Wednesday 7 February 2018

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland

A group of explorers - all men - venture into the trackless expanse of jungle in search of a hidden mystery. Testing brawn and brain, they pursue the unknown for sport and for glory, bringing rifles and guile to bear for queen, country, science, and reputation. What they find suspends all laws of nature, but will nonetheless be laid low by man. By the last chapter, the forge of adventure has hardened them into true credits to their gender, and a prize is brought back along with them to prove their mettle to the softer, more civilized men back home.

It's a familiar plotline in Victorian-Edwardian fiction. The archetype is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, the 1912 adventure in which a quartet including two brainy scientists, a "great white hunter," and a young newspaperman out to prove himself discover a plateau in South America teeming with dinosaurs. Conan Doyle's lost world and great white hunters were preceded by King Solomon's Mines, the 1885 novel by Sir H. Rider Haggard that arguably originated the genre. It had antecedents in novels by the likes of Jules Verne, but no sooner had the lost world genre been invented than it already found its critics. Rudyard Kipling brought it down a notch in the 1888 short story The Man Who Would be King, which cautioned against British hubris. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman took this genre, and with her womanly perspective, used it as the prompt for a tale of feminist utopia entitled Herland. In her version, published in 1915, the dauntless male explorers find something very daunting indeed... Not fathomless riches or dinosaurs, but a society comprised completely of women, utterly and completely devoid of men and any vestige of patriarchal values.   

Most well known today for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman was a prominent feminist author at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. Her famous work, published in 1892, was a reflection on the mental abuse done to her by post-partum depression, incarceration under the guise of the "rest cure," and the indignities suffered at the hands of the condescending men in her life. After the birth of her daughter in 1885, Gilman was sentenced to a life sequestered away in an upper room, from which any potential emotional or intellectual stimulation was carefully excised. Her husband and doctor refused to hear out her own experience of depression and her own desires for healthy company and activity, unflinchingly confident in their own diagnoses. Suffice it to say that the relationship did not last long: in 1888 the pair separated, and in 1894 they formally divorced.

Gilman and her daughter moved to California after the separation, where she became heavily involved in the women's rights movement. Yet she did not feel that she could fully bear all the responsibilities thrust upon her. When she and her husband divorced, Gilman surrendered full custody of their daughter to him and his new wife. After a lengthy career of activism and letters, Gilman contracted breast cancer and died by suicide in 1935 at the age of 75.

Herland was the middle number of three Scientific Romances written by Gilman. The first, Moving the Mountain (1911), was a more straightforward feminist utopian futurist novel in the vein of so many before, from Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells, and so forth. Herland, and its sequel With Her in Ourland (1916), frame utopian speculations in the familiar "lost world" trope, adding an initially more compelling sense of adventure. Yet a utopian political tract still lies at its heart, withdrawing interest from the adventure in a fashion that, unwittingly, undermines its own points.

The society invented by Gilman is in the fashion of the feminist inversion, which made its points about women's equality by reversing the roles of men and women. The year before Herland, suffragettes in Canada famously performed the Women's Parliament, a mock legislative meeting passing nonsensical laws over men and considering - but ultimately striking down - male suffrage. In fiction, Herland was preceded by Sultana's Dream, a 1905 short story by Indian social reformer Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain which had the men locked away in harems.

Yet Gilman goes further... Herland is not a place where the fortunes of men and women have merely been reversed. It is a society from which men are entirely absent. An ancient catastrophe succeeded in killing off the society's men, and their patriarchal system alongside it. Faced with extinction, Gilman invented parthenogenesis for her exclusively female society. By a genetic mutation in a single individual, she and her descendants were capable of spontaneous pregnancy when the "mothering feeling" overtook them. Herland was not only saved from extinction, but completely liberated from all male influence to create a society ordered completely around the mothering instinct. This instinct dominates every aspect of Herland's life. It orders not only childrearing and education, but agriculture, politics, athletics, religion, invention, everything. And it works well enough so long as it only involves a society comprised entirely of genetically related women. Once men enter the picture, the inadvertent flaws that Gilman never intended to show us become apparent.   

Three men, via aeroplane, work their way into isolated Herland. They are immediately taken captive on arrival, cleaned up, and "civilized." Months are spent tediously educating the men on Herland's language and customs so that they may eventually be released, under supervision, to see the country and how it functions. One, the narrator, is as genial and unassuming as required of a narrator. The strong masculinist voice is provided by Terry, the boorish great white hunter who sees women as the greatest prey of all. He is offset by well-intentioned Jeff, who is altogether too eager to please his new feminine overlords. It's fascinating to see that, even back in 1915, feminists had their own problems with the sort of self-effacing male feminist allies who are distasteful to the very women whose favour they are trying to curry. "Jeff’s difficulty" says the narrator, "was his exalted gallantry. He idealized women, and was always looking for a chance to 'protect' or to 'serve' them. These needed neither protection nor service." When it comes time for the citizens of Herland to reintroduce sexual reproduction, Jeff's "ultra-devotion rather puzzled" his intended wife and "put off their day of happiness." Eventually they are married, but it's not even so much to her: "He accepted the angel theory, swallowed it whole, tried to force it on us—with varying effect. He so worshipped Celis [his wife], and not only Celis, but what she represented; he had become so deeply convinced of the almost supernatural advantages of this country and people, that he took his medicine like a—I cannot say 'like a man,' more as if he wasn’t one."

Gilman does her best to vilify Terry and make him unsympathetic, including having him attempt the inexcusable evil of marital rape. Despite her best efforts though, one does end up feeling a sympathy for, not Terry himself, but for the problem that Terry poses. No, not "toxic masculinity," a barbarous term designed to vilify people on the basis of an identity group to which they have been assigned (or what used to be called "bigotry" in simpler times), in this case labeling an entire gender poisonous. Rather, it is frustration with a system where not the slightest traditionally "masculine" trait is catered to in even the smallest degree. Terry derides the absolute lack of competitiveness in any aspect of Herland's society, including its non-competitive sports. “Life is a struggle, has to be,” Terry says. “If there is no struggle, there is no life—that’s all.” Jeff naturally criticizes this as "masculine nonsense", but this exchange is followed by a glimpse into Herland's theatrical arts, which have an emotionally flat, ritualistic form lacking passion because it lacks conflict, competition, or sexuality of any kind. Herland is also a completely asexual society, comprised of related women who literally reproduce asexually.

The exciting narrative of the adventure story trails off here too, as if to prove exactly this point. A confession: I could only complete Herland on my second attempt at reading it, when I was literally locked in a moving vehicle for 14 hours. It's not bad per se... not moreso than any other book in the genre of utopian fantasies, regardless of political stripe... but carries the inherent flaws of the utopian genre. That is to say, it devolves into a tract promoting flawed and oftentimes failed political ideologies that can be inordinately tedious to read. Gilman, perhaps despite herself, demonstrates through her "perfect" feminized society why any gender imbalance would be undesirable.

The mothering instinct celebrated by Gilman, untempered by the complementary fathering instinct, creates a society of suffocating, inescapable, patronizing authoritarianism... a drive towards infantilization and (ironically) paternalistic control over every aspect of Herland's citizens' lives, reflecting the same paternalistic, patronizing, infantilizing authoritarian control that modern, real-life progressivism seeks to implement. Herland touches on nearly every one of progressivism's concerns at the turn of the century, including advocating temperance and eugenics. That is, control over human enjoyment and control over human breeding.   

One of the skeletons in the closet of the women's suffrage movement is how it went very comfortably along with the idea that humanity was morally perfectible through selective breeding. The same women who  performed the Women's Parliament were staunch advocates of the forced sterilization of mental and moral "defectives," which included Indigenous peoples and sexually active young women, as well as criminals and the disabled. Gilman was an advocate for such practices herself, and wrote into Herland that likewise "defective" women would abstain themselves from motherhood. That fact does not dilute the very good accomplishments of women's suffrage, because life is complicated and nobody is perfect (a point progressives have yet to discover), but does highlight the ambiguities of history and dangers of extremism as a threat to humane sentiments.

Extreme points of view, including extreme progressivism, always seem to trend towards exerting ever increasing authority over the very fundamentals of life. It is a suppression of self-determination exerted for ostensibly the most noble, and therefore the most terrifying, of reasons. As C.S. Lewis famously noted, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive... those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." Then from C.S. Lewis to Camille Paglia, who reminisced that the drive towards female liberty in her generation was the freedom to be unsafe... The abolition of paternalistic control over every aspect of women's lives, thus allowing them not only to experience liberty but take on the commensurate responsibility for their own safety. Omnipotent moral busybodies, acting for "our own good," seem intent on rescuing humanity from the dangers of choice, of liberty, of competition, of free speech, of free thought, of sexuality, even of our genetics.  

If the urge to regulate our very genetic make-up is not example enough, then the attack on the family is the next clearest. As the fundamental unit of society, the first form of society every person enters into, it is the most targeted for social engineering. A particularly nefarious form of disrupting the family has been the removal of children to be raised by State institutions. It was practiced in many colonial countries, including Canada and the USA, by taking Indigenous children away from their homes to be incarcerated in residential schools. The practice naturally found mileage in Communist countries. It also found its way into Herland, where children are "released" from their mothers to be raised communally after a year.

In Herland, not even nature is allowed to grow wild and unfettered. Every acre of Herland has been tended and pruned like a garden, from field to forest. Absolutely everything has been cultivated with a mothering instinct. Reflecting the temperance movement, Terry at one point complains "There’s nothing to smoke... There's nothing to drink. These blessed women have no pleasant vices. I wish we could get out of here!" He goes on: "There are no—distractions... Nowhere a man can go and cut loose a bit. It’s an everlasting parlor and nursery." Herland is a society described, by the narrator, as having "no horrible ideas." The essential problem with any utopian vision is that it is only one person's utopia, and one person's utopia is another person's dystopia.

The predilections of progressivism make it difficult to determine if Gilman was straightforwardly suggesting a utopia ordered completely around feminine principles, or was intentionally pointing out the inherent problems of gender imbalance. Was it a rejoinder to a patriarchal society of how annoying it would be if the situation was reversed? Or was it a sincere statement that society ought to be run in such a manner? Considering that Herland is so benign - it's not overtly tyrannical, just wearyingly restrictive to the most unsympathetic character in the book - would suggest that Gilman was at least mainly envisioning a genuine utopian ideal.

There is also the historic setting to consider. 1915 was a year into the Great War, against which the tranquil, ordered pastoralism of Herland must have seemed a pretty good idea. The sequel, With Her in Ourland, has the narrator and his wife investigating the horrors of war-torn man's world. In this way, it's apt that the film Wonder Woman was set during WWI... The comic, introduced decades after Herland, undoubtedly takes inspiration from the book. The term "wonder-woman" is even found in it. That is a potent setting for these deliberations, as the Great War served as the end of the greater Victorian-Edwardian Era, after which Western society and women's roles therein changed dramatically.      

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