Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter 5

A Unique History

It is no use for me to try to piece out this account with adventures. If the people who read it are not interested in these amazing women and their history, they will not be interested at all.

As for us — three young men to a whole landful of women — what could we do? We did get away, as described, and were peacefully brought back again without, as Terry complained, even the satisfaction of hitting anybody.

There were no adventures because there was nothing to fight. There were no wild beasts in the country and very few tame ones. Of these I might as well stop to describe the one common pet of the country. Cats, of course. But such cats!

What do you suppose these Lady Burbanks had done with their cats? By the most prolonged and careful selection and exclusion they had developed a race of cats that did not sing! That’s a fact. The most those poor dumb brutes could do was to make a kind of squeak when they were hungry or wanted the door open, and, of course, to purr, and make the various mother-noises to their kittens.

Moreover, they had ceased to kill birds. They were rigorously bred to destroy mice and moles and all such enemies of the food supply; but the birds were numerous and safe.

While we were discussing birds, Terry asked them if they used feathers for their hats, and they seemed amused at the idea. He made a few sketches of our women’s hats, with plumes and quills and those various tickling things that stick out so far; and they were eagerly interested, as at everything about our women.

As for them, they said they only wore hats for shade when working in the sun; and those were big light straw hats, something like those used in China and Japan. In cold weather they wore caps or hoods.

“But for decorative purposes — don’t you think they would be becoming?” pursued Terry, making as pretty a picture as he could of a lady with a plumed hat.

They by no means agreed to that, asking quite simply if the men wore the same kind. We hastened to assure her that they did not — drew for them our kind of headgear.

“And do no men wear feathers in their hats?”

“Only Indians,” Jeff explained. “Savages, you know.” And he sketched a war bonnet to show them.

“And soldiers,” I added, drawing a military hat with plumes.

They never expressed horror or disapproval, nor indeed much surprise — just a keen interest. And the notes they made! — miles of them!

But to return to our pussycats. We were a good deal impressed by this achievement in breeding, and when they questioned us — I can tell you we were well pumped for information — we told of what had been done for dogs and horses and cattle, but that there was no effort applied to cats, except for show purposes.

I wish I could represent the kind, quiet, steady, ingenious way they questioned us. It was not just curiosity — they weren’t a bit more curious about us than we were about them, if as much. But they were bent on understanding our kind of civilization, and their lines of interrogation would gradually surround us and drive us in till we found ourselves up against some admissions we did not want to make.

“Are all these breeds of dogs you have made useful?” they asked.

“Oh — useful! Why, the hunting dogs and watchdogs and sheepdogs are useful — and sleddogs of course! — and ratters, I suppose, but we don’t keep dogs for their USEFULNESS. The dog is ‘the friend of man,’ we say — we love them.”

That they understood. “We love our cats that way. They surely are our friends, and helpers, too. You can see how intelligent and affectionate they are.”

It was a fact. I’d never seen such cats, except in a few rare instances. Big, handsome silky things, friendly with everyone and devotedly attached to their special owners.

“You must have a heartbreaking time drowning kittens,” we suggested. But they said, “Oh, no! You see we care for them as you do for your valuable cattle. The fathers are few compared to the mothers, just a few very fine ones in each town; they live quite happily in walled gardens and the houses of their friends. But they only have a mating season once a year.”

“Rather hard on Thomas, isn’t it?” suggested Terry.

“Oh, no — truly! You see, it is many centuries that we have been breeding the kind of cats we wanted. They are healthy and happy and friendly, as you see. How do you manage with your dogs? Do you keep them in pairs, or segregate the fathers, or what?”

Then we explained that — well, that it wasn’t a question of fathers exactly; that nobody wanted a — a mother dog; that, well, that practically all our dogs were males — there was only a very small percentage of females allowed to live.

Then Zava, observing Terry with her grave sweet smile, quoted back at him: “Rather hard on Thomas, isn’t it? Do they enjoy it — living without mates? Are your dogs as uniformly healthy and sweet-tempered as our cats?”

Jeff laughed, eyeing Terry mischievously. As a matter of fact we began to feel Jeff something of a traitor — he so often flopped over and took their side of things; also his medical knowledge gave him a different point of view somehow.

“I’m sorry to admit,” he told them, “that the dog, with us, is the most diseased of any animal — next to man. And as to temper — there are always some dogs who bite people — especially children.”

That was pure malice. You see, children were the — the RAISON D’ETRE in this country. All our interlocutors sat up straight at once. They were still gentle, still restrained, but there was a note of deep amazement in their voices.

“Do we understand that you keep an animal — an unmated male animal — that bites children? About how many are there of them, please?”

“Thousands — in a large city,” said Jeff, “and nearly every family has one in the country.”

Terry broke in at this. “You must not imagine they are all dangerous — it’s not one in a hundred that ever bites anybody. Why, they are the best friends of the children — a boy doesn’t have half a chance that hasn’t a dog to play with!”

“And the girls?” asked Somel.

“Oh — girls — why they like them too,” he said, but his voice flatted a little. They always noticed little things like that, we found later.

Little by little they wrung from us the fact that the friend of man, in the city, was a prisoner; was taken out for his meager exercise on a leash; was liable not only to many diseases but to the one destroying horror of rabies; and, in many cases, for the safety of the citizens, had to go muzzled. Jeff maliciously added vivid instances he had known or read of injury and death from mad dogs.

They did not scold or fuss about it. Calm as judges, those women were. But they made notes; Moadine read them to us.

“Please tell me if I have the facts correct,” she said. “In your country — and in others too?”

“Yes,” we admitted, “in most civilized countries.”

“In most civilized countries a kind of animal is kept which is no longer useful —”

“They are a protection,” Terry insisted. “They bark if burglars try to get in.”

Then she made notes of “burglars” and went on: “because of the love which people bear to this animal.”

Zava interrupted here. “Is it the men or the women who love this animal so much?”

“Both!” insisted Terry.

“Equally?” she inquired.

And Jeff said, “Nonsense, Terry — you know men like dogs better than women do — as a whole.”

“Because they love it so much — especially men. This animal is kept shut up, or chained.”

“Why?” suddenly asked Somel. “We keep our father cats shut up because we do not want too much fathering; but they are not chained — they have large grounds to run in.”

“A valuable dog would be stolen if he was let loose,” I said. “We put collars on them, with the owner’s name, in case they do stray. Besides, they get into fights — a valuable dog might easily be killed by a bigger one.”

“I see,” she said. “They fight when they meet — is that common?” We admitted that it was.

“They are kept shut up, or chained.” She paused again, and asked, “Is not a dog fond of running? Are they not built for speed?” That we admitted, too, and Jeff, still malicious, enlightened them further.

“I’ve always thought it was a pathetic sight, both ways — to see a man or a woman taking a dog to walk — at the end of a string.”

“Have you bred them to be as neat in their habits as cats are?” was the next question. And when Jeff told them of the effect of dogs on sidewalk merchandise and the streets generally, they found it hard to believe.

You see, their country was as neat as a Dutch kitchen, and as to sanitation — but I might as well start in now with as much as I can remember of the history of this amazing country before further description.

And I’ll summarize here a bit as to our opportunities for learning it. I will not try to repeat the careful, detailed account I lost; I’ll just say that we were kept in that fortress a good six months all told, and after that, three in a pleasant enough city where — to Terry’s infinite disgust — there were only “Colonels” and little children — no young women whatever. Then we were under surveillance for three more — always with a tutor or a guard or both. But those months were pleasant because we were really getting acquainted with the girls. That was a chapter! — or will be — I will try to do justice to it.

We learned their language pretty thoroughly — had to; and they learned ours much more quickly and used it to hasten our own studies.

Jeff, who was never without reading matter of some sort, had two little books with him, a novel and a little anthology of verse; and I had one of those pocket encyclopedias — a fat little thing, bursting with facts. These were used in our education — and theirs. Then as soon as we were up to it, they furnished us with plenty of their own books, and I went in for the history part — I wanted to understand the genesis of this miracle of theirs.

And this is what happened, according to their records.

As to geography — at about the time of the Christian era this land had a free passage to the sea. I’m not saying where, for good reasons. But there was a fairly easy pass through that wall of mountains behind us, and there is no doubt in my mind that these people were of Aryan stock, and were once in contact with the best civilization of the old world. They were “white,” but somewhat darker than our northern races because of their constant exposure to sun and air.

The country was far larger then, including much land beyond the pass, and a strip of coast. They had ships, commerce, an army, a king — for at that time they were what they so calmly called us — a bi-sexual race.

What happened to them first was merely a succession of historic misfortunes such as have befallen other nations often enough. They were decimated by war, driven up from their coastline till finally the reduced population, with many of the men killed in battle, occupied this hinterland, and defended it for years, in the mountain passes. Where it was open to any possible attack from below they strengthened the natural defenses so that it became unscalably secure, as we found it.

They were a polygamous people, and a slave-holding people, like all of their time; and during the generation or two of this struggle to defend their mountain home they built the fortresses, such as the one we were held in, and other of their oldest buildings, some still in use. Nothing but earthquakes could destroy such architecture — huge solid blocks, holding by their own weight. They must have had efficient workmen and enough of them in those days.

They made a brave fight for their existence, but no nation can stand up against what the steamship companies call “an act of God.” While the whole fighting force was doing its best to defend their mountain pathway, there occurred a volcanic outburst, with some local tremors, and the result was the complete filling up of the pass — their only outlet. Instead of a passage, a new ridge, sheer and high, stood between them and the sea; they were walled in, and beneath that wall lay their whole little army. Very few men were left alive, save the slaves; and these now seized their opportunity, rose in revolt, killed their remaining masters even to the youngest boy, killed the old women too, and the mothers, intending to take possession of the country with the remaining young women and girls.

But this succession of misfortunes was too much for those infuriated virgins. There were many of them, and but few of these would-be masters, so the young women, instead of submitting, rose in sheer desperation and slew their brutal conquerors.

This sounds like Titus Andronicus, I know, but that is their account. I suppose they were about crazy — can you blame them?

There was literally no one left on this beautiful high garden land but a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women.

That was about two thousand years ago.

At first there was a period of sheer despair. The mountains towered between them and their old enemies, but also between them and escape. There was no way up or down or out — they simply had to stay there. Some were for suicide, but not the majority. They must have been a plucky lot, as a whole, and they decided to live — as long as they did live. Of course they had hope, as youth must, that something would happen to change their fate.

So they set to work, to bury the dead, to plow and sow, to care for one another.

Speaking of burying the dead, I will set down while I think of it, that they had adopted cremation in about the thirteenth century, for the same reason that they had left off raising cattle — they could not spare the room. They were much surprised to learn that we were still burying — asked our reasons for it, and were much dissatisfied with what we gave. We told them of the belief in the resurrection of the body, and they asked if our God was not as well able to resurrect from ashes as from long corruption. We told them of how people thought it repugnant to have their loved ones burn, and they asked if it was less repugnant to have them decay. They were inconveniently reasonable, those women.

Well — that original bunch of girls set to work to clean up the place and make their living as best they could. Some of the remaining slave women rendered invaluable service, teaching such trades as they knew. They had such records as were then kept, all the tools and implements of the time, and a most fertile land to work in.

There were a handful of the younger matrons who had escaped slaughter, and a few babies were born after the cataclysm — but only two boys, and they both died.

For five or ten years they worked together, growing stronger and wiser and more and more mutually attached, and then the miracle happened — one of these young women bore a child. Of course they all thought there must be a man somewhere, but none was found. Then they decided it must be a direct gift from the gods, and placed the proud mother in the Temple of Maaia — their Goddess of Motherhood — under strict watch. And there, as years passed, this wonder-woman bore child after child, five of them — all girls.

I did my best, keenly interested as I have always been in sociology and social psychology, to reconstruct in my mind the real position of these ancient women. There were some five or six hundred of them, and they were harem-bred; yet for the few preceding generations they had been reared in the atmosphere of such heroic struggle that the stock must have been toughened somewhat. Left alone in that terrific orphanhood, they had clung together, supporting one another and their little sisters, and developing unknown powers in the stress of new necessity. To this pain-hardened and work-strengthened group, who had lost not only the love and care of parents, but the hope of ever having children of their own, there now dawned the new hope.

Here at last was Motherhood, and though it was not for all of them personally, it might — if the power was inherited — found here a new race.

It may be imagined how those five Daughters of Maaia, Children of the Temple, Mothers of the Future — they had all the titles that love and hope and reverence could give — were reared. The whole little nation of women surrounded them with loving service, and waited, between a boundless hope and an equally boundless despair, to see if they, too, would be mothers.

And they were! As fast as they reached the age of twenty-five they began bearing. Each of them, like her mother, bore five daughters. Presently there were twenty-five New Women, Mothers in their own right, and the whole spirit of the country changed from mourning and mere courageous resignation to proud joy. The older women, those who remembered men, died off; the youngest of all the first lot of course died too, after a while, and by that time there were left one hundred and fifty-five parthenogenetic women, founding a new race.

They inherited all that the devoted care of that declining band of original ones could leave them. Their little country was quite safe. Their farms and gardens were all in full production. Such industries as they had were in careful order. The records of their past were all preserved, and for years the older women had spent their time in the best teaching they were capable of, that they might leave to the little group of sisters and mothers all they possessed of skill and knowledge.

There you have the start of Herland! One family, all descended from one mother! She lived to a hundred years old; lived to see her hundred and twenty-five great-granddaughters born; lived as Queen–Priestess-Mother of them all; and died with a nobler pride and a fuller joy than perhaps any human soul has ever known — she alone had founded a new race!

The first five daughters had grown up in an atmosphere of holy calm, of awed watchful waiting, of breathless prayer. To them the longed-for motherhood was not only a personal joy, but a nation’s hope. Their twenty-five daughters in turn, with a stronger hope, a richer, wider outlook, with the devoted love and care of all the surviving population, grew up as a holy sisterhood, their whole ardent youth looking forward to their great office. And at last they were left alone; the white-haired First Mother was gone, and this one family, five sisters, twenty-five first cousins, and a hundred and twenty-five second cousins, began a new race.

Here you have human beings, unquestionably, but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics, which of course we did not look for, but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine.

The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection. As to wild beasts — there were none in their sheltered land.

The power of mother-love, that maternal instinct we so highly laud, was theirs of course, raised to its highest power; and a sister-love which, even while recognizing the actual relationship, we found it hard to credit.

Terry, incredulous, even contemptuous, when we were alone, refused to believe the story. “A lot of traditions as old as Herodotus — and about as trustworthy!” he said. “It’s likely women — just a pack of women — would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize — that they scrap like anything — are frightfully jealous.”

“But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember,” drawled Jeff.

“That’s a likely story,” Terry sneered.

“Why don’t you invent a likelier one?” I asked him. “Here ARE the women — nothing but women, and you yourself admit there’s no trace of a man in the country.” This was after we had been about a good deal.

“I’ll admit that,” he growled. “And it’s a big miss, too. There’s not only no fun without ’em — no real sport — no competition; but these women aren’t WOMANLY. You know they aren’t.”

That kind of talk always set Jeff going; and I gradually grew to side with him. “Then you don’t call a breed of women whose one concern is motherhood — womanly?” he asked.

“Indeed I don’t,” snapped Terry. “What does a man care for motherhood — when he hasn’t a ghost of a chance at fatherhood? And besides — what’s the good of talking sentiment when we are just men together? What a man wants of women is a good deal more than all this ‘motherhood’!”

We were as patient as possible with Terry. He had lived about nine months among the “Colonels” when he made that outburst; and with no chance at any more strenuous excitement than our gymnastics gave us — save for our escape fiasco. I don’t suppose Terry had ever lived so long with neither Love, Combat, nor Danger to employ his superabundant energies, and he was irritable. Neither Jeff nor I found it so wearing. I was so much interested intellectually that our confinement did not wear on me; and as for Jeff, bless his heart! — he enjoyed the society of that tutor of his almost as much as if she had been a girl — I don’t know but more.

As to Terry’s criticism, it was true. These women, whose essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture, were strikingly deficient in what we call “femininity.” This led me very promptly to the conviction that those “feminine charms” we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity — developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process. But Terry came to no such conclusion.

“Just you wait till I get out!” he muttered.

Then we both cautioned him. “Look here, Terry, my boy! You be careful! They’ve been mighty good to us — but do you remember the anesthesia? If you do any mischief in this virgin land, beware of the vengeance of the Maiden Aunts! Come, be a man! It won’t be forever.”

To return to the history:

They began at once to plan and built for their children, all the strength and intelligence of the whole of them devoted to that one thing. Each girl, of course, was reared in full knowledge of her Crowning Office, and they had, even then, very high ideas of the molding powers of the mother, as well as those of education.

Such high ideals as they had! Beauty, Health, Strength, Intellect, Goodness — for those they prayed and worked.

They had no enemies; they themselves were all sisters and friends. The land was fair before them, and a great future began to form itself in their minds.

The religion they had to begin with was much like that of old Greece — a number of gods and goddesses; but they lost all interest in deities of war and plunder, and gradually centered on their Mother Goddess altogether. Then, as they grew more intelligent, this had turned into a sort of Maternal Pantheism.

Here was Mother Earth, bearing fruit. All that they ate was fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived — life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.

But very early they recognized the need of improvement as well as of mere repetition, and devoted their combined intelligence to that problem — how to make the best kind of people. First this was merely the hope of bearing better ones, and then they recognized that however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay later — through education.

Then things began to hum.

As I learned more and more to appreciate what these women had accomplished, the less proud I was of what we, with all our manhood, had done.

You see, they had had no wars. They had had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together — not by competition, but by united action.

We tried to put in a good word for competition, and they were keenly interested. Indeed, we soon found from their earnest questions of us that they were prepared to believe our world must be better than theirs. They were not sure; they wanted to know; but there was no such arrogance about them as might have been expected.

We rather spread ourselves, telling of the advantages of competition: how it developed fine qualities; that without it there would be “no stimulus to industry.” Terry was very strong on that point.

“No stimulus to industry,” they repeated, with that puzzled look we had learned to know so well. “STIMULUS? TO INDUSTRY? But don’t you LIKE to work?”

“No man would work unless he had to,” Terry declared.

“Oh, no MAN! You mean that is one of your sex distinctions?”

“No, indeed!” he said hastily. “No one, I mean, man or woman, would work without incentive. Competition is the — the motor power, you see.”

“It is not with us,” they explained gently, “so it is hard for us to understand. Do you mean, for instance, that with you no mother would work for her children without the stimulus of competition?”

No, he admitted that he did not mean that. Mothers, he supposed, would of course work for their children in the home; but the world’s work was different — that had to be done by men, and required the competitive element.

All our teachers were eagerly interested.

“We want so much to know — you have the whole world to tell us of, and we have only our little land! And there are two of you — the two sexes — to love and help one another. It must be a rich and wonderful world. Tell us — what is the work of the world, that men do — which we have not here?”

“Oh, everything,” Terry said grandly. “The men do everything, with us.” He squared his broad shoulders and lifted his chest. “We do not allow our women to work. Women are loved — idolized — honored — kept in the home to care for the children.”

“What is ‘the home’?” asked Somel a little wistfully.

But Zava begged: “Tell me first, do NO women work, really?”

“Why, yes,” Terry admitted. “Some have to, of the poorer sort.”

“About how many — in your country?”

“About seven or eight million,” said Jeff, as mischievous as ever.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17