Monday, April 21, 2003

Any reader of short stories is familiar with "The Yellow Wallpaper", by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but unfortunately the rest of her work is not widely known. I recently finished Herland and Other Stories, which I found to be clever and delightful. "Herland" is exactly what it sounds like--the tale of a female utopia, completely implausible as are all utopias, but amusing nonetheless. My favorite part was her description of the clothes designed by these uberwomen, with "pockets in surprising number and variety". Yesterday I was wearing a dress that always makes me happy, not just because it is comfortable and flattering, but because it has pockets!! Why is women's clothing so lacking in pockets?--oh right, because it's all designed by men...

All of the short stories address the emancipation of women in some way, and I found them surprisingly progressive, as well as intelligent and interesting. An unusually rebellious woman herself (she and her young daughter left her husband in the late nineteenth century, and she supported herself by writing and lecturing, becoming one of the leading speakers on women's issues and socialism), Gilman encourages women through her stories, not necessarily to leave their homes, but to find the courage to work and become economically independent. Many of the stories portray older women whose children have left home, and who are inspired by various means to open boarding houses, training schools, or women's clubs; and through the success of these ventures, they overcome the doubts of their husbands or relatives, and are in turn inspirations to other women around them.

I particularly liked the story "If I Were A Man", about a young wife who suddenly finds herself in the body of her husband, allowed to observe the world from his perspective for a day. In the end she works through him to speak out for the rights of women, but what was more striking was her revelation that, in this body, she is the right size--that everything has been arranged to fit the male figure. She revels in having pockets, possessions, and responsibility. Another excellent story is "When I Was A Witch", where a young woman wakes up one day with the power to wish punishment on all who deserve it, and is highly successful in improving the state of society until she tries for the really good wish of emancipating women--and her power deserts her.

What underlies all these stories, and particularly "Herland", is the necessity of equal education. To the uberwomen, education and continued learning is the highest goal of their society, and this desire keeps their will focussed. Gilman enlightens her characters with new ideas, and they are eager to share this wisdom and teach other women to be independent and free-thinking. In other words, they are working towards becoming citizens.

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