September 3, 2013
When young Van Jennings and his friends — Terry and Jeff — invade an isolated society composed entirely of women, they carry with them not only brightly colored scarves and beads but sexist ideological baggage. Jeff is an idealist who regards women as things to be served and protected; Terry is a cynic who views women as conquests. Van, a sociologist, is uniquely able to apprehend the social construction of gender roles… and the fact that a woman-only social order is superior in every way to western civilization. Written by sociologist and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Herland was first serialized in 1915.
At last Terry’s ambition was realized. We were invited, always courteously and with free choice on our part, to address general audiences and classes of girls.
I remember the first time — and how careful we were about our clothes, and our amateur barbering. Terry, in particular, was fussy to a degree about the cut of his beard, and so critical of our combined efforts, that we handed him the shears and told him to please himself. We began to rather prize those beards of ours; they were almost our sole distinction among those tall and sturdy women, with their cropped hair and sexless costume. Being offered a wide selection of garments, we had chosen according to our personal taste, and were surprised to find, on meeting large audiences, that we were the most highly decorated, especially Terry.
He was a very impressive figure, his strong features softened by the somewhat longer hair — though he made me trim it as closely as I knew how; and he wore his richly embroidered tunic with its broad, loose girdle with quite a Henry V air. Jeff looked more like — well, like a Huguenot Lover; and I don’t know what I looked like, only that I felt very comfortable. When I got back to our own padded armor and its starched borders I realized with acute regret how comfortable were those Herland clothes.
We scanned that audience, looking for the three bright faces we knew; but they were not to be seen. Just a multitude of girls: quiet, eager, watchful, all eyes and ears to listen and learn.
We had been urged to give, as fully as we cared to, a sort of synopsis of world history, in brief, and to answer questions.
“We are so utterly ignorant, you see,” Moadine had explained to us. “We know nothing but such science as we have worked out for ourselves, just the brain work of one small half-country; and you, we gather, have helped one another all over the globe, sharing your discoveries, pooling your progress. How wonderful, how supremely beautiful your civilization must be!”
Somel gave a further suggestion.
“You do not have to begin all over again, as you did with us. We have made a sort of digest of what we have learned from you, and it has been eagerly absorbed, all over the country. Perhaps you would like to see our outline?”
We were eager to see it, and deeply impressed. To us, at first, these women, unavoidably ignorant of what to us was the basic commonplace of knowledge, had seemed on the plane of children, or of savages. What we had been forced to admit, with growing acquaintance, was that they were ignorant as Plato and Aristotle were, but with a highly developed mentality quite comparable to that of Ancient Greece.
Far be it from me to lumber these pages with an account of what we so imperfectly strove to teach them. The memorable fact is what they taught us, or some faint glimpse of it. And at present, our major interest was not at all in the subject matter of our talk, but in the audience.
Girls — hundreds of them — eager, bright-eyed, attentive young faces; crowding questions, and, I regret to say, an increasing inability on our part to answer them effectively.
Our special guides, who were on the platform with us, and sometimes aided in clarifying a question or, oftener, an answer, noticed this effect, and closed the formal lecture part of the evening rather shortly.
“Our young women will be glad to meet you,” Somel suggested, “to talk with you more personally, if you are willing?”
Willing! We were impatient and said as much, at which I saw a flickering little smile cross Moadine’s face. Even then, with all those eager young things waiting to talk to us, a sudden question crossed my mind: “What was their point of view? What did they think of us?” We learned that later.
Terry plunged in among those young creatures with a sort of rapture, somewhat as a glad swimmer takes to the sea. Jeff, with a rapt look on his high-bred face, approached as to a sacrament. But I was a little chilled by that last thought of mine, and kept my eyes open. I found time to watch Jeff, even while I was surrounded by an eager group of questioners — as we all were — and saw how his worshipping eyes, his grave courtesy, pleased and drew some of them; while others, rather stronger spirits they looked to be, drew away from his group to Terry’s or mine.
I watched Terry with special interest, knowing how he had longed for this time, and how irresistible he had always been at home. And I could see, just in snatches, of course, how his suave and masterful approach seemed to irritate them; his too-intimate glances were vaguely resented, his compliments puzzled and annoyed. Sometimes a girl would flush, not with drooped eyelids and inviting timidity, but with anger and a quick lift of the head. Girl after girl turned on her heel and left him, till he had but a small ring of questioners, and they, visibly, were the least “girlish” of the lot.
I saw him looking pleased at first, as if he thought he was making a strong impression; but, finally, casting a look at Jeff, or me, he seemed less pleased — and less.
As for me, I was most agreeably surprised. At home I never was “popular.” I had my girl friends, good ones, but they were friends — nothing else. Also they were of somewhat the same clan, not popular in the sense of swarming admirers. But here, to my astonishment, I found my crowd was the largest.
I have to generalize, of course, rather telescoping many impressions; but the first evening was a good sample of the impression we made. Jeff had a following, if I may call it that, of the more sentimental — though that’s not the word I want. The less practical, perhaps; the girls who were artists of some sort, ethicists, teachers — that kind.
Terry was reduced to a rather combative group: keen, logical, inquiring minds, not overly sensitive, the very kind he liked least; while, as for me — I became quite cocky over my general popularity.
Terry was furious about it. We could hardly blame him.
“Girls!” he burst forth, when that evening was over and we were by ourselves once more. “Call those girls!”
“Most delightful girls, I call them,” said Jeff, his blue eyes dreamily contented.
“What do you call them?” I mildly inquired.
“Boys! Nothing but boys, most of ’em. A standoffish, disagreeable lot at that. Critical, impertinent youngsters. No girls at all.”
He was angry and severe, not a little jealous, too, I think. Afterward, when he found out just what it was they did not like, he changed his manner somewhat and got on better. He had to. For, in spite of his criticism, they were girls, and, furthermore, all the girls there were! Always excepting our three! — with whom we presently renewed our acquaintance.
When it came to courtship, which it soon did, I can of course best describe my own — and am least inclined to. But of Jeff I heard somewhat; he was inclined to dwell reverently and admiringly, at some length, on the exalted sentiment and measureless perfection of his Celis; and Terry — Terry made so many false starts and met so many rebuffs, that by the time he really settled down to win Alima, he was considerably wiser. At that, it was not smooth sailing. They broke and quarreled, over and over; he would rush off to console himself with some other fair one — the other fair one would have none of him — and he would drift back to Alima, becoming more and more devoted each time.
She never gave an inch. A big, handsome creature, rather exceptionally strong even in that race of strong women, with a proud head and sweeping level brows that lined across above her dark eager eyes like the wide wings of a soaring hawk.
I was good friends with all three of them but best of all with Ellador, long before that feeling changed, for both of us.
From her, and from Somel, who talked very freely with me, I learned at last something of the viewpoint of Herland toward its visitors.
Here they were, isolated, happy, contented, when the booming buzz of our biplane tore the air above them.
Everybody heard it — saw it — for miles and miles, word flashed all over the country, and a council was held in every town and village.
And this was their rapid determination:
“From another country. Probably men. Evidently highly civilized. Doubtless possessed of much valuable knowledge. May be dangerous. Catch them if possible; tame and train them if necessary. This may be a chance to re-establish a bi-sexual state for our people.”
They were not afraid of us — three million highly intelligent women — or two million, counting only grown-ups — were not likely to be afraid of three young men. We thought of them as “Women,” and therefore timid; but it was two thousand years since they had had anything to be afraid of, and certainly more than one thousand since they had outgrown the feeling.
We thought — at least Terry did — that we could have our pick of them. They thought — very cautiously and farsightedly — of picking us, if it seemed wise.
All that time we were in training they studied us, analyzed us, prepared reports about us, and this information was widely disseminated all about the land.
Not a girl in that country had not been learning for months as much as could be gathered about our country, our culture, our personal characters. No wonder their questions were hard to answer. But I am sorry to say, when we were at last brought out and — exhibited (I hate to call it that, but that’s what it was), there was no rush of takers. Here was poor old Terry fondly imagining that at last he was free to stray in “a rosebud garden of girls” — and behold! the rosebuds were all with keen appraising eye, studying us.
They were interested, profoundly interested, but it was not the kind of interest we were looking for.
To get an idea of their attitude you have to hold in mind their extremely high sense of solidarity. They were not each choosing a lover; they hadn’t the faintest idea of love — sex-love, that is. These girls — to each of whom motherhood was a lodestar, and that motherhood exalted above a mere personal function, looked forward to as the highest social service, as the sacrament of a lifetime — were now confronted with an opportunity to make the great step of changing their whole status, of reverting to their earlier bi-sexual order of nature.
Beside this underlying consideration there was the limitless interest and curiosity in our civilization, purely impersonal, and held by an order of mind beside which we were like — schoolboys.
It was small wonder that our lectures were not a success; and none at all that our, or at least Terry’s, advances were so ill received. The reason for my own comparative success was at first far from pleasing to my pride.
“We like you the best,” Somel told me, “because you seem more like us.”
“More like a lot of women!” I thought to myself disgustedly, and then remembered how little like “women,” in our derogatory sense, they were. She was smiling at me, reading my thought.
“We can quite see that we do not seem like — women — to you. Of course, in a bi-sexual race the distinctive feature of each sex must be intensified. But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People, aren’t there? That’s what I mean about you being more like us — more like People. We feel at ease with you.”
Jeff’s difficulty was his exalted gallantry. He idealized women, and was always looking for a chance to “protect” or to “serve” them. These needed neither protection nor service. They were living in peace and power and plenty; we were their guests, their prisoners, absolutely dependent.
Of course we could promise whatsoever we might of advantages, if they would come to our country; but the more we knew of theirs, the less we boasted.
Terry’s jewels and trinkets they prized as curios; handed them about, asking questions as to workmanship, not in the least as to value; and discussed not ownership, but which museum to put them in.
When a man has nothing to give a woman, is dependent wholly on his personal attraction, his courtship is under limitations.
They were considering these two things: the advisability of making the Great Change; and the degree of personal adaptability which would best serve that end.
Here we had the advantage of our small personal experience with those three fleet forest girls; and that served to draw us together.
As for Ellador: Suppose you come to a strange land and find it pleasant enough — just a little more than ordinarily pleasant — and then you find rich farmland, and then gardens, gorgeous gardens, and then palaces full of rare and curious treasures — incalculable, inexhaustible, and then — mountains — like the Himalayas, and then the sea.
I liked her that day she balanced on the branch before me and named the trio. I thought of her most. Afterward I turned to her like a friend when we met for the third time, and continued the acquaintance. While Jeff’s ultra-devotion rather puzzled Celis, really put off their day of happiness, while Terry and Alima quarreled and parted, re-met and re-parted, Ellador and I grew to be close friends.
We talked and talked. We took long walks together. She showed me things, explained them, interpreted much that I had not understood. Through her sympathetic intelligence I became more and more comprehending of the spirit of the people of Herland, more and more appreciative of its marvelous inner growth as well as outer perfection.
I ceased to feel a stranger, a prisoner. There was a sense of understanding, of identity, of purpose. We discussed— everything. And, as I traveled farther and farther, exploring the rich, sweet soul of her, my sense of pleasant friendship became but a broad foundation for such height, such breadth, such interlocked combination of feeling as left me fairly blinded with the wonder of it.
As I’ve said, I had never cared very much for women, nor they for me—not Terry-fashion. But this one—
At first I never even thought of her “in that way,” as the girls have it. I had not come to the country with any Turkish-harem intentions, and I was no woman-worshipper like Jeff. I just liked that girl “as a friend,” as we say. That friendship grew like a tree. She was such a good sport! We did all kinds of things together. She taught me games and I taught her games, and we raced and rowed and had all manner of fun, as well as higher comradeship.
Then, as I got on farther, the palace and treasures and snowy mountain ranges opened up. I had never known there could be such a human being. So — great. I don’t mean talented. She was a forester — one of the best — but it was not that gift I mean. When I say great, I mean great — big, all through. If I had known more of those women, as intimately, I should not have found her so unique; but even among them she was noble. Her mother was an Over Mother — and her grandmother, too, I heard later.
So she told me more and more of her beautiful land; and I told her as much, yes, more than I wanted to, about mine; and we became inseparable. Then this deeper recognition came and grew. I felt my own soul rise and lift its wings, as it were. Life got bigger. It seemed as if I understood — as I never had before — as if I could Do things — as if I too could grow — if she would help me. And then It came — to both of us, all at once.
A still day — on the edge of the world, their world. The two of us, gazing out over the far dim forestland below, talking of heaven and earth and human life, and of my land and other lands and what they needed and what I hoped to do for them —
“If you will help me,” I said.
She turned to me, with that high, sweet look of hers, and then, as her eyes rested in mine and her hands too — then suddenly there blazed out between us a farther glory, instant, overwhelming — quite beyond any words of mine to tell.
Celis was a blue-and-gold-and-rose person; Alma, black-and-white-and-red, a blazing beauty. Ellador was brown: hair dark and soft, like a seal coat; clear brown skin with a healthy red in it; brown eyes — all the way from topaz to black velvet they seemed to range — splendid girls, all of them.
They had seen us first of all, far down in the lake below, and flashed the tidings across the land even before our first exploring flight. They had watched our landing, flitted through the forest with us, hidden in that tree and — I shrewdly suspect — giggled on purpose.
They had kept watch over our hooded machine, taking turns at it; and when our escape was announced, had followed along-side for a day or two, and been there at the last, as described. They felt a special claim on us — called us “their men” — and when we were at liberty to study the land and people, and be studied by them, their claim was recognized by the wise leaders.
But I felt, we all did, that we should have chosen them among millions, unerringly.
And yet “the path of true love never did run smooth”; this period of courtship was full of the most unsuspected pitfalls.
Writing this as late as I do, after manifold experiences both in Herland and, later, in my own land, I can now understand and philosophize about what was then a continual astonishment and often a temporary tragedy.
The “long suit” in most courtships is sex attraction, of course. Then gradually develops such comradeship as the two temperaments allow. Then, after marriage, there is either the establishment of a slow-growing, widely based friendship, the deepest, tenderest, sweetest of relations, all lit and warmed by the recurrent flame of love; or else that process is reversed, love cools and fades, no friendship grows, the whole relation turns from beauty to ashes.
Here everything was different. There was no sex-feeling to appeal to, or practically none. Two thousand years’ disuse had left very little of the instinct; also we must remember that those who had at times manifested it as atavistic exceptions were often, by that very fact, denied motherhood.
Yet while the mother process remains, the inherent ground for sex-distinction remains also; and who shall say what long-forgotten feeling, vague and nameless, was stirred in some of these mother hearts by our arrival?
What left us even more at sea in our approach was the lack of any sex-tradition. There was no accepted standard of what was “manly” and what was “womanly.”
When Jeff said, taking the fruit basket from his adored one, “A woman should not carry anything,” Celis said, “Why?” with the frankest amazement. He could not look that fleet-footed, deep-chested young forester in the face and say, “Because she is weaker.” She wasn’t. One does not call a race horse weak because it is visibly not a cart horse.
He said, rather lamely, that women were not built for heavy work.
She looked out across the fields to where some women were working, building a new bit of wall out of large stones; looked back at the nearest town with its woman-built houses; down at the smooth, hard road we were walking on; and then at the little basket he had taken from her.
“I don’t understand,” she said quite sweetly. “Are the women in your country so weak that they could not carry such a thing as that?”
“It is a convention,” he said. “We assume that motherhood is a sufficient burden — that men should carry all the others.”
“What a beautiful feeling!” she said, her blue eyes shining.
“Does it work?” asked Alima, in her keen, swift way. “Do all men in all countries carry everything? Or is it only in yours?”
“Don’t be so literal,” Terry begged lazily. “Why aren’t you willing to be worshipped and waited on? We like to do it.”
“You don’t like to have us do it to you,” she answered.
“That’s different,” he said, annoyed; and when she said, “Why is it?” he quite sulked, referring her to me, saying, “Van’s the philosopher.”
Ellador and I talked it all out together, so that we had an easier experience of it when the real miracle time came. Also, between us, we made things clearer to Jeff and Celis. But Terry would not listen to reason.
He was madly in love with Alima. He wanted to take her by storm, and nearly lost her forever.
You see, if a man loves a girl who is in the first place young and inexperienced; who in the second place is educated with a background of caveman tradition, a middle-ground of poetry and romance, and a foreground of unspoken hope and interest all centering upon the one Event; and who has, furthermore, absolutely no other hope or interest worthy of the name — why, it is a comparatively easy matter to sweep her off her feet with a dashing attack. Terry was a past master in this process. He tried it here, and Alima was so affronted, so repelled, that it was weeks before he got near enough to try again.
The more coldly she denied him, the hotter his determination; he was not used to real refusal. The approach of flattery she dismissed with laughter, gifts and such “attentions” we could not bring to bear, pathos and complaint of cruelty stirred only a reasoning inquiry. It took Terry a long time.
I doubt if she ever accepted her strange lover as fully as did Celis and Ellador theirs. He had hurt and offended her too often; there were reservations.
But I think Alima retained some faint vestige of long-descended feeling which made Terry more possible to her than to others; and that she had made up her mind to the experiment and hated to renounce it.
However it came about, we all three at length achieved full understanding, and solemnly faced what was to them a step of measureless importance, a grave question as well as a great happiness; to us a strange, new joy.
Of marriage as a ceremony they knew nothing. Jeff was for bringing them to our country for the religious and the civil ceremony, but neither Celis nor the others would consent.
“We can’t expect them to want to go with us — yet,” said Terry sagely. “Wait a bit, boys. We’ve got to take ’em on their own terms — if at all.” This, in rueful reminiscence of his repeated failures.
“But our time’s coming,” he added cheerfully. “These women have never been mastered, you see—” This, as one who had made a discovery.
“You’d better not try to do any mastering if you value your chances,” I told him seriously; but he only laughed, and said, “Every man to his trade!”
We couldn’t do anything with him. He had to take his own medicine.
If the lack of tradition of courtship left us much at sea in our wooing, we found ourselves still more bewildered by lack of tradition of matrimony.
And here again, I have to draw on later experience, and as deep an acquaintance with their culture as I could achieve, to explain the gulfs of difference between us.
Two thousand years of one continuous culture with no men. Back of that, only traditions of the harem. They had no exact analogue for our word home, any more than they had for our Roman-based family.
They loved one another with a practically universal affection, rising to exquisite and unbroken friendships, and broadening to a devotion to their country and people for which our word patriotism is no definition at all.
Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder.
This country had no other country to measure itself by — save the few poor savages far below, with whom they had no contact.
They loved their country because it was their nursery, playground, and workshop — theirs and their children’s. They were proud of it as a workshop, proud of their record of ever-increasing efficiency; they had made a pleasant garden of it, a very practical little heaven; but most of all they valued it — and here it is hard for us to understand them — as a cultural environment for their children.
That, of course, is the keynote of the whole distinction — their children.
From those first breathlessly guarded, half-adored race mothers, all up the ascending line, they had this dominant thought of building up a great race through the children.
All the surrendering devotion our women have put into their private families, these women put into their country and race. All the loyalty and service men expect of wives, they gave, not singly to men, but collectively to one another.
And the mother instinct, with us so painfully intense, so thwarted by conditions, so concentrated in personal devotion to a few, so bitterly hurt by death, disease, or barrenness, and even by the mere growth of the children, leaving the mother alone in her empty nest — all this feeling with them flowed out in a strong, wide current, unbroken through the generations, deepening and widening through the years, including every child in all the land.
With their united power and wisdom, they had studied and overcome the “diseases of childhood” — their children had none.
They had faced the problems of education and so solved them that their children grew up as naturally as young trees; learning through every sense; taught continuously but unconsciously — never knowing they were being educated.
In fact, they did not use the word as we do. Their idea of education was the special training they took, when half grown up, under experts. Then the eager young minds fairly flung themselves on their chosen subjects, and acquired with an ease, a breadth, a grasp, at which I never ceased to wonder.
But the babies and little children never felt the pressure of that “forcible feeding” of the mind that we call “education.” Of this, more later.
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SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.