- Feminist Science Fiction
- Feminist Utopia
- Herland as imaginative space and social critique
Feminist Science Fiction:
Science fiction is difficult to define, as a genre it seems to pull many works and media towards it. Therefore, the task of framing narratives within science fiction isn’t an easy one. However, for the purposes of this seminar, we can understand that science fiction is “full of contradictions” and “can illuminate both what is, and what is not (yet, or in this world)” (Lefanu 21, 22). Instead of being constrained by real-world accuracy and biases as we might argue other genre’s are, science fiction resists those boxes. This “offer[s] enormous scope to women writers who are thus released from the constraints of realism” (Lefanu 21) and “the social and sexual hierarchies of the contemporary world can be examined” (Lefanu 21) through science fiction stories. Women writers do this in order to challenge “ideas of gender roles; and visions of different worlds can be created” (Lefanu 22) that highlight gender in multiple ways. However, though feminist science fiction uses the genre to ask questions, it is also making an effort to try and find the answers in modern, contemporary society or to disprove assumptions about women in the real world.
While science fiction can have strong female characters, the “‘idea that women are second class people is a hard idea to shake’” (qtd in Lefanu 15). Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland attempts to shake men entirely through unusual and experimental means that we’ll get to later, but does this actually work for the women in the novel, and are there any questions being asked of contemporary society that Gilman is trying to incite answers for?
The Feminist Utopia:
One of the sub-genres of science fiction that women use as a vehicle to explore gender is the utopia. “The word utopia is generally taken to refer to the fictional representation of an ideal place, somewhere that is ‘better’ than the society or world in which we actually live” (Lefanu 53). However, the word ‘utopia’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘no place,’ so it is important to note that a utopia can exist as “an imaginary place, a nowhere land, a realm like the unconscious, where dreams may flourish and desires be realised” (Lefanu 53). This is important to keep in mind when we look at Herland, because Gilman’s text does have fantastic elements that allow us to see into this world as an imaginative space to reveal women as separate and capable people outside of the patriarchy.
However, utopias–and the need for them–are very much grounded in contemporary life. “It is […] the engagement with the here and now that fuels the desire for something else, for something ‘elsewhere’ (Lefanu 53). The oppression of women in society pushes feminist writers to react against that with stories that explore gender. According to Carol Person, there are several processes that feminist utopias encourage: “a kind of ‘coming home’ that signifies multiple things—a return to the self and a return to the mother figure, finding unity and integration, and a respect for the individual” as well as “the liberation of self and society” (Lefanu 54). Basically, “the essential self [is] revealed once the distorting and mutilating effects of patriarchal order have been removed” (Lefanu 54). Feminist utopias attempt to remove what Joanna Russ says is the issue in science fiction (and, you could argue, literature as a whole): that there are no ‘real’ women, but women who are only seen by men.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes a feminist utopia with Herland, based in utopian separatism (Espelid), where “separatism is of prime importance, indeed is a prerequisite for any kind of social change” (Lefanu 55). For Gilman, “a separatist world allows women physical freedom to express love for other women” (Lefanu 55) and “Herland represents a natural progression from utopias spurred by women to a utopia where the convenient absence of men has facilitated even greater improvements” (Sutton-Ramspeck 20). This is a kind of radical notion, that men need to be removed entirely for women to flourish, but it is the mindset that all-female societies are sometimes written in. We know that “Gilman proudly wrote fiction with the purpose of fostering social growth” (Sutton-Ramspeck 19) and like many utopias, Herland touches on each aspect of the culture Gilman creates. Some of her solutions or social structures are fantastic, but many of them are simply radically different than the traditions within the patriarchy. “Carol Farley Kessler has described Gilman’s exemplary stories as ‘pragmautopias,’ ‘realizable’ scenarios, stories that subversively adapt the techniques of realism to describe how her ‘readers might go about realizing her utopian visions’ through everyday changes” (qtd in Sutton-Ramspeck 19). Through this, we can look at Gilman’s text in two ways: as a feminist utopia that represents an imaginative space for a woman confined by the patriarchy, and a social critique that wants to spur change for and by women in the contemporary world.
“Herland, though generally considered Gilman’s most successful foray into utopian fiction, is one of several utopias she wrote” (Sutton-Ramspeck 19)—the others were called Moving the Mountain and With Her in Ourland, but this one is the most popular, and provides a lot of fascinating commentary that we can look at. Before we try to understand Herland as a piece of feminist science fiction and a feminist utopia, we need to understand the feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. For Gilman, the social ideas that women were incapable of sexual desire or passion of any kind were very obviously “socially transmitted” but “she also accepts certain distinctions as biologically and socially immutable” (Bartkowski 27). For example, Gilman held with the belief that “women’s essential tendency is to protect, as opposed to men, whose tendency is to fight” (Bartkowski 27). The woman as protector is an important vision when we look at Herland. Gilman positions the males in the text as fighters who are distinctly and fundamentally different from the women in this regard. This plays into the imaginative space of the feminist utopia, and creates a society of protectors.
In Herland, we can track the ways in which the ‘mutilating’ patriarchy is removed from this society, and women’s instinct to protect is highlighted. When Herland’s history is recounted, we get a rough idea of the way in which the patriarchy had thoroughly corrupted this society:
“They were decimated by war, driven up from their coastline till finally the reduced population, with many of the men killed in battle, occupied this hinterland, and defended it for years, in the mountain passes. […] They were a polygamous people, and a slave-holding people, like all of their time; and during the generation or two of this struggle to defend their mountain home they built the fortresses, such as the one we were held in, and other of their oldest buildings, some still in use. […] While the whole fighting force was doing its best to defend their mountain pathway, there occurred a volcanic outburst, with some local tremors, and the result was the complete filling up of the pass” (Gilman 81).
The men war themselves into extinction, and the corruption and ugliness that they cultivate (slavery, war, and death) is also destroyed. However, after they are gone, “a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women” (Gilman 82) remake the society into something new and two thousand years beyond the influence of men.
One of the most fascinating hallmarks of any utopia is that the reader is usually taken through each established social system. In Herland, we get the same thing, except with the added connotation that each time we see something, the phrase ‘this is what a society without men might look like’ is always attached. For example, “[the cats] were rigorously bred to destroy mice and moles and all such enemies of the food supply; but the birds were numerous and safe” (Gilman 76). The women don’t keep impractical animals, and they don’t support needless death even in cats and birds. In regard to the land itself, “these careful culturists had worked out a perfect scheme of refeeding the soil with all that came out of it […] everything which came from the earth went back to it” (Gilman 104). The entire island “exists to produce food – the entire country is essentially one large productive garden” (Curtis 151). Furthermore, their government is based in a rational (Curtis 151) and structured environment. Their population issues are not met with “predatory excursions to get more land from somebody else, or to get more food from somebody else, to maintain their struggling mass” (Gilman 94). Instead, the women “sat down in council together and thought it out. Very clear, strong thinkers they were” (Gilman 94). Gilman imagines a world where what is basically the yoke of the patriarchy is thrown off and thoroughly discarded in favour of a society that has no interest in war, but rather protects its people, crops, and animals by carefully containing them. It is important to note that these women are protectors, and not in need of protection. Gilman’s society is full of women who “needed neither protection nor service” (Gilman 113) and “the tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out” (Gilman 84). She imagines a world of capable women who are entirely reliant upon themselves, and her vision of what that society might look like is fantastic, but idealized and rational. For Gilman, the feminist utopia is the space where she can realize her vision utopic vision, and science fiction gives her the leeway to do so.
Social commentary is not unusual for utopias, but it is very carefully constructed in Herland. If the novel is too rooted in the fantastic, it can be easily dismissed, if it is too rooted in contemporary issues, then it moves out of the realm of feminist science fiction. To combat this, Gilman places Terry, Jeff, and Van in the novel, and has Van, a male, narrate the text:
“In Herland, Gilman […] follows the narrative conventions of Utopia, a traveller encounters a strange new culture and gradually embraces its superior values. One might suppose that the appropriate traveler to a woman’s land would be a woman, but Gilman cleverly takes advantage of the conventions by having Vandyck Jennings, her seemingly open-minded narrator, share the same sexist expectations as his companions (and most of her readers)” (Sutton-Ramspeck 20-21).
While Van is used to touch on the hallmarks of a utopia, he is also a device through which we can view this world and Van’s not-uncommon sexism. Beyond this, the three male characters are an isolated representation of the patriarchy. We have “Terry[, who] was strong on facts—geography and meteorology and those; Jeff could beat him any time on biology, and [Van] didn’t care what it was they talked about, so long as it connected with human life, somehow” (Gilman 33-34). In other words, the three men represent “the stud, the romantic, and the academic rationalist” (Curtis 151) who all arrive in a land populated only by women, each with a different position in the patriarchy. Through the three of them, we see different approaches to the women of this novel. Jeff “idealized women, and was always looking for a chance to ‘protect’ or to ‘serve’ them” (Gilman 113). Terry is a conqueror who wants to be “king of Ladyland” (Gilman 41) and assumes that he can “have [his] pick of them” (Gilman 112). Finally, Van, although he is “the most receptive of the three male characters” (Bartkowski 28), suffers from the same sexism and bias that each of these stereotypes are culturally immersed in. For example, he believes that “women [should be] 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” (Gilman 148). Van has trouble seeing and understanding these women as women, since it is not the way “Van has learned to see and recognise him” (Bartkowski 29). None of these men walk into Herland without some preconceived notion of how women should be. So why does Gilman choose to incorporate these men, especially Van, the narrator, into her novel? Frances Bartkowski says that “Van and his friends are the objects of humor, and even humiliation” for readers, but Gilman’s choice gives her “a great deal of space in which to play, […] Herland maintains its humour throughout the constant and repeated exposure of the men’s preconceptions about what a world of women could be” (Bartkowski 28). While I think this is true, and we see the men as rather foolish for most of the text, the men are also there to lend an element of reality. The three men represent prevailing stereotypes of masculinity, as well as the cultural and social constructs that try and define who women are and what they should be doing. The women ask simple questions that force the men to confront the outrageous paradoxes of the patriarchy. Terry explains that “the term virgin is applied to the female who has not mated” (Gilman 73), and when they ask “does it apply to the male also? Or is there a different term for him?” (Gilman 73), Terry must “pass[…] this over rather hurriedly” and admit that “the same term would apply, but [is] seldom used” (Gilman 73). There are moments like this one throughout the text, and they are pulled in through the three men who are outsiders, with a set of assumptions that contemporary readers would also have. Gilman uses her three male characters to critique the patriarchy in her novel by using them as objects of humour and explanation.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is one of the earliest pieces of feminist science fiction and feminist utopia. The genre she writes in allows her to create and extrapolate on events and concepts, while keeping itself rooted in contemporary life. She builds a world outside of the patriarchy that is full of protectors rather than fighters (who destroyed themselves 2000 years ago) and who sustain themselves through rationality and non-violence. Through her feminist utopia, Gilman is able to create and imagine a different world that has both fantastic and real-world implications. Science fiction utopias are limitless, and that’s what draws feminist writers like Gilman to them. Furthermore, Gilman is carefully able to construct a social commentary that is based in real world assumptions through Terry, Jeff, and Van, our three outsiders who represent some facet of masculinity and the patriarchy. Their presence/narration is meant to insert an element of reality into the text while also keeping it funny. Gilman takes what the three men (and consequently readers) expect from a society of women, and turns it on its head. Van sums up Gilman’s feminist utopia and social commentary perfectly when he says
“We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond our own, and a mechanical and scientific development fully equal to ours. We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness besides which our nations looked like quarreling children—feebleminded ones at that. We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection, a fair-minded intelligence, to which we could produce no parallel. We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor, a calmness of temper” (Gilman 106).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is a feminist utopia that restructures women in an imaginative and critical framework rooted in the real-world.
Utopian Separatism: Feminism and Science Fiction by Anette Myrestøl Espelid: https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/25319/utopian_separatism_espelid.pdf?sequence=2
11 Sci-Fi Books Every Woman Should Read: https://www.bustle.com/articles/112286-11-sci-fi-books-every-woman-should-read
7 Bad-Ass Feminist Sci-Fi Must Reads: https://www.bookstr.com/7-bad-ass-feminist-sci-fi-must-reads
Other Feminist Utopias:
Questions to consider:
Do you think there is a downside to having a male narrator in Herland? What might a female narrator have changed about the text?
Is this society truly ideal? Is there anything that we can point to that makes us question the validity of Herland?
Does Gilman’s social commentary resonate, or is her separatism to radical and unreasonable?
Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Curtis, Claire P. “Rehabilitating Utopia: Feminist Science Fiction and Finding the Ideal.” Contemporary Justice Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 2005, pp. 147-162.
Espelid, Anette Myrestø. Utopian Separatism: Feminism and Science Fiction. University of Ohio, 2012.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Herland and Related Writings. Edited by Beth Sutton- Ramspeck, Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 33-163.
Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1988.
Sutton-Ramspeck. Introduction. Herland and Related Writings, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Broadview Press, 2013, pp. 9-24.