Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Herland, Chapter 6: Comparisons Are Odious (Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman)
I had always been proud of my country, of course. Everyone is.
Compared with the other lands and other races I knew, the United States
of America had always seemed to me, speaking modestly, as good as the
best of them.
But just as a clear-eyed, intelligent, perfectly honest, and
well-meaning child will frequently jar one's self-esteem by innocent
questions, so did these women, without the slightest appearance
of malice or satire, continually bring up points of discussion
which we spent our best efforts in evading.
Now that we were fairly proficient in their language, had read
a lot about their history, and had given them the general outlines
of ours, they were able to press their questions closer.
So when Jeff admitted the number of "women wage earners"
we had, they instantly asked for the total population, for the
proportion of adult women, and found that there were but
twenty million or so at the outside.
"Then at least a third of your women are--what is it you call
them--wage earners? And they are all POOR. What is POOR, exactly?"
"Ours is the best country in the world as to poverty,"
Terry told them. "We do not have the wretched paupers and beggars
of the older countries, I assure you. Why, European visitors tell
us, we don't know what poverty is."
"Neither do we," answered Zava. "Won't you tell us?"
Terry put it up to me, saying I was the sociologist, and I
explained that the laws of nature require a struggle for existence,
and that in the struggle the fittest survive, and the unfit perish.
In our economic struggle, I continued, there was always plenty
of opportunity for the fittest to reach the top, which they did,
in great numbers, particularly in our country; that where there was
severe economic pressure the lowest classes of course felt it the
worst, and that among the poorest of all the women were driven into
the labor market by necessity.
They listened closely, with the usual note-taking.
"About one-third, then, belong to the poorest class,"
observed Moadine gravely. "And two-thirds are the ones who are
--how was it you so beautifully put it?--`loved, honored, kept
in the home to care for the children.' This inferior one-third have
no children, I suppose?"
Jeff--he was getting as bad as they were--solemnly replied that,
on the contrary, the poorer they were, the more children they had.
That too, he explained, was a law of nature:
"Reproduction is in inverse proportion to individuation."
"These `laws of nature,'" Zava gently asked, "are they all the
laws you have?"
"I should say not!" protested Terry. "We have systems of law
that go back thousands and thousands of years--just as you do,
no doubt," he finished politely.
"Oh no," Moadine told him. "We have no laws over a hundred
years old, and most of them are under twenty. In a few weeks more,"
she continued, "we are going to have the pleasure of showing you
over our little land and explaining everything you care to know about.
We want you to see our people."
"And I assure you," Somel added, "that our people want to see you."
Terry brightened up immensely at this news, and reconciled
himself to the renewed demands upon our capacity as teachers.
It was lucky that we knew so little, really, and had no books to
refer to, else, I fancy we might all be there yet, teaching those
eager-minded women about the rest of the world.
As to geography, they had the tradition of the Great Sea,
beyond the mountains; and they could see for themselves the
endless thick-forested plains below them--that was all. But from
the few records of their ancient condition--not "before the
flood" with them, but before that mighty quake which had cut
them off so completely--they were aware that there were other
peoples and other countries.
In geology they were quite ignorant.
As to anthropology, they had those same remnants of information
about other peoples, and the knowledge of the savagery of the
occupants of those dim forests below. Nevertheless, they
had inferred (marvelously keen on inference and deduction their
minds were!) the existence and development of civilization in
other places, much as we infer it on other planets.
When our biplane came whirring over their heads in that first
scouting flight of ours, they had instantly accepted it as proof of
the high development of Some Where Else, and had prepared to
receive us as cautiously and eagerly as we might prepare to
welcome visitors who came "by meteor" from Mars.
Of history--outside their own--they knew nothing, of
course, save for their ancient traditions.
Of astronomy they had a fair working knowledge--that is a
very old science; and with it, a surprising range and facility in
Physiology they were quite familiar with. Indeed, when it
came to the simpler and more concrete sciences, wherein the
subject matter was at hand and they had but to exercise their
minds upon it, the results were surprising. They had worked out
a chemistry, a botany, a physics, with all the blends where a
science touches an art, or merges into an industry, to such
fullness of knowledge as made us feel like schoolchildren.
Also we found this out--as soon as we were free of the country,
and by further study and question--that what one knew, all knew,
to a very considerable extent.
I talked later with little mountain girls from the fir-dark
valleys away up at their highest part, and with sunburned plains-
women and agile foresters, all over the country, as well as those
in the towns, and everywhere there was the same high level of
intelligence. Some knew far more than others about one thing--
they were specialized, of course; but all of them knew more about
everything--that is, about everything the country was acquainted
with--than is the case with us.
We boast a good deal of our "high level of general intelligence"
and our "compulsory public education," but in proportion to their
opportunities they were far better educated than our people.
With what we told them, from what sketches and models we
were able to prepare, they constructed a sort of working outline
to fill in as they learned more.
A big globe was made, and our uncertain maps, helped out
by those in that precious yearbook thing I had, were tentatively
indicated upon it.
They sat in eager groups, masses of them who came for the
purpose, and listened while Jeff roughly ran over the geologic
history of the earth, and showed them their own land in relation
to the others. Out of that same pocket reference book of mine
came facts and figures which were seized upon and placed in
right relation with unerring acumen.
Even Terry grew interested in this work. "If we can keep this up,
they'll be having us lecture to all the girls' schools and colleges--
how about that?" he suggested to us. "Don't know as I'd object to
being an Authority to such audiences."
They did, in fact, urge us to give public lectures later, but not
to the hearers or with the purpose we expected.
What they were doing with us was like--like--well, say like
Napoleon extracting military information from a few illiterate
peasants. They knew just what to ask, and just what use to make
of it; they had mechanical appliances for disseminating information
almost equal to ours at home; and by the time we were led forth
to lecture, our audiences had thoroughly mastered a well-
arranged digest of all we had previously given to our teachers,
and were prepared with such notes and questions as might have
intimidated a university professor.
They were not audiences of girls, either. It was some time
before we were allowed to meet the young women.
"Do you mind telling what you intend to do with us?" Terry
burst forth one day, facing the calm and friendly Moadine with
that funny half-blustering air of his. At first he used to storm and
flourish quite a good deal, but nothing seemed to amuse them more;
they would gather around and watch him as if it was an exhibition,
politely, but with evident interest. So he learned to check himself,
and was almost reasonable in his bearing--but not quite.
She announced smoothly and evenly: "Not in the least. I
thought it was quite plain. We are trying to learn of you all we
can, and to teach you what you are willing to learn of our country."
"Is that all?" he insisted.
She smiled a quiet enigmatic smile. "That depends."
"Depends on what?"
"Mainly on yourselves," she replied.
"Why do you keep us shut up so closely?"
"Because we do not feel quite safe in allowing you at large
where there are so many young women."
Terry was really pleased at that. He had thought as much,
inwardly; but he pushed the question. "Why should you be afraid?
We are gentlemen."
She smiled that little smile again, and asked: "Are `gentlemen'
"You surely do not think that any of us," he said it with a
good deal of emphasis on the "us," "would hurt your young girls?"
"Oh no," she said quickly, in real surprise. "The danger is
quite the other way. They might hurt you. If, by any accident,
you did harm any one of us, you would have to face a million mothers."
He looked so amazed and outraged that Jeff and I laughed outright,
but she went on gently.
"I do not think you quite understand yet. You are but men,
three men, in a country where the whole population are mothers--
or are going to be. Motherhood means to us something which
I cannot yet discover in any of the countries of which you tell
us. You have spoken"--she turned to Jeff, "of Human Brotherhood
as a great idea among you, but even that I judge is far from
a practical expression?"
Jeff nodded rather sadly. "Very far--" he said.
"Here we have Human Motherhood--in full working use,"
she went on. "Nothing else except the literal sisterhood of our
origin, and the far higher and deeper union of our social growth.
"The children in this country are the one center and focus of
all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered
in its effect on them--on the race. You see, we are MOTHERS," she
repeated, as if in that she had said it all.
"I don't see how that fact--which is shared by all women--
constitutes any risk to us," Terry persisted. "You mean they
would defend their children from attack. Of course. Any mothers
would. But we are not savages, my dear lady; we are not going
to hurt any mother's child."
They looked at one another and shook their heads a little, but
Zava turned to Jeff and urged him to make us see--said he
seemed to understand more fully than we did. And he tried.
I can see it now, or at least much more of it, but it has taken
me a long time, and a good deal of honest intellectual effort.
What they call Motherhood was like this:
They began with a really high degree of social development,
something like that of Ancient Egypt or Greece. Then they
suffered the loss of everything masculine, and supposed at first
that all human power and safety had gone too. Then they developed
this virgin birth capacity. Then, since the prosperity of their
children depended on it, the fullest and subtlest coordination
began to be practiced.
I remember how long Terry balked at the evident unanimity
of these women--the most conspicuous feature of their whole
culture. "It's impossible!" he would insist. "Women cannot
cooperate--it's against nature."
When we urged the obvious facts he would say: "Fiddlesticks!"
or "Hang your facts--I tell you it can't be done!" And we never
succeeded in shutting him up till Jeff dragged in the hymenoptera.
"`Go to the ant, thou sluggard'--and learn something," he
said triumphantly. "Don't they cooperate pretty well? You can't
beat it. This place is just like an enormous anthill--you know an
anthill is nothing but a nursery. And how about bees? Don't they
manage to cooperate and love one another?
As the birds do love the Spring
Or the bees their careful king,
as that precious Constable had it. Just show me a combination
of male creatures, bird, bug, or beast, that works as well, will
you? Or one of our masculine countries where the people work
together as well as they do here! I tell you, women are the natural
cooperators, not men!"
Terry had to learn a good many things he did not want to.
To go back to my little analysis of what happened:
They developed all this close inter-service in the interests of
their children. To do the best work they had to specialize, of
course; the children needed spinners and weavers, farmers and
gardeners, carpenters and masons, as well as mothers.
Then came the filling up of the place. When a population
multiplies by five every thirty years it soon reaches the limits
of a country, especially a small one like this. They very soon
eliminated all the grazing cattle--sheep were the last to go, I believe.
Also, they worked out a system of intensive agriculture surpassing
anything I ever heard of, with the very forests all reset with
fruit- or nut-bearing trees.
Do what they would, however, there soon came a time when they
were confronted with the problem of "the pressure of population"
in an acute form. There was really crowding, and with it,
unavoidably, a decline in standards.
And how did those women meet it?
Not by a "struggle for existence" which would result in an
everlasting writhing mass of underbred people trying to get
ahead of one another--some few on top, temporarily, many constantly
crushed out underneath, a hopeless substratum of paupers
and degenerates, and no serenity or peace for anyone, no
possibility for really noble qualities among the people at large.
Neither did they start off on predatory excursions to get more
land from somebody else, or to get more food from somebody else,
to maintain their struggling mass.
Not at all. They sat down in council together and thought it
out. Very clear, strong thinkers they were. They said: "With our
best endeavors this country will support about so many people,
with the standard of peace, comfort, health, beauty, and progress
we demand. Very well. That is all the people we will make."
There you have it. You see, they were Mothers, not in our
sense of helpless involuntary fecundity, forced to fill and overfill
the land, every land, and then see their children suffer, sin, and
die, fighting horribly with one another; but in the sense of Conscious
Makers of People. Mother-love with them was not a brute passion,
a mere "instinct," a wholly personal feeling; it was--a religion.
It included that limitless feeling of sisterhood, that wide
unity in service, which was so difficult for us to grasp. And
it was National, Racial, Human--oh, I don't know how to say it.
We are used to seeing what we call "a mother" completely
wrapped up in her own pink bundle of fascinating babyhood,
and taking but the faintest theoretic interest in anybody else's
bundle, to say nothing of the common needs of ALL the bundles.
But these women were working all together at the grandest of
tasks--they were Making People--and they made them well.
There followed a period of "negative eugenics" which must
have been an appalling sacrifice. We are commonly willing to
"lay down our lives" for our country, but they had to forego
motherhood for their country--and it was precisely the hardest
thing for them to do.
When I got this far in my reading I went to Somel for more
light. We were as friendly by that time as I had ever been in my
life with any woman. A mighty comfortable soul she was, giving
one the nice smooth mother-feeling a man likes in a woman, and yet
giving also the clear intelligence and dependableness I used to
assume to be masculine qualities. We had talked volumes already.
"See here," said I. "Here was this dreadful period when they
got far too thick, and decided to limit the population. We have
a lot of talk about that among us, but your position is so different
that I'd like to know a little more about it.
"I understand that you make Motherhood the highest social service--
a sacrament, really; that it is only undertaken once, by the majority
of the population; that those held unfit are not allowed even that;
and that to be encouraged to bear more than one child is the very
highest reward and honor in the power of the state."
(She interpolated here that the nearest approach to an
aristocracy they had was to come of a line of "Over Mothers"--
those who had been so honored.)
"But what I do not understand, naturally, is how you prevent it.
I gathered that each woman had five. You have no tyrannical husbands
to hold in check--and you surely do not destroy the unborn--"
The look of ghastly horror she gave me I shall never forget.
She started from her chair, pale, her eyes blazing.
"Destroy the unborn--!" she said in a hard whisper.
"Do men do that in your country?"
"Men!" I began to answer, rather hotly, and then saw the gulf
before me. None of us wanted these women to think that OUR women,
of whom we boasted so proudly, were in any way inferior to them.
I am ashamed to say that I equivocated. I told her of certain
criminal types of women--perverts, or crazy, who had been known
to commit infanticide. I told her, truly enough, that there was
much in our land which was open to criticism, but that I hated to
dwell on our defects until they understood us and our conditions better.
And, making a wide detour, I scrambled back to my question
of how they limited the population.
As for Somel, she seemed sorry, a little ashamed even, of her
too clearly expressed amazement. As I look back now, knowing
them better, I am more and more and more amazed as I appreciate
the exquisite courtesy with which they had received over and
over again statements and admissions on our part which must
have revolted them to the soul.
She explained to me, with sweet seriousness, that as I had supposed,
at first each woman bore five children; and that, in their eager desire
to build up a nation, they had gone on in that way for a few centuries,
till they were confronted with the absolute need of a limit. This fact
was equally plain to all--all were equally interested.
They were now as anxious to check their wonderful power
as they had been to develop it; and for some generations gave the
matter their most earnest thought and study.
"We were living on rations before we worked it out," she said.
"But we did work it out. You see, before a child comes to one of us
there is a period of utter exaltation--the whole being is uplifted
and filled with a concentrated desire for that child. We learned
to look forward to that period with the greatest caution. Often our
young women, those to whom motherhood had not yet come, would
voluntarily defer it. When that deep inner demand for a child
began to be felt she would deliberately engage in the most active work,
physical and mental; and even more important, would solace her longing
by the direct care and service of the babies we already had."
She paused. Her wise sweet face grew deeply, reverently tender.
"We soon grew to see that mother-love has more than one
channel of expression. I think the reason our children are so--so
fully loved, by all of us, is that we never--any of us--have
enough of our own."
This seemed to me infinitely pathetic, and I said so. "We have
much that is bitter and hard in our life at home," I told her, "but this
seems to me piteous beyond words--a whole nation of starving mothers!"
But she smiled her deep contented smile, and said I quite misunderstood.
"We each go without a certain range of personal joy," she said, "but
remember--we each have a million children to love and serve--OUR children."
It was beyond me. To hear a lot of women talk about "our children"!
But I suppose that is the way the ants and bees would talk--do talk, maybe.
That was what they did, anyhow.
When a woman chose to be a mother, she allowed the child-
longing to grow within her till it worked its natural miracle.
When she did not so choose she put the whole thing out of her
mind, and fed her heart with the other babies.
Let me see--with us, children--minors, that is--constitute
about three-fifths of the population; with them only about one-
third, or less. And precious--! No sole heir to an empire's throne,
no solitary millionaire baby, no only child of middle-aged parents,
could compare as an idol with these Herland children.
But before I start on that subject I must finish up that little
analysis I was trying to make.
They did effectually and permanently limit the population in numbers,
so that the country furnished plenty for the fullest, richest life for all
of them: plenty of everything, including room, air, solitude even.
And then they set to work to improve that population in quality--
since they were restricted in quantity. This they had been at work on,
uninterruptedly, for some fifteen hundred years. Do you wonder they
were nice people?
Physiology, hygiene, sanitation, physical culture--all that
line of work had been perfected long since. Sickness was almost
wholly unknown among them, so much so that a previously high
development in what we call the "science of medicine" had become
practically a lost art. They were a clean-bred, vigorous lot,
having the best of care, the most perfect living conditions always.
When it came to psychology--there was no one thing which
left us so dumbfounded, so really awed, as the everyday working
knowledge--and practice--they had in this line. As we learned
more and more of it, we learned to appreciate the exquisite
mastery with which we ourselves, strangers of alien race, of unknown
opposite sex, had been understood and provided for from the first.
With this wide, deep, thorough knowledge, they had met and
solved the problems of education in ways some of which I hope
to make clear later. Those nation-loved children of theirs
compared with the average in our country as the most perfectly
cultivated, richly developed roses compare with--tumbleweeds.
Yet they did not SEEM "cultivated" at all--it had all become a
And this people, steadily developing in mental capacity, in
will power, in social devotion, had been playing with the arts and
sciences--as far as they knew them--for a good many centuries
now with inevitable success.
Into this quiet lovely land, among these wise, sweet, strong
women, we, in our easy assumption of superiority, had suddenly
arrived; and now, tamed and trained to a degree they considered safe,
we were at last brought out to see the country, to know the people.
Originally published in Forerunner (1915).
Etext from Project Gutenberg.
This public domain text has been presented as found (with some minor format changes); this website and its owners are not responsible for errors, substantive and/or minor.