Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote, “In my judgment it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose.” Gilman undoubtedly dedicated her life to the purpose of women’s rights for the sake of all. Describing herself as a humanist, Gilman spent her life writing and lecturing on the rights of women to share in the totality of the social order.

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A prolific writer, Gilman published 2,173 works in her lifetime. These texts encompassed varying genres in the disciplines of sociology, political science, economics, literature, and women’s studies. In her attempt to address women’s relations to patriarchal society, she juxtaposed ideologies of utopianism, such as those espoused by her contemporary Edward Bellamy, with the evolutionary thought of another contemporary, Lester Frank Ward. In her three utopian works, Moving the Mountain (1911), Herland, and its sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916), Gilman dramatizes the theories she espouses in her critical works.

In her critical masterwork, Women and Economics (1898), Gilman addresses her recurring theme of gynocentrism, a theory that dominates the fictionalized country of Herland. A central position in Gilman’s work is given to gynocentric theory, in which women are promoted as the primary and dominant form of the species while men are viewed simply as assistants to the reproductive process. Gilman believed that the displacement of gynocentric thought by what she termed androcentric practices of male domination had forced women into the confining roles that thwarted their development as human beings. Gilman notes that “women are not underdeveloped men, but the feminine half of humanity is underdeveloped humans.”

Gilman believes that widely held societal conventions enforced the patrifocal status, and that these conventions were all the more insidious because they encouraged women to accept their subordination. Men, too, suffered from being taught to dominate. Such conventions dehumanize both women and men, Gilman argues, and limit the potential of human societies. Only by exposing such limiting ideologies could women recognize their subjugation, reach autonomy, and participate in collective political action to reform a limited society into a fully actualized, humanized one.

Gilman’s fictional Herland is a playful dramatization of such beliefs. In the book, Gilman skillfully employs satire to parody late nineteenth century and early twentieth century patriarchy and the confining conventions embedded within its social order. Herland not only is one of the first utopian novels written by a woman about women but also is a work whose progressive message resolutely dismantles widely accepted patriarchal beliefs of the time. In Herland, the focus of society is not male-dominated but guided by birth-centered, womanized New Motherhood. A genuine community operates collectively to nurture, rear, and educate its children. Such communal motherhood eliminates the need for family as agency. Specialists care for the children, creating a new society that shares no remnants of destruction, hierarchy, or aggression. Instead, social consciousness, collective democracy, and the nurturing of citizens and environment becomes the national priority. In Herland, the society’s children are its most important and precious production; the creating of Herlandic children, from self-conception to citizenship, encompasses not only the country’s industry but also its theological and national ideologies.

Employing wit and humor, Gilman uses the principle of negativity to illustrate the nonsensical nature of patriarchal conventions. She denounces Western society by illustrating through the example of Herland what Western society is not. Much of the fiction revolves around displaying the paradox of patrifocal thought and convention. The questions the Herlanders ask, which make up much of the twelve chapters, are innocent enough on the surface, but what the citizens expose by applying logic and reason to the unknown is inescapable. They ask, for example, Why should there be surnames? Why should a woman lose her name and identity after marriage? Why is long hair considered feminine by men when only male lions in the animal kingdom have manes and only men in China wear queues? What, they ask, do women in the other world do all day if they do not work outside the domestic sphere? Why should the women who have the least amount of children have the most servants? Why should an omnipotent, loving god have left a legacy of hellfire and perdition? Why should that god be personalized as a manlike figure?

The visiting men are first puzzled by such questions, and they are also disgruntled to discover that the women are indifferent to their charms as men. The Herlandic women do not display the traditional feminine “graces” of passivity, helplessness, and renunciation that the men were accustomed to in their world. They slowly come to realize that such accepted behavior in the women they have known in American society is not inherent, biological behavior but a conditioned response to masculine expectations. If Herlandic women are different, they differ only because they have been free to pursue autonomy. In the absence of men, they established utopia through collective efforts; they provided for others a model for the origin of a peaceful civilization. The inclusion of men as equals in their vision is emphasized by the appearance of Celis as the New Mother and her readiness to bring about a rebirth of Herland into a land for them all. That world is Gilman’s dream, that utopian fiction her wish for humanity.

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