Utopian Gender Constructions in Herland by Katelyn Regenscheid
Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes a utopia for feminists by changing the social construction of gender, and he highlights the disparity between Western gender constructions and those in Herland through interactions between Van and the women of Herland. By contrasting the two societies, Gilman shows the readers the pervasiveness of gender constructions . Gilman exposes the prevalence of social constructions through the newcomer effect; the effect is shown by introducing the three American male characters to Herland.
As explained by Foss, Domenico, and Foss, newcomers “did not create the institution through their communication, so they can easily forget that the objectivity and permanence they sense about the institutions is a humanly produced, constructed reality” (36). Though Herland’s culture makes Van, the narrator, aware of gender constructions and changes his experience with gender, it comes at the cost of sexuality . Some would argue sex and sexuality are part of a utopia, but the women in Herland more than make up for it through different cultural practices.
Van, Terry, and Jeff enter the all-female society of Herland as three different stereotypes of the American male. Gilman exposes American gender constructions through the meeting of these men and the women of Herland. First, she demonstrates American gender constructions through their discoveries in Herland. Van describes, “Some of the things we had grown to accept as perfectly natural, or as belonging to our human limitations, they literally could not have believed” (69). As evidenced in this insight, the American men experienced social constructions that did not exist in Herland. This difference in experiences proves that constructions do exist, and we are often blind to their existence when we are within them. The men’s understandings of gender are also evident in their use of gendered language which is contrasted by their teachers’ misunderstanding of such language: “‘No man would work unless he had to,’ Terry declared. ‘Oh, no man! You mean that is one of your sex distinctions?’” (51-52). Ellador later questions Van, “Of course, in a bi-sexual race, the distinctive features of each sex must be intensified, But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People aren’t there?” (76). In these excerpts, the reader detects the male patriarchal language of America and contrasts it with Herland’s un-gendered experience of Humanity rather than male and female. A complete absence of gendered realities is a feminist, non-essentialist, ideal cultivated by the women of Herland. Because these women were raised in a culture in which sex, sexuality, and gender differences did not shape their lived realities, their language is also without gender.
After spending time amongst Herland women, who were so unlike the females in America they knew as women, Van attributed their differences to culture. His change in attitude toward gender from essentialist to constructivist proves to feminists that Herland is indeed utopian. One of Van’s first experiences that helped him notice the differences in gender construction was noticing reactions to Terry pursuing Herland women: “Sometimes a girl would flush, not with drooped eyelids and inviting timidity, but with anger and a quick lift of the head.” (74). In this experience, Van realized that Herland women did not perform the feminine gender role like Western women do. A society in which there is no feminine gender role to perform is ideal for feminists.
In addition to noticing variations in personal gender interactions, Van also noticed the different gender constructions on the societal level. He compares the men’s Western expectations of an all-female society with the realities they discovered:
We had expected a dull submissive monotony, and found a daring social inventiveness far beyond our own... We had expected pettiness, and found a social consciousness beside which our nations looked like quarreling children... We had expected jealousy, and found a broad sisterly affection... We had expected hysteria, and found a standard of health and vigor... (69).
Through this excerpt, the reader can deduce that Van is slowly realizing that his lived reality with Western women may not be the universal female experience. Van realized that an isolated culture could independently define its gender expectations; he explains, “This country had no other country to measure itself by--save the few poor savages far below, with whom they had no contact” (81). By recognizing that culture evolves through contact with others, Van acknowledges that gender is a social construction. A society that can open the eyes of a Western patriarchal male to the idea that his gendered power is socially constructed is definitely a feminist utopia.
Women Are People
After recognizing the effect of gender constructions on social reality, Van deepened his understanding to view the women as People and not Women. Being raised in a society with Terry’s mindset--that women exist solely to complement male masculinity--Van had always overlooked the fact that females are People. After observing the prosperity of an all-female society, Van reflects, “...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 progress” (50). Through this realization, Van questions how Western society is hindered by the compulsion to perform one’s gender, and he learns to reject that urge.
After acknowledging the Herland women as people no longer shrouded by the veil of “femininity,” Van moves on to describe them in their humanity. He tells the reader, “These women have the virtue of humanity...” (84). Van also describes the women “not as females but as people; people of all sorts, doing every kind of work” (117). These excerpts prove that Van learned to view women as ‘humans’ and ‘people’ rather than his Westernized view of ‘women.’ Through these insights into Van’s consciousness, the reader sees that his interactions with the women of Herland has made him reconstruct gender. This society is a feminist utopia because it overcame cultural gender performances, became wildly successful, and caused a Western male to reconstruct gender as well.
No Sex, No Problem
Herland, a beautiful society of humanity and progress for the whole, lacks one crucial category of life experience: sex. The men are disturbed that the women express sexuality neither toward one another nor toward the men. To analyze the lack of sex, the reader must understand that sex serves three purposes in a society: reproduction , relationships, and pleasure. The women address each of these problems and therefore eliminate the need for sex. First, after generations of parthenogenesis, the women have lost all reproductive need for sex and therefore sexuality. Second, relationships are cultivated between the women through the bond of motherhood as well as through their superordinate societal goals. Finally, the women achieve pleasure through motherhood and enriching the mind rather than through the body. These women overcame the need and desire for sex in their society, which is a small price to pay for a genderless utopia. Herland is a place of un-gendered and unparalleled experience, it focuses on the needs of the individual and does not rely on a single narrative, and it is therefore a utopia for feminists everywhere.