that includes trained teachers and experts in the field of child culture. Gilman was part of a larger, early Twentieth Century network of reformers who believed that the privacy of the home should be open to public scrutiny and subject to community child-culture standards.

Motherhood and issues of domesticity also extended into Gilman's vision for housing reform and public architecture. Gilman believed in an architectural revolution that envisioned kitchenless apartments with dining rooms and day care facilities. (38) She also argued that cooked-food delivery and cleaning services should be offered on a "business basis," (39) for only then would a woman's domestic labor be truly valued.

Economy, Community, and Home

Herland describes a socialist utopia of co-operation, industriousness, and community. Notably, the nuclear family is absent as the central mediating agency for society. No longer at odds with men, women reclaim leadership in education and the economy. As Jennings observes, "They had no wars. They had no kings, no priests, no aristocracies. There were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together, not by competition, but by united action." (40) Herland is not based on a vertical power structure of possession and domination. In her serious writing, Gilman describes this hierarchical relationship as "masculinist"; characterized by the values of desire, combat, and self-expression. (41) In Herland, Gilman echoes this theme. The second of the three male adventurers--Terry O. Nicholson--remarks that he finds this world of women an irritating and uncomfortable place, for it is a world without "... Love, Combat, and Danger." (42)

Gilman also challenges notions of "sociological superiority" (43) and civilization. At the beginning of the novel, Jennings glibly comments, "Why this is a civilized country! ... there must be men." (44) He also remarks that it is a land of "quiet potency" (45) that seems to convey a "different atmosphere." (46) In Herland, without the markers of love, combat, and danger, the male protagonists expresses the "sense of being hopelessly in the wrong" (47) and out of place. Jennings observes:

The physical, social, and psychic topography of Herland also extends horizontally rather than vertically. This "quiet lovely land" (49) exists in a state of "perfect cultivation, where even the forests looked as if they were cared for." (50) Fields and forests, gardens and roads, natural geography and city architecture are interdependent and in perfect symbiosis. Trees are food bearing, wildlife is tame, and even the cats are trained not to kill birds. The food chain is so perfectly balanced that "all that they ate was fruit of motherhood." (51) "Here was a people highly skilled, efficient, caring for their country as a florist cares for his costliest orchids." (52) "Everything was beauty, order, perfect cleanness, and the pleasantest sense of home over it all." (53)

The social matrix of Herland was also one characterized by unanimity, coordination, and cooperation. (54) Herlanders shared a collective identity and a collective history. Reviewing Herland's archival records, Jennings asks, "You put 'psychology' with 'history'--not with 'personal life'"? Ellador (the primary Herland protagonist) replies, "Of course. It is ours; it is among and between us." (55) Without marriage, home, property, or ownership, the personal is subsumed by the collective. Herlanders share a "limitless feeling of sisterhood" and a "wide unity in service." (56) In this way, Herland unhinges the dyad of the economic dependence of women upon men by dismantling the home as the central economic unit. Echoing the ideas she first forwarded in her 1903 serious work, The Home: Its Work and Influence, Gilman challenges the sanctity of the home as a place that limits women's work to one of servitude. According to biographer Ann Lane, Gilman believed that 'the home' creates power imbalances between dominant fathers, submissive mothers, and dependent children. Lane describes Gilman's view: "The home is an institution like any other... It is not a private, healthful, restful place; it is where we suffer the most. It is an institution owned by man, in which wife and children are forcibly held, forcibly by virtue of economic dependence and ideological pressure." (57)

Health, Strength and Agility

The women of Herland are physically strong and skilled. They are described as "fir-dark valley dwellers," "sunburned plainswomen," and "agile foresters." (58) Jennings describes them as "tall, strong, healthy, and beautiful as a race." (59) Gilman's descriptions evoke images of athleticism as she describes Herlanders as women who possess the balanced strength and quiet watchfulness of a fencer and the erect, serene, sure footed agility of a pugilist. (60) Herland women also delight in their physicality--they play games, dance, perform gymnastics. They have gardens and gymnasia. Gifted with strength, speed, and agility, they are proficient runners and climb trees with great ease. Jennings--a sociologist by profession--was so surprised and impressed by their physical prowess that he wryly observed, "Inhabitants evidently arboreal." (61)

Gilman's own life clearly reflected the Herland female ideal of strength, agility, and female physicality. True to her Beecher ancestry, Gilman was an ardent Nineteenth Century advocate of health and fitness. Ideals of physical strength and health were nurtured by her Beecher heritage. Charlotte Gilman was the grandniece of Catherine Beecher, (62) Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher, "all of whom promoted exalted and energetic images of themselves as self-asserted reformers during her many visits to them as a child." (63) Gilman believed physical strength was an avenue to female emancipation from dependence. She states in her autobiography, "... it is apparent that a careful early training in physical culture lasts a life time. I never was vain of my looks, nor of any professional achievements, but am absurdly vain of my physical strength and agility." (64) Gilman, like the women of Herland, delighted in her own female physicality. She writes in her autobiography:

An analysis of Herland offers the potential to examine a feminist utopia where female physicality is characterized by strength, autonomy, and social freedom. Gilman envisions this emancipated 'new woman' as "honester, braver, stronger, more healthful and skilful and able and free, and more human in all ways." (66) Her philosophy of health and physicality challenged the Nineteenth Century medical philosophy of the period that advocated the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. The health and fitness of the female body held a central place in her writing, and she believed physical fitness and good health was the key to autonomy and personal fulfillment. Gilman's health credo was simple. She stated, "Five little rules of heath I devised: 'Good air and plenty of it; good exercise and plenty of it, good food and plenty of it, good sleep and plenty of it, good clothing and as little as possible.'" (67) Gilman was also an advocate of dress reform. She spurned corsets and wore 'common sense' shoes, loose clothing, and even devised a brassiere "which supported the breasts without construction anywhere." (68) Following in the footsteps of her great aunt, Catherine Beecher, Gilman was convinced that "a careful early training in physical culture lasts a lifetime." (69)

Intersections of Life and Love

In Herland, Gilman also explores the nature of human relationships. As the male protagonists begin to befriend and eventually fall in love with Herland women, the nature of the 'male/female' connection is explored in a new way. The male protagonists in the novel are challenged to think outside "the straight mind" (70) because the heterocentric axis of power has shifted. Men are not noticed in the same way because they do not bear the privilege of the life force of procreation. In a world without heterosexual traditions, the three male adventurers lose their sense of identity and feel "like a lot of neuters." (71) Jennings reflects that the men feel "at sea" because the "signs" of culture and language are different. "There was no accepted standard of what was 'manly' and what was 'womanly.'" (72) Jennings notices that the women of Herland wear their hair short. There is not the provocative "come and find me element" (73) to their demeanor and the atmosphere is "anything but seductive." (74) In Gilman's Herland, the virgin birth capacity renders heterosexuality non-existent and allows Gilman the opportunity to re-imagine a new configuration for human relationships. In the absence of compulsory heterosexuality, the institutional markers of patriarchy--home, marriage, family, and patriotism--are gone. When Jennings falls in love with Ellador, he must investigate new ways of being 'in relation.' He must learn to refuse to be a man in the conventional sense, and develop in new directions of intimacy, mutuality, and pleasure. Jenning observes, "I grew to love Ellador more than I believed anyone could love anybody ... grew to appreciate her inner attitude and state of mind." (75) He further comments,

Inevitably, one of the adventurers, Terry Nicholson, attempts to physically consummate his love with a Herlander, against her will. In Gilman's utopia, both the sexual advance and the colonizing adventure end in failure. Nicholson is brought before the Herland court and the enormity of his crime is expressed in terms of its effect upon a possible fatherhood. In the end of Gilman's feminist utopia, Eve exiles Adam from the garden.

Gilman's erasure of the possibility of heterosexual procreation in Herland also excises the female body and the erotic. The physical and psychic contours of intimacy are not explored. In a world that has known only female bonding for over two thousand years, there is an absence of demonstrative homosocial affection and female intimacy. The erotic energy in Herland is dissipated horizontally as it permeates every aspect of life. The primacy of the personal is subsumed by the collective, and even procreative energy is manifest and flattened into universal motherhood. Passion, joy, fear, and grief are absent emotions in Herland. Gilman explores the possibility of sexual energy only in the heterosexual sense--between Jennings and Ellador. As Jennings becomes "Herlandized" and reflects upon his sexual desire for Ellador, he observes: "I found that much, very much, of what I had honestly supposed to be a physiological necessity was a psychological necessity." (77) In Herland, the sublime is peaceful, ordinary, and quiet; and the relationship of life consists of cherished youth, chosen work, reverence for mother, sisterhood, service to country, and friendships. After considerable education, Jennings eventually learns to let go of masculinist traditions and meets Ellador's love. He observes,

When Ellador and Jennings discuss the possibility of a sexual exchange, Ellador conceptualizes it as an emotion that must generate "oceans of work." (79) Sexual energy is so channeled into work, music, art, games, exercise, and play that Jennings forgets about his erotic desire "in the multitude of my satisfactions." He comments,

Jennings and Ellador, in the absence of sexual eroticism, ultimately find a place of deep and profound connection.

In the area of personal relationships, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's private correspondences reflect a depth of passion that is never fully reflected in her public writing. Gilman's life appears to read as a struggle between tensions of masculinity and femininity--loving both men and women. Although it was not uncommon for Nineteenth Century women to write passionately of loving relationships with other women, (81) biographers Mary Hill (82) and Ann Lane (83) agree that Gilman's female attachments were profound. Regarding her friendship with Martha Luther, Hill comments, "Charlotte fought for the romantic's dream of vital, candid, mutually trusting love... [She] knew, as a woman, she could never have such a lovely wife." (84) Hill also notes that Gilman was careful in her public statements not to attack too vehemently the suspicion of female friendships, but that privately, "she dismissed them out of hand." Gilman wrote to Martha Luther,

Hill refers to this as "an open declaration of her private thoughts on women's right to same-sex love." (86) This conscious awareness of marginal secrecy is also apparent in yet another letter to Martha Luther, in which Gilman admits to her use of cryptic codes and writing strategies. She writes:

In Herland, as in her serious public writing (with the 'Philistines' watching), Gilman takes the female sublime as far as she is able. Lane comments, "Yet never in her fiction did Gilman address woman-to-woman relationships... Love between women was too dangerous for Gilman to confront publicly, and perhaps privately as well." (88)


Nearly one hundred years later, America's first feminist utopian novel still remains both radical and relevant. Herland reflects Gilman's fundamental belief that home was the primary location of inequality for women. Herland imagined a utopia without the centrality of the normally constructed nuclear family. She argued that the sexual relation between the sexes was an economic one. Stripped of sentimentality about marriage and motherhood, Gilman exposes these power relations and thereby challenges the distinction between public and private spheres. Although Gilmans' three male adventurers expected to see a world constructed by women with the hallmarks of "submissive monotony," "pettiness," "jealousy," and "hysteria" (89)--in Herland, they found only paradise.

Although radical, it may be also argued that Gilman's feminist utopia was far from revolutionary. Her vision was firmly rooted in a Victorian ideal of social order: "It was like a pleasant family in an old established, perfectly run country place." (90) Painfully absent, also, was any passionate evidence of female love. Gilman never denied or challenged the fundamental difference between the sexes and she never denigrated the importance of wifehood and motherhood. She remained committed to the highest duties of family, womanhood, and social betterment.

Gilman's analysis also clearly lacks any analysis beyond gender. She affords inadequate attention to class, race, or ethnicity; and one may also see weaknesses in her linear view of the evolutionary progress of humanity toward social and racial betterment. True to the mindset of the first wave of feminism, she makes collective assumptions about women being cared for by men, when these generalizations only largely extended to a certain group of White, middle-class women. Nevertheless, she successfully examined previous 'domestic' issues such as home, marriage, and child-rearing--and took them into the realm of legitimate intellectual inquiry. Her profound analysis linked sex and economics, and this view struck a popular chord with social reformers during the first two decades of the century. Although she presumed that the social services would be available to support women as they entered the work force outside of the home, she anticipated this potential problem on the horizon. In her autobiography she observes:

From a biographical perspective, Gilman's personal experiences clearly shine through her work. Her critique of the home may be rooted in her own experiences of a stern mother and an absent father. Her vision of kitchen-less apartment houses with dining rooms and day care centres reflects her own experiences of boarding room life and the challenges of balancing motherhood and a writing profession. These issues still resonate with third-wave feminists. In a moving tribute to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Twentieth Century feminist Joan Kelly writes in her Cancer Journal:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an advocate of choice in childbearing, public day care, euthanasia, meaningful work for women, and a utopian social worldview that reconfigured work, love, and human relationships along a horizontal sublime. Ironically, the reformer known by the name of Charlotte Anna Perkins Stetson Gilman was also one of the first to argue that women should retain their birth names after marriage. (93)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman died at age seventy-five of breast cancer. Rather than suffer at the hands of a medical profession that she believed exerted far too much control over Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century women's bodies, she took her own life. As a woman who battled the "grey fog" (94) of mental depression all of her life, she remained true to her credo of a life of service until the end. She stated,

Gilman concluded simply, "I have preferred chloroform to cancer." (96) In her final act of physical emancipation, Charlotte Perkins Gilman took her own life with quiet dignity.


(1) Alison Wolf, "Working girls, broken society," The Toronto Star, April 2 2006, D4.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid., D10.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Shirley Burggraf, in Wolf, Toronto Star, D10.

(6) See Patricia Vertinsky, "A Militant Madonna: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Feminism and Physical Culture," International Journal of the History of Sport, 18 (2001), 70, who notes, "Gilman's works were 'virtually forgotten' until 1971 when the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College acquired her papers, totaling 29 boxes of diaries, scrapbooks, correspondence and clippings."

(7) Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Three Women" Success II (1908), in Patricia Vertinsky, The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Doctors and Exercise in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1990), 490-491.

(8) Zona Gale, Foreward, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935), xv.

(9) Late Nineteenth Century medical professionals identified a number of nervous disorders thought to be the result of the 'new women's indifference to marriage and motherhood,' and the nervous strain placed upon them as a result of entrance into the public sector. These diseases included anorexia nervosa, hysteria and neurasthenia. One of the most prominent neurologists of the 1880s, Dr. Wier Mitchell, was noted for his treatment of these nervous conditions. His 'rest cure' advocated forced feeding and restricted mobility. Charlotte Perkins Gilman received the 'rest cure' treatment from Wier, and subsequently rejected the treatment as one that was fundamentally unhealthy. See Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 121.

(10) Ibid., 119.

(11) Helen Cixous, cited in Patricia Yaeger, "Toward a Female Sublime" in Linda Kauffman, ed., Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 191.

(12) Carol Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980), 4-5.

(13) See Lucy M. Freibert, "World views in Utopian novels by Women," Journal of Popular Culture, 17 (Summer 1983): 49-60.

(14) Ann Lane, Introduction, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), v.

(15) Theresa de Laurentis, "Rethinking Women's Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory," in de Lauretis, (ed.), Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (Bloomington, IN: Indianna University Press, 1987), 127-128.

(16) See Freibert, 'World Views in Utopian Novels," 49-60, for a discussion of the themes of motherhood, anarchy, personhood and sisterhood.

(17) See Patricia Vertinsky, "Feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Pursuit of Health and Physical Fitness as a Strategy for Emancipation," Journal of Sport History 16 (Spring, 1989), 20-21; Carl Degler, Introduction, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: The Economic Relation

Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1898), xii ; Ann Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 161; and Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 131.

(18) Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 131.

(19) Gilman, Herland, 62.

(20) Ibid., 1.

(21) Ibid., 66.

(22) Ibid., 68.

(23) Ibid.

(24) Lane, To Herland and Beyond, 236.

(25) Gilman, Herland, 59.

(26) Ibid., 112.

(27) Ibid., 70.

(28) Ibid., 112-113.

(29) Ibid., 140.

(30) Freibert, "World Views in Utopian Novels," 50.

(31) Gilman, Herland, 51.

(32) Ibid., 100

(33) Ibid., 101.

(34) Ibid., 107.

(35) Gale, Foreward, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, xxix.

(36) Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 10.

(37) Ibid., 11.

(38) See Dolores Hayden, Two Utopian Feminists and Their Campaigns for Kitchenless Houses, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4, no. 2 (1978): 274-290.

(39) Gilman, Women and Economics, 242-243.

(40) Gilman, Herland, 60.

(41) See Margaret Hobbs, "The Perils of 'Unbridled Masculinity:' Pacifist Elements in the Feminist and Social Thought of Charlotte Perkins Gilman," in Ruth Pierson (ed.), Women and Peace: Theoretical Historical and Practical Perspectives (Beckenham Kent, UK: Croom Helm, 1987), 153.

(42) Gilman, Herland, 58.

(43) Ibid., 8.

(44) Ibid., 11.

(45) Ibid., 18

(46) Ibid., 30.

(47) Ibid., 19.

(48) Ibid., 29-30.

(49) Ibid., 72

(50) Ibid., 11.

(51) Ibid., 59.

(52) Ibid., 18.

(53) Ibid., 19.

(54) Ibid., 67.

(55) Ibid., 105.

(56) Ibid., 69.

(57) Lane, To Herland and Beyond, 273.

(58) Gilman, Herland, 64.

(59) Ibid., 77-78.

(60) Ibid., 20.

(61) Ibid., 17.

(62) Catharine Beecher was one of the most noted nineteenth century health reformers in America. See, Patricia Vertinsky, "Sexual equality and the legacy of Catharine Beecher," Journal of Sport History, 6 (Spring 1979): 35-49.

(63) Vertinsky, "Feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Pursuit of Health and Fitness," 7.

(64) Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 67.

(65) Ibid.

(66) Gilman, Women and Economics, 148-149.

(67) Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 67.

(68) Ibid., 64-65.

(69) Ibid., 67.

(70) Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

(71) Ibid., 26.

(72) Ibid., 92.

(73) Ibid., 128.

(74) Ibid., 129.

(75) Ibid., 109.

(76) Ibid., 90.

(77) Ibid., 128.

(78) Ibid., 91.

(79) Ibid., 127.

(80) Ibid., 141.

(81) See Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual" in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 53-76, who describes romantic friendships between women in Nineteenth Century America.

(82) Mary Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).

(83) Lane, To Herland and Beyond, 78, 158, 166.

(84) Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 79.

(85) Gilman, in Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 84.

(86) Hill, Ibid.

(87) Ibid., 67.

(88) Lane, To Herland and Beyond, 294.

(89) Gilman, Herland, 81.

(90) Ibid., 99.

(91) Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 321.

(92) Joan Kelly, Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), xv.

(93) Zonta, Foreward, in Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, xxiv.

(94) Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 88.

(95) Ibid., 333.

(96) Ibid., 334.

Anna Lathrop

Brock University
The idea of any life for women besides that offered by sex and
   housework was then unthinkable, and the larger integration could
   not be visualized at all. That women had many other contributions
   to make which would enrich society and human growth; that women
   could be mothers to the race as well as to one family 'around the
   evening lamp;' that unlimited child-bearing is immoral; that if a
   woman is equipped for, or specialized to create work, than to do
   housework alone, even her own, is against the Hebrew Bible's
   injunction on the subject of the talents; that women share in
   living is as limitless as that of man--all this was new and
   heretical--as to-day it remains heretical to millions. (8)

All their wide mutual love, all the subtle interplay of mutual
   friendship and service, the urge of progressive thought and
   invention, the deepest religious emotion, every feeling and every
   act was related to this great central Power, to the River of Life
   pouring through them, which made them the bearers of the very
   Spirit of God. (29)

It isn't just that we don't see any men--but we don't see any sign
   of them. The--the--reaction of these women is different from any
   that I've ever met... They don't seem to notice our being men! They
   treat us--well--just as they do one another. It's as if our being
   men was a minor incident. (48)

My special efforts were not toward anything spectacular, but
   directed to the building up of a sound physique. Going twice a
   week, each day I ran a mile, not for the speed but the wind, and
   can still run better than many a younger woman. I could vault and
   jump, go up a knotted rope, walk on my hands under a ladder, kick
   as high as my head, and revel in the flying rings. But best of all
   were the traveling rings, those wide-spaced single ones, stirrup
   handed, that dangle in a line the length of a hall. (65)

And, as I travelled farther and farther, exploring the rich sweet
   soul of hers my sense of pleasant friendship became but a broad
   foundation for such height, such breadth, such interlocked
   combination of feeling as left me fairly blinded with the wonder of
   it. (76)

Then this deeper recognition came and grew. I felt my own soul rise
   and lift its wings, as it were. Life got bigger. It seemed as if I
   understood--as I never had before--as if I could Do things--as if I
   too could grow--if she would help me. And then It came--to both of
   us, all at once. (78)

I was beginning to find that Ellador's friendship, Ellador's
   comradeship, Ellador's sisterly affection, Ellador's perfectly
   sincere love--none the less deep that she held it back on a
   definite line of reserve--were enough to live on very happily. (80)

I think it highly probable (ahem!) that you love me however I
   squirm, love the steady care around which I so variously revolve,
   love me and will love me--why in the name of heaven have we so
   confounded love with passion that it sounds to our century-tutored
   ears either wicked or absurd to name it between women? It is no
   longer friendship between us, it is love. (85)

What horrid stuff these letter would be for the Philistines! Lock
   'em up, and sometime we'll have a grand cremation... Incidental
   though, would'nt these letters of mine be nuts for commentators? If
   and if of course, but how they would squabble over indistinct
   references and possible meanings! (87)

But the double-pressure goes on: more and more professional women,
   who will marry and have families and will not be house-servants,
   for nothing; and less and less obtainable service, with the
   sacrifice of the wife and mother to that primal altar, the
   cook-stove. This pressure, which marks the passing of the period of
   domestic service and the beginning of professional service-- cooked
   meals brought to the home, and labor by the hour--will gradually
   force that great economic change. (91)

I can read, and do, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and feel my life
   connect with hers, my cause with hers. Hope I can contribute as she
   did; know I have, but I now want to do more. I want that suffering
   that we can control to stop, it outrages and tears at me, the cruel
   and stupid political world. And I want women's indignities to be
   ended--millennia long, borne with such endurance and grace. I want,
   what I really want, and now great pleasure comes though me: I want
   our day to come. I want women to take the lead. And I know, in the
   depth of my being and in all my knowledge of history and humanity,
   I know women will struggle for a social order of peace, equality,
   joy. Women will make the world concern itself with children. Our
   problem is, how do we "make' the world do that? Oh, I want an end
   to patriarchy. Passionately! (92)

Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune,
   or 'broken heart' is excuse for cutting off one's life while any
   power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one
   is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of
   human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow
   and horrible one. (95)
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