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  • In Women’s Empires: Gynaecocracy, Savagery, and the Evolution of Industry
  • Daniel E. Bender (bio)

Far off, in a hidden plateau of the Andes, three explorers uncovered a verdant and peaceful land populated and ruled by a lost race of white women.

The year before, two inventors drilled into the Earth’s crust and discovered a primeval world in its hollow core. This was a brutal land baked by a permanent noon-day sun and populated by savage humans and wrathful prehistoric beasts and ruled by an advanced race of female reptiles.

The white women of Herland, the utopia described by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her 1915 novel of the same name, and the reptiles of Pellucidar, the dystopia of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 At the Earth’s Core, had evolved to breed without men. Herland’s children were born through parthenogenesis. Pellucidar’s reptiles had discovered a secret formula to fertilize their own eggs. Through accidents of evolution, they had come to rule over women’s lands.1

Gilman, by the time she wrote Herland, had already forged a reputation as a lecturer and short-story author. She was sympathetic to socialism and feminism, though she remained aloof from their organizations. Even as she became one of the nation’s best-known feminist voices, her activism was primarily independent. Her novel fictionalizes (in didactic prose) the theories of economics and evolution of her non-fiction writing. Herland appeared in serial form in Gilman’s self written, published, and distributed magazine Forerunner, which reached, by her own estimate, a few thousand readers each month. It was later published in book [End Page 61] form. Burroughs, at the same moment, was riding a wave of popularity following the 1912 publication of his novel Tarzan.2

Writing women’s lands was a literary conceit. The setting naturally created conflict between female rulers and the manly explorers who narrate both books. In Herland, explorers’ dreams of imperial rule of a temperate land are thwarted by an industrial gynaecocracy (rule by women, as Gilman termed it). At the Earth’s Core ends, by contrast, with the narrator/explorer returning to the surface to bring back industrial technology to defeat the reptiles and conquer the tropical underworld. Their depictions of women’s lands—for Gilman, as temperate utopia and for, Burroughs, as primitive tropics—embody a larger Progressive-era American debate about the origins of industry and the sexual division of labor.

Gilman and Burroughs constructed their novels around the anthropological consensus that modern industry had its origins in primitive women’s earliest labor. In an era when women’s work provoked fears about the breakdown of families, declining morality, and racial degeneracy, this conception of labor history was potent enough to become the grist of popular fiction. This surprising recognition suggests the need to examine the place of gender in how Progressive-era American observers conceptualized labor history as “industrial evolution.” Contemporary labor historians have come to understand industry as process in which gender was constitutive, that is, it shaped the experience of both female and male workers and it provided the crux around which workplace regulations were first organized. They note that support for protective legislation did not necessarily translate into enthusiasm for women’s wage work. Even organizations and individual leaders supportive of women’s right to organize in unions evinced deep ambivalence about women’s wage work. These paradoxes are understood by historians primarily as inherent contradictions rather than as reflective of an articulation of labor history that described the emergence of a sexual division of labor and men’s seizure of economic primacy as racial progress from savagery to civilization. This labor history engaged anthropologists, sociologists, social reformers, socialists, and their literary interlocutors as they encountered, evaluated, and compared tropical, colonized peoples and women workers, often immigrants, in metropolitan factories.

While there is a rich historiography about women’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century experience with industrial labor, their labor organizing, and workplace reform, the intellectual history of the sexual division of labor has lagged. The dominant paradigm has been set by historians of labor who have examined the sexual division of labor as lived experience, not as the subject...


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pp. 61-84
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