Perhaps it is worth while to repeat here that the effort of this book is by no means to attribute a wholly evil influence to men, and a wholly good one to women; it is not even claimed that a purely feminine culture would have advanced the world more successfully. It does claim that the influence of the two together is better than that of either one alone; and in especial to point out what special kind of injury is due to the exclusive influence of one sex heretofore.Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Man-Made World is a 1911 book-length essay about what she calls “our androcentric culture.” By this she means a culture built mostly for the convenience of one gender and which disregards the other; a culture in which the male is seen as the default and the female as a deviation from the norm. Gilman carefully analyses the consequences of this patriarchal culture on several areas, including the family, health and beauty, art and literature, education, ethics, religion, law and government, politics, economics, and so on.
The idea that the world is structured in ways that benefit men is by no means new, but ninety-nine years ago Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the first to extensively address the issue, and to careful consider its consequences for both genders. The Man-Made World is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the history of feminist thinking. And it’s almost startling to realise how many of the points Gilman makes are still relevant today—namely its central idea, which is that while “male” and “human” can be used interchangeably, anything that has to do with women tends to be considered of “special interest”.
But despite the many excellent points it makes, The Man-Made World is very clearly an early twentieth-century book: Charlotte Perkins Gilman may denounce androcentrism, but she remains true to the spirit of her time in that she seems to be completely blind to anthropocentrism. The book is full of talk of “savages” and of references to “superior” and “inferior” civilizations, and it relies quite heavily on social Darwinism. The chapter on health and beauty is particularly dated: while I certainly do believe that women should be free to choose their partners instead of being passed on from fathers to husbands, I remain sceptic that this freedom of choice would “improve the race” in terms of health and looks. It’s not that I think humans are above natural laws, of course, but the factors that come into play in our selection of mates are a little more complicated than that. Her theory assumes that there’s a universal standard of beauty and physical superiority, for example, which she seems to define as white and Northern European. Naturally, I call shenanigans on that. Interestingly enough, she echoes the thoughts of some of today’s evolutionary psychologists, but then again I tend to call shenanigans on them too – on anything that is mere untestable speculation wrapped up in a pretty bow, really.
This is yet another example of the blindness to other forms of privilege that so often plagued early feminism. And let me make sure I’m being completely clear - sometimes when I talk about these things, I have the feeling that people assume that if I I’m bringing them up at all, I can only be doing it self-righteously and accusingly, but that’s certainly not what I mean. When I mention the racist assumptions that underpin Gilman’s thinking, I’m neither ignoring their historical context nor clamouring for the book to be burned in a bonfire. I also don’t think that to take notice of them is to judgementally point fingers at Gilman and declare that she was a Horrible Human Being. I just think it’s interesting to notice this discrepancy – both for historical reasons, and because I believe that this is far from irrelevant for an accurate understanding of how people think about gender, race or class even today. Blind spots may work differently today than they did a century ago, but they’re definitely still at work.
As revolutionary as The Man-Made World no doubt was for its time, it has another flaw: Gilman is not above slipping into occasional gender essentialism, no matter how much she calls attention to the fact that what men and woman have in common far surpasses their differences. But she puts far too much emphasis on motherhood as the “goal” of women’s lives, for example, and she still equates certain innate personality traits with “maleness” or “femaleness”. But then again (and much to my dismay), so many people do even today. Charlotte Perkins Gillman was no Judith Butler, but perhaps we needed a Charlotte Perkins Gilman first so that there could eventually be a Judith Butler.
Dated though it may sometimes be, The Man-Made World is vital reading for anyone interested in the history and progression of feminism. And it’s a passionate, highly readable, and sometimes moving account of one woman’s struggle against the tyranny of gender roles.
We have been so taken up with the phenomena of masculinity and femininity, that our common humanity has largely escaped notice. We know we are human, naturally, and are very proud of it; but we do not consider in what our humanness consists; nor how men and women may fall short of it, or overstep its bounds, in continual insistence upon their special differences. It is “manly” to do this; it is “womanly” to do that; but what a human being should do under the circumstances is not thought of. The only time when we do recognize what we call our “common humanity” is in extreme cases, matters of life and death; when either man or woman is expected to behave as if they were also human creatures. Since the range of feeling and action proper to humanity, as such, is far wider than that proper to either sex, it seems at first somewhat remarkable that we have given it so little recognition.Why hello, “women’s fiction”. Ninety-nine years later here, here we are.
The girl-child, peering out, sees this forbidden field as belonging wholly to men-kind; and her relation to it is to secure one for herself—not only that she may love, but that she may live. He will feed, clothe and adorn her—she will serve him; from the subjection of the daughter to that of the wife she steps; from one home to the other, and never enters the world at all—man’s world. The boy, on the other hand, considers the home as a place of women, an inferior place, and longs to grow up and leave it—for the real world. He is quite right. The error is that this great social instinct, calling for full social exercise, exchange, service, is considered masculine, whereas it is human, and belongs to boy and girl alike.
When we are offered a “woman’s” paper, page, or column, we find it filled with matter supposed to appeal to women as a sex or class; the writer mainly dwelling upon the Kaiser’s four K’s—Kuchen, Kinder, Kirche, Kleider. They iterate and reiterate endlessly the discussion of cookery, old and new; of the care of children; of the overwhelming subject of clothing; and of moral instruction. All this is recognized as “feminine” literature, and it must have some appeal else the women would not read it. What parallel have we in “masculine” literature?
“None!” is the proud reply. “Men are people! Women, being ‘the sex,’ have their limited feminine interests, their feminine point of view, which must be provided for. Men, however, are not restricted—to them belongs the world’s literature!”
Now see our attitude toward child’s play—under a masculine culture. Regarding women only as a sex, and that sex as manifest from infancy, we make and buy for our little girls toys suitable to this view. Being females—which means mothers, we must needs provide them with babies before they cease to be babies themselves; and we expect their play to consist in an imitation of maternal cares. The doll, the puppet, which interests all children, we have rendered as an eternal baby; and we foist them upon our girl children by ceaseless millions.How sad she would be to know that all this time later, this still hasn’t occurred to the majority of us.
The doll, as such, is dear to the little boy as well as the girl, but not as a baby. He likes his jumping-jack, his worsted Sambo, often a genuine rag-doll; but he is discouraged and ridiculed in this. We do not expect the little boy to manifest a father’s love and care for an imitation child—but we do expect the little girl to show maternal feelings for her imitation baby. It has not yet occurred to us that this is monstrous.
(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)