domesticity, maternity, and morality


Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Terry Nicholson, Jeff Margrave and Vandyck Jennings are three scientists venturing into the unknown. These three men from the United States happen upon a community comprised only of women in the course of their travels. Meeting Ellador, Celis and Alima, the travelers are treated to a guided tour of Herland. Much to the surprise of the Terry, Jeff and Van, the homosocial community functions near perfectly without the assistance of men. The community of women has an army, an economic system, and an astounding command of natural and physical sciences - all the trappings of a civil society. Indeed, the women have even managed a system of reproduction that does not require a "bi-sexual race." Their society is one of peace and sisterly love where each member of the community has a role that works to sustain a harmonious nation.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland was written during a period in the 20th century that saw a wealth of utopian writing; Gilman's work is unique, however, because she is one of the earliest writers who treat women in their utopian vision. Herland, as part of first wave feminism, has little to draw on from similar works of the period; however, Gilman's emphasis on nonsexual reproduction and on an ethical mode of science guided by the scientist's obligation to herself and her community positions Gilman's work as a part of Mary Shelley's legacy. With Herland, Gilman offers a view of how a society would work if it were organized along domestic principles. In Herland, the private sphere of the Romantic and Victorian periods is no longer separated from the public sphere. Instead, the domestic sphere encompasses all aspects of Herlandian society. Domesticity is the dominant social force. Gilman draws on Shelley's legacy by validating the potential of the domestic sphere as a model for a larger utopian society. With Herland, Gilman provides readers with a "blueprint" for a scientific, feminist utopia built upon both the moral commitments characteristic of the private domestic sphere and the sound educational strategies more typically associated with the public sphere. In contrast to Shelley, then, who focuses almost exclusively on the dangers of new educational and scientific activities that undermine the sanctity of the domestic sphere, Gilman celebrates what could be if the domestic sphere were allowed to grow from the private into the public realm.


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