Go to the ant, thou sluggard

Herland — Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman's Utopian Trilogy, book 2


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915’s feminist utopia Herland is the middle volume of a trilogy, being preceded by Moving the Mountain and followed by With Her in Ourland. I had not previously read this book and didn’t know what to expect. Well, given the time when it was written, I did expect some form of genteel racism, perhaps coupled with eugenics, and I wasn’t wrong. But there’s more here than that.

It is widely believed that the more utopian the setting, the harder it is to come up with an interesting plot. While much of this book does consist of the pointing and explaining one expects from utopian fiction, Gilman manages to give her readers a plot with conflict and suspense, thanks to her choice of protagonists.

Terry O. Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings are old friends and (thanks to Terry’s pushiness) experienced adventurers. While exploring some carefully unnamed but savage land by primitive airplane, the trio hear rumours of a land populated only by women. Of course simple biology rules out this wild tale (they assume), but the men are curious to see what state of affairs lies behind the folklore. One flight later, they discover that the source of the rumours of a land populated only by women is … a land populated only by women. And such women!

The natives of Herland, as the trio creatively dub the tiny nation, decline to let a passle of strangers wander around their territory unmonitored. In short order, Terry, Jeff, and Van are involuntary guests of the women. The men are surprised to find that their captors display both superior tactics and impressive strength. This feminine superiority is more than a surprise to Terry; he is outraged by this violation of the natural order of things.

Once captured, the men are forced to learn the local language and culture. The women of Herland also learn much about the world outside their isolated valley.

Herland was founded two thousand years earlier. A series of calamitous wars, slave uprisings, and natural disasters left the tiny colony isolated and entirely without men. Happily, five of the women turned out to be capable of parthenogenesis1 and from those five rose the nation Terry, Jeff and Van are currently visiting.

In the absence of men, virtues previously held to be purely the domain of men were adopted freely by all the women while other, less desirable behaviors — violence and lust being the chief examples — vanished entirely. To the visitors, the women of Herland seem manly in many respects but as Van comes to realize, many of the characteristics he thinks of as essentially feminine are not actually inherent in women but forced on them by the men who rule their lives.

Being sensible, motherly types, the women of Herland have shaped themselves and their land to their own purposes. It’s all very rational, even though it seems peculiar to the men. (Various aspects of this culture, like the total absence of lust displayed by women who have been denied sex with men, would probably seem rather peculiar to a fair number of women as well.)

I suppose the author could have come up with a thrilling plot featuring only Herlanders (despite the lack of violence and lust) but in this case the author has three men to provide the missing elements. Terry alone is a sufficient source of discord. While his two companions eventually come to terms with the ways of Herland, Terry finds the idea of Herland a gross affront to his manly pride. All three men find romance with women of Herland but since the women of Herland are perfectly content with their way of life, there are real limits to the concessions they are willing to make to keep the men happy. Used to seeing everything around him as objects of conquest, Terry becomes obsessed with forcing the object of his obsession to bend to his will. This cannot end well and it doesn’t.

It’s no surprise that Terry turns out to be a would-be rapist — or at least he would be if the concept of rape in 1915 included husbands raping wives, which (as Van helpfully points out) it did not. The actions that make Terry a pariah in Herland would have been perfectly acceptable back in the US of the period. Only in the 1970s did marital rape begin to become criminalized in the US2 (almost sixty-five years after Herland was published).

The least satisfactory part of the book is the ending. While the Herlanders were educating the men about Herland, the men were inadvertently teaching the women about the outside world. The portrait the men have painted is not a flattering one. The Herlanders very sensibly decide that Herland must maintain its isolation. However, they permit Terry to leave provided he promise not tell anyone about Herland. The value of Terry’s word seems a very slender reed on which to base Herland’s security. I am very curious how this was handled in With Her in Ourland, which I will have to get around to reading one of these days.

Bearing in mind that Gilman was a white American born in 1860, this book wasn’t as horrifyingly racist as I was expecting — even though Van makes a point of assuring the reader that the stalwart women of Herland are entirely Aryan. The story features the usual eugenic themes one expects from utopian fiction of this period, but there are also passages like this one:

“If that is so, then our improvement must be due either to mutation, or solely to education,” she gravely pursued. “We certainly have improved. It may be that all these higher qualities were latent in the original mother, that careful education is bringing them out, and that our personal differences depend on slight variations in prenatal condition.”

This suggests that any eugenic efforts may have been irrelevant to the outcome. What really mattered was sensible social policy, coupled with an absence of men3.

The three men provide a range of reactions to Herland; sensitive Jeff is the most approving, while the thoroughly unpleasant Terry is inflexibly hostile to the Herland culture.

“It’s impossible!” he would insist. “Women cannot cooperate — it’s against nature.”

When we urged the obvious facts he would say: “Fiddlesticks!” or “Hang your facts — I tell you it can’t be done!” And we never succeeded in shutting him up till Jeff dragged in the hymenoptera.

“‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard’ — and learn something,” he said triumphantly. “Don’t they cooperate pretty well? You can’t beat it. This place is just like an enormous anthill — you know an anthill is nothing but a nursery. And how about bees? Don’t they manage to cooperate and love one another? as that precious Constable had it. Just show me a combination of male creatures, bird, bug, or beast, that works as well, will you? Or one of our masculine countries where the people work together as well as they do here! I tell you, women are the natural cooperators, not men!”

That may be the most positive portrayal of ants and bees I know of in speculative fiction.

Speaking of the ants and the bees … Herland’s eugenics and reproductive customs would likely set the best interest of individual women against the best interest of the state. Gilman assumes that women who can fully express their better natures would rise above their individual desires. However, if we take a closer look at the eusocial insects, we see that millions of years of evolution has not been enough time to fully eliminate what is, from the viewpoint of the hive, reproductive malfeasance. Herland has existed for a mere two millennia, hardly long enough to eradicate selfishness.

Given that this was published a century ago, I was amused by a section that reminded me of Brin’s somewhat more recent novel Glory Season. The question of whether a land ruled by women can possibly hope to progress in any meaningful sense is raised. The very possibility of progress is rejected out of hand by Terry:

“Also we mustn’t look for inventions and progress; it’ll be awfully primitive.”

“How about that cloth mill?” Jeff suggested.

“Oh, cloth! Women have always been spinsters. But there they stop — you’ll see.”

I think Terry would have found the society of Stratos (in Brin’s novel) far more in line with his expectations than Herland was.

While I would be surprised to learn that Brin had ever read Herland, I believe I can see its influence on books like The Shore of Women, Ammonite and others.

Herland is available from Project Gutenberg.

1: Which raises the question of how many women in the human population outside Herland are also able to reproduce in that manner. It’s not like anyone is particularly checking.

2: 1983 in Canada.

3: Despite which the Herlandians are convinced that the absence of men is a social deficiency. It’s never really clear why they believe that, especially once the men start telling them about the outside world.

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