HerLand is a relatively unknown feminist and socialist text that has not really seemed to have stood the test of time. It is smart and provocative, though, and worth your attention, especially as just over a hundred pages.
The narrative itself is minimal: three male characters explore the world and encounter a land of three million women who have lived independently of men, or any outside contact, for two thousand years. There is a slight sense that the story reads a little like Jaws, focusing on how each of the three male characters responds to an alien environment. Their response does not really lead to a story, however, but rather a socialist thesis. Such a utopia is, by its nature of the word, a little too perfect, but it states a message nevertheless. Gilman seems aware of this and prefaces one of the early chapters with the following:
IT IS NO USE FOR ME TO TRY TO PIECE OUT THIS ACCOUNT WITH ADVENTURES. If the people who read it are not interested in these amazing women and their history, they will not be interested at all.
As our role as reader is to understand the text on its terms, against our inclination to satisfy our expectations more than desirable, this is Gilman perhaps trying a little too hard to make this thesis stand.
This earnestness is not without cause, however. As a highly-educated and socially-connected American in 1913, Gilman is clearly reacting against the male-dominated intellectual world that is becoming increasingly modernist. Gilman herself must have no doubt encountered tremendous prejudice against the seriousness of her ideas, as Western female writers in the high Victorian era before would have done. It is here that the most practical, conventionally successful male character, Terry, is amusing lampooned:
Terry, with his clear decided practical theories that there were two kinds of women—those he wanted and those he didn’t; Desirable and Undesirable was his demarcation. The latter as a large class, but negligible—he had never thought about them at all.
As Terry is a somewhat dated name, and for me in 2018 reminds me of the racist, cheating ex-England and ex-Villa footballer John Terry. Gilman’s take on Terry’s philosophy is, however, not dated. A current president’s sexualisation of women is morally acceptable amongst a fair amount of Western populace, especially in private, male spheres. The issue being raised here, though, is that such attitudes are not just locker-room talk, gossip to strenghten private bonds, but rather indicative of wider gender prejudices. Terry cannot really quite believe that HerLand is so successful.
Gilman intellectualizes this incredulity well, contending the idea that was is male is civilizing and female terms are neutered. This exploration of language was the best aspect of HerLand and worth the read of the whole text.
The socialist and feminist message becomes louder as the text progresses, and not without some impact. Vandyck and the other men are called upon to teach the leaders of HerLand how Western civilization has constructed itself on relationships and marriage:
We have a well-founded theory that it is best to marry “in one’s class,” and certain well-grounded suspicions of international marriages, which seem to persist in the interests of social progress, rather than in those of the contracting parties.
This railing against what is known now as neoliberalist thought – that prioritising economic freedom leads to social erosion – is played up by Gilman. There is also the confused worry of HerLand’s leaders that the poorest breed most in our world: contentious and recent changes of Britain’s welfare system, along with fairly regular presentation of rare families of 8+ children on welfare, make this a contemporary concern that is still not really addressed. Like dystopias, utopias operate to hold a mirror to the failings of our current society, and in this Gilman provokes in 2018. Her suggestions on progressive education and agricultural sustenance are worth reading even now.
That is not to say that there aren’t issues with the utopia that need to be raised. The ubiquitously healthy body of women screams eugenics, and also does not really fit with the experience of industrialised society. The civilisation’s general ease and calm mean that they are almost entirely unable to deal with contentious and dangerous ideas: they physically run to spiritual healers when hearing them. That is not to say that is not a morally sound and emotionally intelligent response, but it does make the reader wary of how this civilisation would respond to an outside attack. How would this economy function in a capitalist system that requires continual expansion in order to survive (as Palanhiuk says, we’ll soon have corporate-sponsored planets…). In a world of Fiat currencies, HerLand will inevitably encounter male aggression, and its socialist and feminist utopia needs to be able to respond.
Pleasingly Gilman presents the women as intellectually able, and with decisive ease, to make the choice of imprisoning Terry who threatens to bring an invasion force. The women are also physically powerful. I thought this aspect of female aggression and response to physical power would have been a very interesting addition: a utopia that responds to the real world. As it is, Gilman’s story, forgiving the somewhat twee style, contains many interesting ideas worth your reading time.