Charlotte Gilman’s Herland and the 21st Century American Woman

In her Utopian society Gilman removes the need for interaction between genders in an attempt to portray an ideal social order. However while she successfully exposes femininity as a social construct, she fails to address the plight of women from outside her demographic (i.e. mainly white, young women from progressive families and lucky enough to be educated.) “Tell me first, do no women work, really?”

“Why, yes,…Some have to, of the poorer sort…about seven or eight million,” (Gilman Ch.5)

Instead of fully-developed female characters, she creates a race of Aryan super-women who are stoic and logical, without faults or feelings apart from mother love and sisterly dependence. Simone De Beauvoir states in The Second Sex. (1953) “All characters in well-written literature should have emotional layers,” and yet Gilman only gives that privilege to the males. By using a male narrator she describes the implications of an all female society through the eyes of a male protagonist and from the viewpoint of her male contempories “those extremely clear ideas of ours as to what a country of women would be like… we mustn’t look to find any sort of order and organization … It will be like a nunnery under an abbess–a peaceful, harmonious sisterhood.” (GilmanP13)

What made Gilman’s novel astonishing reading in her day was the idea that women could thrive without depending on men to support, protect and exploit them. However, what makes it astonishing reading for modern readers is her suggestion that innate sexuality should be bred out using eugenics and asexual reproduction. She totally avoids the idea that women might express their sexuality independently of men. Here Gilman abides by the heterosexist norms of her own culture and associates female sexuality primarily with procreation.

Gilman’s work would have been stronger if she had tackled it from a female viewpoint, contrasting the reality of the 20th Century American woman with the utopian vision that she created.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. 1953. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. 1915. London: The Women’s Press, 2001



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