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  • Yehoshua Paul

1915 - Herland

1915. Women’s suffrage is introduced in Denmark (full voting rights) and Iceland (women over 40), and the British Women’s institute is founded. However, these advances make little impact on the United States. The House of Representatives rejects a proposal to give women the right to vote, and the Suffragists lose a referendum in New York State. The country is facing much more distracting domestic issues. Mary Mallon, AKA Typhoid Mary, starts a second major outbreak of typhoid, infecting 25 people and killing 2; the United Daughters of the Confederacy hold their first meeting; and the Ku Klux Klan is revived. Not all is bad though, Babe Ruth hits his first home run and President Woodrow Wilson gets married.

The Great War, is having a huge impact on women’s suffrage all around the world with women playing a major role on all the home fronts. The munitions factories are primarily employing female workers, and there are large amounts of vacancies in other professions that need filling. You now have women working as bank tellers, postal workers, railway guards, police women, firefighters and even operating heavy or precision machinery. Of course, they are still being paid less than the men working the same jobs, and most of them are going to end up fired after the war, but the contribution will not go unrewarded. By the end of the war full or partial suffrage will be granted to women in Austria, Canada, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the new Russia, the new Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. And in 1920, the nineteenth amendment will be passed in the United States, allowing women to vote for the first time ever in a presidential election.

In 1915, these events are still a distant dream. The utopia of universal female suffrage has yet to become reality. However, just because one utopian future hasn’t arrived doesn’t mean you can’t have others, and that year Charlotte Perkins Gilman publishes Herland, a serialized story about a land populated exclusively by women, in which men aren’t really needed and have very little to offer.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a prominent American humanist and author who wrote many short stories, novels, poetry and nonfiction. She was and is a role model to many future generations of women and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Gilman’s best remembered work is the semi-autobiographical short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which she wrote as a response to having been prescribed a rest-cure while suffering from post-partum psychosis.

Gilman believed the domestic environment oppressed women through patriarchal beliefs upheld by society. She was an advocate of reform Darwinism, and thought that a male dominated culture had effectively halted women’s contributions to civilization. Gilman didn’t think there were any real differences between men and women and male aggressiveness and female maternal instincts were artificial constructs no longer necessary in the modern world. She wrote, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.” As far as Gilman was concerned, women were the underdeveloped half of humanity and they needed to be advanced to the same level as their male counterparts to prevent the deterioration of the race as a whole. This could be achieved through economic independence and the restructuring of society towards communal housing instead of pairing off in married couples.

Herland is Gilman’s vision of how such an ideal society could be structured. It was originally serialized in The Forerunner, a magazine she edited and wrote between 1909 and 1916. The book is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of Vandyck “Van” Jennings, a sociology student, who along with his two friends, Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave set out to discover an uncharted land rumored to be populated only by women. Each character represents a different male stereotype. Jeff worships women as superior beings, Terry objectifies them, and Van is the balancer - he values women for the companionship they have to offer and maintains a relatively open mind.

When they arrive, the trio are surprised to discover what appears to be a fairly advanced society. They are quickly overpowered and soon learn that their initial impression was wrong. This land, which they dub “Herland” is not just an advanced culture, it is actually superior to everything they know, and thus the role reversal begins.

The men quickly learn that in this society they as men have very little to offer. Their knowledge of the outside world is considered valuable, and they also can offer themselves as potential fathers, but they as a gender have very little to contribute to this all-female society other than companionship and their sperm. The women of Herland have gotten along perfectly well without men for 2,000 years, and this requires the friends to adjust to being on a lower rung in the food chain, which is easier said than done.

Women in Herland are strong, agile, independent, intelligent, infinitely patient, and also asexual. Through selective breeding they have managed to weed out all negative traits from their society, which means that crime and violence are alien abstract concepts to them. It is a society in which all women are sisters and mothers. There are no families, nor any need for them. Each woman feels equally and passionately devoted to all daughters being raised as if they had given birth to them. The entire economy of the country revolves around parenting. With each generation looking for new ways to make things better for the next. This also leads to an interesting attitude towards tradition and the past. It is assumed that the next generation knows more than the previous, and thus any ideas or practices not suited to present times are discarded as soon as they become no longer relevant.

The Omer today is kindness in splendor. The women of Herland are the living embodiment of both these attributes which are passed down through their genetics and upbringing. Each woman freely devotes her entire life to her sisters and daughters, sharing and receiving love freely. And this kindness is demonstrated towards the trio of strangers who arrive with harmful intentions. Instead of responding in kind, the women introduce to them a better way of life and offer to share it with them. The splendor of the Herland natives is both internal and external. Each woman has a strong independent spirit which is constantly being nurtured by their entire society, and these strong minds result in strong healthy bodies capable of raising the next generation to even greater heights. Gilman created a splendid work with this utopia, and while I may disagree with many of her methodologies, I hope to one day see in our society some of the results she envisions - for both men and women.

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