Herland Revisited: Narratives of Motherhood, Domesticity, and Physical Emancipation in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Feminist Utopia

By Lathrop, Anna | Vitae Scholasticae, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Herland Revisited: Narratives of Motherhood, Domesticity, and Physical Emancipation in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Feminist Utopia


Lathrop, Anna, Vitae Scholasticae


Preface

On April 2, 2006, in the Toronto Star, a feature article entitled "Working Girls, Broken Society" is published. This article examines a recent theory by Professor Alison Wolf, a professor of public sector management at King's College, London, and the author of Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth. Her thesis contends that women's gradual access to equal opportunity in the workplace has led to serious negative consequences. Wolf argues that the end of the 'marriage bar' in many industrialized Western nations--precipitated in 1945 by English legislation that permitted female teachers and civil servants to stay employed if they married--constituted "a rupture in human history." (1) She claims that although employment opportunity for women has brought enormous benefits, "... its repercussions are not all positive." (2) Access to education and employment, she argues, has resulted in the death of feminist sisterhood, the erosion of female altruism, and a negative impact on childbearing. The path once largely followed by Nineteenth Century White, middle-class women across the developed world entailed access to higher education and a profession in teaching; followed by motherhood, homemaking, and voluntary work in the community. Modern Twenty-First Century women, however, are now "too busy." (3) Wolf comments, "One could interpret today's feminist assumptions as reflecting the appetite of global capitalism for all talent, female and male, at the expense of the family." (4)

American economist Shirley Burggraf in her book, The Feminine Economy and Economic Man: Reviving the Role of the Family in the Postindustrial Age, further echoes this concern, and states that financial disincentives to childbearing in the Twenty-First Century have now become so high for upper middle income women, that it is a puzzle why they have any at all. Burggraf states, "professional women will have to give up most if they have children, and so will be the least inclined to so." (5) Has the "occupational emancipation" of women created intransient problems for the future of society? Burggraf argues that the tension between the modern workplace and family well-being is real and irresolvable as long as capitalist societies place no financial value on the activities that take place in the home.

How would a Nineteenth Century feminist respond to these concerns? What would Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of Women and Economics: The Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), say to a Twentieth Century author such as Shirley Burggraf? Would she be surprised that over a century later, the great discourses of motherhood, domesticity, and economic emancipation are still major issues of gender and society with which we grapple?

Introduction

Born in 1860, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent example of a 'new woman' of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Described as highly educated, economically autonomous, and often supportive of radical economic and social reforms, these 'new women' of the Progressive Era typified the first wave of White, middle-class feminists who advocated women's emancipation. They claimed the identification of 'new women' (and were often described as such) because they demanded release from rigid behavourial expectations and they wanted control of their reproductive lives. A central theme for many of these 'new women' was the pursuit of health and wholeness. Control of the physical body--activity, health, dress, and, by extension--sexual activity, childbearing, and domesticity--were physical and social constraints that severely limited women in the Nineteenth Century. These 'new women' sought both physical autonomy and intellectual fulfillment.

Only recently has the serious and fictional writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman been rediscovered and reclaimed by feminists of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century.

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