Excerpt: 'Herland' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman



From Their Religions and Our Marriages:

It took me a long time, as a man, a foreigner, and a species of Christian—I was that as much as anything—to get any clear understanding of the religion of Herland.

Its deification of motherhood was obvious enough; but there was far more to it than that; or, at least, than my first interpretation of that.

I think it was only as I grew to love Ellador more than I believed anyone could love anybody, as I grew faintly to appreciate her inner attitude and state of mind, that I began to get some glimpses of this faith of theirs.

When I asked her about it, she tried at first to tell me, and then, seeing me flounder, asked for more information about ours. She soon found that we had many, that they varied widely, but had some points in common. A clear methodical luminous mind had my Ellador, not only reasonable, but swiftly perceptive.

She made a sort of chart, superimposing the different religions as I described them, with a pin run through them all, as it were; their common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behavior, mostly taboos, to please or placate. There were some common features in certain groups of religions, but the one always present was this Power, and the things which must be done or not done because of it. It was not hard to trace our human imagery of the Divine Force up through successive stages of bloodthirsty, sensual, proud, and cruel gods of early times to the conception of a Common Father with its corollary of a Common Brotherhood.

This pleased her very much, and when I expatiated on the Omniscience, Omnipotence, Omnipresence, and so on, of our God, and of the loving kindness taught by his Son, she was much impressed.

The story of the Virgin birth naturally did not astonish her, but she was greatly puzzled by the Sacrifice, and still more by the Devil, and the theory of Damnation.

When in an inadvertent moment I said that certain sects had believed in infant damnation—and explained it—she sat very still indeed.

“They believed that God was Love—and Wisdom—and Power?”

“Yes—all of that.”

Her eyes grew large, her face ghastly pale.

“And yet that such a God could put little new babies to burn—for eternity?” She fell into a sudden shuddering and left me, running swiftly to the nearest temple.

Every smallest village had its temple, and in those gracious retreats sat wise and noble women, quietly busy at some work of their own until they were wanted, always ready to give comfort, light, or help, to any applicant.

Ellador told me afterward how easily this grief of hers was assuaged, and seemed ashamed of not having helped herself out of it.

“You see, we are not accustomed to horrible ideas,” she said, coming back to me rather apologetically. “We haven’t any. And when we get a thing like that into our minds it’s like—oh, like red pepper in your eyes. So I just ran to her, blinded and almost screaming, and she took it out so quickly—so easily!”

“How?” I asked, very curious.

“‘Why, you blessed child,’ she said, ‘you’ve got the wrong idea altogether. You do not have to think that there ever was such a God—for there wasn’t. Or such a happening—for there wasn’t. Nor even that this hideous false idea was believed by anybody. But only this—that people who are utterly ignorant will believe anything—which you certainly knew before.'”

“Anyhow,” pursued Ellador, “she turned pale for a minute when I first said it.”

This was a lesson to me. No wonder this whole nation of women was peaceful and sweet in expression—they had no horrible ideas.

“Surely you had some when you began,” I suggested.

“Oh, yes, no doubt. But as soon as our religion grew to any height at all we left them out, of course.”

From this, as from many other things, I grew to see what I finally put in words.

“Have you no respect for the past? For what was thought and believed by your foremothers?”

“Why, no,” she said. “Why should we? They are all gone. They knew less than we do. If we are not beyond them, we are unworthy of them—and unworthy of the children who must go beyond us.”

This set me thinking in good earnest. I had always imagined—simply from hearing it said, I suppose—that women were by nature conservative. Yet these women, quite unassisted by any masculine spirit of enterprise, had ignored their past and built daringly for the future.

Ellador watched me think. She seemed to know pretty much what was going on in my mind.

“It’s because we began in a new way, I suppose. All our folks were swept away at once, and then, after that time of despair, came those wonder children—the first. And then the whole breathless hope of us was for THEIR children—if they should have them. And they did! Then there was the period of pride and triumph till we grew too numerous; and after that, when it all came down to one child apiece, we began to really work—to make better ones.”

“But how does this account for such a radical difference in your religion?” I persisted.

She said she couldn’t talk about the difference very intelligently, not being familiar with other religions, but that theirs seemed simple enough. Their great Mother Spirit was to them what their own motherhood was—only magnified beyond human limits. That meant that they felt beneath and behind them an upholding, unfailing, serviceable love—perhaps it was really the accumulated mother-love of the race they felt—but it was a Power.

“Just what is your theory of worship?” I asked her.

“Worship? What is that?”

I found it singularly difficult to explain. This Divine Love which they felt so strongly did not seem to ask anything of them—”any more than our mothers do,” she said.

“But surely your mothers expect honor, reverence, obedience, from you. You have to do things for your mothers, surely?”

“Oh, no,” she insisted, smiling, shaking her soft brown hair. “We do things FROM our mothers—not FOR them. We don’t have to do things FOR them—they don’t need it, you know. But we have to live on—splendidly—because of them; and that’s the way we feel about God.”

I meditated again. I thought of that God of Battles of ours, that Jealous God, that Vengeance-is-mine God. I thought of our world-nightmare—Hell.

“You have no theory of eternal punishment then, I take it?”

Ellador laughed. Her eyes were as bright as stars, and there were tears in them, too. She was so sorry for me.

“How could we?” she asked, fairly enough. “We have no punishments in life, you see, so we don’t imagine them after death.”

“Have you NO punishments? Neither for children nor criminals—such mild criminals as you have?” I urged.

“Do you punish a person for a broken leg or a fever? We have preventive measures, and cures; sometimes we have to ‘send the patient to bed,’ as it were; but that’s not a punishment—it’s only part of the treatment,” she explained.

Then studying my point of view more closely, she added: “You see, we recognize, in our human motherhood, a great tender limitless uplifting force—patience and wisdom and all subtlety of delicate method. We credit God—our idea of God—with all that and more. Our mothers are not angry with us—why should God be?”

“Does God mean a person to you?”

This she thought over a little. “Why—in trying to get close to it in our minds we personify the idea, naturally; but we certainly do not assume a Big Woman somewhere, who is God. What we call God is a Pervading Power, you know, an Indwelling Spirit, something inside of us that we want more of. Is your God a Big Man?” she asked innocently.

“Why—yes, to most of us, I think. Of course we call it an Indwelling Spirit just as you do, but we insist that it is Him, a Person, and a Man—with whiskers.”

“Whiskers? Oh yes—because you have them! Or do you wear them because He does?”

“On the contrary, we shave them off—because it seems cleaner and more comfortable.”

“Does He wear clothes—in your idea, I mean?”

I was thinking over the pictures of God I had seen—rash advances of the devout mind of man, representing his Omnipotent Deity as an old man in a flowing robe, flowing hair, flowing beard, and in the light of her perfectly frank and innocent questions this concept seemed rather unsatisfying.

I explained that the God of the Christian world was really the ancient Hebrew God, and that we had simply taken over the patriarchal idea—that ancient one which quite inevitably clothed its thought of God with the attributes of the patriarchal ruler, the grandfather.

“I see,” she said eagerly, after I had explained the genesis and development of our religious ideals. “They lived in separate groups, with a male head, and he was probably a little—domineering?”

“No doubt of that,” I agreed.

“And we live together without any ‘head,’ in that sense—just our chosen leaders—that DOES make a difference.”

“Your difference is deeper than that,” I assured her. “It is in your common motherhood. Your children grow up in a world where everybody loves them. They find life made rich and happy for them by the diffused love and wisdom of all mothers. So it is easy for you to think of God in the terms of a similar diffused and competent love. I think you are far nearer right than we are.”

“What I cannot understand,” she pursued carefully, “is your preservation of such a very ancient state of mind. This patriarchal idea you tell me is thousands of years old?”

“Oh yes—four, five, six thousand—every so many.”

“And you have made wonderful progress in those years—in other things?”

“We certainly have. But religion is different. You see, our religions come from behind us, and are initiated by some great teacher who is dead. He is supposed to have known the whole thing and taught it, finally. All we have to do is believe—and obey.”

“Who was the great Hebrew teacher?”

“Oh—there it was different. The Hebrew religion is an accumulation of extremely ancient traditions, some far older than their people, and grew by accretion down the ages. We consider it inspired—’the Word of God.'”

“How do you know it is?”

“Because it says so.”

“Does it say so in as many words? Who wrote that in?”

I began to try to recall some text that did say so, and could not bring it to mind.

“Apart from that,” she pursued, “what I cannot understand is why you keep these early religious ideas so long. You have changed all your others, haven’t you?”

“Pretty generally,” I agreed. “But this we call ‘revealed religion,’ and think it is final. But tell me more about these little temples of yours,” I urged. “And these Temple Mothers you run to.”

Then she gave me an extended lesson in applied religion, which I will endeavor to concentrate.

They developed their central theory of a Loving Power, and assumed that its relation to them was motherly—that it desired their welfare and especially their development. Their relation to it, similarly, was filial, a loving appreciation and a glad fulfillment of its high purposes. Then, being nothing if not practical, they set their keen and active minds to discover the kind of conduct expected of them. This worked out in a most admirable system of ethics. The principle of Love was universally recognized—and used.

Patience, gentleness, courtesy, all that we call “good breeding,” was part of their code of conduct. But where they went far beyond us was in the special application of religious feeling to every field of life. They had no ritual, no little set of performances called “divine service,” save those religious pageants I have spoken of, and those were as much educational as religious, and as much social as either. But they had a clear established connection between everything they did—and God. Their cleanliness, their health, their exquisite order, the rich peaceful beauty of the whole land, the happiness of the children, and above all the constant progress they made—all this was their religion.

They applied their minds to the thought of God, and worked out the theory that such an inner power demanded outward expression. They lived as if God was real and at work within them.

As for those little temples everywhere—some of the women were more skilled, more temperamentally inclined, in this direction, than others. These, whatever their work might be, gave certain hours to the Temple Service, which meant being there with all their love and wisdom and trained thought, to smooth out rough places for anyone who needed it. Sometimes it was a real grief, very rarely a quarrel, most often a perplexity; even in Herland the human soul had its hours of darkness. But all through the country their best and wisest were ready to give help.

If the difficulty was unusually profound, the applicant was directed to someone more specially experienced in that line of thought.

Here was a religion which gave to the searching mind a rational basis in life, the concept of an immense Loving Power working steadily out through them, toward good. It gave to the “soul” that sense of contact with the inmost force, of perception of the uttermost purpose, which we always crave. It gave to the “heart” the blessed feeling of being loved, loved and UNDERSTOOD. It gave clear, simple, rational directions as to how we should live—and why. And for ritual it gave first those triumphant group demonstrations, when with a union of all the arts, the revivifying combination of great multitudes moved rhythmically with march and dance, song and music, among their own noblest products and the open beauty of their groves and hills. Second, it gave these numerous little centers of wisdom where the least wise could go to the most wise and be helped.

“It is beautiful!” I cried enthusiastically. “It is the most practical, comforting, progressive religion I ever heard of. You DO love one another—you DO bear one another’s burdens—you DO realize that a little child is a type of the kingdom of heaven. You are more Christian than any people I ever saw. But—how about death? And the life everlasting? What does your religion teach about eternity?”

“Nothing,” said Ellador. “What is eternity?”

What indeed? I tried, for the first time in my life, to get a real hold on the idea.

“It is—never stopping.”

“Never stopping?” She looked puzzled.

“Yes, life, going on forever.”

“Oh—we see that, of course. Life does go on forever, all about us.”

“But eternal life goes on WITHOUT DYING.”

“The same person?”

“Yes, the same person, unending, immortal.” I was pleased to think that I had something to teach from our religion, which theirs had never promulgated.

“Here?” asked Ellador. “Never to die—here?” I could see her practical mind heaping up the people, and hurriedly reassured her.

“Oh no, indeed, not here—hereafter. We must die here, of course, but then we ‘enter into eternal life.’ The soul lives forever.”

“How do you know?” she inquired.

“I won’t attempt to prove it to you,” I hastily continued. “Let us assume it to be so. How does this idea strike you?”

Again she smiled at me, that adorable, dimpling, tender, mischievous, motherly smile of hers. “Shall I be quite, quite honest?”

“You couldn’t be anything else,” I said, half gladly and half a little sorry. The transparent honesty of these women was a never-ending astonishment to me.

“It seems to me a singularly foolish idea,” she said calmly. “And if true, most disagreeable.”

Now I had always accepted the doctrine of personal immortality as a thing established. The efforts of inquiring spiritualists, always seeking to woo their beloved ghosts back again, never seemed to me necessary. I don’t say I had ever seriously and courageously discussed the subject with myself even; I had simply assumed it to be a fact. And here was the girl I loved, this creature whose character constantly revealed new heights and ranges far beyond my own, this superwoman of a superland, saying she thought immortality foolish! She meant it, too.

“What do you WANT it for?” she asked.

“How can you NOT want it!” I protested. “Do you want to go out like a candle? Don’t you want to go on and on—growing and—and—being happy, forever?”

“Why, no,” she said. “I don’t in the least. I want my child—and my child’s child—to go on—and they will. Why should I want to?”

“But it means Heaven!” I insisted. “Peace and Beauty and Comfort and Love—with God.” I had never been so eloquent on the subject of religion. She could be horrified at Damnation, and question the justice of Salvation, but Immortality—that was surely a noble faith.

“Why, Van,” she said, holding out her hands to me. “Why Van—darling! How splendid of you to feel it so keenly. That’s what we all want, of course—Peace and Beauty, and Comfort and Love—with God! And Progress too, remember; Growth, always and always. That is what our religion teaches us to want and to work for, and we do!”

“But that is HERE,” I said, “only for this life on earth.”

“Well? And do not you in your country, with your beautiful religion of love and service have it here, too—for this life—on earth?”

None of us were willing to tell the women of Herland about the evils of our own beloved land. It was all very well for us to assume them to be necessary and essential, and to criticize—strictly among ourselves—their all-too-perfect civilization, but when it came to telling them about the failures and wastes of our own, we never could bring ourselves to do it.

Moreover, we sought to avoid too much discussion, and to press the subject of our approaching marriages.

Jeff was the determined one on this score.

“Of course they haven’t any marriage ceremony or service, but we can make it a sort of Quaker wedding, and have it in the temple—it is the least we can do for them.”

It was. There was so little, after all, that we could do for them. 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.

“We can at least give them our names,” Jeff insisted.

They were very sweet about it, quite willing to do whatever we asked, to please us. As to the names, Alima, frank soul that she was, asked what good it would do.

Terry, always irritating her, said it was a sign of possession. “You are going to be Mrs. Nicholson,” he said. “Mrs. T. O. Nicholson. That shows everyone that you are my wife.”

“What is a ‘wife’ exactly?” she demanded, a dangerous gleam in her eye.

“A wife is the woman who belongs to a man,” he began.

But Jeff took it up eagerly: “And a husband is the man who belongs to a woman. It is because we are monogamous, you know. And marriage is the ceremony, civil and religious, that joins the two together—’until death do us part,'” he finished, looking at Celis with unutterable devotion.

“What makes us all feel foolish,” I told the girls, “is that here we have nothing to give you—except, of course, our names.”

“Do your women have no names before they are married?” Celis suddenly demanded.

“Why, yes,” Jeff explained. “They have their maiden names—their father’s names, that is.”

“And what becomes of them?” asked Alima.

“They change them for their husbands’, my dear,” Terry answered her.

“Change them? Do the husbands then take the wives’ ‘maiden names’?”

“Oh, no,” he laughed. “The man keeps his own and gives it to her, too.”

“Then she just loses hers and takes a new one—how unpleasant! We won’t do that!” Alima said decidedly.

Terry was good-humored about it. “I don’t care what you do or don’t do so long as we have that wedding pretty soon,” he said, reaching a strong brown hand after Alima’s, quite as brown and nearly as strong.

“As to giving us things—of course we can see that you’d like to, but we are glad you can’t,” Celis continued. “You see, we love you just for yourselves—we wouldn’t want you to—to pay anything. Isn’t it enough to know that you are loved personally—and just as men?”

Enough or not, that was the way we were married. We had a great triple wedding in the biggest temple of all, and it looked as if most of the nation was present. It was very solemn and very beautiful. Someone had written a new song for the occasion, nobly beautiful, about the New Hope for their people—the New Tie with other lands—Brotherhood as well as Sisterhood, and, with evident awe, Fatherhood.

Terry was always restive under their talk of fatherhood. “Anybody’d think we were High Priests of—of Philoprogenitiveness!” he protested. “These women think of NOTHING but children, seems to me! We’ll teach ’em!”

He was so certain of what he was going to teach, and Alima so uncertain in her moods of reception, that Jeff and I feared the worst. We tried to caution him—much good that did. The big handsome fellow drew himself up to his full height, lifted that great chest of his, and laughed.

“There are three separate marriages,” he said. “I won’t interfere with yours—nor you with mine.”

So the great day came, and the countless crowds of women, and we three bridegrooms without any supporting “best men,” or any other men to back us up, felt strangely small as we came forward.

Somel and Zava and Moadine were on hand; we were thankful to have them, too—they seemed almost like relatives.

There was a splendid procession, wreathing dances, the new anthem I spoke of, and the whole great place pulsed with feeling—the deep awe, the sweet hope, the wondering expectation of a new miracle.

“There has been nothing like this in the country since our Motherhood began!” Somel said softly to me, while we watched the symbolic marches. “You see, it is the dawn of a new era. You don’t know how much you mean to us. It is not only Fatherhood—that marvelous dual parentage to which we are strangers—the miracle of union in life-giving—but it is Brotherhood. You are the rest of the world. You join us to our kind—to all the strange lands and peoples we have never seen. We hope to know them—to love and help them—and to learn of them. Ah! You cannot know!”

Thousands of voices rose in the soaring climax of that great Hymn of The Coming Life. By the great Altar of Motherhood, with its crown of fruit and flowers, stood a new one, crowned as well. Before the Great Over Mother of the Land and her ring of High Temple Counsellors, before that vast multitude of calm-faced mothers and holy-eyed maidens, came forward our own three chosen ones, and we, three men alone in all that land, joined hands with them and made our marriage vows.

Excerpted from Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published 1915.

About the Author:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist and writer.