At the time of her death in 1935, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was as famous for her political and journalistic writing as she was notorious for her unconventional personal life. In her time, Gilman was known as a crusading journalist and feminist intellectual, a follower of such pioneering women’s rights advocates as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gilman’s great-aunt. Gilman was concerned with political inequality and social justice in general, but the primary focus of her writing was the unequal status of women within the institution of marriage. In such works as Concerning Children (1900), The Home (1904), and Human Work (1904), Gilman argued that women’s confinement to the domestic sphere robbed them of the expression of their full powers of creativity and intelligence, while simultaneously robbing society of women whose abilities suited them for professional and public life. An essential part of her analysis was that the traditional power structure of the family made no one happy—not the woman who was made into an unpaid servant, not the husband who was made into a master, and not the children who were subject to both. Her most ambitious work, Women and Economics (1898), analyzed the hidden value of women’s labor within the capitalist economy. She argued, as she would throughout her work, that financial independence for women could only benefit society as a whole.
Gilman’s analysis of women’s status in society was deeply rooted in her own situation. In 1886, early in her first marriage and not long after the birth of her daughter, Charlotte Perkins Stetson (as she was then known) was stricken with a severe case of depression. In her 1935 autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she describes her “utter prostration” by “unbearable inner misery” and “ceaseless tears,” a condition only made worse by the presence of her husband and her baby. She was referred to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, then the country’s leading specialist in nervous disorders, who believed that such postpartum depression was brought by too much mental activity and not enough attention to domestic affairs. Mitchell’s treatment in such cases was a “rest cure” of forced inactivity. For Gilman, this treatment was a disaster. Prevented from working, writing, and even reading, she sank deeper into depression, and she soon had a nervous breakdown. At her worst, she crawled into closets and under beds, clutching a rag doll. Eventually, Gilman realized that the powerlessness she felt as a wife, mother, and subject of a male-dominated medical regime was an extreme instance of the powerlessness all women were made to feel in a culture that refused to take their thoughts and desires seriously.
Once she abandoned Mitchell’s rest cure, Gilman’s condition improved, though she claimed to feel the effects of the ordeal for the rest of her life. She based her best-known work of fiction, the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” on the experience. Leaving behind her husband and child, a decision that made her a figure of scandal, Charlotte Perkins Stetson (she took the name Gilman after a second marriage, to her cousin) embarked on her famous career as a journalist, lecturer, and publisher. She published a monthly magazine, The Forerunner, writing the contents of each issue herself, down to the advertising copy. The Forerunner reflected Gilman’s wide-ranging interests in feminism, politics, socialist economics, and history, and Gilman serialized several works of fiction in its pages. Herland, a utopian novel in which a trio of modern men discovers a lost country populated entirely by women, appeared in the magazine in 1915.
Herland is part of a long tradition of utopian fiction, a tradition stretching all the way back to Plato’s Republic. In a utopian work, an imaginary country, usually one discovered or described by the narrator, serves as an example of an “ideal” political and social state and is contrasted with an actual earthly society. The genre takes its name from Thomas More’s classic Utopia (1516), the title of which means “nowhere” in Greek. Many later fictional utopias are satirical, using the imaginary land to represent the worst aspects of society. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is perhaps the best example of such a satirical utopia.
In the twentieth century, an extreme form of the negative utopia appeared, called the “dystopia,” in which a nightmarish future version of society is shown to result from certain trends in contemporary culture. The most famous dystopian fictions are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a great deal of straightforwardly utopian writing appeared, often inspired by socialist politics. William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) is one such leftist utopia, as is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1896). The science-fiction pioneer H. G. Wells wrote several similar works.
Herland is one of the most notable examples of this revival of utopian literature, though it slipped from view after its first publication and was only rediscovered in the late 1970s. Since then, Gilman’s skillful use of the utopian genre, as well as its humor and sharp feminist analysis, has helped to solidify her reputation as a major writer. Gilman’s work continues to be an influence on such authors as Ursula K. LeGuin, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood, each of whom has written fiction in which the conventions of science fiction and utopian writing are adapted to a feminist critique of society—much as Gilman does so brilliantly in Herland.