Femininity and Sexuality in Herland 

In Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman the author creates a utopic society inhabited exclusively by women called Herland.  Three male explorers, Jeff, Terry, and Vandyke, stumble upon Herland.  When three men from the outside world discover Herland, they experience difficulty defining and understanding the people of Herland as women.  Despite the fact that according to biological sex the residents of Herland are clearly women, because they are asexual the men question their femininity .  A conflict in Herland is the struggle of the three men to separate femininity and sexuality . The men come to Herland believing that sex appeal, youth, and motherhood are essential qualities of femininity; however they must separate these qualities from femininity to truly understand the inhabitants of Herland.

Femininity can be defined as” a set of traits which are usually associated with women or girls in a given culture (Femininity )”.  The characteristics that define femininity can vary greatly from culture to culture, however femininity is most often defined in contrast to masculinity, or the set of traits that define males in a given culture.  For example, in one culture it may be considered feminine to dance while in another culture it may be considered masculine (Pascoe). 

Sexuality is defined by as “1) sexual character; possession of the structural and functional traits of sex; 2) Recognition of or emphasis upon sexual matters;  3) Involvement in sexual activity; 4) An organism’s preparedness for engaging in sexual activity (Sexuality)”.  For the purposes of this paper, we will define sexuality as the traits that make one sexually attractive to other individuals, and can also be referred to as sex appeal.  Sexuality is used by both human and animal species to attract a mate.  Just as birds will puff up their feathers to attract a sexual mate, women may wear high heels to make their body more sexually appealing and men may put on cologne to sexually attract partners. 

Traditionally, in both humans and animal species the purpose of sexuality and attracting sexual partners was to further reproduction.  However, in Herland the women have achieved the capability of the virgin-birth, so there is no need to attract sexual mates for reproductive purposes.  This frees these women to complete separate femininity from sexuality.    Yet, for the three men who enter the society with more contemporary definitions of femininity, we see that they struggle to separate femininity from sexuality.

The characteristics of sexuality are important to the men in defining femininity.  For Terry the definition is taken one step further with Vandyke stating, “Terry, with his clear decided practical theories that there were two kinds of women-those he wanted and those he didn’t-Desirable and Undersirable was his demarcation.  The latter was a large class, but negligible-he had never thought about them at all" (Gilman 18). Clearly, Terry’s definition of women is women that he finds sexually desirable and women he doesn’t find sexually appealing he doesn’t even consider.  Even Jeff goes so far as to lament upon arrival in Herland “‘If their hair was only long,’ Jeff would complain, ‘they would look so much more feminine.”  Long hair is not innately a biological trait of women, instead it has long been a symbol of a woman’s sex appeal (Synott).  The fact that the women of Herland are asexual therefore do not embody traits typically associated with sex appeal makes it difficult for the men to view them as feminine.

Furthermore, upon arrival in Herland, one of the most shocking things for the men is the fact that not all the women in Herland are young women.  The men frequently make comments about how this negates the women’s femininity.  Vandyke describes the confusion as follows “…we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young… ‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and we, assume charming" (Gilman 17).  This quote describes the assumption that a characteristic that the men unconsciously associated with women and femininity was youth.  The association between youth and femininity creates a constant discussion between the men of going to find the “real” women.  Terry’s character is the most adamant about the association between youth and femininity going so far as to exclaim “‘Real girls!’” Terry agreed, in immense relief.  ‘Glad you mentioned ‘em.  I declare, if I thought there was nothing in this country but those grenadiers I’d jump out the window’ "(25).  Terry has been spending time with these biological women, yet he clearly does not consider them to be feminine because they are not youthful and therein not “real women”.  Youth is a characteristic that is typical associated with sexuality.  Because sexuality typically focuses on finding a reproductive mate, if one is past the years of reproduction, sexuality becomes less important and one’s sexual attractiveness to others decreases.  However, age should have no correlation to traits of femininity.  If femininity is simply a set of traits associated with women, as a woman aged these traits would still be relevant. Yet clearly for the men in Herland the sexuality of youth is definitively intertwined with defining femininity. 

 In addition, the men regard the women as less feminine based on their different conception of motherhood.  In Herland, motherhood is the defining characteristic of the society and the women see motherhood as a process of creating healthy individuals with rich lives free of strife.  In order to achieve this conception of motherhood most women only give birth to one child.  The men’s definition of motherhood, especially upon arrival, is that motherhood is correlated to the number of children a woman has.  Terry asserts “‘A less feminine lot I never saw.  A child apiece doesn’t seem enough to develop what I call motherliness'" (62).  Terry is clearly rejects the women of Herland as feminine because they don’t fit his conception of motherliness which is defined by the number of children a woman has.  In the society in which the men come from, women must have sex to have children, therefore the number of children a woman has (which defines her motherhood) is directly related to her ability to sexually attract a mate (or mates).  In summary in the minds of the men more sex equals more children and more children equals more “motherly” which equals more feminine.  Yet in Herland they have achieved the possibility of conception without sex and are therefore motherhood is unrelated to femininity within the women of Herland.

Nevertheless it is through coming to value the conception of motherhood portrayed in Herland that some of the men are able to make some progress in separating sexuality from feminity and understand the women of Herland.  Through extensive discussions with his mentor in Herland Vandyke starts to reflect on the connection in his society between femininity and sexuality saying,

“These women, whose essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture were strikingly deficient in what we call “femininity.”  This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity-developed to please us because they had to please us and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process" (50).

In this passage Vandyke comes to understand value of motherhood in Herland, which allows him to realize that his definition of femininity is based on “feminine charms” created to be sexually attractive and pleasing to men.  In this realization, Vandyke is finally able to separate femininity from sexuality. 

The extent to which the men are able to separate sexuality from femininity varies for each man in the book.  The differences in the ability to separate the concepts is exemplified at the end of the novel

“Parcel of Old maids!’ he [Terry] called them. ‘They’re all old maids-children or not.  They don’t know the first thing about Sex.”  When Terry said Sex, sex with a very large S, he meant the male sex, naturally…I [Vandyke] had learned to see things very differently since living with Ellador; and as for Jeff, he was so thoroughly Herlandized that he wasn’t fair to Terry…"(114).

Jeff is able to come to a complete separation of femininity and sexuality, realigning his ideas to those of Herland, Vandyke is able to separate femininity and sexuality to the point that he can recognize the femininity of the women in Herland, but he does still remember his prior conceptions of femininity.  Terry is completely unable to separate sexuality from femininity and in this is able to understand the values of Herland and is eventually forced to leave the society.

A conflict in the novel Herland is the ability of the men to youth, sex appeal, and motherhood, the traits associated with sexuality, from femininity. This conflict within the characters calls for a reflection by readers on how their culture defines femininity and whether it is inherently related to sexuality.  The author implies that in order to create a utopic society, an individual’s (particularly women) sex and the traits associated with that sex must not be defined by their sexuality.   She suggests that if it is possible for a society to separate sexuality and biological sex it will broaden expressions of femininity  (and masculinity) in order to create a utopic society.



Works Cited

“Femininity." Web log post. Gender&LitUtopiaDystopiaWiki. Wikia, Web. 25 Jan. 2013. <>.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.

Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California, 2007. Print.

"Sexuality." Random House, 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.

Synott, Anthony. The British Journal of Sociology 38.3 (1987): 381-413. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jan. 2013. 

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