One of the best trips of my sabbatical…

…was my trip to Herland, a country entirely designed to ensure that every child thrives…to the last child.

Our work to create a world where relationships between people are healthy, respectful and safe has evolved and re-shaped with each passing decade. One aspect of the evolution that we are grappling with at present is how to shift from work that is focused on individuals and immediate “solutions,” to work that is focused on diverse individuals living in community and far-reaching, long-term solutions to violence.

More than 100 years ago, a feminist socialist with a sharp mind and an aptitude for story-telling offered up a fable about an entire community of women who broke the bonds of patriarchy and colonialism and created new economic and social systems–a community in which every child would thrive. Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland as a serial story in her monthly magazine, Forerunner. As a serious scholar, most of her writing was social commentary on economics, gender roles, raising children, and religion. Telling this story offered an opportunity to use her imagination to apply her theories in what may have been the first feminist utopian novel.

How did a country made up entirely of women come to be?  Gilman offers a history that begins with a battle over territory, fought in a mountain pass.  In a country surrounded by mountains and the sea, the pass has been the only entrance and exit to this country–until a volcano erupts as the battle rages and the men of the land are buried and the mountain pass becomes a wall. The males who survive are very young, very old, or men who have been enslaved.  Soon the enslaved people revolt–and quickly wipe out their oppressors, with the exception of some of the young women and girls who they keep alive for procreation purposes.  Gliman’s young women and girls are so outraged at this turn of events that they stage a revolt of their own–and not too many years later this community that is now made up only of young women and girls is blessed by a miracle, a virgin birth.

What makes this book an intriguing read is Gilman’s vision for what could happen in a society that is completely cut off from the rest of the world and made up exclusively of a “new” race of people who are of only one difficult-to-define gender, capable of reproducing (or not) at will. As described by one outsider who has wandered in two thousand years later, “Here you have human beings, unquestionably, but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics, which of course we did not look for, but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine.”

As Herland describes the women’s response to the miracle, “They began at once to plan and build for their children, all the strength and intelligence of the whole of them devoted to that one thing. Such high ideals they had! Beauty, Health, Strength, Intellect, Goodness–for these they prayed and worked.” With that focus, as their population grew and it became apparent that the growth was not sustainable, the community came together to think out a solution. “Very clear, strong thinkers they were.” Their solution was not to go in search of new land or peoples to conquer, not to rationalize the prosperity of some at the expense of the many, but instead to ascertain how many people their country could support in healthy, comfortable communities–and then to voluntarily limit themselves to that number of people so that all members of future generations would have the opportunity to thrive.

Reading the book is an opportunity to stretch your brain a bit and think about how things might be different in a country where “their time-sense was not limited to the hopes and ambitions of an individual life…they habitually considered and carried out plans for improvement that might cover centuries.”  Over the years the people of Herland transitioned the flora and fauna to those best suited for their closed ecosystem and only those that were essential to the health and welfare of the community.  (In a bit of Gilman humor, eventually the only four-legged animal that continues to be nurtured in this land is the cat.) They simplified the language to make it easy and beautiful for children to understand and use. Likewise, they transitioned clothing to enhance its functionality and ease of wear.

Individuals developed their unique talents and skills, and at the same time learned a wide variety of knowledge and skills for the benefit of the whole. Children were nurtured and educated by everyone in the community. As described by one of the women in Herland, “The children of this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effects on them–on the race.”

That consideration, and the religious beliefs that emerge alongside it (“They lived as if God was real and at work with them.”) focuses them on prevention as centuries go by and they tackle the continuing challenge of accidents and misbehavior.  Their focus is both treatment and prevention. They view patience and wisdom as uplifting forces that guide them in their response to these challenges–and this approach is tested at several points in the story when male explorers enter their country.

It is a short novel–one that invites you to keep the thought experiment going.  Gilman is certainly a product of her times and while she offered thoughtful commentary on some aspects of the systemic oppressions of that time she was clearly oblivious to others. Still, it is so rare to find a story that invites us to center not only our children, but the children of the future, and consider how such centering might change our behaviors, our communities, our systems today.  I thoroughly enjoyed the invitation!!

Consider adding it to your autumn reading pile!  Herland





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