Herland: Feminist Utopias, Women-Only Spaces, and the Men Who Want to Conquer Them, Part 1

Among the problems of aging utopian novels is the fact that many of the ideas these perfect societies are founded upon become outdated and, sadly, obscure the lessons present-day readers can take from them. Such is the case with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland, in which three male explorers from the US attempt to breach the tantalizing land of all women they hear about from their local South American guides. While it’s easy to dismiss the novel for its reliance on a strict gender binary—among other problematic ideas—Herland also offers us a way of thinking about twenty-first century safe spaces for women.

As a woman who has participated in groups designated women-only, I’ve seen numerous attempts by cis-men to “invade” these safe spaces. (These groups are welcoming to self-identified women as well as non-binary identifying people, thus getting around the strict divide in the novel. I’m using the term “women-only,” but it should be read as inclusive of everyone except cis-men.) Although it may seem obvious why the men would do so, I think it may be helpful to examine their motives a bit closer. If we know why someone acts as they do, then we may have a better chance—I can hope—of stopping their harmful behavior. Given that the explorers are so archetypal (the philanderer, the woman-worshiper, and the observer), they provide us a way of looking at some of the possible motives for men to want to infiltrate women-only spaces.

Too Tempting to Ignore: The Land of Women and Girls

In the novel, three friends—Terry Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings—undertake an expedition to South America, during which they hear of a secluded land of all women and girls. No men, their guides tell them, have ever returned from this land. Their interest piqued, Terry, Jeff, and Van decide to return to the area later after their initial expedition has been completed so that they may claim sole glory of discovering this women-only country.

Their motivations for doing so differ quite significantly. Though, as the narrator Van claims, all three were “interested in science,” scientific discovery had little to do with their desire to see—and stake their claims to—“Herland.” The personality of each man drives the action of the story, and it also gives us an insight into present-day parallels.

The Philanderer: (Pretty) Women as Objects to Conquer and Seduce

Van describes Terry as a philanderer. He says of his college friend:

“He was a man’s man, very much so, generous and brave and clever; but I don’t think any of us in college days was quite pleased to have him with our sisters. We weren’t very stringent, heavens no! But Terry was ‘the limit.’ [ . . . ] But barring a possible exception in favor of a not impossible wife, or of his mother, or, of course, the fair relatives of his friends, Terry’s idea seemed to be that pretty women were just so much game and homely ones not worth considering.”

Terry’s intentions are quite clear. He intends to use the expedition into Herland as a sort of hunt for fair young things to seduce.

Further, Terry demonstrates his static idea of “womanhood”, as he bristles most at the attempts of his Herland tutor to teach him about their civilization. When he does later pursue and marry Alima, his desire to control her demonstrates that he does not see her as a full partner. Rather, he is unable to get past his own notions of what a woman should be in order to understand her and her wishes.

The Woman-Worshiper: Women as Angels to Adore

Jeff, on the other hand, “idealized women in the best Southern style. He was full of chivalry and sentiment, and all that.” Van concludes that Jeff is unable to view women as full persons, with the necessary agency to build the sort of civilization Herland possesses. While he eagerly learns from his tutor, he, like Terry, does not accept the full humanity of the women.

Instead, he sees the women as “angels,” an idea that Jeff clung to and as such “tried to force it on us—with varying effect. He so worshipped [his wife] Celis, and not only Celis, but what she represented.” The women of Herland represented, to Jeff, the best of what a woman could be. Which is not the same as the best that a person could be—again, the possibility for equal partnership is lost.

The Observer: Women as Objects for Scientific Study

Van, the sociologist, fancies himself the most objective of the three, though even he too has much to learn from the women of Herland. Over the course of the novel, he does change. While he is among the women of this utopia, he realizes the “painful defects” of America which he’d previously not thought about, intentionally or not. He most fully accepts the tutoring they offer, and he is most willing to acknowledge the fact that the American society as he came from has stunted women’s growth.

That said, his relationship with his Herland wife, Ellador, is hardly fully satisfactory for him. He can respect her for her curiosity, her intelligence, and her willingness to act upon both, but he can’t fully accept her disinterest in marital relations outside the act leading to conception. He does, however, agree to be patient in this, and  he’s at least more willing than Terry or Jeff to see his wife as a full partner, not just a means to an end.

Men in Women-Only Spaces: What Can We Learn?

So, what does all this breaking down into archetypes do for present-day women who want to protect women-only spaces? Over the years, I’ve seen a number of cis-men asking to attend—or asserting their right to attend—meetings in these spaces. While I don’t think the motives break down in the fixed, discrete ways we see in Herland, I do think they provide us a starting point to explore why men want to join in.

In an upcoming post, I’ll examine some common reasons men give for wanting to “explore” women-only spaces in light of these types. In doing so, I hope, we can both more effectively maintain these safe spaces as well as work toward changing the attitudes in larger society that necessitate them.