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Herland: Women, Weight, And Utopia

Herland: Women, Weight, and Utopia

Why does such different things as weight and Utopia figure in this headline? Well, I’ll return to this later.

The Feminist Novel Herland

Herland is a utopian novel by American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, written back in 1915. Yes, a classic in feminist fantasy.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935)

First let me give a brief summary of Herland. Having heard tales of “a strange and terrible Woman Land” three men fly out to discover this fabled land where only women live. Their airplane crash in what turns out to be an isolated country inhabited indeed by only women. 2000 years ago they were cut off from the rest of the world and have been living without men since.

The women in Herland decide to learn the language of men and, reversely, teach them the language of women and also their way of life. Throughout the book, the three men learn about how a society can look – in 1915 – if only inhabited by women. The logic of having children without men is overcome by virgin birth. After a learning period, the men marry three women, but are eventually expelled when one of them behaves in an unforgivable manner.

This is a utopia novel in the sense that everything is better in Herland than in the USA where author Gilman and the men come from. Here is no war, no violence, no crimes, no negative emotions, only learning by playing and having fun and producing culture in harmony with nature. It is also an ecological society without pollution and over consumption.

The genre is fantasy rather than sci-fi, since here are no imagined science devices. The virgin birth and the essential “good” characters of the women point to social satire and fantasy. What if …. there was a country with only women.

Herland has no power struggle, their religion is Motherhood, and everyone shares in the rearing of children (all girls), there is no marriage but a common Sisterhood.

“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.” (page 63 of 91)

It is a world without evil, without struggle, without the concept of having to overcome any obstacles at all. The women never disagree among themselves, because they all want the same: the best for their children and a continuous growth of mind, ability, knowledge.

A World Without Men

Reading this book is part of my journey into other fantastic genres than horror. I’m interested in where the fantastic can take us, how it can make us imagine alternate worlds, and if there is a difference between the fantastic subgenres in terms of which questions they ask us.

Gilman imagined a world without men. Her novel is a utopian fantasy, the very opposite of the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale by American feminist Margaret Atwood, written 70 years later. Gilman was herself married and left her husband and child to start a career in teaching, writing, thinking and being a single woman, who was also a feminist and socialist.

So, back to weight – why weight and utopia in the same sentence as Herland?


My Messy Reality

Well, here is my messy reality: I try to have a career, am divorced and try to be the best possible mother for my two children, and I also have a dog, commute two hours to my workplace, and I used to run marathons before breaking my arm in 2017 and my foot in 2018. Today, I worry about my weight! In short, I try to be wonder woman. When I come home, the second work load start (read about second work loads in this excellent comic by French artist Emma).

I think there are very few female academic trying to do all these things. It is almost impossible. This year I also wrote three grant applications, sending me twice to the doctor who said my tiredness, lack of memory and signs of anxiety were symptoms of stress. She wanted to go on sick leave which I have so far turned down.

A thing I miss in Herland is that it does not address this need to doublethink, double-speak, and double-manage everything. The first work load is the one we share with men, the second workload the one we take upon ourselves as women. I remember fifteen years ago when I talked about my experience at a dinner, the guest (a man) said: why do you complain, you are not a refugee. You have all the freedom you want and a good salary. You are so privileged.

And he is of course right. I could let go of dieting. I could let go of trying to be the best mother. I could let go of many things, which would free up time I could use on my career. But…. I can’t really.

To Be a Woman and to Doublethink

This is the conundrum Herland does not address. The constant need of women to doublethink – to live as men and as women too. I don’t think we can escape this. I recently met a woman, who is an assyriologist and expert in Babylonian divination. She told me she was divorced with two children, and had been unable to get tenure, so she had continued writing her academic books while simultaneously working her way from bottom to the top in the field of IT to find another income. Her ex didn’t help with the children. So, compared to her, I am lucky to have tenure.

I have also lately read We (1921), Brave New World (1931), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Because sci-fi novels all address how totalitarian states occupy the lives and minds of its people, they speak to me more about my present experience as a woman. I feel I cannot escape the mindset of Orwell’s doublethink, which was to accept that two and two can be either four or five, depending on circumstances. The only reality is that of Big Brother’s brainwashing. I could emphasise with doublethink and newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I strongly recommend reading Herland for its incredible spirit – but somehow I also found it quite dated. Feminism today is a different story. But I have not yet read any of the feminist sci-fi literary classics yet, so I will return to those later. I’ll also return to Mad Max: Fury Road which is an excellent fourth-wave feminist sci-fi movie.

Lindy West, Herland: the forgotten feminist classic about a civilisation without men,” in The Guardian in 2015


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