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Feminism and Progressive Ideas in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Essay Example

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Essay

Falling with the genre of “utopia fiction”, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland employs the utopic model to present a proto-feminist discourse. What is immediately striking about Gilman’s text is the explicitness with which the idea of a society comprised exclusively of women proves to be superior to the alternative male-dominated society. As such, there is no ambiguity to Gilman’s own, what may be termed, ideological position: Herland presents a radical critique of male-centered society through contrasting the latter with a utopic potentiality she believes is inherent to a female dominated society. At the same time, this feminist discourse can be understood as embodying a notion of “progressive ideas”: for Gilman, the progressive society is the one that reduces the male role within society and replaces it with a female-centered role. The ideas in Gilman’s text may therefore be thought of as progressive insofar as they move beyond the paradigmatic problems of male society, essentially creating a new societal paradigm that is beneficial to all. In the following essay, we shall analyze some of the ways in which Gilman employs a feminist and progressive discourse in Herland.

It Is Pertinent to Note That Feminism in Itself Is Not a Unified Concept

This is clearly demonstrated in the vast academic literature and theoretical works on the subject. There is a certain ambiguity as to what would constitute a proper or true feminism, and, as such, feminism is by no means a rigid designator of a single concept. Nevertheless, we may understand Gilman’s text as feminist to the extent that it places an emphasis on the role of women in society. Furthermore, Herland presents Gilman’s account of what forms a society would take if women occupied a more socially dominant position than men. Gilman’s approach therefore recalls a feminist position on two basic levels: firstly, there is an accent placed on prospective societal statuses of women; secondly, Gilman provides a concomitant critique that societal models are male-dominated. In Herland, Gilman thus attempts to develop a different formation of society, one that would not be organized according to the principles, norms and mores of male society. This objective is overt in how the narrator of Herland describes the policies that the women employed to shape their society, as opposed to male solutions to similar tasks. For example, when the female utopia was confronted with the problem of over-population, their solution to the difficulty is presented in terms of how it differs from any number of male approaches to the same problem: “There soon came a time when they were confronted with the problem of “the pressure of population” in an acute form….And how did those women meet it? Not by a “struggle for existence”….neither did they start off on predatory excursions to get more land from somebody else….Not at all. They sat down in council together and thought it out. Very clear, strong thinkers they were.” (Gilman 72) Thus, Gilman firstly lists the solutions to a similar problem that would be forwarded a male-dominated society. These solutions invariably are negative and recall a violence that would lead to “an underbred writhing mass of people.” (Gilman 72) In contrast, the female approach is to meet and resolve the problem through rational discourse and dialogue. It is relevant to note that while rational discourse was traditionally ascribed as a quality exclusive to the male species, Gilman reverses the traditional gender roles: it is the men who behave without logic, while women are able to form a logical conclusion. This logical conclusion is evident in the decision reached by the council on how to resolve over-population: “Very well. That is all the people we will make.” (Gilman 72) Through dialogue, the women are able to reach a non-male solution to the same problematic. Moreover, the decision reached by the women radically differs from other political solutions and thus evinces a progressive idea in Gilman’s text: the idea of a society recognizing its own internal limit, realizing a boundary to its own existence. This positing of a finitude to society can be understood as progressive to the extent that it goes against typical paradigmatic approaches of societies and their quests for hegemony and expansion. Gilman is essentially proposing the revolutionary political question: what if a state would recognize its own inherent limit and finitude? Undoubtedly, this is a radical thought for any political system, and as such demonstrates the progressive ideology of Gilman’s text.

Another effective technique utilized by Gilman is the decision to employ a male character as the narrator of Herland: Vandyck Jennings. The female utopia is thus not viewed from a female perspective, but rather from a male perspective. This is a crucial technique in Gilman’ text, as the notion that a man is recounting the structure of feminist utopia suggests an objective account, one unbiased by a feminist perspective. In other words, if a man can conceive of Herland as a superior society, then this would attest to the radical political potential of a feminist discourse and a society arranged according to a non-male paradigm. And certainly, Vandyck speaks with a sense of enthrallment at the society that the women have formed. This enthrallment only grows with time, as he becomes familiar with all the aspects of the society, from food production and education to its general organization: “There was growing in our minds…a keen appreciation of the advantages of this strange country and its management.” (Gilman 81) The political potential of the feminist utopia is further emphasized by the notion that Vandyck’s narration begins from a prejudicial standpoint of superiority: “into this quiet lovely land, among these wise, sweet, strong women, we, in our easy assumption of superiority, had suddenly arrived.” (Gilman 77) Thus, although Vandyck starts from the prejudicial and ideological background of the “superiority” of his own society, what occurs with time is the shift to a perspective that views the women’s society with a growing sympathy, to the eventual point that towards the conclusion of the novel Vandyck will not wish to leave. This demonstrates the capability of the progressive ideas of Gilman’s feminist utopia to objectively cause shifts in ideological position. In the dissolution of the prejudicial feelings of superiority acknowledged by the narrator, this suggests a non-feminist recognition of the possibility of a feminist society, and hence re-enforces the idea of the potentiality of a feminist form of societal organization. Furthermore, the male narrator’s acceptance of the feminist utopia indicates that feminist ideas are not only beneficial to women, but are radically progressive ideas. Gilman construes a truly progressive society as one that is beneficial for all, not just for women: as such, the organization of a society according to a primary position ascribed to women would suggest a utopia for all human beings. Progression in Gilman’s text takes a specific form: it is a universal idea, one that is benevolent to all members of a society. As such, the feminist organized society is not only a women centered-society, but a universal society in which all lives are improved.

Gilman’s Herland is thus an overt account of a feminist utopia in which feminist principles of organization are contrasted with traditional male forms of society. These latter societies are critiqued through their insufficiency to resolve problems effectively when compared to the feminist society. Moreover, the progressive idea central to Gilman’s text is that a progressive society is one that is better for all, not only for women, as evidenced by Vandyck’s and his companion’s decision to remain in Herland. There is nothing subtle about Gilman’s account, and as such, Gilman’s text can be understood as presenting a certain political manifesto: Herland presents the structure of a progressive political program through the incorporation of feminist ideas.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

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