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The Sanctity of Motherhood

The women of Herland have a nearly religious attitude toward motherhood. The rationality and the constant drive for self-improvement that mark Herland’s culture are meant to be in service to the overarching ideal of motherhood. The miraculous ability of the women of Herland to conceive children on their own leads them to see motherhood as the central aspect of their beings—their greatest duty and their greatest honor. They think of God as a sacred mother, a personification of the love that pervades the whole universe. One of the sharpest contrasts Gilman draws is between the judgmental, patriarchal male God of Western monotheism and the nurturing, mothering, female spirit of Herland’s religion.

In addition to being a religious imperative, motherhood in Herland is the dominant principle of social organization. Each woman in Herland is allowed, with rare exception, to give birth only once, and she does not raise her child herself. Instead, children are raised by specialists, as their education and nurturing are simply too important to society as a whole to be left in private hands. Each child has a whole country of mothers, and each woman has millions of objects for her boundless love. In a society that truly values mothers and children, Gilman suggests, children are not possessions, and motherhood is not merely incidental to a woman’s sexual being. One of the major problems for Van and Ellador’s marriage is Ellador’s inability to grasp the idea that sex has a romantic, pleasurable aspect as well as a procreative function. Any social arrangement in which children are not the highest priority seems immoral to the women of Herland, and this perspective that makes the men unwilling to admit how often children are neglected in the “civilized” world. The women are horrified when Van mentions abortion. For Gilman, Somel’s extreme, disbelieving reaction to the reality of abortion is one more piece of evidence that our society, not Herland’s, is the truly strange one.