The yellow wallpaper and.., p.12
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories,
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
There was literally no one left on this beautiful high garden land but a bunch of hysterical girls and some older slave women.
That was about two thousand years ago.
At first there was a period of sheer despair. The mountains towered between them and their old enemies, but also between them and escape. There was no way up or down or out—they simply had to stay there. Some were for suicide, but not the majority. They must have been a plucky lot, as a whole, and they decided to live—as long as they did live. Of course they had hope, as youth must, that something would happen to change their fate.
So they set to work, to bury the dead, to plow and sow, to care for one another.
Speaking of burying the dead, I will set down while I think of it, that they had adopted cremation in about the thirteenth century, for the same reason that they had left off raising cattle—they could not spare the room. They were much surprised to learn that we were still burying—asked our reasons for it, and were much dissatisfied with what we gave. We told them of the belief in the resurrection of the body, and they asked if our God was not as well able to resurrect from ashes as from long corruption. We told them of how people thought it repugnant to have their loved ones burn, and they asked if it was less repugnant to have them decay. They were inconveniently reasonable, those women.
Well—that original bunch of girls set to work to clean up the place and make their living as best they could. Some of the remaining slave women rendered invaluable service, teaching such trades as they knew. They had such records as were then kept, all the tools and implements of the time, and a most fertile land to work in.
There were a handful of the younger matrons who had escaped slaughter, and a few babies were born after the cataclysm—but only two boys, and they both died.
For five or ten years they worked together, growing stronger and wiser and more and more mutually attached, and then the miracle happened—one of these young women bore a child. Of course they all thought there must be a man somewhere, but none was found. Then they decided it must be a direct gift from the gods, and placed the proud mother in the Temple of Maaia—their Goddess of Motherhood—under strict watch. And there, as years passed, this wonder-woman bore child after child, five of them—all girls.
I did my best, keenly interested as I have always been in sociology and social psychology, to reconstruct in my mind the real position of these ancient women. There were some five or six hundred of them, and they were harem-bred; yet for the few preceding generations they had been reared in the atmosphere of such heroic struggle that the stock must have been toughened somewhat. Left alone in that terrific orphan-hood, they had clung together, supporting one another and their little sisters, and developing unknown powers in the stress of new necessity. To this pain-hardened and work-strengthened group, who had lost not only the love and care of parents, but the hope of ever having children of their own, there now dawned the new hope.
Here at last was Motherhood, and though it was not for all of them personally, it might—if the power was inherited—found here a new race.
It may be imagined how those five Daughters of Maaia, Children of the Temple, Mothers of the Future—they had all the titles that love and hope and reverence could give—were reared. The whole little nation of women surrounded them with loving service, and waited, between a boundless hope and an equally boundless despair, to see if they, too, would be mothers.
And they were! As fast as they reached the age of twenty-five they began bearing. Each of them, like her mother, bore five daughters. Presently there were twenty-five New Women, Mothers in their own right, and the whole spirit of the country changed from mourning and mere courageous resignation to proud joy. The older women, those who remembered men, died off; the youngest of all the first lot of course died too, after a while, and by that time there were left one hundred and fifty-five parthenogenetic women, founding a new race.
They inherited all that the devoted care of that declining band of original ones could leave them. Their little country was quite safe. Their farms and gardens were all in full production. Such industries as they had were in careful order. The records of their past were all preserved, and for years the older women had spent their time in the best teaching they were capable of, that they might leave to the little group of sisters and mothers all they possessed of skill and knowledge.
There you have the start of Herland! One family, all descended from one mother! She lived to a hundred years old; lived to see her hundred and twenty-five great-granddaughters born; lived as Queen-Priestess-Mother of them all; and died with a nobler pride and a fuller joy than perhaps any human soul has ever known—she alone had founded a new race!
The first five daughters had grown up in an atmosphere of holy calm, of awed watchful waiting, of breathless prayer. To them the longed-for motherhood was not only a personal joy, but a nation’s hope. Their twenty-five daughters in turn, with a stronger hope, a richer, wider outlook, with the devoted love and care of all the surviving population, grew up as a holy sisterhood, their whole ardent youth looking forward to their great office. And at last they were left alone; the white-haired First Mother was gone, and this one family, five sisters, twenty-five first cousins, and a hundred and twenty-five second cousins, began a new race.
Here you have human beings, unquestionably, but what we were slow in understanding was how these ultra-women, inheriting only from women, had eliminated not only certain masculine characteristics, which of course we did not look for, but so much of what we had always thought essentially feminine.
The tradition of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection. As to wild beasts—there were none in their sheltered land.
The power of mother-love, that maternal instinct we so highly laud, was theirs of course, raised to its highest power; and a sister-love which, even while recognizing the actual relationship, we found it hard to credit.
Terry, incredulous, even contemptuous, when we were alone, refused to believe the story. “A lot of traditions as old as Herodotus—and about as trustworthy!” he said. “It’s likely women—just a pack of women—would have hung together like that! We all know women can’t organize—that they scrap like anything—are frightfully jealous.”
“But these New Ladies didn’t have anyone to be jealous of, remember,” drawled Jeff.
“That’s a likely story,” Terry sneered.
“Why don’t you invent a likelier one?” I asked him. “Here are the women—nothing but women, and you yourself admit there’s no trace of a man in the country.” This was after we had been about a good deal.
“I’ll admit that,” he growled. “And it’s a big miss, too. There’s not only no fun without ’em—no real sport—no competition; but these women aren’t womanly. You know they aren’t.”
That kind of talk always set Jeff going; and I gradually grew to side with him. “Then you don’t call a breed of women whose one concern is motherhood—womanly?” he asked.
“Indeed I don’t,” snapped Terry. “What does a man care for motherhood—when he hasn’t a ghost of a chance at fatherhood? And besides—what’s the good of talking sentiment when we are just men together? What a man wants of women is a good deal more than all this ‘motherhood’!”
We were as patient as possible with Terry. He had lived about nine months among the “Colonels” when he made that outburst; and with no chance at any more strenuous excitement than our gymnastics gave us—save for our escape fiasco. I don’t suppose Terry had ever lived so long with neither Love, Combat, nor Danger to employ his superabundant energies, and he was irritable. Neither Jeff nor I found it so wearing. I was so much interested intellectually that our confinement did not wear on me; and as for Jeff, bless his heart!—he enjoyed the society of that tutor of his almost as much as if she had been a girl—I don’t know but more.
As to Terry’s criticism, it was true. These women, whose es
“Just you wait till I get out!” he muttered.
Then we both cautioned him. “Look here, Terry, my boy! You be careful! They’ve been mighty good to us—but do you remember the anesthesia? If you do any mischief in this virgin land, beware of the vengeance of the Maiden Aunts! Come, be a man! It won’t be forever.”
To return to the history:
They began at once to plan and build for their children, all the strength and intelligence of the whole of them devoted to that one thing. Each girl, of course, was reared in full knowledge of her Crowning Office, and they had, even then, very high ideas of the molding powers of the mother, as well as those of education.
Such high ideals as they had! Beauty, Health, Strength, Intellect, Goodness—for these they prayed and worked.
They had no enemies; they themselves were all sisters and friends. The land was fair before them, and a great future began to form itself in their minds.
The religion they had to begin with was much like that of old Greece—a number of gods and goddesses; but they lost all interest in deities of war and plunder, and gradually centered on their Mother Goddess altogether. Then, as they grew more intelligent, this had turned into a sort of Maternal Pantheism.
Here was Mother Earth, bearing fruit. All that they ate was fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived—life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.
But very early they recognized the need of improvement as well as of mere repetition, and devoted their combined intelligence to that problem—how to make the best kind of people. First this was merely the hope of bearing better ones, and then they recognized that however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay later—through education.
Then things began to hum.
As I learned more and more to appreciate what these women had accomplished, the less proud I was of what we, with all our manhood, had done.
You see, they had had no wars. They had had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united action.
We tried to put in a good word for competition, and they were keenly interested. Indeed, we soon found from their earnest questions of us that they were prepared to believe our world must be better than theirs. They were not sure; they wanted to know; but there was no such arrogance about them as might have been expected.
We rather spread ourselves, telling of the advantages of competition: how it developed fine qualities; that without it there would be “no stimulus to industry.” Terry was very strong on that point.
“No stimulus to industry,” they repeated, with that puzzled look we had learned to know so well. “Stimulus? To industry? But don’t you like to work?”
“No man would work unless he had to,” Terry declared.
“Oh, no man! You mean that is one of your sex distinctions?”
“No, indeed!” he said hastily. “No one, I mean, man or woman, would work without incentive. Competition is the—the motor power, you see.”
“It is not with us,” they explained gently, “so it is hard for us to understand. Do you mean, for instance, that with you no mother would work for her children without the stimulus of competition?”
No, he admitted that he did not mean that. Mothers, he supposed, would of course work for their children in the home; but the world’s work was different—that had to be done by men, and required the competitive element.
All our teachers were eagerly interested.
“We want so much to know—you have the whole world to tell us of, and we have only our little land! And there are two of you—the two sexes—to love and help one another. It must be a rich and wonderful world. Tell us—what is the work of the world, that men do—which we have not here?”
“Oh, everything,” Terry said grandly. “The men do everything, with us.” He squared his broad shoulders and lifted his chest. “We do not allow our women to work. Women are loved—idolized—honored—kept in the home to care for the children.”
“What is ‘the home’?” asked Somel a little wistfully.
But Zava begged: “Tell me first, do no women work, really?”
“Why, yes,” Terry admitted. “Some have to, of the poorer sort.”
“About how many—in your country?”
“About seven or eight million,” said Jeff, as mischievous as ever.
COMPARISONS ARE ODIOUS
DO YOU mind telling what you intend to do with us?” Terry burst forth one day, facing the calm and friendly Moadine with that funny half-blustering air of his. At first he used to storm and flourish quite a good deal, but nothing seemed to amuse them more; they would gather around and watch him as if it was an exhibition, politely, but with evident interest. So he learned to check himself, and was almost reasonable in his bearing—but not quite.
She announced smoothly and evenly: “Not in the least. I thought it was quite plain. We are trying to learn of you all we can, and to teach you what you are willing to learn of our country.”
“Is that all?” he insisted.
She smiled a quiet enigmatic smile. “That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Mainly on yourselves,” she replied.
“Why do you keep us shut up so closely?”
“Because we do not feel quite safe in allowing you at large where there are so many young women.”
Terry was really pleased at that. He had thought as much, inwardly; but he pushed the question. “Why should you be afraid? We are gentlemen.”
She smiled that little smile again, and asked: “Are ‘gentlemen’ always safe?”
“You surely do not think that any of us,” he said it with a good deal of emphasis on the “us,” “would hurt your young girls?”
“Oh no,” she said quickly, in real surprise. “The danger is quite the other way. They might hurt you. If, by any accident, you did harm any one of us, you would have to face a million mothers.”
He looked so amazed and outraged that Jeff and I laughed outright, but she went on gently.
“I do not think you quite understand yet. You are but men, three men, in a country where the whole population are mothers—or are going to be. Motherhood means to us something which I cannot yet discover in any of the countries of which you tell us. You have spoken”—she turned to Jeff—“of Human Brotherhood as a great idea among you, but even that I judge is far from a practical expression?”
Jeff nodded rather sadly. “Very far—” he said.
“Here we have Human Motherhood—in full working use,” she went on. “Nothing else except the literal sisterhood of our origin, and the far higher and deeper union of our social growth.
“The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them—on the race. You see, we are Mothers,” she repeated, as if in that she had said it all.
“I don’t see how that fact—which is shared by all women—constitutes any risk to us,” Terry persisted. “You mean they would defend their children from attack. Of course. Any mothers would. But we are not savages, my dear lady; we are not going to hurt any mother’s child.”
They looked at one another and shook their heads a little, but Zava turned to Jeff and urged him to make us see—said he seemed to understand more fully than we did. And he tried.
I can see it now, or at least much more of it, but it has taken me a long time, and a good deal of honest intellec
What they call Motherhood was like this:
They began with a really high degree of social development, something like that of Ancient Egypt or Greece. Then they suffered the loss of everything masculine, and supposed at first that all human power and safety had gone too. Then they developed this virgin birth capacity. Then, since the prosperity of their children depended on it, the fullest and subtlest coordination began to be practiced.
I remember how long Terry balked at the evident unanimity of these women—the most conspicuous feature of their whole culture. “It’s impossible!” he would insist. “Women cannot cooperate—it’s against nature.”
When we urged the obvious facts he would say: “Fiddlesticks!” or “Hang your facts—I tell you it can’t be done!” And we never succeeded in shutting him up till Jeff dragged in the hymenoptera.
“ ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard’—and learn something,” he said triumphantly. “Don’t they cooperate pretty well? You can’t beat it. This place is just like an enormous anthill—you know an anthill is nothing but a nursery. And how about bees? Don’t they manage to cooperate and love one another?
As the birds do love the Spring
Or the bees their careful king,
as that precious Constable had it. Just show me a combination of male creatures, bird, bug, or beast, that works as well, will you? Or one of our masculine countries where the people work together as well as they do here! I tell you, women are the natural cooperators, not men!”
Terry had to learn a good many things he did not want to.
To go back to my little analysis of what happened:
They developed all this close interservice in the interests of their children. To do the best work they had to specialize, of course; the children needed spinners and weavers, farmers and gardeners, carpenters and masons, as well as mothers.
Then came the filling up of the place. When a population multiplies by five every thirty years it soon reaches the limits of a country, especially a small one like this. They very soon eliminated all the grazing cattle—sheep were the last to go, I believe. Also, they worked out a system of intensive agriculture surpassing anything I ever heard of, with the very forests all reset with fruit-or nut-bearing trees.
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