Why You and Your Kids Should Read Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Submitted by Ben on Mon, 11/22/2021 - 08:37

When I was in school, I frequently asked my parents for recommendations of what to read for book reports. They had an extensive collection of classic speculative fiction, so I read famous titles including The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. My high school English classes also had a few speculative fiction books as assigned reading, notably Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The only time I crossed paths with Charlotte Perkins Gilman (hereafter CPG) in school was her amazing short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper."

It wasn't until last year that I crossed paths with CPG again, in a list of science fiction by women. I had sought the list out because, as you may notice, The Dispossessed is the only one of those "classics" with a female author. With the help of my local public library and LibriVox, I devoured the books on the list. Long story short (and some were quite long), CPG's utopian trilogy stood out as exceptional. If you're not familiar, here's a quick rundown:

  • In Moving the Mountain (1911), the male narrator returns from 30 years of isolation to find that the world has been transformed by putting women in charge for a change. He is baffled as to how this has occurred and interviews a variety of people about their experience.
  • In Herland (1915), a different male narrator and two male companions find an isolated land where there have been no men for 2000 years, and the women reproduce asexually. After learning the language and culture, the three men eventually find brides, but one is banished for attempting to rape his, and the narrator and his wife leave with him.
  • With Her in Ourland (1916) picks up where Herland left off as the narrator and his asexual wife tour the outside world. She has high hopes for it but ultimately forms an unfavorable opinion and delivers a detailed prescription for how things might be improved before they at last return to Herland.

They're not only the best books I found on that list, they're better than many of the "classics" in my opinion. What I'm going to argue here is why you — and any kids in your life who may ask you for recommendations — should read these CPG novels as well as, or instead of, some of those more famous works.

1. She addresses social issues better than a lot of authors of her time or ours.

First, the elephant in the room: CPG wrote about controversial issues, and eugenics was among them. Here's a good critique by The Paris Review, if you're looking for that. But H.G. Wells (her contemporary) endorsed eugenics and hasn't been "canceled" for it; heck, a lot of European and American authors were advocating eugenics right up until the Nuremberg trials revealed that the Nazis were inspired by us. We need to read and discuss what people were thinking at the time — when evolution was still a new theory, and lacking as they did our knowledge of the human genome or epigenetics and clumsily applying what they knew about animal breeding — to make sense of that history. I think CPG's writing may help shed more light on the subject than a lot of others'. Here's why.

The opinions expressed in her fiction are the words of secondary characters and not of the narrators. Her narrators, who stand in for us readers, remain unconvinced to the end. Contrast that with Brave New World, where the narrator is an enthusiastic supporter of the industrial breeding of humans. While many of us readers understand that the narrator is sarcastically expressing the opposite of Huxley's views, can we take for granted that all readers do? It's risky. Whereas, even if one or more of CPG's characters expressed her own opinions, there are other characters with different opinions, and we're free to pick and choose what to believe. In particular, when the titular character of With Her in Ourland expresses some unfortunate (and notably pre-WWII) opinions about Jews, so what? Why would someone who reproduces asexually, from a culture with no domesticated animals, know anything at all about heredity? By putting those views in that character's mouth, CPG makes them sound as ignorant as they frankly are.

But more importantly, race is not her topic. These novels are about the roles of women and men in society, and her arguments in favor of putting women in charge are at least as compelling today as they may have been a hundred years ago. Readers at the time almost certainly overlooked her mainstream views on race because her views on sex were so far outside the mainstream. Now, LeGuin and Heinlein also wrote about gender roles, but Heinlein's opinions … haven't aged well … and LeGuin's societies are so foreign to ours that it's hard to imagine how we would get there. CPG's whole argument boils down to, why not just give women a turn leading? It's simple, it's memorable, and it's dramatic.

There's also a discussion of the pros and cons of socialism in these books that is as fresh today as it was a century ago. Then as now, Americans were anxious to reject anything resembling socialism, and CPG's characters (again, not the narrators) gently point out how ridiculous that is. It's humbling to see how little the conversation has changed in a hundred years. Wells also makes a case for socialism in In the Days of the Comet and Men Like Gods, but it's so tepid and wistful, I imagine CPG's characters exclaiming, "What are you afraid of?"

2. She does Socratic dialogue better than Plato. Or pretty much anyone else.

By casting the narrators of Moving the Mountain and Herland as ignorant outsiders, CPG puts them in position to ask lots of naïve questions that people within those societies wouldn't have reason to ask. This neatly sidesteps the problem many science fiction writers perpetually have — notably including Wells but also many others to this day — of finding a narrative excuse to explain how things work. It's particularly impactful, then, when CPG flips the script in With Her in Ourland, and an outsider gets to see our own society and ask the questions that we all probably should ask but don't.

The world's customs as presented in With Her in Ourland are surprisingly timeless, with the exceptions of Chinese footbinding and western women's hats! In my opinion that makes the book more impactful than Stranger in a Strange Land, where the early-1960s culture the Martian explores was meant to be familiar to readers but instead is more quaintly obsolete with each passing year, and also more so than Brave New World, where The Savage actually is a stranger in a very strange land! Having a foot solidly planted in familiar territory makes the social critique more effective, in my opinion.

I can't help also making a comparison to Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, which is a philosophical treatise posing as sociology thinly disguised as fiction. I was bonkers about that book for a few years in my early 20's, but while at the time I excused its thin narrative as a delivery mechanism for the Socratic dialogue, I soon realized the dialogue wasn't very good either. In my opinion, both CPG's dialogues and her stories are much better.

When I say better dialogue and narrative, what I mean is that it flows naturally, without one character having to lead the other. If one character holds all the information and only asks questions rhetorically to steer the conversation on to the next topic, as Ishmael and Socrates often did, that feels forced to me. Similarly, if the plot of the story exists only to bring the characters together in conversation, that's a pretty thin plot. The narrators in CPG's books are interested in exploring their worlds and figuring out where they fit in, and the conversations are a means toward that end rather than vice versa.

3. She was a badass.

CPG was not some kind of hero or saint; she was a human being who made mistakes like all of us. But in her personal life as well as her professional life, she lived authentically true to herself when others wanted her to conform, and she gave countless others encouragement to do the same. She supported herself and her work financially when most women relied on their husbands' income. She helped to fuel the first wave of the feminist movement and other progressive social causes. She saw beyond women's suffrage and higher education, beyond mental healthcare and socialism, beyond full equality for women, to a well-deserved leadership role in society, and she wasn't afraid to talk and write openly about her controversial ideas.

4. She is an exemplar of good English writing.

CPG wrote just an absolute ton, in language that doesn't seem dated like that of many of her contemporaries. The quality of her writing is perhaps the more surprising because she had no editor. She self-published these novels in her own magazine, The Forerunner, where she also wrote all of the other features from nonfiction to poetry. So when I say Wells and Quinn didn't write dialogues as well as her, and that the other female SF writers on that list didn't wow me, that's after their editors had worked them over. Who's to say what their writing was like before it was edited?

Wells's writing in particular really drags by today's standards. In the Days of the Comet (1906) spends about half its length telling the tedious backstory of the narrator before the comet arrives and makes all of that irrelevant. CPG's Moving the Mountain (1911), by contrast, jumps right into the action, and her other books do the same. By the time Wells wrote Men Like Gods (1923), he had finally learned to start the action along with the book, but he wrote a lot of other slow starters in the meantime which remain difficult to read today.

And it's not just her fiction. Her nonfiction inspired letters of praise and commiseration from other luminaries of the day, some of which you will find in the preface to her autobiography, and her poetry — well, poetry is subjective, but personally I prefer her common metre to Emily Dickinson's. Your mileage may vary.

CPG's writing deserves to be read, not because the author was a badass, not because she was right about a lot of things, but because it's good writing. If you or a kid in your life are looking for something to read, whether it's for a book report or a book club or just for fun, why not read a good story, well told? That's my recommendation.

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