Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Herland Cover

Herland: and Selected Stories


Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: Mild
Ace/Genderqueer characters: Yes (human)
Rating: PG
Writing style: 4/5
Likable characters: 4/5
Plot/Concepts: 4/5

Three scientists set out on an expedition to find a legendary nation ruled by women. What they found was not like anything they had imagined—perhaps unsurprising, considering the narrow ideas of gendered behavior which each man held. The citizens of "Herland" recognize that they too have only known one way of living, and propose a cultural exchange which will test the limits of the men's open-mindedness.

Herland is a utopian story, and like all utopias Gilman uses hers to outline not only her view a better world but what elements of our world she believes hold us back from such innocent bliss. This starts with gender and sexual behavior but extends into other issues such as education, the dangers of capitalism, and the importance of environmental management and nonviolence. I knew that the women of Herland reproduced asexually, but I had no idea they were also asexual in terms of orientation. It came as a delightful surprise, after a lot of reminding myself that the lack of sexual relations could just be a symptom of Gilman's Victorian upbringing. But no, she gets into it quite explicitly. This is the most open case for an asexual culture I have ever seen in fiction, and Gilman is unapologetic in her assumption that an asexual single-gendered society could easily resolve much of the problems of our own current one. I was startled at how strongly this idea came through, and how direct a link she seems to have believed there is between gendered behavior and sexual attraction. There are many theories she sets forth that I'm actually not sure I agree with, but she does make an interesting and fairly detailed case for them.

First of all, as a feminist novel, it is very direct about stating that a society of women might get along much better than a society of men. This is tempered by the fact that the women of Herland believe their society could be enriched by establishing contact with the outside world, as diversity is generally a cause for growth. Gilman poses the old nature vs. nurture question when it comes to the orientation and behavior of the nation. Is their newly evolved status as parthenogenetic beings what made their society so peaceful and prosperous, as it removed the sexual and territorial motive for conflict from their minds? Is it the fact that they came together in those first generations to ensure the survival of their species, throwing all their passion into helping the future generation progress rather than preserving the failed traditions of the past?

I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief when the origin of this nation was explained. Cut off from surrounding areas by natural disaster, with all their men wiped out, the women carried on with little hope of survival until one of them miraculously became pregnant. In the Victorian era, Darwin's writings on evolution were quite popular, and I suspect that contemporary ideas of how it could be applied were influential in this aspect of the story. Perhaps it did not seem unlikely to her that if subject to such a terrible environment and certain extinction, a group of humans could spontaneously evolve the abilities needed for survival. Such evolution might be possible, but there are no known cases of natural parthenogenesis in mammals yet, so I was expecting there to be some other stimulus. Which is fine—this is science fiction after all!—but it tends to date the story, much like the terrible racial attitudes which snuck their way in. We catch Van referring to native tribes as savages and stating plainly that this civilized society of women had to have been from Aryan descent. Those racial problems serve as a reminder that even a great feminist like Gilman can be blinded or limited by the biases of her time, and of the continued need for cooperation between various minorities.

But back to gender and sexuality. In some ways, her writing seems to propose that our ideas of femininity and masculinity are mere by-products of sexual attraction, and if there were no sexual attraction, nobody would ever engage in such gender-dichotomous behaviors. One character even goes so far as to say that feminine traits such as were common in Victorian times (submissiveness, humility, jealousy, pleasing looks and manners) were really only a kind of inverted masculinity; that is, they were only a response to what attracts masculine people and not the true nature of women, which Gilman believed was based on Motherhood with a capital M (unselfish love, social responsibility, protectiveness, practicality, firm direct honesty, reasoned thinking, work ethic, and a strong desire to shape a better world for the future generation). The citizens of Herland are thus fairly androgynous, with short hair, and clothing which is comfortable, easy to move around in and full of pockets. They do not indulge in much superficial adornment. Does this androgyny make them not-really-women? Does it make them genderqueer, or just a different type of women? There are many points like this which could be fun to debate in ace and genderqueer circles.

One thing I at first dreaded and then hugely appreciated was the fact that mixed-orientation relationships were explored. I thought it would be horrible if any of the men in the story courted any of the women, but actually it provided a great opportunity for Gilman to show both the problems with the possessive entitled attitudes of men in that era, and the need to accept asexuality as something which is compatible with a deep and passionate love. Whether that love is platonic or romantic is never really explained, and in Herland perhaps it doesn't need to be. Their entire understanding of relationships is based off of friendship, motherhood, and sisterhood. There is no other frame of reference for them. It was beautiful to watch Van, the narrator, learn about the importance of this kind of love, and to come to value it enough that he was willing to stop pressuring his wife to have sex when not trying for a child. Yes, the men marry Herland women! But the women do not really understand what marriage means to the men, seeing it only as an indulgence of customs so that they can try a great social experiment and see if a "bi-sexual" society might enrich their own. Predictably this creates some difficulties, and for one of the couples, it leads to disaster.

The writing style was very readable, but also quite generalized, describing things much like a journal would so that there were often paragraphs of narration without any dialogue. This made it so that I didn't feel as close as I'd have liked to any of the characters outside of the narrator Van. That being said, the characters were all likeable enough, and near the end their different temperaments began to show more prominently, especially the women the three men end up marrying. The reader no longer has to trust Van's general statement that there was variation in the women's personalities despite how they all agree on most things—we can finally see it for ourselves.

Since the main draw of this book is the well-done exploration of social concepts, the plot is very linear but structured a bit oddly, making big jumps through time via summaries of events and things learned by the men over a period of months. It also ends abruptly, with two of the men and one of the women leaving to go back to America. However, there is a sequel, With Her in Ourland, which I think I will have to read even though I'm dreading how Van's wife Ellador will react to early twentieth-century America. This book was for the most part so far ahead of its time that I was completely blown away by it. The flipside of that is, considering that there is still much in our present day which would shock and horrify the women of Herland, we have a lot of work to do.

There is so much more I could say, but I would have to write a review five times this length, and so for now I will just have to give my wholehearted recommendation. Read this book! It made me feel triumphant and encouraged, knowing that asexuality was being written about nearly a hundred years ago by such a great feminist writer. It gives us a solidarity with the past and a hope for the future.