Some books are worth reading. This is one of them. Written by a prominent American feminist writer, Charlotte Gilman Perkins wrote some pretty groundbreaking stuff in her time. It might not be totally of our time, but in context it is challenging to say the least.
She is best known for The Yellow Wallpaper, published in 1892, a horribly riveting account of a fictional (but based autobiographically) account of failing marriage and the descent into the terrifying realms of postpartum psychosis. It’s short (6000 words) but my, it is stunning stuff. Memorable.
Perkins was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut to an unconventional background. Her father left her mother and the two children (she had a brother) who then led an impoverished existence, falling on the help of her father’s aunts, including Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her education was erratic, and her mother discouraged the reading of fiction or the making of friends, sure pathways to ‘getting hurt’. Her relationship with her father seemed to kick in again later in her youth.
She married but later separated from her husband at a time when this was pretty daring, but she remained on good terms with her husband, in the sense that her parenting ideas were ahead of their time; she believed he had rights and also that she wasn’t always the best mother figure for their daughter. She later married again, this time successfully and happily, to a man who pre-deceased her. She became a prolific writer, not least in advocating communal childcare and also childcare by the father.
In older age, she developed breast cancer and as an advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, she appropriately committed suicide in 1935. She wrote that she chose “chloroform over cancer”.
Her varied, controversial life could easily be the stuff of films. Unconventional, she argued strongly for reform: changes in the role of women, methods of raising of children, and eschewing of the domestic for a more fulfilling public role.
Herland I only recently read, particularly struck by the unusual writing theme of a society existing entirely of women, who produce by parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). Herland is a society free of aggression, conflict and domination, a society where motherhood and children are revered but where motherhood and children are also shared. It is actually the middle volume of a utopian trilogy, depicting a blissful society we can barely imagine when we have egos like Donald Trump battling with Kim Jong-Un.To laud (perceived) feminine qualities in this way in 1915, was the work of a woman ahead of her time.
What is particularly intriguing is the exchanges about the two societies. The women of Herland are extremely logical, and question many of the established practices of the time, pertaining to women and work, motherhood, child rearing, care of animals, diet, dress, and religion.
The isolated island is visited by three men in their flying machine. The story is told by a sociology student, Van Jennings; the other men are Terry and Jeff. Their expedition is to explore uncharted land, all a bit boys’ own, but also to investigate the society of women. The men have differing attitudes to the female sex. Terry believes they are to be conquered, won and dominated. He is the macho male of the group, who is paired with an equally strong-minded female. Doomed to failure one might suggest. To Terry, sexual intercourse is a marital right, a demand. Priestlike Jeff sees women as goddesses, there to be served and protected. He is the gentle character who fits in beautifully with the nurturing society he encounters. To him, sex is useful for procreation, and he seems quite unfazed by not really revisiting it too often.
Van is actually the one who is likely to transform the society he visits, for he believes that sex relates to long-term love, a form of expression of lasting friendship and mutual devotion. It is this idea that sex is not a right, nor is it merely an occasional gift but is a mutual, interdependent joy, that draws so many aspects of the ability of men and women to live together into question.
Lindy West wrote about the three men back in 2015 in the Guardian (funny how men always receive more attention than women):
The narrator, Vandyck “Van” Jennings, and his two companions, Terry O Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, are such perfect, brutal caricatures of masculinity, they feel fresh and relevant enough to populate any sarcastic modern-day feminist blog post. Terry is all puffed-up sexual entitlement; Jeff oozes chivalric “nice guy” condescension; and Van is your bog-standard faux-innocent demanding to be educated.
What they find, of course, confounds all of those expectations. Herland is a paradise: no war, no crime, no hunger, no waste, no vanity, no jealousy, no heartbreak. The nation functions, essentially, as one cohesive family unit (albeit a family with three million members). Everyone is valued, everyone is cared for, everyone is a vegetarian, and everyone wears flattering but unisex woven tunics. Technology, education and art all flourish. Sisters are doing it for themselves, and they’re doing it better.
In many other ways, the book is definitely of its time, as West mentions, and why would it not be (she was not a soothsayer, merely a writer with a reformist agenda) but as pause for thought, it is a curiously fascinating read. I recommend it.