Analyzing the Theme of Gender Inequality in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Novel "Herland"

Updated on March 22, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

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Blending of Gender Spheres

Throughout time, there has always been a subconscious struggle for gender equality. However, within recent history this struggle has been made conscious. As society progresses, the separate male and female spheres begin to blend. Within this blend, there is another separation: separate spheres in the work force and separate spheres at home. In these two separations, with time, the male and female spheres will again blend.

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Gender Inequality in the Home

This is the world we live in today. In current society, it is not uncommon to see men and women working along side each other as equals. Seemingly, this progression would also make a blending transition between male and female partners within the home. Alas, studies have shown that this is not the case.

Today, many male and female spheres remain separated within the household. Why does this inequality persist? Will it be eventually be overcome? As we look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, we begin to see what shapes these spheres. In the realm of unpaid household labor, gender inequality is still an issue because of the remnants of a male-dominated, patriarchal world, where men dealt with labor and women dealt with motherhood.

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Primitive Gender Roles

Through my own observations of society, I believe there is gender inequality because of two physiological circumstances: man’s innate ability for hard labor, and woman’s innate ability to give birth. Since the beginning of time, men were seen as hunter-gatherers who would provide food for the development of the species, and, similar to the Herlander mind frame, “By motherhood [women] were born and by motherhood [women lived]–life was, [for women], just the long cycle of motherhood” (Gilman 51).

As a materialistic world developed, the distinctly separate spheres of men and women became less important for the species’ survival. Eventually, any type of life became possible for men and women. This is clearly observed in our modern age of women in the workplace and men as stay-at-home fathers. But if spheres have blended, why does inequality persist?

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A Changing Patriarchal Society

I believe inequality persists because of the original two innate features of men and women. As man ventured out to get food for the family, the world first became his. Woman, on the other hand, did not venture into the world as man did; thus, the home became hers. As man slowly shaped the world, he did so in reflection of his masculinity.

In Herland, Vandyck Jennings was led to the conviction that “‘feminine charms’ [men] are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity– developed to please [men] because [women] had to please [men]” (50). A masculine world created patriarchy. From the very beginning of society, women were subjected to a male view of life; they constantly had to struggle when striving for an equal playing ground in a male oriented world.

Now, women have caught up. Technological advances put men and women at the same level. The male and female spheres have blended in all places but one: the home. Will gender inequality ever be overcome within the home? Yes.

I believe that soon, men and women spheres will blend in the home as well. As society continues to progress, women will slowly lose the old ideals of womanhood and servitude. The reason men treat women unequally within the home is because of their mothers.

Men’s mothers still held many of the separate sphere ideals that result in men being constantly treated for by women within the home. Soon, as old mothers are forgotten and next generations of mothers bloom, women will hold little remembrance of servitude for men. Separate spheres will once again blend, and women will gain equal ground not only in the workplace, but in the home as well.

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Relearning Gender Roles and Identity

Similarly, in Herland, Gilman portrays just how different male and female spheres used to be. Within the novel, the separate spheres are described in extremes. The spheres move beyond gender, and become two distinctly separated societies: patriarchal and matriarchal.

At first the men could not understand the subtle differences of how the women of Herland were apt to think. “There was no accepted standard of what was ‘manly’ and was ‘womanly’” (79). Originally, the men lived within patriarchal conventions, but as instances such as Jeff’s conversation with Celis arose, the men began to see their firm ideas of a superior patriarchal society dwindle. “‘A woman should not have to carry anything,’ Celis said, ‘Why?’ [Jeff] could not look that fleet-footed, deep-chested young forester in the face and say, ‘Because she is weaker.’ She wasn’t” (79).

The difficulty the patriarch-minded men had with the matriarch-minded women was understanding that in Herland, there were no inequalities. The men, coming from a socially divided world, often times saw no fault in their mind-frame until a common sensed matriarchal-thought presented itself.

During Terry, Jeff, and Zava’s conversation about virginity, these gender driven views were presented of how divided the social ideals of a patriarchal society can be. “‘The term virgin is applied to the female who has not mated,’ [Jeff] answered. ‘Oh, I see. And does it apply to the male also?’. . .He passed this over rather hurriedly. . .” (39). As Gilman further expresses her thoughts on gender inequality through the characters of Herland, separate spheres within closer relationships becomes more prominent.

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Coming to a Common Understanding

While the men’s view on life slowly changed, such as Jeff seeing Celis’ point about women being equal in the workplace, it seemed that the patriarchal and matriarchal spheres began to blend. Near the end of the novel, the final struggle between gender driven spheres takes places within marriage.

The men were feeling inadequate within the matriarchal society. “Here we were, penniless guests and strangers, with no chance even to use our strength and courage–nothing to defend them from or protect them against” (100). With nothing left to give, the men attempt to give the Herlanders their last names. This seems idiotic to do within a society where last names were seldom used, but at this point the men were desperate and needed to make their mark. “‘What makes us all feel foolish,’ I told the girls, ‘is that her we have nothing to give you–except, of course our names” (100).

In the end of Herland, Gilman describes gender inequality as something that only arises from the patriarchal society’s mind frame. Even though Val tried his best to get “Ellador’s point of view, and naturally [he] tried to give her [his],” the main problems came from thoughts of superiority within a close relationship of marriage. “Of course, what we, as men, wanted to make them see was that there were other, and as we proudly said ‘higher,’ uses in this relation than what Terry called ‘mere parentage” (107).

Perhaps the patriarchal views blending into the Herlander views are not so different from the blended views within marriage today. Both sides of the sphere would like to make their stand within the relationship, but also, both sides will eventually understand each other. When these spheres blend within the home, just as we have already seen in the workforce, then I, just as Gilman too suggested, will have considered human development to have overcome another obstacle in our unequally-driven history.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Abolition of Gender Roles

In conclusion, as inequality within the workplace has seemingly been overcome, separate gender spheres within the domesticated home still remain a problem in Herland. However, as male and female spheres continue to slowly blend with each other, I predict that within the next few generations, gender inequality between marriage partners will become obsolete.

Just as Gilman suggested, the main problems arose from the male-oriented views of how society should be run. Since males ventured into the world first, this view seems only natural. As women move up the social ladder, they continue to make their mark in a patriarchal society. Soon our unequally driven history will come to an end.

Audiobook: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 JourneyHolm

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      • profile image

        HOney 

        15 months ago

        well i like it so Much...! Luke Holm... (Y)

      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR

        JourneyHolm 

        15 months ago

        Sakina, thank you for reading! If you ever get a chance to read the novel, it's a quick read. Well worth the time. Enjoy :)

      • SakinaNasir53 profile image

        Sakina Nasir 

        16 months ago from Kuwait

        Very well researched and written Luke! Great hub. :)

      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR

        JourneyHolm 

        16 months ago

        jgshorebird, thanks for the read and review! Perhaps "inequality" is too broad of a term to relay my interpretation of "Herland" and its underlying themes. More specifically, I was talking about the changing culture of gender inequality in the home (which, as you correctly pointed out, translates to economic inequality), as the men in Herland experienced with much discomfort and unease. I've always adhered to the idea of equity over strict equality. Any suggestions as to how to make this more clear for my readers? Thanks for reading and commenting. I'll review what I wrote and see if I can clarify some meaning.

      • jgshorebird profile image

        Jack Shorebird 

        16 months ago from Southeastern U.S.

        Interesting read; however -- maybe I missed something. Inequality is very broad. This hub seems to focus upon economic inequality and not it's root cause, political inequality. Matriarchs or Patriarchs -- both must have the ability to force their hand, socially. That would be immoral. Ideally, one (males or females -- humans) must have a basic sets of rights -- life, liberty, property etc. Then these outdated systems can be disposed of -- maybe. Since no single person has the moral right to demand that his or her pay be based upon gender, he/she must force the employer to capitulate. At that point, he/she has lost the moral high ground. Free trade means, free to make voluntary contracts. Political opposition to free trade and free association, is the bad blend.

      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR

        JourneyHolm 

        16 months ago

        Odewoye, sounds good. Let me know when you are ready for me to read it over. Have a great day/afternoon :)

      • Odewoye Francis profile image

        ODEWOYE FRANCIS SUNDAY 

        16 months ago from OSOGBO,OSUN STATE,NIGERIA

        My dear Mr Luke I will do the necessary corrections on my essay, Inspirations I have for teaching profession, then i will like you to read it again and criticise it again and point out where the corrections should be made.

      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR

        JourneyHolm 

        16 months ago

        Odewoye, don't give up! Grammar, spelling, and writing mechanics are an important part of getting featured. I would suggest perfecting one hub before moving on to the next. Let me know if you need specific help. I'd be more than happy to give you feedback on a hub of your choice.

      • Odewoye Francis profile image

        ODEWOYE FRANCIS SUNDAY 

        16 months ago from OSOGBO,OSUN STATE,NIGERIA

        Mr Luke this is a wonderful writ up keep it up,despite the fact that i am a new Huber i will not relent my effort i will keep on until my essay is featured.

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