Women in Power
In 1915 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a funny but unsettling story called Herland. As the title hints, it’s a fantasy about a nation of women – and women only – that has existed for two thousand years in some remote, still unexplored part of the globe. A magnificent utopia: clean and tidy, collaborative, peaceful (even the cats have stopped killing the birds), brilliantly organised in everything from its sustainable agriculture and delicious food to its social services and education. And it all depends on one miraculous innovation. At the very beginning of its history, the founding mothers had somehow perfected the technique of parthenogenesis. The practical details are a bit unclear, but the women somehow just gave birth to baby girls, with no intervention from men at all. There was no sex in Herland.
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Vol. 39 No. 8 · 20 April 2017
Mary Beard wants to explore the unconscious cultural supports of women’s exclusion from power, but her recourse to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland strikes me as a mistake (LRB, 16 March). She commends the fictional community of Gilman’s novel as a ‘magnificent utopia: clean and tidy, collaborative, peaceful (the cats have stopped killing the birds), brilliantly organised in everything from its sustainable agriculture and delicious food to its social services and education.’ This ‘exemplary state’, Beard notes, is located ‘in some remote, still unexplored part of the globe’ – but the novel in fact tells us a little more. Herland exists on a plateau at the top of a mountain in a jungle region inhabited by black savages who function in the book as primitive racial foils to the ideal civilisation that has established its superiority in the most literal way possible. ‘Women are still perceived as belonging outside power,’ Beard argues. ‘The shared metaphors we use of female access to power – knocking on the door, storming the citadel, smashing the glass ceiling, or just giving them a leg up – underline female exteriority.’ Gilman’s novel expels white men from the citadel only to repopulate it with white women, a project fully in line with Gilman’s evolutionary feminism, which is additionally compromised by a social and genetic, as well as a cultural and sexual, supremacism: the primary aim of the Herland community is the ‘progress of the race’, to which end women considered ‘bad stock’ are not permitted to reproduce.
University of York
Mary Beard may be doing Charlotte Perkins Gilman a disservice when she interprets the ending of With Her in Ourland, the sequel to Herland, as a capitulation to patriarchy. It would be an odd change of heart on Gilman’s part, even if the final sentence to the sequel (‘In due time a son was born to us’) does imply a male future for the parthenogenetic Herlanders, who have developed the capacity to conceive girls without male intervention. Beard is right, of course, to recognise the ‘mastery’ of Terry by the women of Herland, following his attempted marital rape of Alima, as a key event in the earlier novel. But the tendency to see female autonomy and strength as the only utopian aspiration eclipses the fact that what constitutes progress in the novel is gradual male improvement – an evolutionary pathway that brutes like Terry fall away from.
In her much earlier work, Women and Economics, Gilman (then Stetson) deplores the ‘morbid’ development of sex distinction, which in her view created a social environment that led women to depend on men for their survival. Other contemporary commentators thought the same, but Gilman was distinctive in believing the solution to this problem lay not in female liberation, but male progress. She cites the 19th-century American sociologist Lester Ward’s reference to ‘the millions and millions of years when puny, pygmy, parasitic males struggled for existence’, and presents the long current phase of male dominance as a strategic policy on the part of the female sex to bring males up to their level. Women, in Gilman’s scheme, have been playing a long evolutionary game: ‘With a full knowledge of the initial superiority of her sex and the sociological necessity for its temporary subversion, she should feel only a deep and tender pride in the long patient ages during which she has waited and suffered, that man might slowly rise to full racial equality with her.’
Like the Greek myths, the Christian foundational story of power ‘serves to keep women out of it’. It gives the supporting role of mother of God to a virgin who conceives without sex and gives birth without labour. What is less well known than it used to be is that Mary was attended by midwives. The apocryphal Legend of the Doubting Midwife tells how Joseph finds two midwives, who arrive after the birth. One falls to her knees and worships, but the other, the true professional, insists on a post-partum examination. On touching the sacred vagina, her hand is withered and blasted. Healed by touching the baby, she is portrayed in early modern paintings as sad, puzzled and chastened. Such is the fate of the uppity female professional.
These midwives appeared in countless representations and retellings of the Nativity down the centuries. Yet while male art historians have analysed the iconography of the Magi, the shepherds, even the ox and the ass, they have tended not to notice the women also present. If mentioned at all, they have usually been dismissed as ‘servants’ or ‘handmaidens’. Their rediscovery has been left to feminist scholars.
From Florence Nightingale on, we female professionals in nursing and midwifery have slowly raised our status by being nice girls. We burnish our lamps and keep smiling as we obey the doctors and managers. We play the game while trying to change the rules, and where that isn’t possible, to subvert them. We hate patronising politicians and Carry On stereotypes. Investment in high-quality nursing and midwifery is a neglected solution to the NHS crisis, but to empower nurses and midwives further goes against the cultural grain. The higher up the hierarchy one rises in the health system, the fewer women one meets, though the majority of health workers are women. We continue to be excluded from many top tables, and find when we get there that our talk of birth, death and caring makes the chaps uncomfortable.
Lewes, East Sussex
Mary Beard wonders ‘if, in some places, the presence of large numbers of women in the national legislature means that that is where the power is not’. The latest United Nations Human Development Report gives statistics for 2015 on women’s development as a proportion of men’s and women’s share of seats in national parliaments. The data indicate that many countries with relatively high proportions of women MPs also have low women’s development compared with men’s, measured in terms of life expectancy, years of schooling and income. For example, Bolivia, Senegal and Ethiopia rank second (52 per cent), fifth (43 per cent) and 20th (37 per cent) when the measure is the number of women in parliament. (Rankings are from the 157 countries for which both sets of data are available.) But they rank only 98th, 122nd and 139th when it comes to women’s development.
At the other extreme, the parliaments of Russia, Brazil and Thailand are only 15 per cent (113th), 11 per cent (133rd) and 6 per cent (146th) female. But in each of these countries women’s development is better than men’s: they rank eighth, 14th and 18th respectively. Qatar, which has no female MPs, ranks 30th for women’s development.
The figures for the UK and the US are 26.7 per cent (49th) and 19.5 per cent (83rd) as to women in their parliaments, but they are ranked 69th and 27th for women’s development. Kenya, whose president was publicly chided by Barack Obama last year for its women’s lowly status, has more female MPs than the US, with 20.8 per cent (70th), despite ranking 113th in women’s development. And Afghanistan has more female MPs than the UK and the US, at 27.4 per cent (46th), but lies bottom (157th) for women’s development.
The world average for women MPs is 22.5 per cent. On the UN index of human development, women’s development is at parity with or greater than men’s in 20 countries. Overall there is only a 21 per cent positive correlation between women’s share of parliamentary seats and the level of their human development compared with men’s, and only a 19 per cent correlation with human development in general.
What isn’t clear is what Beard sees as the purpose of women having greater power.