September 24, 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.
We say, “Marriage is a lottery”; also “Marriages are made in Heaven” — but this is not so widely accepted as the other.
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.
But no combination of alien races, of color, of caste, or creed, was ever so basically difficult to establish as that between us, three modern American men, and these three women of Herland.
It is all very well to say that we should have been frank about it beforehand. We had been frank. We had discussed — at least Ellador and I had — the conditions of The Great Adventure, and thought the path was clear before us. But there are some things one takes for granted, supposes are mutually understood, and to which both parties may repeatedly refer without ever meaning the same thing.
The differences in the education of the average man and woman are great enough, but the trouble they make is not mostly for the man; he generally carries out his own views of the case. The woman may have imagined the conditions of married life to be different; but what she imagined, was ignorant of, or might have preferred, did not seriously matter.
I can see clearly and speak calmly about this now, writing after a lapse of years, years full of growth and education, but at the time it was rather hard sledding for all of us — especially for Terry. Poor Terry! You see, in any other imaginable marriage among the peoples of the earth, whether the woman were black, red, yellow, brown, or white; whether she were ignorant or educated, submissive or rebellious, she would have behind her the marriage tradition of our general history. This tradition relates the woman to the man. He goes on with his business, and she adapts herself to him and to it. Even in citizenship, by some strange hocus-pocus, that fact of birth and geography was waved aside, and the woman automatically acquired the nationality of her husband.
Well — here were we, three aliens in this land of women. It was small in area, and the external differences were not so great as to astound us. We did not yet appreciate the differences between the race-mind of this people and ours.
In the first place, they were a “pure stock” of two thousand uninterrupted years. Where we have some long connected lines of thought and feeling, together with a wide range of differences, often irreconcilable, these people were smoothly and firmly agreed on most of the basic principles of their life; and not only agreed in principle, but accustomed for these sixty-odd generations to act on those principles.
This is one thing which we did not understand — had made no allowance for. When in our pre-marital discussions one of those dear girls had said: “We understand it thus and thus,” or “We hold such and such to be true,” we men, in our own deep-seated convictions of the power of love, and our easy views about beliefs and principles, fondly imagined that we could convince them otherwise. What we imagined, before marriage, did not matter any more than what an average innocent young girl imagines. We found the facts to be different.
It was not that they did not love us; they did, deeply and warmly. But there are you again — what they meant by “love” and what we meant by “love” were so different.
Perhaps it seems rather cold-blooded to say “we” and “they,” as if we were not separate couples, with our separate joys and sorrows, but our positions as aliens drove us together constantly. The whole strange experience had made our friendship more close and intimate than it would ever have become in a free and easy lifetime among our own people. Also, as men, with our masculine tradition of far more than two thousand years, we were a unit, small but firm, against this far larger unit of feminine tradition.
I think I can make clear the points of difference without a too painful explicitness. The more external disagreement was in the matter of “the home,” and the housekeeping duties and pleasures we, by instinct and long education, supposed to be inherently appropriate to women.
I will give two illustrations, one away up, and the other away down, to show how completely disappointed we were in this regard.
For the lower one, try to imagine a male ant, coming from some state of existence where ants live in pairs, endeavoring to set up housekeeping with a female ant from a highly developed anthill. This female ant might regard him with intense personal affection, but her ideas of parentage and economic management would be on a very different scale from his. Now, of course, if she was a stray female in a country of pairing ants, he might have had his way with her; but if he was a stray male in an anthill—!
For the higher one, try to imagine a devoted and impassioned man trying to set up housekeeping with a lady angel, a real wings-and-harp-and-halo angel, accustomed to fulfilling divine missions all over interstellar space. This angel might love the man with an affection quite beyond his power of return or even of appreciation, but her ideas of service and duty would be on a very different scale from his. Of course, if she was a stray angel in a country of men, he might have had his way with her; but if he was a stray man among angels—!
Terry, at his worst, in a black fury for which, as a man, I must have some sympathy, preferred the ant simile. More of Terry and his special troubles later. It was hard on Terry.
Jeff — well, Jeff always had a streak that was too good for this world! He’s the kind that would have made a saintly priest in earlier times. He accepted the angel theory, swallowed it whole, tried to force it on us — with varying effect. He so worshipped Celis, and not only Celis, but what she represented; he had become so deeply convinced of the almost supernatural advantages of this country and people, that he took his medicine like a — I cannot say “like a man,” but more as if he wasn’t one.
Don’t misunderstand me for a moment. Dear old Jeff was no milksop or molly-coddle either. He was a strong, brave, efficient man, and an excellent fighter when fighting was necessary. But there was always this angel streak in him. It was rather a wonder, Terry being so different, that he really loved Jeff as he did; but it happens so sometimes, in spite of the difference — perhaps because of it.
As for me, I stood between. I was no such gay Lothario as Terry, and no such Galahad as Jeff. But for all my limitations I think I had the habit of using my brains in regard to behavior rather more frequently than either of them. I had to use brain-power now, I can tell you.
The big point at issue between us and our wives was, as may easily be imagined, in the very nature of the relation.
“Wives! Don’t talk to me about wives!” stormed Terry. “They don’t know what the word means.”
Which is exactly the fact — they didn’t. How could they? Back in their prehistoric records of polygamy and slavery there were no ideals of wifehood as we know it, and since then no possibility of forming such.
“The only thing they can think of about a man is fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”
This also was correct. They had their long, wide, deep, rich experience of Motherhood, and their only perception of the value of a male creature as such was for Fatherhood.
Aside from that, of course, was the whole range of personal love, love which as Jeff earnestly phrased it “passeth the love of women!” It did, too. I can give no idea — either now, after long and happy experience of it, or as it seemed then, in the first measureless wonder — of the beauty and power of the love they gave us.
Even Alima — who had a more stormy temperament than either of the others, and who, heaven knows, had far more provocation — even Alima was patience and tenderness and wisdom personified to the man she loved, until he — but I haven’t got to that yet.
These, as Terry put it, “alleged or so-called wives” of ours, went right on with their profession as foresters. We, having no special learnings, had long since qualified as assistants. We had to do something, if only to pass the time, and it had to be work — we couldn’t be playing forever.
This kept us out of doors with those dear girls, and more or less together — too much together sometimes.
These people had, it now became clear to us, the highest, keenest, most delicate sense of personal privacy, but not the faintest idea of that solitude à deux we are so fond of. They had, every one of them, the “two rooms and a bath” theory realized. From earliest childhood each had a separate bedroom with toilet conveniences, and one of the marks of coming of age was the addition of an outer room in which to receive friends.
Long since we had been given our own two rooms apiece, and as being of a different sex and race, these were in a separate house. It seemed to be recognized that we should breathe easier if able to free our minds in real seclusion.
For food we either went to any convenient eating-house, ordered a meal brought in, or took it with us to the woods, always and equally good. All this we had become used to and enjoyed — in our courting days.
After marriage there arose in us a somewhat unexpected urge of feeling that called for a separate house; but this feeling found no response in the hearts of those fair ladies.
“We are alone, dear,” Ellador explained to me with gentle patience. “We are alone in these great forests; we may go and eat in any little summer-house — just we two, or have a separate table anywhere — or even have a separate meal in our own rooms. How could we be aloner?”
This was all very true. We had our pleasant mutual solitude about our work, and our pleasant evening talks in their apartments or ours; we had, as it were, all the pleasures of courtship carried right on; but we had no sense of — perhaps it may be called possession.
“Might as well not be married at all,” growled Terry. “They only got up that ceremony to please us — please Jeff, mostly. They’ve no real idea of being married.”
I tried my best to get Ellador’s point of view, and naturally I tried to give her mine. Of course, what we, as men, wanted to make them see was that there were other, and as we proudly said “higher,” uses in this relation than what Terry called “mere parentage.” In the highest terms I knew I tried to explain this to Ellador.
“Anything higher than for mutual love to hope to give life, as we did?” she said. “How is it higher?”
“It develops love,” I explained. “All the power of beautiful permanent mated love comes through this higher development.”
“Are you sure?” she asked gently. “How do you know that it was so developed? There are some birds who love each other so that they mope and pine if separated, and never pair again if one dies, but they never mate except in the mating season. Among your people do you find high and lasting affection appearing in proportion to this indulgence?”
It is a very awkward thing, sometimes, to have a logical mind.
Of course I knew about those monogamous birds and beasts too, that mate for life and show every sign of mutual affection, without ever having stretched the sex relationship beyond its original range. But what of it?
“Those are lower forms of life!” I protested. “They have no capacity for faithful and affectionate, and apparently happy — but oh, my dear! my dear! — what can they know of such a love as draws us together? Why, to touch you — to be near you — to come closer and closer — to lose myself in you — surely you feel it too, do you not?”
I came nearer. I seized her hands.
Her eyes were on mine, tender radiant, but steady and strong. There was something so powerful, so large and changeless, in those eyes that I could not sweep her off her feet by my own emotion as I had unconsciously assumed would be the case.
It made me feel as, one might imagine, a man might feel who loved a goddess — not a Venus, though! She did not resent my attitude, did not repel it, did not in the least fear it, evidently. There was not a shade of that timid withdrawal or pretty resistance which are so — provocative.
“You see, dearest,” she said, “you have to be patient with us. We are not like the women of your country. We are Mothers, and we are People, but we have not specialized in this line.”
“We” and “we” and “we” — it was so hard to get her to be personal. And, as I thought that, I suddenly remembered how we were always criticizing our women for being so personal.
Then I did my earnest best to picture to her the sweet intense joy of married lovers, and the result in higher stimulus to all creative work.
“Do you mean,” she asked quite calmly, as if I was not holding her cool firm hands in my hot and rather quivering ones, “that with you, when people marry, they go right on doing this in season and out of season, with no thought of children at all?”
“They do,” I said, with some bitterness. “They are not mere parents. They are men and women, and they love each other.”
“How long?” asked Ellador, rather unexpectedly.
“How long?” I repeated, a little dashed. “Why as long as they live.”
“There is something very beautiful in the idea,” she admitted, still as if she were discussing life on Mars. “This climactic expression, which, in all the other life-forms, has but the one purpose, has with you become specialized to higher, purer, nobler uses. It has — I judge from what you tell me — the most ennobling effect on character. People marry, not only for parentage, but for this exquisite interchange — and, as a result, you have a world full of continuous lovers, ardent, happy, mutually devoted, always living on that high tide of supreme emotion which we had supposed to belong only to one season and one use. And you say it has other results, stimulating all high creative work. That must mean floods, oceans of such work, blossoming from this intense happiness of every married pair! It is a beautiful idea!”
She was silent, thinking.
So was I.
She slipped one hand free, and was stroking my hair with it in a gentle motherly way. I bowed my hot head on her shoulder and felt a dim sense of peace, a restfulness which was very pleasant.
“You must take me there someday, darling,” she was saying. “It is not only that I love you so much, I want to see your country — your people — your mother —” she paused reverently. “Oh, how I shall love your mother!”
I had not been in love many times — my experience did not compare with Terry’s. But such as I had was so different from this that I was perplexed, and full of mixed feelings: partly a growing sense of common ground between us, a pleasant rested calm feeling, which I had imagined could only be attained in one way; and partly a bewildered resentment because what I found was not what I had looked for.
It was their confounded psychology! Here they were with this profound highly developed system of education so bred into them that even if they were not teachers by profession they all had a general proficiency in it — it was second nature to them.
And no child, stormily demanding a cookie “between meals,” was ever more subtly diverted into an interest in house-building than was I when I found an apparently imperative demand had disappeared without my noticing it.
And all the time those tender mother eyes, those keen scientific eyes, noting every condition and circumstance, and learning how to “take time by the forelock” and avoid discussion before occasion arose.
I was amazed at the results. I found that much, very much, of what I had honestly supposed to be a physiological necessity was a psychological necessity — or so believed. I found, after my ideas of what was essential had changed, that my feelings changed also. And more than all, I found this — a factor of enormous weight — these women were not provocative. That made an immense difference.
The thing that Terry had so complained of when we first came — that they weren’t “feminine,” they lacked “charm,” now became a great comfort. Their vigorous beauty was an aesthetic pleasure, not an irritant. Their dress and ornaments had not a touch of the “come-and-find-me” element.
Even with my own Ellador, my wife, who had for a time unveiled a woman’s heart and faced the strange new hope and joy of dual parentage, she afterward withdrew again into the same good comrade she had been at first. They were women, plus, and so much plus that when they did not choose to let the womanness appear, you could not find it anywhere.
I don’t say it was easy for me; it wasn’t. But when I made appeal to her sympathies I came up against another immovable wall. She was sorry, honestly sorry, for my distresses, and made all manner of thoughtful suggestions, often quite useful, as well as the wise foresight I have mentioned above, which often saved all difficulty before it arose; but her sympathy did not alter her convictions.
“If I thought it was really right and necessary, I could perhaps bring myself to it, for your sake, dear; but I do not want to — not at all. You would not have a mere submission, would you? That is not the kind of high romantic love you spoke of, surely? It is a pity, of course, that you should have to adjust your highly specialized faculties to our unspecialized ones.”
Confound it! I hadn’t married the nation, and I told her so. But she only smiled at her own limitations and explained that she had to “think in we’s.”
Confound it again! Here I’d have all my energies focused on one wish, and before I knew it she’d have them dissipated in one direction or another, some subject of discussion that began just at the point I was talking about and ended miles away.
It must not be imagined that I was just repelled, ignored, left to cherish a grievance. Not at all. My happiness was in the hands of a larger, sweeter womanhood than I had ever imagined. Before our marriage my own ardor had perhaps blinded me to much of this. I was madly in love with not so much what was there as with what I supposed to be there. Now I found an endlessly beautiful undiscovered country to explore, and in it the sweetest wisdom and understanding. It was as if I had come to some new place and people, with a desire to eat at all hours, and no other interests in particular; and as if my hosts, instead of merely saying, “You shall not eat,” had presently aroused in me a lively desire for music, for pictures, for games, for exercise, for playing in the water, for running some ingenious machine; and, in the multitude of my satisfactions, I forgot the one point which was not satisfied, and got along very well until mealtime.
One of the cleverest and most ingenious of these tricks was only clear to me many years after, when we were so wholly at one on this subject that I could laugh at my own predicament then. It was this: You see, with us, women are kept as different as possible and as feminine as possible. We men have our own world, with only men in it; we get tired of our ultra-maleness and turn gladly to the ultra-femaleness. Also, in keeping our women as feminine as possible, we see to it that when we turn to them we find the thing we want always in evidence. Well, the atmosphere of this place was anything but seductive. The very numbers of these human women, always in human relation, made them anything but alluring. When, in spite of this, my hereditary instincts and race-traditions made me long for the feminine response in Ellador, instead of withdrawing so that I should want her more, she deliberately gave me a little too much of her society. — always de-feminized, as it were. It was awfully funny, really.
Here was I, with an Ideal in mind, for which I hotly longed, and here was she, deliberately obtruding in the foreground of my consciousness a Fact — a fact which I coolly enjoyed, but which actually interfered with what I wanted. I see now clearly enough why a certain kind of man, like Sir Almroth Wright, resents the professional development of women. It gets in the way of the sex ideal; it temporarily covers and excludes femininity.
Of course, in this case, I was so fond of Ellador my friend, of Ellador my professional companion, that I necessarily enjoyed her society on any terms. Only — when I had had her with me in her de-feminine capacity for a sixteen-hour day, I could go to my own room and sleep without dreaming about her.
The witch! If ever anybody worked to woo and win and hold a human soul, she did, great superwoman that she was. I couldn’t then half comprehend the skill of it, the wonder. But this I soon began to find: that under all our cultivated attitude of mind toward women, there is an older, deeper, more “natural” feeling, the restful reverence which looks up to the Mother sex.
So we grew together in friendship and happiness, Ellador and I, and so did Jeff and Celis.
When it comes to Terry’s part of it, and Alima’s, I’m sorry — and I’m ashamed. Of course I blame her somewhat. She wasn’t as fine a psychologist as Ellador, and what’s more, I think she had a far-descended atavistic trace of more marked femaleness, never apparent till Terry called it out. But when all is said, it doesn’t excuse him. I hadn’t realized to the full Terry’s character — I couldn’t, being a man.
The position was the same as with us, of course, only with these distinctions. Alima, a shade more alluring, and several shades less able as a practical psychologist; Terry, a hundredfold more demanding — and proportionately less reasonable.
Things grew strained very soon between them. I fancy at first, when they were together, in her great hope of parentage and his keen joy of conquest — that Terry was inconsiderate. In fact, I know it, from things he said.
“You needn’t talk to me,” he snapped at Jeff one day, just before our weddings. “There never was a woman yet that did not enjoy being mastered. All your pretty talk doesn’t amount to a hill o’ beans — I know.” And Terry would hum:
I’ve taken my fun where I found it.
I’ve rogued and I’ve ranged in my time
The things that I learned from the yellow and black,
They ’ave helped me a ’eap with the white.
Jeff turned sharply and left him at the time. I was a bit disquieted myself.
Poor old Terry! The things he’d learned didn’t help him a heap in Herland. His idea was to take — he thought that was the way. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!
I can see her now — one day in the very first week of their marriage, setting forth to her day’s work with long determined strides and hard-set mouth, and sticking close to Ellador. She didn’t wish to be alone with Terry — you could see that.
But the more she kept away from him, the more he wanted her — naturally.
He made a tremendous row about their separate establishments, tried to keep her in his rooms, tried to stay in hers. But there she drew the line sharply.
He came away one night, and stamped up and down the moonlit road, swearing under his breath. I was taking a walk that night too, but I wasn’t in his state of mind. To hear him rage you’d not have believed that he loved Alima at all — you’d have thought that she was some quarry he was pursuing, something to catch and conquer.
I think that, owing to all those differences I spoke of, they soon lost the common ground they had at first, and were unable to meet sanely and dispassionately. I fancy too — this is pure conjecture — that he had succeeded in driving Alima beyond her best judgment, her real conscience, and that after that her own sense of shame, the reaction of the thing, made her bitter perhaps.
They quarreled, really quarreled, and after making it up once or twice, they seemed to come to a real break — she would not be alone with him at all. And perhaps she was a bit nervous, I don’t know, but she got Moadine to come and stay next door to her. Also, she had a sturdy assistant detailed to accompany her in her work.
Terry had his own ideas, as I’ve tried to show. I daresay he thought he had a right to do as he did. Perhaps he even convinced himself that it would be better for her. Anyhow, he hid himself in her bedroom one night…
The women of Herland have no fear of men. Why should they have? They are not timid in any sense. They are not weak; and they all have strong trained athletic bodies. Othello could not have extinguished Alima with a pillow, as if she were a mouse.
Terry put in practice his pet conviction that a woman loves to be mastered, and by sheer brute force, in all the pride and passion of his intense masculinity, he tried to master this woman.
It did not work. I got a pretty clear account of it later from Ellador, but what we heard at the time was the noise of a tremendous struggle, and Alima calling to Moadine. Moadine was close by and came at once; one or two more strong grave women followed.
Terry dashed about like a madman; he would cheerfully have killed them — he told me that, himself — but he couldn’t. When he swung a chair over his head one sprang in the air and caught it, two threw themselves bodily upon him and forced him to the floor; it was only the work of a few moments to have him tied hand and foot, and then, in sheer pity for his futile rage, to anesthetize him.
Alima was in a cold fury. She wanted him killed — actually.
There was a trial before the local Over Mother, and this woman, who did not enjoy being mastered, stated her case.
In a court in our country he would have been held quite “within his rights,” of course. But this was not our country; it was theirs. They seemed to measure the enormity of the offense by its effect upon a possible fatherhood, and he scorned even to reply to this way of putting it.
He did let himself go once, and explained in definite terms that they were incapable of understanding a man’s needs, a man’s desires, a man’s point of view. He called them neuters, epicenes, bloodless, sexless creatures. He said they could of course kill him — as so many insects could — but that he despised them nonetheless.
And all those stern grave mothers did not seem to mind his despising them, not in the least.
It was a long trial, and many interesting points were brought out as to their views of our habits, and after a while Terry had his sentence. He waited, grim and defiant. The sentence was: “You must go home!”
* “I see now clearly enough why a certain kind of man, like Sir Almroth Wright, resents the professional development of women.” Sir Almroth Edward Wright was a British bacteriologist and immunologist. His 1913 treatise The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage opposes the professional development of women.
* “I’ve taken my fun where I found it./I’ve rogued and I’ve ranged in my time” — from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ladies.”
* “The things that I learned from the yellow and black,/They ’ave helped me a ’eap with the white.” — from the same Kipling poem.
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