Femininity, Masculinity, and Gender Roles in “Herland”

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: GREAT UTOPIAN AND DYSTOPIAN WORKS OF LITERATURE

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, three male explorers arrive at a land inhabited by strong, independent women, who have created a society without men. These parthenogenetically reproducing women have a perfect society, but without any heterosexual roles or institutions. But, what are the implications of this in the text?

A design of female profiles in various colors and shapes.
The absence of men in Herland is seen to have led to an absence of femininity, at least for the male narrators. (Image: Cienpies Design/Shutterstock)

Dull Drama in Herland

Van is the narrator in Herland. He is the most sociologically minded of the three men. For Van the only thing about Herland that isn’t great is the art. The stories written and told by the great women of Herland are dull. Van says:

The drama of the country was—to our taste—rather flat. You see, they lacked the sex motive and, with it, jealousy. They had no interplay of warring nations, no aristocracy and its ambitions, no wealth and poverty opposition.

But this is a problem only to the men, and not to the inhabitants of Herland, who don’t need that kind of drama.

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The ‘Cost’ of Having No Men

And there’s another cost, not that Van frames it that way. But we can see it, and that’s the obvious fact there are no men. What does this end up meaning for the women? Clearly, since they have been parthenogenetically reproducing for 2000 years, they don’t really miss men, or wonder how their lives would be different with men, or anything of the sort.

So, what is the cost of having no men? To Van, there is something lost, although the narrative doesn’t necessarily frame it as a bad thing. Instead, Van considers it in a very complex way. He says:

What we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics, which of course we did not look for, but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine.

Female and male plaster masks on silk fabric.
Herland explores a central idea of feminism: how femininity and masculinity can lose their definitions in the absence of the other. (Image: Cherries/Shutterstock)

The absence of masculinity becomes, in a sense, an absence of a referent, so that without its opposite term, femininity is just as lost as masculinity. Now that is a basic philosophical dilemma of feminism, and one much discussed in its second wave, as feminists of different orientations think about the benefits of focusing on similarities versus differences.

Learn more about gender questions and feminist science fiction.

The Central Issues in Herland

The American feminists were generally in favor of minimizing the differences between men and women in order to focus on equality. The French feminists, on the other hand, feared the loss of what makes women unique, of what diversity of perspective can provide to a society.

Perkins’ novel anticipates this debate, which is central to the feminist separatist utopian movement of the 1970s and ’80s. She also underlines several issues that have remained central to feminist thought in the century plus since the initial publication of Herland.

Motherhood: how to achieve a celebration of children and their needs without a sacrifice of the self by the mother. Autonomy: how to create men and women as equal partners who both have the freedom to pursue their own interests, intellectual, emotional, and erotic. Sustainability: how to steward the Earth’s resources, environmental and human, in a way that allows for an ideal present and future. Sexual choices: how to ensure that women are enabled to make their own sexual choices and that they’re not victims of sexual violence.

This last issue is quite important, and has led to some really fascinating scholarship on Herland. Herland is a space without sexual assault—until the men arrive. And just as the three men represent three models of masculinity, so too do their three ‘marriages’ with Herland women represent three models of heterosexual relationships.

Masculine Violence

woman using hand palm to stop man's punch
Violence does not enter Herland’s utopia of women, until the three men from the outside world visit. (Image: asiandelight/Shutterstock)

The women in Herland have no concept of monogamous unions, and they agree to marry Jeff, Van, and Terry only because it’s important to the men. The relationships between Jeff and Celis, Van and Ellador, and Terry and Alima, are not marriages in any kind of traditional, American sense. The women make it clear they aren’t interested in sex with males.

Terry, the man’s man, can’t accept that, which is why, at the novel’s end, he tries to rape his new wife. Alima defends herself, and the women of Herland, shocked beyond belief at this assault, step in to anesthetize Terry until they can decide what to do. Euthanasia is considered, but that’s just not who these women are.

So, in the end, they exile Terry, sending him away on the biplane with his promise he won’t tell anyone about them. Van, the narrator, and Ellador go with him, Ellador being an especially curious soul, and thus an excellent complement to her husband. The community leaves it to Ellador to decide whether or not they should open communications to the outside world based on what she finds out there.

Learn more about sex, gender, and sexuality.

The Nature of Gender

So, is this an actual suggestion that without men, society would work beautifully? Literary scholar Kathleen Lant argues that the very appearance of the three men in their biplane represents a kind of symbolic rape of Herland, so the novel’s form, and its use of a male narrator, in a sense undercuts the feminist message of the novel. So, maybe we could say the novel isn’t entirely in earnest.

But the novel quite deliberately leaves us with a very provocative question. Would an all-woman society be better than a mixed-gender society? Part of why that’s such a great question is that it forces us to look at our assumptions about gender, just like feminist fiction often does.

Common Questions about Femininity, Masculinity, and Gender Roles in Herland

Q: Why do the male explorers find the stories in Herland to be boring?

For the male explorers, the stories of Herland are dull because there is no sexual jealousy or interplay of warring nations; no aristocracy and its ambitions, no wealth and poverty opposition.

Q: What does the narrator see as the effect of the absence of men in Herland?

For the narrator, the absence of men in Herland has led to a supposed absence of what he would consider feminine traits. The absence of masculinity becomes, in a sense, an absence of a referent, so that without its opposite term, femininity is just as lost as masculinity.

Q: What are the central concerns of Herland?

There are at least four central concerns of Herland: motherhood without self-sacrifice; autonomy for men and women to pursue their own interests, intellectual, emotional, and erotic; sustainable living; and sexual choice without the fear of sexual violence.

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