Herland is what they call a utopian novel. Somewhere — it may be on another planet as in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossesed, or hidden in the mountains like Shangri La — a society exists which is very different from ours. An outsider (one of us) arrives who experiences the culture, but never really understands it. Or perhaps the outsider comes to us, as in Huxley’s Brave New World or Howells’ A Traveler from Altruria. It never works. The outsider rejects the culture or the culture rejects the outsider. That’s why “utopia” is literally “no where”. You can’t go there; nevertheless, novelists keep trying to make the trip. I traveled to Herland with Charlotte Perkins Gilman as part of the Feminist Classics project.
This is a trip into a world where gender is not an issue because there are only women. They do everything because there is no other gender to take charge and tell them what they can and can’t do. Other posts will be exploring the implications of a single-gender society. I was struck by something else: Herland has one gender, but many ages. After an initial encounter with three young and attractive women, the three male travelers meet a contingent of a very different type:
They were not young. They were not old. They were not, in the girl sense, beautiful. They were not in the least ferocious. And yet, as I looked from face to face, calm, grave, wise, wholly unafraid, evidently assured and determined, I had the funniest feeling –a very early feeling–a feeling that I traced back and back in memory until I caught up with it at last. It was that sense of being hopelessly in the wrong that I had so often felt in early youth when my short legs’ utmost effort failed to overcome the fact that I was late to school.
These women of a certain age are managing Herland’s affairs, and the travelers are puzzled:
“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother.
Let’s hear it for grandmothers! A woman can easily be a grandmother at 45 or 50, ages at which men consider themselves at the height of political and economic power. By my calculations Gilman was 55 when she wrote Herland, so she had experience with assumptions about middle-aged women, and grandmothers too. These grandmothers are “very much on the stage, “ demonstrating that our assumptions about age are closely linked to our assumptions about gender differences.
The mentors chosen to teach the outsiders the language, as well as to document what knowledge they have, are clearly in middle life. The wise women in the temples who counsel the young are middle aged or elderly. It is apparently the young who need help; the older ones have worked it out. The very young, the children, are of course protected by all ages and are seen as the future, the form which immortality takes. The young man protests to the Herland woman he has come to love:
“Do you want to go out like a candle? Don’t you want to go on and on — growing and–and–being happy forever?”
“Why, no,” she said. “I don’t in the least. I want my child–and my child’s child–to go on–and they will. Why should I want to?”
Herland offers women of all ages a smooth path, from protected child, to contributing youth, to mother, to wise women, to the eternity of future generations. It is a beautiful vision, parallel to the one the male sex has always assigned to itself.