You Should Read This: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Cover for feminist utopian novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

"There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver." - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Last week, I pointed to one of the foremothers of science fiction, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, and her work The Blazing World. Herland comes several centuries later (in fact, it’ll be exactly a century old in 2015) but it’s just as important a landmark in this often murky territory.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American editor, writer, and lecturer whose short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman’s descent into madness, is often revisited in college literature classes. She was a single mother who supported herself by writing — no small accomplishment today, let alone at the time she was doing so, the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Herland is often treated as though it stands alone, but it’s actually the middle volume of a trilogy, preceded by Moving the Mountain in 1911 and followed by With Her in Ourland in 1916. The work was originally published as a serial in a magazine called The Forerunner that Gilman edited; it did not appear as a complete book until 1979, when Pantheon Books published it.

Herland is a utopian novel, in which three men, Vandyk (the narrator), Terry, and Jeff stumble across a civilization where the women reproduce asexually and there are no men. This turns out to lead not to a perfect civilization, but certainly one that seems more appealing than the one Gilman found herself in. Gilman uses the book as a device with which to explore constructed ideas of gender. It is an appealing society in many others; in others, it’s a bit cold and calculating. Girls who are overly rebellious or mouthy, for example, will not be allowed to reproduce.

One of the things that’s refreshing about the book is that it’s not written as though the lack of males is a deficit that warps society. Instead, it’s simply the way things are, and the Herlanders seem capable of getting along quite well without it.

Gilman was one of the important suffrage speakers of her time and a bit of a polymath. If you want to go further into her writing, I suggest a piece of nonfiction, her work on economics, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, which originally appeared in 1898.

You can find Herland online in its entirety at Project Gutenberg, along with much of Gilman’s other work.


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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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