Welcome back to the Girls Against Book Club! During the month of May, we’ve been reading Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist utopian novel published in 1915. Before we move on to talking about that though, I want to mention that we’re coming to the end of the list of books I prepared for the first 6 months of 2018 and I will be creating a list for the remaining months very soon. So, if anyone has any recommendations please send them over to us by some form of social media! The books we read are centred around themes of intersectional feminism and issues within the music industry so if you can think of anything that you think might be a good fit, please let us know!
Now onto the novel! Herland was recommended to me by one of the founders, Anna, when we were first coming up with ideas for the book club and how it should be run and I’ve wanted to include it as one of our books ever since. It’s a fairly short novel- my copy is only 124 pages- with elements of humour and a first-person, reflective narrative, which makes it pretty easy to read.
Perkins Gilman was one of the earliest first-wave feminists, born in Connecticut in 1860, she spent her life writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction, all of which had feminist aims. Her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, published in the late 19th century, is considered one of the earliest and most important works of feminist fiction. I read this as part of my English A-Level and loved it, so I was really keen to read this novel. I enjoyed the novel and thought it was most useful for exploring the ideas of early feminists. Because this book was published over 100 years ago, I do think there are some gaps in it and some ideas that are problematic and, although I am going to discuss them, I’m very aware that Perkins Gilman is always going to inevitably be a product of her time. Despite this, I think the idea of the book is a really interesting way of portraying the backwardness of a patriarchal society and presenting the merits of feminism and Gilman’s ideas would have been totally revolutionary to a contemporary reader.
The most problematic element of this novel is the fact that it is framed as a utopia, as obviously a first-wave feminists idea of utopia is going to be different to that of a modern feminists’ version. Perkins Gilman’s idea of a utopia is an island of women who are able to give birth without having sex and are living in an advanced world without poverty, war or any other of what might be considered ‘the vices of society’. Through portraying three men who have entered this country for the first time, Perkins Gilman is able to debunk many contemporary myths about women. First and foremost, she deals with the rhetoric spawned by many at the time about the incompetency of women’s ability to govern and even work. This is depicted by the repetitive claim of the three men who enter the country that ‘There must be men’, because they are so impressed with the country.
However this utopia seems to also enforce contemporary, and maybe even current, myths about women, namely the one that women are naturally maternal and that their overwhelming purpose is to have children. In describing the women of Herland, one of the men’s mentors tells them ‘You see, we are Mothers’ and they are persistent in describing how natural maternity is to each and every one of the women. Their womanhood is so linked to their motherhood that it seems to suggest that women who are infertile or simply did not want to have a child, would not be considered as a woman in Herland. This is very much a case of considering the novel as a product of it’s time though, as obviously, I’d like to think, views around motherhood and maternity have transformed significantly over the past 100 years. But nevertheless, it’s an element of the novel that I found consistently problematic. Also problematic is the way in which the women are framed as having no sexual desire whatsoever, as this suggests, as many of Perkins Gilman’s contemporary’s would have believed, that women are naturally chaste beings. One of the Herlanders even describes sex as seeming ‘so against nature.’
There are some parts of the novel that are still relevant to modern feminism though, which I really enjoyed, especially because they were often presented in a humorous way. For example, when the men marry three of the women of Herland, the women are confused at the prospect of changing their maiden name asking, ‘Do the husbands then take their wives’ maiden names?’ Obviously now, there is much less pressure on women to take their husband’s names but for readers of Herland in the early 19th century, seeing how confused this female character is about this tradition would have really made them question it and the connotations of this element of marriage.
Another part of the novel I found really interesting was the men’s assumption that all of the women of Herland would be young, stating ‘Most men do think that way’. Obviously, this is a stupidly ignorant way to think but it made me think about the discussion around the use of the world ‘girl’ rather than ‘woman’ when describing a female adult. I’ve mostly heard this discussion around the term ‘Girl Boss’, as many believe it sub-consciously suggests that a boss figure is inherently male. Many have also commented on how strange it is that we are referring to women in their 20s, 30s and 40s as ‘girls’ when we would rarely refer to men of these ages as ‘boys’. This assumption within the novel really made me think of the reasons, connotations and consequences of defining the female figure as one of youthfulness.
An issue that I knew I would have this book is it’s lack of intersectionality. Gilman was a white woman writing before most feminists had began to consider intersectionality within feminism and so I assumed that her representations would be restrictive. As mentioned before, the women of Herland are portrayed as having no sexual desire, seemingly because of the fact that there is no men on the island, totally ruling out the idea of bisexuality or lesbianism. The fact that children and birth is described as the women’s ‘raison d’etre’ is also exclusionary of trans women. It is ambiguous as to whether there any women of colour in this country but the fact that there is no mention of any, to me, suggests that there isn’t or, if there is, there narrative is being silenced, as three white men from an American society that was inherently racist, surely would have commented on the appearance of women who were not white.
I realize that I have criticized the novel quite disproportionately in this blog post and that is because I feel a responsibility to pick up on some of the things that Perkins Gilman ignored, whether she did so sub-consciously or otherwise, and as a product of her time, there are many. But there are so many merits to this book and I hope this discussion of it hasn’t taken away from them. I’d really recommend reading the novel for yourself because I simply don’t have the word count to go through all of the things I liked about this novel as well as all of it’s problematic elements.
If you would like to hear a more balanced review of this novel, head over to our Instagram page tonight (Sunday 3rd June) at 6pm as Anna and I will be going live to discuss Herland and I’ll, hopefully, have time to go a little bit deeper in my discussion.
For the month of June we will be reading ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl’ by Carrie Brownstein. This book has been highly recommended to me by another GA rep, Sophia, and although I don’t know much about the author, I’m really excited to read it! GoodReads describes it as ‘From a leader of feminist punk music at the dawn of the riot-grrrl era, a candid and deeply personal look at life in rock and roll.’
Speaking of GoodReads, we have a group page over there where everyone is free to discuss the book of the month! I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl’ before, during and after you’ve read it over there but if you’re more comfortable contributing your views privately, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. To have your views included in next month’s book club post, please send them over before Sunday 1st July! You can also send us your thoughts via Twitter (@girlsagainst) or Instagram (@girls.against).
Written by Alice Porter (@aliceporterx on Twitter).