- Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Fungal Female Animal:Evolution, Efficiency, and the Reproductive Body
The conclusion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) finds the narrator, Vandyck Jennings, perfectly content, if it were not for one nagging frustration: he cannot persuade his new Herlander wife to have sex with him. Ellador strikes down Van's plea on the grounds that sex without "parentage" seems contrary to nature: "None of the creatures we know do that. Do other animals—in your country?"1 This utopian woman's conviction that humans should fall in line with other animals is rather puzzling. Herland, after all, is a remarkably cerebral nation, especially when it comes to motherhood. Its women reproduce asexually, and conception for them is essentially a mental trick. What possible standard of animality could they be interested in maintaining? The novel, as a whole, may leave us wondering: are Gilman's Herlanders perfect animals or have they perfectly transcended the life of the body? Does utopia entail a return to nature or nature's obliteration?
Such questions about the status of animality and organic life in Gilman's work are not peculiar to Herland. Rather, they echo across the author's lifelong effort to delineate the modern woman for an America that was itself just emerging as a modern nation. Like Herland, the rest of Gilman's vast corpus alternately idealizes and repulses the organic. What's more, this ambivalence routinely centers on woman's reproductive function. Making sense of Gilman's vexed relationship to nature, I argue, begins with unpacking the specifically modern way that her feminism [End Page 267] was also a naturalism. In reading Gilman as a naturalist, I adopt one of Jennifer Fleissner's reworkings of the genre in Women, Compulsion, Modernity. "Naturalism," for Fleissner, names the "intellectually powerful tendency" to take nature as a "category to be reconceived as part of social life."2 Gilman's vision of female nature was largely grounded in two key discourses of America's scientific and technological modernity: evolutionary theory and the efficiency movement that supplied the rapidly industrializing nation with its technocratic ethos.3 By merging these discourses, Gilman draws on and in fact expands the idea of animality to encompass a wide range of organic forms. Taken as a whole, her body of work might inspire animal studies scholars invested in tracking the "animal" to rethink their central object of study as the "organism."
A committed evolutionist, Gilman insisted that modern woman reclaim the full meaning of her oldest, supposedly most distinct biological capacity: her role in sexual reproduction.4 But reproduction also threatened to mire women in their own helpless fecundity, a "fungal" femininity that I find crucially at issue in Gilman's most celebrated piece of fiction, her 1892 story, "The Yellow Wall-paper." In my reading of this well-known story, the fungus in the wallpaper sheds light on Gilman's evolutionist concerns about female-animal embodiment. I thus demonstrate how a shift to "organism studies" might reveal patterns in Gilman's work that are missed by both a humanist and an animal studies perspective. Gilman's later utopian fiction relies on efficiency discourse—best remembered today as "Taylorism"—to manage the specter of life's fecundity raised by her own evolutionary feminism, and made manifest in the wallpaper.5 The utopian nations that Gilman envisions in Herland and Moving the Mountain (1911) are themselves "fungal" in their sweeping collectivity, but these social organisms are fully rationalized ones. The future women that govern them subdue nature's unruly power through a meticulous application of efficiency principles. Gilman's women regulate, to an unprecedented degree, the production of human bodies and the shape of the natural world in a never-ending quest to maximize efficiency.6
Gilman's utopian fictions betray the author's unease over female embodiment in their quietly violent strategies of controlling nonhuman animals and organic life more generally. If Gilman's goal was in part to secure a fully human status for (white) American women, she required a kind of nonhuman sacrifice to do it—evolutionary framework notwithstanding.7 Her work thus corroborates—but also complicates—the model of Western humanism...