10 Who Put the “Nature” in Naturalism? (Part 2)


Who Put the “Nature” in Naturalism? (Part 2)

The Economic Relation Is Combined With the Sex-Relation

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. (Herland, ch.5)

At the age of 17, Gilman (then Charlotte Perkins) received a list of books from her estranged father. These books belonged to a then-burgeoning area of social science known as evolutionary anthropology, and they attempted to use Darwin’s ideas to explain why some races were more “civilized” than others. Young Charlotte had been raised a Presbyterian and was inspired by the evolutionary anthropologists’ attempts to make Christianity and evolutionary theory compatible. “What does God want…of us?” she asked herself. She concluded that God expected humankind to “assist evolution” by “adding the conscious direction” to it (quoted in Bederman 128).

From these texts Gilman was introduced to two interrelated concepts in evolutionary theory, differentiation and specialization. Differentiation means that as a species evolves, its members become more different from one another, and in some cases will branch off and form a new species. Specialization means that as an organism becomes more complex, it develops more organisms, each of which performs a smaller number of functions: In the womb, a small number of embryonic stem cells specialize into skin cells, muscle cells, and so forth.

So far, so good. But evolutionary anthropologists used these facts to draw dubious conclusions about the differences between people. As Gail Bederman writes, “The greater the degree of sexual differentiation—the more domestic the woman, and the more specialized the man—the more advanced the civilization was believed to be” (125). Non-European societies in which women played an active role in hunting and warfare, and men played a significant role in childrearing, were considered less evolved.

Paradoxically, women were believed to be less evolved than men by virtue of the variety of the work they had to do. G. Stanley Hall, a professor of psychology, claimed in a 1905 speech to the National Congress of Mothers that women were “more generic,” and men “more highly specialized and narrowed” (quoted in Peyser 87). And indeed, domestic work was not specialized: to be a mother was to be a caregiver, a teacher, a sexual companion, a cook, a nurse, and so forth. Gilman accepted the evolutionary anthropologists’ claim that women and men had evolved at different rates. But she rejected the view that greater difference between the sexes gave rise to a more “advanced” civilization. In fact, she believed that the difference between the sexes had been exaggerated by social forces, and that it was hindering the further development of the “race.”

Read the selections from chapters 1 and 2 of Women and Economics (Herland, pp. 199–200), if you have not already done so. There, Gilman outlines one of her most Gilman’s provocative theories: The physical differences between women and men is a factor of women’s economic subordination to men. In a more equitable world, women and men would have much more in common. But when Gilman looked at the America of the 1890s, she saw a civilization in decline. Men were advancing, and women were reverting to a state of savagery. Do you remember how the women in the wallpaper “crawl,” or how John finds the narrator “creeping smoothly on the floor”? Critics have pointed out that these women are displaying atavistic behaviour, regressing to a stage before adult humans stood on two feet (Seitler 185).

Fig. 1. Cartoon based on one of Gilman’s lectures, London Morning Leader, 2 March 1905 (in Bederman 148). Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. University of Chicago Press, 1995.

From a contemporary perspective, there are at least two major problems with Gilman’s critique. First, Gilman could not describe women’s oppression without resorting to racist concepts. She argued that non-white peoples were not civilized enough to benefit from equality of the sexes. Second, her proposed solution to women’s oppression—professionalizing domestic work so that more women would be free to pursue their interests—would inevitably make some women “freer” than others. We will delve further into these problems in subsequent sections of this unit.

Eugenics in Herland

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. (Herland, ch. 5)

Every utopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a utopia. (Ursula K. Le Guin, quoted in Miéville)

In 1883, Francis Galton—cousin of Charles Darwin and one of the originators of modern statistics—coined the term eugenics, from the Greek words for “good birth.” Galton believed that people could improve the human race through deliberate choices, rather than wait out the long and unpredictable process of natural selection. But what did it mean to improve the human race? What physical or mental characteristics were desirable, or even heritable? Answers to this question usually reflected the values of the most powerful members of society.

Read “Gilman’s Social Darwinism and Eugenics,” from the introduction to Herland (pp. 13–18), if you have not already done so. Make sure you understand the following:

  • The distinction between social Darwinism and reform Darwinism
  • The distinction between positive eugenics and negative eugenics
  • The way Gilman applied the concept of specialization to working

Notice as well the way Gilman’s understanding of sex differences straddles the “equality” and the “difference” positions we defined at the beginning of the unit.

Let us provide some further context for the rise of eugenics in the US. By the end of the nineteenth century, the American birth rate had dropped by 50%. The sharpest decline was among emancipated African American women. Still, many white Americans, including President Roosevelt, saw the decline as a threat as a threat to Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Roosevelt repeatedly warned that white women working outside the home, and therefore having fewer babies, amounted to “race suicide” (Fleissner 3–5, 99). At the same time that the number of
births was dropping, the number of infants who survived into childhood was on the rise. This was the result of improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medical care—and in many cases, positive eugenics. Eugenic ideology touched all aspects of life, from government policy to popular fiction. As Beth Widmaier Capo explains:

Many writers saw the burden to control reproduction in the interests of modern progress as women’s prerogative…. A humorous take on this imperative is [American humourist] Anita Loos’s 1915 story ‘The Force of Heredity, and Nella: A Modern Fable with a Telling Moral for Eugenists.’ The protagonist ignores her mother’s advice to ‘always be eugenic,’ marrying a wealthy man with a wooden leg; years later she has eleven children, all ‘born with a wooden leg!’ … While humorous, the story reveals an underlying fear of cultural degeneration which permeated literature of the decade. (Capo 105)

Fig. 2. An article from an Oregon newspaper about one of many Better Babies contests, 1913 (Wikimedia Commons) PSimon05. “The Morning Oregonian, Friday, April 18th, 1913 Better Babies” March 15, 2019. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Morning_Oregonian,_Friday,_April_18th,_1913_%22Better_Babies%22.png

Gilman thought of eugenics as a humane alternative to a “social Darwinist” world where the rich and poor compete for scarce resources and only the “fittest” survive, an arrangement Van and Jeff take to be a “law of nature” (Herland, ch. 6).

Some of the more disturbing parts of Herland deal with negative eugenics. Women deemed to have the wrong characteristics are prohibited from giving birth. As you read those passages in the upcoming chapters, make note of how the characters rationalize their policies, and whose voices we do not hear.

If you want to learn more about eugenic ideologies and practices between the early twentieth century and World War II (and beyond), you can visit a curated exhibition on eugenics in the U.S. (see “Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement”) or in Canada (see Eugenics Archives). Some of the archival documents may be upsetting.


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