To celebrate the forthcoming International Women’s Day on 8 March, Westside business leader MIKE OLLEY introduces us to a novel set in a female-only community that moved him emotionally and romantically.
A book that I read probably 20 years or more ago was Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. First published in 1915.
Charlotte was a leading intellectual of the US feminist movement from about 1900 to 1920. She wrote from a perspective of what we may loosely call socialist realism – that is to say, characterised by the depiction of socialist and feminist values, through the emancipation of the proletariat.
But of course, socialist realism didn’t develop as a political philosophy until the early 1930s under the Stalinism of the Soviet Union. Essentially this underscores the progressive nature of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, as a woman well ahead of the game.
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Herland is not her most popular work. That would be The Yellow Wallpaper, a book I am not moved to read, if I am being honest. And I think the reason for that is that Herland was so moving for me, with its unorthodox concepts around feminist lifestyles, it essentially did the job for me.
Now I was born several generations after Charlotte. Indeed, she died before the second world war in the mid-1930s. However, the construction of Herland had numerous significant impacts on me.
Strangely, the bizarre and most memorable one being I actually fell in love with the woman. I say bizarre because I don’t understand why. But I just got this connection that really moved me. Indeed has resonated for many, many years. Let me tell you this was no schoolboy crush; this was serious.
As I say, bizarre – but there you go. So perhaps, in a strange way, that one-sided romance pulled me deeply into the book.
The book is written through the eyes of one of three blokes. They go out exploring in an aeroplane and discover this utopian female-only community. Each of the blokes have a very different personality set and that plays into the narrative of the story. But essentially this utopian female community is just perfect.
They don’t need blokes to reproduce. That’s done by Virgin birth, female-only offspring. There are no sharp corners on tables for kids to bang their heads on, agriculture is perfected, abundance of everything. Life is just perfect.
The point being, Charlotte paints a picture of society designed for woman by women. And I must say she is very convincing in that description. No war, no testosterone generated hissy fits, people at peace just getting on with their very enjoyable lives in idyllic surroundings.
The advent of the three blokes is how Charlotte develops discourse, challenges and perfectly hones the prose; she does it all so beautifully. Herland is a short and winning read, 150 pages maybe, not long enough to wear out its welcome.
Even in our more enlightened and PC times, when women now have the right to vote, can hold down any job a man can and earn almost as much as a bloke (which shows we have some more distance to travel), Herland is a great reminder that sexism is an easy pit to fall into.