In the late 19th and 20th century, there were two definitions of feminism. One definition of feminism was that women were the same as men, and deserved civil rights accordingly. The other definition of feminism is that women are different than men, and in some cases, superior; and thus, deserved civil rights. In Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she reflected on these perspectives and untimely chose the perspective that women are the same as men, and from her novel, teaches us that women are barred from reaching their true potential by early 20th century society.
The late 19th century was the start of formal coalitions of women’s rights: filled with protests and organizations for women’s suffrage and heterosexual marriage equality. Multiple definitions of feminism were raised, but most notably were the definitions of women as the same as men and women as different than men, and thus deserved rights accordingly. Gilman, and other authors of her time reflected on these definitions and put them in writing to further mobilize their cause. Herland, written by Gilman, is a great 20th century novel about three men who stumble upon an all women society.
Each man has different personalities and views that reflect how men perceive women in the late 19th to early 20th centaury. Terry is your typical chauvinist who believes women should be controlled and kept in the home. Jeff is a southern gentleman who believes in the romantic notions of femininity. And lastly, Jeff is also a southerner with the same ideals as Jeff, but soon comes to learn and appreciate the humanity of the other sex. Towards the end of the novel, all three men learn the customs and differences the women in Herland have; and start romantic relationships with the women there.
These relationships presented challenge love and sexual norms of the late 19th centaury, and sheds light on how women should be treated in order to have successful relationships and a successful society. In Herland, Gilman struggled with the differing perspectives of feminism in her novel. In her novel, she portrayed the superior side of women while also showing the similarities with men that constantly contradicted each other to make a point. First, let’s explore the superior side of women.
In Herland, the young women are highly athletic and can perform tasks not deemed womanly by the three men. For example, Alma, Cells, and Ellador could outrun the boys as they tried to grab them. In addition, the girls could subdue and drug the men unconscious. Also, the elderly women are filled with wisdom of agriculture, botany and motherhood that keep the society fed and generations continued. Moreover, the women seem to not need men, to Jeff, Terry and Van’s surprise, the women don’t “fear and therefore no need of protection. 49)” These women can outrun, outsmart and reproduce asexually better than men. So, why are the men in power in the late 19th century refusing civils rights to women, if in fact women are the superior of the genders. To those men, they “do not allow our women to work. Women are loved-idolized-honored-kept in the home to care for the children. ” (37) Gilman shows that women are capable of more than what they are doing in society. Women in the Late 19 to early 20th century were cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children.
It was discouraged for women to go to school or hold a prestigious job. Women were confined to the home and spent their lives and sex slaves for their husband, as the lost all their rights and their consent. Gilman’s novel showed the differences that women had in extraordinary ways. Gilman showed that the women of Herland can reproduce, utilize their intelligence and organize for the common good. She shows how women can exceed their capabilities without men to prove the point that they are the same as men, in the sense that have the same potential as them.
The functioning society of Herland and the individual’s citizen’s superiority defines feminism that women are better than men and ought to have rights just like them. In addition, Gilman made the women in her novel the same as men. In the beginning of the novel, the three men all come in with the assumption that women are inferior to men. They believe that “men, man, manly, manhood, and all the other masculine-derivatives, we have in the background of our minds a huge vague crowded picture of the world and all its activities. And when we say women, we think female—the sex. (35) The three men stumbled upon this society and it changed some of their views, but not all. Jeff and Van learned to understand and appreciate women more, because they have seen what they are capable of. However, Terry is still stuck in his ways and believe that women are still inferior.
These women in Herland are extraordinary, and they challenge all of society’s stereotypes of sex, motherhood, work and beauty. Stereotypes of not being “reasonable or “a woman and man have different lifestyles; a woman gets a husband and is done, whereas a man strives and keeps striving (86). Gilman, characterizes these women as doing things men can do and doing jobs only men could have in late 19th century America. In a sense, Gilman puts women on the same level as men, and when putting women on the same level as men, the differences between the two genders and their capabilities are taken out; the group of people seen are people. Thus, not being different after all, than men, should entitle women the same rights as men because there is no difference between them, they are people and they deserved equal rights.
Not only, did Gilman struggle with these two definitions of feminism, other authors of her time struggled as well. Author Emma Goldman stressed in her article that “peace or harmony between the sexes and individuals does not necessarily depend on a superficial equalization of human beings. ” (Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation) She explained that respect was more of an important factor to living together, and that making everybody “equal” would not solve the problem at hand.
However, Emma Goldman said that “I hold that there is a point where these differentiations may meet and grow into one erfect whole. ” (Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation) You can’t have things both ways. With feminism, maybe you can. The differences between the genders make man and woman who they are, and it’s those differences that make discriminating against women more justifiable by men. However, Emma Goldman says that trying to equalize the genders won’t change the status quo. Woman are different from men, biologically, and therefore can’t be the same as men. Although it’s a dream and hope to be equal as men, it can’t be so in reality. Another prominent feminist author had the same issue.
Rory Dicker wrote in her book “A History of U. S Feminism” that the definition was “shifting the focus away from women’s trying to be like men, and instead questioning whether women are even a unified category that can be understood to have the same interests and desires. ” (pg. 29) However, saying personally that she believes that “feminisms are a struggle to end sexist oppression. ” (36) So, when trying to define feminism as women are different from men, or men are the same as women; is very hard to determine and solely depends on how you view yourself as a feminist.
To me, it is a purely personal construction of feminism that each feminist deciphers as their definition of feminism. Feminism can mean equality between men and women because we are all the same. Or feminism can mean women are different than men, but nonetheless should be given the same if not more rights than men. Feminism can mean a lot of things to different people. And in the Late 19th century to early 20th century, it meant a lot of things with these two perspectives at the forefront. For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, feminism means that men and women are the same, and equal in their human potential.
With Herland, Gilman is expressing that men and women are the same when they are born, the live and grow to whoever they want to be and become successful if they want to. And since men and women have the same human potential they ought to have the same exact rights because they are the same. At the end of the novel, the three men court the women of Herland. Each relationship is different and shed light on how men treat women and vice versa. Also, the novel acknowledges what makes a true loving relationship work when both partners respect and love one another.
Terry is with Alma, Van is with Ellador and Jeff is with Celis. Van and Alma displayed the respect and love for one another as Alma worked to adjust to Van’s ways and Van learns to admire Herland and respect Alma’s human potential. Jeff and Celis were a loving, respectful couple, but struggled with sex and romance as each of them wanted different things. Meanwhile, Terry and Alma showed an unloving, disrespectful relationship as Terry tried to rape Alma because she didn’t give him her consent to be intimate.
Gilman inputs these relationships to portray the respect and love men and women should show each other to live together in peace. By making Terry, the sexist one, rapes Alma and cause turmoil within Herland, displayed how unhappy and unjust the world becomes when men don’t respect women’s wishes. Then, Gilman introduces Van and Ellador’s relationship, as a relationship built with mutual respect, communication, trust and love, that ends up working out as Van and Ellador leave Herland for America together and the end of the novel.
These relationships show that if a man treats a woman as a woman treated a man we wouldn’t not have to fight for mutual respect and dignity each gender is afforded instead we would live in blissful harmony of utter happiness. To conclude, Gilman and other authors of her time struggled with the definition of feminism. However, they all concluded that women were being suppressed and needed civil rights just like men to live a full human life.