September 10, 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.
What I’m trying to show here is that with these women the whole relationship of life counted in a glad, eager growing-up to join the ranks of workers in the line best loved; a deep, tender reverence for one’s own mother — too deep for them to speak of freely — and beyond that, the whole, free, wide range of sisterhood, the splendid service of the country, and friendships.
To these women we came, filled with the ideas, convictions, traditions, of our culture, and undertook to rouse in them the emotions which — to us — seemed proper.
However much, or little, of true sex-feeling there was between us, it phrased itself in their minds in terms of friendship, the one purely personal love they knew, and of ultimate parentage. Visibly we were not mothers, nor children, nor compatriots; so, if they loved us, we must be friends.
That we should pair off together in our courting days was natural to them; that we three should remain much together, as they did themselves, was also natural. We had as yet no work, so we hung about them in their forest tasks; that was natural, too.
But when we began to talk about each couple having “homes” of our own, they could not understand it.
“Our work takes us all around the country,” explained Celis. “We cannot live in one place all the time.”
“We are together now,” urged Alima, looking proudly at Terry’s stalwart nearness. (This was one of the times when they were “on,” though presently “off” again.)
“It’s not the same thing at all,” he insisted. “A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it.”
“Staying in it? All the time?” asked Ellador. “Not imprisoned, surely!”
“Of course not! Living there — naturally,” he answered.
“What does she do there — all the time?” Alima demanded. “What is her work?”
Then Terry patiently explained again that our women did not work — with reservations.
“But what do they do — if they have no work?” she persisted.
“They take care of the home — and the children.”
“At the same time?” asked Ellador.
“Why yes. The children play about, and the mother has charge of it all. There are servants, of course.”
It seemed so obvious, so natural to Terry, that he always grew impatient; but the girls were honestly anxious to understand.
“How many children do your women have?” Alima had her notebook out now, and a rather firm set of lip. Terry began to dodge.
“There is no set number, my dear,” he explained. “Some have more, some have less.”
“Some have none at all,” I put in mischievously.
They pounced on this admission and soon wrung from us the general fact that those women who had the most children had the least servants, and those who had the most servants had the least children.
“There!” triumphed Alima. “One or two or no children, and three or four servants. Now what do those women do?”
We explained as best we might. We talked of “social duties,” disingenuously banking on their not interpreting the words as we did; we talked of hospitality, entertainment, and various “interests.” All the time we knew that to these large-minded women whose whole mental outlook was so collective, the limitations of a wholly personal life were inconceivable.
“We cannot really understand it,” Ellador concluded. “We are only half a people. We have our woman-ways and they have their man-ways and their both-ways. We have worked out a system of living which is, of course, limited. They must have a broader, richer, better one. I should like to see it.”
“You shall, dearest,” I whispered.
“There’s nothing to smoke,” complained Terry. He was in the midst of a prolonged quarrel with Alima, and needed a sedative. “There’s nothing to drink. These blessed women have no pleasant vices. I wish we could get out of here!”
This wish was vain. We were always under a certain degree of watchfulness. When Terry burst forth to tramp the streets at night he always found a “Colonel” here or there; and when, on an occasion of fierce though temporary despair, he had plunged to the cliff edge with some vague view to escape, he found several of them close by. We were free—but there was a string to it.
“They’ve no unpleasant ones, either,” Jeff reminded him.
“Wish they had!” Terry persisted. “They’ve neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women — they’re neuters!”
“You know better than that. Don’t talk nonsense,” said I, severely.
I was thinking of Ellador’s eyes when they gave me a certain look, a look she did not at all realize.
Jeff was equally incensed. “I don’t know what ‘virtues of women’ you miss. Seems to me they have all of them.”
“They’ve no modesty,” snapped Terry. “No patience, no submissiveness, none of that natural yielding which is woman’s greatest charm.”
I shook my head pityingly. “Go and apologize and make friends again, Terry. You’ve got a grouch, that’s all. These women have the virtue of humanity, with less of its faults than any folks I ever saw. As for patience — they’d have pitched us over the cliffs the first day we lit among ’em, if they hadn’t that.”
“There are no — distractions,” he grumbled. “Nowhere a man can go and cut loose a bit. It’s an everlasting parlor and nursery.”
“And workshop,” I added. “And school, and office, and laboratory, and studio, and theater, and — home.”
“Home!” he sneered. “There isn’t a home in the whole pitiful place.”
“There isn’t anything else, and you know it,” Jeff retorted hotly. “I never saw, I never dreamed of, such universal peace and good will and mutual affection.”
“Oh, well, of course, if you like a perpetual Sunday school, it’s all very well. But I like Something Doing. Here it’s all done.”
There was something to this criticism. The years of pioneering lay far behind them. Theirs was a civilization in which the initial difficulties had long since been overcome. The untroubled peace, the unmeasured plenty, the steady health, the large good will and smooth management which ordered everything, left nothing to overcome. It was like a pleasant family in an old established, perfectly run country place.
I liked it because of my eager and continued interest in the sociological achievements involved. Jeff liked it as he would have liked such a family and such a place anywhere.
Terry did not like it because he found nothing to oppose, to struggle with, to conquer.
“Life is a struggle, has to be,” he insisted. “If there is no struggle, there is no life — that’s all.”
“You’re talking nonsense — masculine nonsense,” the peaceful Jeff replied. He was certainly a warm defender of Herland. “Ants don’t raise their myriads by a struggle, do they? Or the bees?”
“Oh, if you go back to insects — and want to live in an anthill — ! I tell you the higher grades of life are reached only through struggle — combat. There’s no Drama here. Look at their plays! They make me sick.”
He rather had us there. The drama of the country was — to our taste — rather flat. You see, they lacked the sex motive and, with it, jealousy. They had no interplay of warring nations, no aristocracy and its ambitions, no wealth and poverty opposition.
I see I have said little about the economics of the place; it should have come before, but I’ll go on about the drama now.
They had their own kind. There was a most impressive array of pageantry, of processions, a sort of grand ritual, with their arts and their religion broadly blended. The very babies joined in it. To see one of their great annual festivals, with the massed and marching stateliness of those great mothers, the young women brave and noble, beautiful and strong; and then the children, taking part as naturally as ours would frolic round a Christmas tree — it was overpowering in the impression of joyous, triumphant life.
They had begun at a period when the drama, the dance, music, religion, and education were all very close together; and instead of developing them in detached lines, they had kept the connection. Let me try again to give, if I can, a faint sense of the difference in the life view — the background and basis on which their culture rested.
Ellador told me a lot about it. She took me to see the children, the growing girls, the special teachers. She picked out books for me to read. She always seemed to understand just what I wanted to know, and how to give it to me.
While Terry and Alima struck sparks and parted — he always madly drawn to her and she to him — she must have been, or she’d never have stood the way he behaved — Ellador and I had already a deep, restful feeling, as if we’d always had one another. Jeff and Celis were happy; there was no question of that; but it didn’t seem to me as if they had the good times we did.
Well, here is the Herland child facing life — as Ellador tried to show it to me. From the first memory, they knew Peace, Beauty, Order, Safety, Love, Wisdom, Justice, Patience, and Plenty. By “plenty” I mean that the babies grew up in an environment which met their needs, just as young fawns might grow up in dewy forest glades and brook-fed meadows. And they enjoyed it as frankly and utterly as the fawns would.
They found themselves in a big bright lovely world, full of the most interesting and enchanting things to learn about and to do. The people everywhere were friendly and polite. No Herland child ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children. They were People, too, from the first; the most precious part of the nation.
In each step of the rich experience of living, they found the instance they were studying widen out into contact with an endless range of common interests. The things they learned were related, from the first; related to one another, and to the national prosperity.
“It was a butterfly that made me a forester,” said Ellador. “I was about eleven years old, and I found a big purple-and-green butterfly on a low flower. I caught it, very carefully, by the closed wings, as I had been told to do, and carried it to the nearest insect teacher” — I made a note there to ask her what on earth an insect teacher was — “to ask her its name. She took it from me with a little cry of delight. ‘Oh, you blessed child,’ she said. ‘Do you like obernuts?’ Of course I liked obernuts, and said so. It is our best food-nut, you know. ‘This is a female of the obernut moth,’ she told me. ‘They are almost gone. We have been trying to exterminate them for centuries. If you had not caught this one, it might have laid eggs enough to raise worms enough to destroy thousands of our nut trees — thousands of bushels of nuts — and make years and years of trouble for us.’
“Everybody congratulated me. The children all over the country were told to watch for that moth, if there were any more. I was shown the history of the creature, and an account of the damage it used to do and of how long and hard our foremothers had worked to save that tree for us. I grew a foot, it seemed to me, and determined then and there to be a forester.”
This is but an instance; she showed me many. The big difference was that whereas our children grow up in private homes and families, with every effort made to protect and seclude them from a dangerous world, here they grew up in a wide, friendly world, and knew it for theirs, from the first.
Their child-literature was a wonderful thing. I could have spent years following the delicate subtleties, the smooth simplicities with which they had bent that great art to the service of the child mind.
We have two life cycles: the man’s and the woman’s. To the man there is growth, struggle, conquest, the establishment of his family, and as much further success in gain or ambition as he can achieve.
To the woman, growth, the securing of a husband, the subordinate activities of family life, and afterward such “social” or charitable interests as her position allows.
Here was but one cycle, and that a large one.
The child entered upon a broad open field of life, in which motherhood was the one great personal contribution to the national life, and all the rest the individual share in their common activities. Every girl I talked to, at any age above babyhood, had her cheerful determination as to what she was going to be when she grew up.
What Terry meant by saying they had no “modesty” was that this great life-view had no shady places; they had a high sense of personal decorum, but no shame — no knowledge of anything to be ashamed of.
Even their shortcomings and misdeeds in childhood never were presented to them as sins; merely as errors and misplays — as in a game. Some of them, who were palpably less agreeable than others or who had a real weakness or fault, were treated with cheerful allowance, as a friendly group at whist would treat a poor player.
Their religion, you see, was maternal; and their ethics, based on the full perception of evolution, showed the principle of growth and the beauty of wise culture. They had no theory of the essential opposition of good and evil; life to them was growth; their pleasure was in growing, and their duty also.
With this background, with their sublimated mother-love, expressed in terms of widest social activity, every phase of their work was modified by its effect on the national growth. The language itself they had deliberately clarified, simplified, made easy and beautiful, for the sake of the children.
This seemed to us a wholly incredible thing: first, that any nation should have the foresight, the strength, and the persistence to plan and fulfill such a task; and second, that women should have had so much initiative. We have assumed, as a matter of course, that women had none; that only the man, with his natural energy and impatience of restriction, would ever invent anything.
Here we found that the pressure of life upon the environment develops in the human mind its inventive reactions, regardless of sex; and further, that a fully awakened motherhood plans and works without limit, for the good of the child.
That the children might be most nobly born, and reared in an environment calculated to allow the richest, freest growth, they had deliberately remodeled and improved the whole state.
I do not mean in the least that they stopped at that, any more than a child stops at childhood. The most impressive part of their whole culture beyond this perfect system of child-rearing was the range of interests and associations open to them all, for life. But in the field of literature I was most struck, at first, by the child-motive.
They had the same gradation of simple repetitive verse and story that we are familiar with, and the most exquisite, imaginative tales; but where, with us, these are the dribbled remnants of ancient folk myths and primitive lullabies, theirs were the exquisite work of great artists; not only simple and unfailing in appeal to the child-mind, but true, true to the living world about them.
To sit in one of their nurseries for a day was to change one’s views forever as to babyhood. The youngest ones, rosy fatlings in their mothers’ arms, or sleeping lightly in the flower-sweet air, seemed natural enough, save that they never cried. I never heard a child cry in Herland, save once or twice at a bad fall; and then people ran to help, as we would at a scream of agony from a grown person.
Each mother had her year of glory; the time to love and learn, living closely with her child, nursing it proudly, often for two years or more. This perhaps was one reason for their wonderful vigor.
But after the baby-year the mother was not so constantly in attendance, unless, indeed, her work was among the little ones. She was never far off, however, and her attitude toward the co-mothers, whose proud child-service was direct and continuous, was lovely to see.
As for the babies — a group of those naked darlings playing on short velvet grass, clean-swept; or rugs as soft; or in shallow pools of bright water; tumbling over with bubbling joyous baby laughter — it was a view of infant happiness such as I had never dreamed.
The babies were reared in the warmer part of the country, and gradually acclimated to the cooler heights as they grew older.
Sturdy children of ten and twelve played in the snow as joyfully as ours do; there were continuous excursions of them, from one part of the land to another, so that to each child the whole country might be home.
It was all theirs, waiting for them to learn, to love, to use, to serve; as our own little boys plan to be “a big soldier,” or “a cowboy,” or whatever pleases their fancy; and our little girls plan for the kind of home they mean to have, or how many children; these planned, freely and gaily with much happy chattering, of what they would do for the country when they were grown.
It was the eager happiness of the children and young people which first made me see the folly of that common notion of ours — that if life was smooth and happy, people would not enjoy it.
As I studied these youngsters, vigorous, joyous, eager little creatures, and their voracious appetite for life, it shook my previous ideas so thoroughly that they have never been re-established. The steady level of good health gave them all that natural stimulus we used to call “animal spirits” — an odd contradiction in terms. They found themselves in an immediate environment which was agreeable and interesting, and before them stretched the years of learning and discovery, the fascinating, endless process of education.
As I looked into these methods and compared them with our own, my strange uncomfortable sense of race-humility grew apace.
Ellador could not understand my astonishment. She explained things kindly and sweetly, but with some amazement that they needed explaining, and with sudden questions as to how we did it that left me meeker than ever.
I betook myself to Somel one day, carefully not taking Ellador. I did not mind seeming foolish to Somel — she was used to it.
“I want a chapter of explanation,” I told her. “You know my stupidities by heart, and I do not want to show them to Ellador — she thinks me so wise!”
She smiled delightedly. “It is beautiful to see,” she told me, “this new wonderful love between you. The whole country is interested, you know — how can we help it!”
I had not thought of that. We say: “All the world loves a lover,” but to have a couple of million people watching one’s courtship — and that a difficult one — was rather embarrassing.
“Tell me about your theory of education,” I said. “Make it short and easy. And, to show you what puzzles me, I’ll tell you that in our theory great stress is laid on the forced exertion of the child’s mind; we think it is good for him to overcome obstacles.”
“Of course it is,” she unexpectedly agreed. “All our children do that — they love to.”
That puzzled me again. If they loved to do it, how could it be educational?
“Our theory is this,” she went on carefully. “Here is a young human being. The mind is as natural a thing as the body, a thing that grows, a thing to use and enjoy. We seek to nourish, to stimulate, to exercise the mind of a child as we do the body. There are the two main divisions in education — you have those of course? — the things it is necessary to know, and the things it is necessary to do.”
“To do? Mental exercises, you mean?”
“Yes. Our general plan is this: In the matter of feeding the mind, of furnishing information, we use our best powers to meet the natural appetite of a healthy young brain; not to overfeed it, to provide such amount and variety of impressions as seem most welcome to each child. That is the easiest part. The other division is in arranging a properly graduated series of exercises which will best develop each mind; the common faculties we all have, and most carefully, the especial faculties some of us have. You do this also, do you not?”
“In a way,” I said rather lamely. “We have not so subtle and highly developed a system as you, not approaching it; but tell me more. As to the information — how do you manage? It appears that all of you know pretty much everything — is that right?”
This she laughingly disclaimed. “By no means. We are, as you soon found out, extremely limited in knowledge. I wish you could realize what a ferment the country is in over the new things you have told us; the passionate eagerness among thousands of us to go to your country and learn — learn — learn! But what we do know is readily divisible into common knowledge and special knowledge. The common knowledge we have long since learned to feed into the minds of our little ones with no waste of time or strength; the special knowledge is open to all, as they desire it. Some of us specialize in one line only. But most take up several — some for their regular work, some to grow with.”
“To grow with?”
“Yes. When one settles too close in one kind of work there is a tendency to atrophy in the disused portions of the brain. We like to keep on learning, always.”
“What do you study?”
“As much as we know of the different sciences. We have, within our limits, a good deal of knowledge of anatomy, physiology, nutrition — all that pertains to a full and beautiful personal life. We have our botany and chemistry, and so on — very rudimentary, but interesting; our own history, with its accumulating psychology.”
“You put psychology with history — not with personal life?”
“Of course. It is ours; it is among and between us, and it changes with the succeeding and improving generations. We are at work, slowly and carefully, developing our whole people along these lines. It is glorious work — splendid! To see the thousands of babies improving, showing stronger clearer minds, sweeter dispositions, higher capacities — don’t you find it so in your country?”
This I evaded flatly. I remembered the cheerless claim that the human mind was no better than in its earliest period of savagery, only better informed — a statement I had never believed.
“We try most earnestly for two powers,” Somel continued. “The two that seem to us basically necessary for all noble life: a clear, far-reaching judgment, and a strong well-used will. We spend our best efforts, all through childhood and youth, in developing these faculties, individual judgment and will.”
“As part of your system of education, you mean?”
“Exactly. As the most valuable part. With the babies, as you may have noticed, we first provide an environment which feeds the mind without tiring it; all manner of simple and interesting things to do, as soon as they are old enough to do them; physical properties, of course, come first. But as early as possible, going very carefully, not to tax the mind, we provide choices, simple choices, with very obvious causes and consequences. You’ve noticed the games?”
I had. The children seemed always playing something; or else, sometimes, engaged in peaceful researches of their own. I had wondered at first when they went to school, but soon found that they never did — to their knowledge. It was all education but no schooling.
“We have been working for some sixteen hundred years, devising better and better games for children,” continued Somel.
I sat aghast. “Devising games?” I protested. “Making up new ones, you mean?”
“Exactly,” she answered. “Don’t you?”
Then I remembered the kindergarten, and the “material” devised by Signora Montessori, and guardedly replied: “To some extent.” But most of our games, I told her, were very old — came down from child to child, along the ages, from the remote past.
“And what is their effect?” she asked. “Do they develop the faculties you wish to encourage?”
Again I remembered the claims made by the advocates of “sports,” and again replied guardedly that that was, in part, the theory.
“But do the children like it?” I asked. “Having things made up and set before them that way? Don’t they want the old games?”
“You can see the children,” she answered. “Are yours more contented — more interested — happier?”
Then I thought, as in truth I never had thought before, of the dull, bored children I had seen, whining; “What can I do now?”; of the little groups and gangs hanging about; of the value of some one strong spirit who possessed initiative and would “start something”; of the children’s parties and the onerous duties of the older people set to “amuse the children”; also of that troubled ocean of misdirected activity we call “mischief,” the foolish, destructive, sometimes evil things done by unoccupied children.
“No,” said I grimly. “I don’t think they are.”
The Herland child was born not only into a world carefully prepared, full of the most fascinating materials and opportunities to learn, but into the society of plentiful numbers of teachers, teachers born and trained, whose business it was to accompany the children along that, to us, impossible thing — the royal road to learning.
There was no mystery in their methods. Being adapted to children it was at least comprehensible to adults. I spent many days with the little ones, sometimes with Ellador, sometimes without, and began to feel a crushing pity for my own childhood, and for all others that I had known.
The houses and gardens planned for babies had in them nothing to hurt — no stairs, no corners, no small loose objects to swallow, no fire — just a babies’ paradise. They were taught, as rapidly as feasible, to use and control their own bodies, and never did I see such sure-footed, steady-handed, clear-headed little things. It was a joy to watch a row of toddlers learning to walk, not only on a level floor, but, a little later, on a sort of rubber rail raised an inch or two above the soft turf or heavy rugs, and falling off with shrieks of infant joy, to rush back to the end of the line and try again. Surely we have noticed how children love to get up on something and walk along it! But we have never thought to provide that simple and inexhaustible form of amusement and physical education for the young.
Water they had, of course, and could swim even before they walked. If I feared at first the effects of a too intensive system of culture, that fear was dissipated by seeing the long sunny days of pure physical merriment and natural sleep in which these heavenly babies passed their first years. They never knew they were being educated. They did not dream that in this association of hilarious experiment and achievement they were laying the foundation for that close beautiful group feeling into which they grew so firmly with the years. This was education for citizenship.
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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 |
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