Wonder Woman landed on digital download yesterday, and comes out on DVD Blu-ray on September 19th. Since its theatrical release I have heard a number of my female friends voice interest in movie to Themyscira, with countless more mentions online. And who could blame them? Between the all-women population, the Utopian rule, gorgeous weather and beaches and, well, Robin Wright’s arms, it’s a perfect paradise.
Well, what if I told you that there was a way to get back there, aside from re-watching the first third of Wonder Woman on loop? What if I told you there was a novella about a society made up entirely of women who live in peace, wearing comfortable and functional clothes, and have lots of cats. And what if I told you this was all written and published over 100 years ago by an author you probably had to read in high school?
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
If that author’s name sounds familiar, you most likely know her from the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which is about how well-intentioned men can drive women to insanity. Herland was first published as a novel in 1979, but was originally put out in a serial format in her magazine, The Forerunner, back in 1915.
It was not hard to speak, smooth and pleasant to the ear, and so easy to read and write that I marveled at it. They had an absolutely phonetic system, the whole thing was as scientific as Esparanto yet bore all the marks of an old and rich civilization.
The novel follows a small expedition of three men (Van, a sociologist, Jeff, a medical doctor, and Terry, a useless explorer) who stumble upon a nation insulated on a walled off plateau in some unspecified tropical area. The nation is populated only by women, and it’s a utopia by any definition except that of Terry, the hyper-masculine member of the exploration party. The women are strong, have advanced studies, their own language that is praised for being both precise and easy to learn, an advanced philosophy of self and education, agriculture has been applied to compensate for their limited land. The novel itself has very little in the way of plot, and consists mainly of the men stumbling around and being taught how Herland has functioned over the past 2,000 years.
While the whole fighting force was doing its best to defend their mountain pathway, there occurred a volcanic outburst, with some local tremors, and the result was the complete filling up of the pass—their only outlet. Instead of a passage, a new ridge, sheer and high, stood between them and the sea; they were walled in, and beneath that wall lay their whole little army. Very few men were left alive, save the slaves; and these now seized their opportunity, rose in revolt, killed their remaining masters even to the youngest boy, killed the old women too, and the mothers, intending to take possession of the country with the remaining young women and girls.
That passage is the basic genesis of Herland. The book goes into a bit more detail, explaining periods of dire circumstances both with under and over population, before a balance is struck. There is a huge point of suspension of disbelief due to the fact that these women have developed parthenogenesis, the ability to become pregnant without fertilization. While a bit dry and feeling like a novel made up of 90% exposition, the explanation of how a utopia came to be, rather than just what a perfect world would look like, is refreshing. All too often dystopias are given direct connections from our present to their future, while utopias are presented as wistful what-ifs that have almost no direct connection to our present.
“Every one of ’em over forty as I’m a sinner.” Yet they were not old women. Each was in the full bloom of rosy health, erect, serene, standing sure-footed and light as any pugilist.
If you pick up this book expecting it to be a Wonder Woman prequel then you will be disappointed. The similarities are more in spirit and tone than in the details. For example, the women in both nations are physically fit. The men who come to Herland find themselves physically subdued by women past middle age. However, Herland has no warriors, and exists in a nearly naive state of peace, lacking much conflict at all. In both fictional nations the lands are verdant and appear to be modeled after Eden. But Herland backs this up not as the way the gods made it, but due to agriculture. Their forests are made of only fruiting trees in order to maximize food production. Themyscira has a certain dream-like quality while Herland has a pragmatism to it. One of clearest example of this is in the clothing of Herland. There’s immense detail given to their various articles, not from a fashion perspective, but detailed in a way that almost invites the reader to attempt to recreate the clothes. The fist time the clothes are mentioned are when the men awake after capture, and are given a wardrobe to dress themselves from. The clothes are returned to a few times, both to explain the design of other garments and to wax on how adaptable and practical they all are.
The garments were simple in the extreme, and absolutely comfortable, physically, though of course we all felt like supes in the theater. There was a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders, something like the one-piece pajamas some fellows wear, and a kind of half-hose, that came up to just under the knee and stayed there—had elastic tops of their own, and covered the edges of the first. Then there was a thicker variety of union suit, a lot of them in the closet, of varying weights and somewhat sturdier material—evidently they would do at a pinch with nothing further. Then there were tunics, knee-length, and some long robes. Needless to say, we took tunics.
Of course, this is a socially critical text written over one hundred years ago, and not every part of it still holds up. For one thing, there’s an extreme focus on childbearing. While it would be hard to argue that our current culture strikes a perfect balance between parenting and not, the hard-line focus on bearing children as a duty to society is troubling, both on a societal level (it brings into question the value of women who don’t want to bear children) and on an individual level (it brings into question the value of women who cannot bear children for any reason).
Running on that theme, another huge strike is against Gilman’s take on sexuality, or rather her exclusion of it. Once the men arrive they become part of an experiment to see if they can re-introduce fertilized reproduction into their parthenogenic society (thought why they would want to, since everything has been going great for nearly 2,000 years without, is beyond me). When brought up, even in the context of marriage, the idea of recreational, rather than procreational, sex confounds the citizens of Herland. This means that they have never observed homosexual activity among any of the animals that live within their borders. It also means that the people of Herland have not had sex in nearly 2,000 years. I find it hard to believe that there were no lesbians, or even opportunistic heterosexuals, in all that time. Yet Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes it clear that the only reason they’re interested in these men is to experiment with fertilization, and that sex without the possibility of children is unheard of an even unnatural.
And then there’s their genesis of parthenogenesis…
there is no doubt in my mind that these people were of Aryan stock, and were once in contact with the best civilization of the old world. They were “white,” but somewhat darker than our northern races because of their constant exposure to sun and air.
The women of Herland didn’t all develop the ability to spontaneously become pregnant. A single woman had this ability, and had five children. Then each of those offspring eventually went on to bear five children, and the resulting nation is actually all from that one original woman. While thematically this brings the concept of lineage and “forefathers” into an incredibly sharp and personal point, that their sisterhood is not so figurative, this does create a bit of a race issue. There’s mention of slaves and servants, and how they taught what they knew of their trades to the resulting women. It’s also part of their law/culture/religion to strongly urge those with undesirable traits to chose not to become pregnant. Also troubling is that these traits always seem social, with no mention of physical issues. It would be a lot to expect a layperson to be familiar with dominant and recessive genes back on 1915, but in light of what we know of genetics and eugenics today, some of Herland’s practices are troublesome.
That said, it’s worth seeking out this novel. It’s a largely forgotten piece of early feminist literature, and also just an interesting take on gender, philosophy, and social constructs. Gilman contextualizes things so that, while they may not always hold up, still convey a lot about how she thinks. The idyllic peace to the point of near absurdity is brought about, it’s thought, by women no longer having anything to be jealous of. The concept of sisterhood and unity run deep and that is touching. The ideas about what is and is not feminine, and what is and is not beautiful, don’t always ring true but they do still make one think about certain presumptions we still hold to this day. Physical features of the face, body, and styling of hair are brought up at various points as womanly, masculine, or boyish. These are still things that are being experimented with, fought for, and against, even to this day. Even things that come across as explicitly un-feminist today (Herland’s take on abortion, for example) make one wonder if that’s how some anti-choice people still regard person-hood and the purpose of a body some hundred years after this book was written. And while the text is relatively dry, especially compared to modern prose, there are some parts that are flat-out beautiful.
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.
Besides, it’s in the public domain and you can gab a copy for free from Project Gutenberg.