Mary Beard opens “Women in Power: From Medusa to Merkel,” her cover essay in this week’s London Review of Books, with a one of the most satisfying depictions of female dominance in American letters—Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 comic novel Herland. Gilman’s book is satisfying because it’s thoroughly realized and genuinely funny, writes Beard:
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 organized 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.
For an all-female society that’s lived without men for 2,000 years, Herland is doing very well, thank you very much. The government functions smoothly, the air is clean, and the diet is vegetarian. No sooner do three male scientists bumble along than the sexist observations follow, and sadly, they still hold up.
Beard calls on Herland not to say what one might expect—that more than a century after Gilman’s imagined future the very thought of a powerful woman is still consigned to fantasy—but rather that powerful women don’t appear in our collective imagination at all. Why? Because “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.” It’s a continuation of an argument Beard began in her 2014 LRB essay “The Public Voice of Women,” which looked at the classical history of when and why women speak out in public, and how they often use male rhetoric. “It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it.” In that essay, she explored how women speak and are heard; here, it is how they are seen. Of course, there are the clothes.
The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Merkel to Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse, which is the fate of so many political wives; but they’re also a simple tactic—like lowering the timbre of the voice—to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power.
But to my surprise, given the prominent placement of clothing in Herland, this the beginning and end of Beard’s fashion critique, especially since the wardrobe Gilman devised for her citizens is ingenious. Instead of “modern” underwire bras poking them in the soft tissue, and “panties” (that gross, girlish word) that do or do not hide so-called VPL, the women of Herland wear “a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders.” On top of this very sensible base they layer several tunics, depending on the season, the middle of which is “shingled” with pockets (not a feature of women’s clothing at the time Gilman was writing). Their hair they keep short, “hatless, loose, and shining.” And, my favorite detail: The base under-layer, which is essentially a modified union suit, doubles as athletic wear, “as perfect a garment for exercise as need be devised, absolutely free to move in,” Gilman writes. No more lugging a bag to the gym! In Gilman’s novel, even the male interlopers are impressed:
The garments were simple in the extreme, and absolutely comfortable, physically, though of course we all felt like supes in the theater. There was a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders, something like the one-piece pajamas some fellows wear, and a kind of half-hose, that came up to just under the knee and stayed there—had elastic tops of their own, and covered the edges of the first.
Then there was a thicker variety of union suit, a lot of them in the closet, of varying weights and somewhat sturdier material—evidently they would do at a pinch with nothing further. Then there were tunics, knee-length, and some long robes. Needless to say, we took tunics.
Beard writes that when we imagine powerful women we imagine “national politicians, CEOs, prominent journalists, television executives and so on,” which “gives a very narrow version of what power is.” And so she asks us to rethink our very definition of power, first by “decoupling it from public prestige.” I’d add that it would also help with this project if we rethought our relationship to fashion, in a serious, systemic way, not merely on a case-by-case basis. If I wanted to swan about in Herland tunics, I would probably pop over to Eileen Fisher, a brand that has turned comfort into an unaffordable luxury, and top it off with a pink pussy hat while I’m at it. But isn’t that joke too easy? Shouldn’t there be more than just one mass-market designer who’s addressing what it means for women to present themselves in ways that feel both professional and physically forgiving? There are an infinite number of daily negotiations and frustrations with dressing oneself and being seen in this world that Beard misses in her binary between pantsuit armor and clothes-horse.