Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Herland, Chapter 5: A Unique History (Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman)
It is no use for me to try to piece out this account with
adventures. If the people who read it are not interested in these
amazing women and their history, they will not be interested at all.
As for us--three young men to a whole landful of women--
what could we do? We did get away, as described, and were
peacefully brought back again without, as Terry complained,
even the satisfaction of hitting anybody.
There were no adventures because there was nothing to fight.
There were no wild beasts in the country and very few tame ones.
Of these I might as well stop to describe the one common
pet of the country. Cats, of course. But such cats!
What do you suppose these Lady Burbanks had done with
their cats? By the most prolonged and careful selection and
exclusion they had developed a race of cats that did not sing!
That's a fact. The most those poor dumb brutes could do was to
make a kind of squeak when they were hungry or wanted the door open,
and, of course, to purr, and make the various mother-noises
to their kittens.
Moreover, they had ceased to kill birds. They were rigorously
bred to destroy mice and moles and all such enemies of the food supply;
but the birds were numerous and safe.
While we were discussing birds, Terry asked them if they
used feathers for their hats, and they seemed amused at the idea.
He made a few sketches of our women's hats, with plumes and
quills and those various tickling things that stick out so far; and
they were eagerly interested, as at everything about our women.
As for them, they said they only wore hats for shade
when working in the sun; and those were big light straw hats,
something like those used in China and Japan. In cold weather
they wore caps or hoods.
"But for decorative purposes--don't you think they would be
becoming?" pursued Terry, making as pretty a picture as he could
of a lady with a plumed hat.
They by no means agreed to that, asking quite simply if the
men wore the same kind. We hastened to assure her that they did
not--drew for them our kind of headgear.
"And do no men wear feathers in their hats?"
"Only Indians," Jeff explained. "Savages, you know." And he
sketched a war bonnet to show them.
"And soldiers," I added, drawing a military hat with plumes.
They never expressed horror or disapproval, nor indeed much surprise--
just a keen interest. And the notes they made!--miles of them!
But to return to our pussycats. We were a good deal impressed
by this achievement in breeding, and when they questioned us--I can
tell you we were well pumped for information--we told of what had
been done for dogs and horses and cattle, but that there was no effort
applied to cats, except for show purposes.
I wish I could represent the kind, quiet, steady, ingenious way
they questioned us. It was not just curiosity--they weren't a bit
more curious about us than we were about them, if as much. But
they were bent on understanding our kind of civilization, and
their lines of interrogation would gradually surround us and
drive us in till we found ourselves up against some admissions
we did not want to make.
"Are all these breeds of dogs you have made useful?" they asked.
"Oh--useful! Why, the hunting dogs and watchdogs and
sheepdogs are useful--and sleddogs of course!--and ratters, I
suppose, but we don't keep dogs for their USEFULNESS. The dog is
`the friend of man,' we say--we love them."
That they understood. "We love our cats that way.
They surely are our friends, and helpers, too. You can
see how intelligent and affectionate they are."
It was a fact. I'd never seen such cats, except in a few rare
instances. Big, handsome silky things, friendly with everyone
and devotedly attached to their special owners.
"You must have a heartbreaking time drowning kittens," we
suggested. But they said, "Oh, no! You see we care for them
as you do for your valuable cattle. The fathers are few compared
to the mothers, just a few very fine ones in each town; they live
quite happily in walled gardens and the houses of their friends.
But they only have a mating season once a year."
"Rather hard on Thomas, isn't it?" suggested Terry.
"Oh, no--truly! You see, it is many centuries that we have
been breeding the kind of cats we wanted. They are healthy and
happy and friendly, as you see. How do you manage with your dogs?
Do you keep them in pairs, or segregate the fathers, or what?"
Then we explained that--well, that it wasn't a question of
fathers exactly; that nobody wanted a--a mother dog; that, well,
that practically all our dogs were males--there was only a very
small percentage of females allowed to live.
Then Zava, observing Terry with her grave sweet smile,
quoted back at him: "Rather hard on Thomas, isn't it? Do they
enjoy it--living without mates? Are your dogs as uniformly
healthy and sweet-tempered as our cats?"
Jeff laughed, eyeing Terry mischievously. As a matter of fact
we began to feel Jeff something of a traitor--he so often flopped
over and took their side of things; also his medical knowledge
gave him a different point of view somehow.
"I'm sorry to admit," he told them, "that the dog, with us,
is the most diseased of any animal--next to man. And as to temper
--there are always some dogs who bite people--especially children."
That was pure malice. You see, children were the--the RAISON
D'ETRE in this country. All our interlocutors sat up straight at once.
They were still gentle, still restrained, but there was a note of
deep amazement in their voices.
"Do we understand that you keep an animal--an unmated male animal--
that bites children? About how many are there of them, please?"
"Thousands--in a large city," said Jeff, "and nearly every
family has one in the country."
Terry broke in at this. "You must not imagine they are all
dangerous--it's not one in a hundred that ever bites anybody.
Why, they are the best friends of the children--a boy doesn't
have half a chance that hasn't a dog to play with!"
"And the girls?" asked Somel.
"Oh--girls--why they like them too," he said, but his voice flatted
a little. They always noticed little things like that, we found later.
Little by little they wrung from us the fact that the friend of
man, in the city, was a prisoner; was taken out for his meager
exercise on a leash; was liable not only to many diseases but to
the one destroying horror of rabies; and, in many cases, for the
safety of the citizens, had to go muzzled. Jeff maliciously added
vivid instances he had known or read of injury and death from mad dogs.
They did not scold or fuss about it. Calm as judges, those
women were. But they made notes; Moadine read them to us.
"Please tell me if I have the facts correct," she said.
"In your country--and in others too?"
"Yes," we admitted, "in most civilized countries."
"In most civilized countries a kind of animal is kept which is
no longer useful--"
"They are a protection," Terry insisted. "They bark if burglars
try to get in."
Then she made notes of "burglars" and went on: "because of
the love which people bear to this animal."
Zava interrupted here. "Is it the men or the women who love
this animal so much?"
"Both!" insisted Terry.
"Equally?" she inquired.
And Jeff said, "Nonsense, Terry--you know men like dogs
better than women do--as a whole."
"Because they love it so much--especially men. This animal
is kept shut up, or chained."
"Why?" suddenly asked Somel. "We keep our father cats
shut up because we do not want too much fathering; but they are
not chained--they have large grounds to run in."
"A valuable dog would be stolen if he was let loose," I said.
"We put collars on them, with the owner's name, in case they do
stray. Besides, they get into fights--a valuable dog might easily
be killed by a bigger one."
"I see," she said. "They fight when they meet--is that common?"
We admitted that it was.
"They are kept shut up, or chained." She paused again, and asked,
"Is not a dog fond of running? Are they not built for speed?"
That we admitted, too, and Jeff, still malicious, enlightened
"I've always thought it was a pathetic sight, both ways--to
see a man or a woman taking a dog to walk--at the end of a string."
"Have you bred them to be as neat in their habits as cats are?"
was the next question. And when Jeff told them of the effect of
dogs on sidewalk merchandise and the streets generally, they
found it hard to believe.
You see, their country was as neat as a Dutch kitchen, and as
to sanitation--but I might as well start in now with as much as
I can remember of the history of this amazing country before
And I'll summarize here a bit as to our opportunities for
learning it. I will not try to repeat the careful, detailed account
I lost; I'll just say that we were kept in that fortress a good six
months all told, and after that, three in a pleasant enough city
where--to Terry's infinite disgust--there were only "Colonels"
and little children--no young women whatever. Then we were
under surveillance for three more--always with a tutor or a
guard or both. But those months were pleasant because we were
really getting acquainted with the girls. That was a chapter!--
or will be--I will try to do justice to it.
We learned their language pretty thoroughly--had to; and
they learned ours much more quickly and used it to hasten our
Jeff, who was never without reading matter of some sort, had
two little books with him, a novel and a little anthology of verse;
and I had one of those pocket encyclopedias--a fat little thing,
bursting with facts. These were used in our education--and theirs.
Then as soon as we were up to it, they furnished us with plenty of
their own books, and I went in for the history part--I wanted to
understand the genesis of this miracle of theirs.
And this is what happened, according to their records.
As to geography--at about the time of the Christian era this
land had a free passage to the sea. I'm not saying where, for good
reasons. But there was a fairly easy pass through that wall of
mountains behind us, and there is no doubt in my mind that
these people were of Aryan stock, and were once in contact with
the best civilization of the old world. They were "white," but
somewhat darker than our northern races because of their constant
exposure to sun and air.
The country was far larger then, including much land beyond
the pass, and a strip of coast. They had ships, commerce, an army,
a king--for at that time they were what they so calmly called us
--a bi-sexual race.
What happened to them first was merely a succession of
historic misfortunes such as have befallen other nations often
enough. They were decimated by war, driven up from their
coastline till finally the reduced population, with many of the
men killed in battle, occupied this hinterland, and defended it for
years, in the mountain passes. Where it was open to any possible
attack from below they strengthened the natural defenses so that
it became unscalably secure, as we found it.
They were a polygamous people, and a slave-holding people,
like all of their time; and during the generation or two of this
struggle to defend their mountain home they built the fortresses,
such as the one we were held in, and other of their oldest buildings,
some still in use. Nothing but earthquakes could destroy such
architecture--huge solid blocks, holding by their own weight.
They must have had efficient workmen and enough of them in those days.
They made a brave fight for their existence, but no nation can
stand up against what the steamship companies call "an act of
God." While the whole fighting force was doing its best to defend
their mountain pathway, there occurred a volcanic outburst,
with some local tremors, and the result was the complete filling
up of the pass--their only outlet. Instead of a passage, a new
ridge, sheer and high, stood between them and the sea; they were
walled in, and beneath that wall lay their whole little army.
Very few men were left alive, save the slaves; and these now seized
their opportunity, rose in revolt, killed their remaining masters
even to the youngest boy, killed the old women too, and the
mothers, intending to take possession of the country with the
remaining young women and girls.
But this succession of misfortunes was too much for those
infuriated virgins. There were many of them, and but few of
these would-be masters, so the young women, instead of submitting,
rose in sheer desperation and slew their brutal conquerors.
This sounds like Titus Andronicus, I know, but that is their
account. I suppose they were about crazy--can you blame them?
There was literally no one left on this beautiful high garden
land but a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women.
That was about two thousand years ago.
At first there was a period of sheer despair. The mountains
towered between them and their old enemies, but also between
them and escape. There was no way up or down or out--they
simply had to stay there. Some were for suicide, but not the
majority. They must have been a plucky lot, as a whole, and they
decided to live--as long as they did live. Of course they had hope,
as youth must, that something would happen to change their fate.
So they set to work, to bury the dead, to plow and sow,
to care for one another.
Speaking of burying the dead, I will set down while I think
of it, that they had adopted cremation in about the thirteenth
century, for the same reason that they had left off raising cattle
--they could not spare the room. They were much surprised to
learn that we were still burying--asked our reasons for it, and
were much dissatisfied with what we gave. We told them of the
belief in the resurrection of the body, and they asked if our God
was not as well able to resurrect from ashes as from long corruption.
We told them of how people thought it repugnant to have their loved
ones burn, and they asked if it was less repugnant to have them decay.
They were inconveniently reasonable, those women.
Well--that original bunch of girls set to work to clean up the
place and make their living as best they could. Some of the
remaining slave women rendered invaluable service, teaching
such trades as they knew. They had such records as were then
kept, all the tools and implements of the time, and a most
fertile land to work in.
There were a handful of the younger matrons who had escaped
slaughter, and a few babies were born after the cataclysm
--but only two boys, and they both died.
For five or ten years they worked together, growing stronger
and wiser and more and more mutually attached, and then the
miracle happened--one of these young women bore a child. Of
course they all thought there must be a man somewhere, but
none was found. Then they decided it must be a direct gift from
the gods, and placed the proud mother in the Temple of Maaia
--their Goddess of Motherhood--under strict watch. And there,
as years passed, this wonder-woman bore child after child, five
of them--all girls.
I did my best, keenly interested as I have always been in
sociology and social psychology, to reconstruct in my mind the
real position of these ancient women. There were some five or six
hundred of them, and they were harem-bred; yet for the few
preceding generations they had been reared in the atmosphere of
such heroic struggle that the stock must have been toughened
somewhat. Left alone in that terrific orphanhood, they had clung
together, supporting one another and their little sisters, and
developing unknown powers in the stress of new necessity. To this
pain-hardened and work-strengthened group, who had lost not
only the love and care of parents, but the hope of ever having
children of their own, there now dawned the new hope.
Here at last was Motherhood, and though it was not for all
of them personally, it might--if the power was inherited--found
here a new race.
It may be imagined how those five Daughters of Maaia,
Children of the Temple, Mothers of the Future--they had all the
titles that love and hope and reverence could give--were reared.
The whole little nation of women surrounded them with loving
service, and waited, between a boundless hope and an equally
boundless despair, to see if they, too, would be mothers.
And they were! As fast as they reached the age of twenty-five
they began bearing. Each of them, like her mother, bore five
daughters. Presently there were twenty-five New Women,
Mothers in their own right, and the whole spirit of the country
changed from mourning and mere courageous resignation to
proud joy. The older women, those who remembered men, died off;
the youngest of all the first lot of course died too, after a
while, and by that time there were left one hundred and fifty-five
parthenogenetic women, founding a new race.
They inherited all that the devoted care of that declining band
of original ones could leave them. Their little country was quite safe.
Their farms and gardens were all in full production. Such industries
as they had were in careful order. The records of their past were
all preserved, and for years the older women had spent their time
in the best teaching they were capable of, that they might leave
to the little group of sisters and mothers all they possessed of
skill and knowledge.
There you have the start of Herland! One family, all
descended from one mother! She lived to a hundred years old;
lived to see her hundred and twenty-five great-granddaughters
born; lived as Queen-Priestess-Mother of them all; and died with a
nobler pride and a fuller joy than perhaps any human soul has
ever known--she alone had founded a new race!
The first five daughters had grown up in an atmosphere of
holy calm, of awed watchful waiting, of breathless prayer. To
them the longed-for motherhood was not only a personal joy,
but a nation's hope. Their twenty-five daughters in turn, with a
stronger hope, a richer, wider outlook, with the devoted love and
care of all the surviving population, grew up as a holy sisterhood,
their whole ardent youth looking forward to their great office.
And at last they were left alone; the white-haired First Mother
was gone, and this one family, five sisters, twenty-five first cousins,
and a hundred and twenty-five second cousins, began a new race.
Here you have human beings, unquestionably, but what we
were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting
only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine
characteristics, which of course we did not look for, but so
much of what we had always thought essentially feminine.
The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite
died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore
no need of protection. As to wild beasts--there were none in
their sheltered land.
The power of mother-love, that maternal instinct we so
highly laud, was theirs of course, raised to its highest power;
and a sister-love which, even while recognizing the actual relationship,
we found it hard to credit.
Terry, incredulous, even contemptuous, when we were alone,
refused to believe the story. "A lot of traditions as old as
Herodotus--and about as trustworthy!" he said. "It's likely women--
just a pack of women--would have hung together like that! We
all know women can't organize--that they scrap like anything--
are frightfully jealous."
"But these New Ladies didn't have anyone to be jealous of,
remember," drawled Jeff.
"That's a likely story," Terry sneered.
"Why don't you invent a likelier one?" I asked him.
"Here ARE the women--nothing but women, and you yourself admit
there's no trace of a man in the country." This was after we
had been about a good deal.
"I'll admit that," he growled. "And it's a big miss, too. There's
not only no fun without 'em--no real sport--no competition; but
these women aren't WOMANLY. You know they aren't."
That kind of talk always set Jeff going; and I gradually grew
to side with him. "Then you don't call a breed of women whose
one concern is motherhood--womanly?" he asked.
"Indeed I don't," snapped Terry. "What does a man care for
motherhood--when he hasn't a ghost of a chance at fatherhood?
And besides--what's the good of talking sentiment when we are
just men together? What a man wants of women is a good deal
more than all this `motherhood'!"
We were as patient as possible with Terry. He had lived about
nine months among the "Colonels" when he made that outburst;
and with no chance at any more strenuous excitement than our
gymnastics gave us--save for our escape fiasco. I don't suppose
Terry had ever lived so long with neither Love, Combat, nor
Danger to employ his superabundant energies, and he was irritable.
Neither Jeff nor I found it so wearing. I was so much interested
intellectually that our confinement did not wear on me; and as for
Jeff, bless his heart!--he enjoyed the society of that tutor of his
almost as much as if she had been a girl--I don't know but more.
As to Terry's criticism, it was true. These women, whose
essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of
their whole culture, were strikingly deficient in what we call
"femininity." This led me very promptly to the conviction that
those "feminine charms" we are so fond of are not feminine at all,
but mere reflected masculinity--developed to please us because they
had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment
of their great process. But Terry came to no such conclusion.
"Just you wait till I get out!" he muttered.
Then we both cautioned him. "Look here, Terry, my boy! You
be careful! They've been mighty good to us--but do you remember
the anesthesia? If you do any mischief in this virgin land,
beware of the vengeance of the Maiden Aunts! Come, be a man!
It won't be forever."
To return to the history:
They began at once to plan and built for their children, all
the strength and intelligence of the whole of them devoted to
that one thing. Each girl, of course, was reared in full knowledge
of her Crowning Office, and they had, even then, very high ideas
of the molding powers of the mother, as well as those of education.
Such high ideals as they had! Beauty, Health, Strength,
Intellect, Goodness--for those they prayed and worked.
They had no enemies; they themselves were all sisters and friends.
The land was fair before them, and a great future began to form itself
in their minds.
The religion they had to begin with was much like that of old
Greece--a number of gods and goddesses; but they lost all interest
in deities of war and plunder, and gradually centered on their
Mother Goddess altogether. Then, as they grew more intelligent,
this had turned into a sort of Maternal Pantheism.
Here was Mother Earth, bearing fruit. All that they ate was
fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood
they were born and by motherhood they lived--life was, to them, just
the long cycle of motherhood.
But very early they recognized the need of improvement as well
as of mere repetition, and devoted their combined intelligence to
that problem--how to make the best kind of people. First this was
merely the hope of bearing better ones, and then they recognized
that however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay
Then things began to hum.
As I learned more and more to appreciate what these women
had accomplished, the less proud I was of what we, with all our
manhood, had done.
You see, they had had no wars. They had had no kings, and
no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they
grew, they grew together--not by competition, but by united action.
We tried to put in a good word for competition, and they
were keenly interested. Indeed, we soon found from their earnest
questions of us that they were prepared to believe our world must
be better than theirs. They were not sure; they wanted to know;
but there was no such arrogance about them as might have been expected.
We rather spread ourselves, telling of the advantages of
competition: how it developed fine qualities; that without it
there would be "no stimulus to industry." Terry was very strong
on that point.
"No stimulus to industry," they repeated, with that puzzled
look we had learned to know so well. "STIMULUS? TO INDUSTRY? But
don't you LIKE to work?"
"No man would work unless he had to," Terry declared.
"Oh, no MAN! You mean that is one of your sex distinctions?"
"No, indeed!" he said hastily. "No one, I mean, man or
woman, would work without incentive. Competition is the--the
motor power, you see."
"It is not with us," they explained gently, "so it is hard for
us to understand. Do you mean, for instance, that with you no mother
would work for her children without the stimulus of competition?"
No, he admitted that he did not mean that. Mothers, he
supposed, would of course work for their children in the home;
but the world's work was different--that had to be done by men,
and required the competitive element.
All our teachers were eagerly interested.
"We want so much to know--you have the whole world to tell us of,
and we have only our little land! And there are two of you--the two sexes--
to love and help one another. It must be a rich and wonderful world.
Tell us--what is the work of the world, that men do--which we have not here?"
"Oh, everything," Terry said grandly. "The men do everything, with us."
He squared his broad shoulders and lifted his chest. "We do not allow our
women to work. Women are loved--idolized--honored--kept in the home to care
for the children."
"What is `the home'?" asked Somel a little wistfully.
But Zava begged: "Tell me first, do NO women work, really?"
"Why, yes," Terry admitted. "Some have to, of the poorer sort."
"About how many--in your country?"
"About seven or eight million," said Jeff, as mischievous as ever.
Originally published in Forerunner (1915).
Etext from Project Gutenberg.
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