Feminism in Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and When It Changed by Joanna Russ
During the long history of science fiction, one of the most common themes is the utopia. Many feminists used utopia to convey their ideas. Two of these stories, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ portray feminist utopias in different ways. Herland shows a society lacking men, and makes this seem positive, while "When It Changed" shows an all-female society that mirrors a world with men. Through their respective stories, the authors are saying that women should be considered equal to men. Gilman points out that women should be accepted because they can survive on their own, while Russ suggests that women can be as strong as men if necessary.
Herland is the story of three men that stumble upon a society populated entirely by women. This culture is superior in virtually all ways to the world of the men. The narrator is one of the visiting men, and he is constantly in awe of the perfection. The women of Herland know no poverty, hunger, or evil. This novel was written in a time when the women’s movement was in its earliest stages. This parallels the fact that Herland, and most utopias, are found in distant, isolated locations. Gilman’s portrayal of a utopian feminist society is perfect, without any outwardly apparent flaws. Although her view is exaggerated, she suggests that a society made up of all females would be superior to one with both sexes, and, in saying this, she makes a powerful statement for women’s equality. Bernice Hausman writes, "Gilman’s social Darwinism… rested on the ‘assertion that women, as a collective entity, could, if they chose, be the moving force in the recognition of society.’" (14)
In the story by Joanna Russ, the feminist utopia is given a totally different look. The main characters, Katy and Janet, are women, yet they have many traits usually attributed to stereotypical men. Janet mentions the three duels that she has fought several times (Russ 946). In the reader’s mind, dueling and fighting are activities usually reserved for men. The environment of Whileaway is a very harsh one, and consequently the women that live there have to be much stronger and self-sufficient. In this story, Russ uses Katy and Janet to say that women are fundamentally equal to men.
The world created in Herland is intended to appear flawless and unattainable, but seems more like fantasy than science fiction. For instance, scientific explanations are not always available to describe the events that lead to the state of the society. When compared to Herland, Russ’s story has many more elements of science fiction, in that the society is explained in a scientific manner. Conversely, Herland is more of a utopia than Whileaway, in that Whileaway does not appear superior to the current world. By definition a utopia is written to suggest improvements to society,...