Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 book Herland is an eerily relevant tale of patriarchal oppression and sexism for our post-election reality
In 1915, five years before women in the United States won the right to vote, American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published Herland, a sui generis piece of steampunk speculative fiction about a fantasy feminist utopia. When I discovered the all-but-forgotten novel when it was reissued in 2014, I expected an unintentionally funny, naively futuristic throwback to a bygone time. Instead, I discovered a scorchingly relevant Victorian take on the narrative roots of patriarchal oppression, which became, unfortunately, even more relevant post-election.
The story begins with narrator Vandyck “Van” Jennings, a smug gentleman-adventurer who joins a far-flung expedition to bring “civilization” to “savages,” because it’s the late 19th century, and that’s what all the cool kids are doing. Van has tagged along with his old school friends, Terry O. Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, an investor/explorer and a doctor, respectively, who like him were brought up on thrilling tales of manifest destiny and cultural imperialism. When their native guides allude to a mythical land populated only by women, the trio break off from the group to go find it, each envisioning a world that reflects their individual idea of “womanhood” and their particular brand of sexism: hostile, benevolent, and ambivalent.