[Posted by Ron Boothe on behalf of Burk Ketcham]
On May 4, 2011 the members of The Retired Men’s Book Club met at the home of Bill Hagens to discuss “Herland” written in 1915 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Herland is an utopian novella about an isolated country where the only inhabitants are female and where there has been no contact with the rest of civilization for 2,000 years. The Herlander’s first contact with the outside world comes when three single American male adventurers arrive and scale the cliffs which have kept outsiders away. The three men are of different temperaments. Terry is the wealthy macho male who has always been the ladies’ man, Jeff is a physician who puts women on a pedestal and Van, the narrator of the story, is a sociologist with an open and inquisitive mind. They learn that the continuation of female human life in Herland is perpetuated through parthenogenesis
The story traces their experiences as captives of these physically strong, healthy and intelligent women and in learning the language and the nature of the Herland society. The central theme of the book, given the author’s feminist and socialist background, was to show that women are capable of much more than was expected and required of them in the confining and patriarchal dominated society of 1915 in the United States.
Burk Ketcham, who had selected the book, suggested that the discussion be divided into two parts.
The first part would be to discuss the book itself and some of the shortcomings of our society both then and now as they relate to Herland’s nurturing of children for the common good, their form of education, their religion, their practice of sustainability, their ability to limit population growth, and their common goals in always looking for improvements in their society.
The second part would be to address this question : If it had been cave woman rather than cave man who had become the dominant sex of homo sapiens from prehistoric times on how do you think the history of modern civilization would be different from the way we now know it?
Suffice it to say that there was a spirited discussion that mixed the two parts into one overall discussion. I am not going to try to summarize the results of this dialogue and would request that those in attendance add their own interpretations or their reactions to the book and the discussion.
Prior to the meeting Burk Ketcham asked several women to provide their own reactions to the Part 2 question. Their responses were as follows:
I put my email to the RMBC under the door of my neighbor Kim Gilford who originally put me on to “Herland.” She put a note under my door with this comment: Your question got me thinking. If women had been dominant from the beginning, would they have evolved differently to maintain that power, with the resulting gender more akin to what is identified as masculine? We see this more as women reach a truer equality, although the question becomes whether they are adapting to the existing male structure or if power/competition/ambition creates certain traits.
The following is from my friend Judy Olson whom most of you know:
Also an interesting question, altho I believe we always have to consider the DNA, hormones, etc., etc. that are an innate part of the physicality of each gender. For example, I believe that women, even tho they might be very well trained physically, cannot (usually) do some of the things men can do concerning things that need physical strength just because of their different musculature. Well, they CAN do those things, but they usually think of ways other than using muscles to accomplish the activity. On the other hand, I understand that women in, for example, the Israeli army can be quite effective soldiers. I guess I will have to read the book to develop a more informed opinion. What an interesting discussion you are going to have at your next book club!!!!
The following is from my friend Judith Jaynes, a psychotherapist living in Santa Fe.
Well, what we have here is the age-old question of: Which influence is greater – Nature or Nurture? People in many fields have been wrestling with that one for quite some time, under the umbrellas of varied and diverse disciplines…I am not aware of any definitive or conclusive results but it makes for fascinating discussion, especially when one addresses the topic of gender differences, real and perceived…Good to revisit this question…I appreciated Kim’s comments on this very much…
(My doctoral dissertation, completed during my very militant feminist days, addressed the topic of psychological androgyny.)
In answer to my question as to what is psychological androgyny, Judith sent the following:
Someone who is androgynous has both male and female traits (“male” and “female” as described by traditional stereotypes). For example, an androgynous person is capable of exhibiting leadership qualities and also of demonstrating nurturing support. His or her behavior is determined by what is appropriate for a specific situation rather than by expectations based on, and subsequently, limited by, gender.
The androgynous individual is simply a female or male who has a high degree of both feminine (expressive) and masculine (instrumental) traits. Androgynous men and women are more flexible and balanced than those who identify with, and adhere to, rigidly defined sex roles. (Some researchers describe them as more “mentally healthy” because of this.) It doesn’t really have anything to do with whether the person is heterosexual or homosexual.
The following was sent to me by my daughter in law Joan Soble who teaches high school students and teachers in the Cambridge, MA school system. Joan is unique in being an Ivy Leaguer (Harvard undergrad and Brown grad) who has made a strong commitment to urban education. Several of her former students are well known. Think Matt Damon and Ben Aflick in Hollywood and Patrick Ewing of the NBA. Joan recently was named to represent Massachusetts in the National Education Association’s 2012 NEA National Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence which brings a $25,000 first prize.
Meanwhile, I think your friend Kim and I are thinking along the same lines — wondering what effect the status of being dominant has on anyone’s development. It’s like asking the question, “Does dominance corrupt or simply empower?”
In Herland the mothers turn over the education of their daughters at an early age to those determined most qualified to be teachers. This seems to be in line with current thinking that the rapid brain growth during early childhood is vital to the fundamental wiring of the brain.
There are voices in our society saying that we in the United States should pay more attention to how our children are raised in our society. Listen to Dr. Kathryn Barnard of the University of Washington:
I think we have reached the limit of how free and independent we can be. To be responsible citizens we have to understand how people raise their children is not just a matter for the family but for all society – and we have to accept some responsibility as a society for how our children are raised. We have to deal with this resistance that we have, that children are only the responsibility of their parents, period. And we have to ask communities and individuals in communities to accept the collective need that exists to support parents in caregiving.