by Perla Gonzalez-Chavira
“Honey the lunches are made, the kids fed, and the dishwasher is loaded,” my husband says as he kisses our sons and me goodbye before rushing out the door to go to work. I must confess that my husband not only brings home the bacon, but also cooks it, to the dismay of my own mother and, not surprisingly, mother-in-law. It is interesting to note, however, that we both come from the same old country, where macho men and meek, subservient women are modeled by mothers and fathers, with the expectations that these sons and daughters will one day fulfill their respective roles in society.
In Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the same conundrum in the society of her time. In early 20th century America, the socio-economic conventions were such that husbands had all the legal rights, while wives had none. In her clever and insightful novel, Gilman creates a utopian society where “[the] traditions of men as guardians and protectors had quite died out. These stalwart virgins had no men to fear and therefore no need of protection” (49). Gilman thus proposes that such a society can only exist if men see women as equally capable human beings.
It is evident that Gilman’s portrayal of a woman’s strength and intelligence is an act of rebellion. She gently but assertively points out a woman’s potential in society. Unfortunately, this arrangement was only true in Herland, because in reality Gilman lived in a time when blatant inequality between men and women was the norm. Fortunately, not all was lost; because as time passes, culture and ideologies evolve. It is because of this evolution that many changes through history have given women more legal rights. I think that one important contribution to these changes is that both men and women are educating their young daughters and sons “not by competition, but by united action” (Gilman 51).
So, what am I to do, a mother of three young sons? Raise them in the old country’s traditions, traditions that dictate that the mother is to wait hand and foot on her sons’ every whim and desires (as both their grandmothers dutifully did for their own sons)? “Over my dead body,” says my husband. He thinks that our boys should most certainly know how to care for themselves. So, he had taken matters into his own hands, and he is determined to teach his sons how to cook, iron a shirt, and change a tire. But most importantly, my husband has shown his sons that when work needs to be done, it can certainly be done equally well by both men and women.
In Herland, Gilman suggests that men ought to give women the opportunity to equally partake in the constructions of a society because only then “[can a society begin]… at once to plan and build for their children, all the strength and intelligence… [with] ideals such as… Beauty, Health, Strength, Intellect, Goodness” (51). Then men and women would surely create a harmonious society with no wars, poverty and unhappiness.
Gilman is wise in her observations about the specifics of the upbringing of a child, and I concur, that it is vital. However dubious, such upbringing will ultimately determine who a child will grow up to become, once he or she integrates into society. But how does Gilman account for the likes of my husband? He certainly is the anomaly of his culture’s expectations of a man. Some in his culture may even doubt that he is a man. Sometimes I tend to think that his upbringing was “corrupted” somewhere, and luckily for me, he grew up believing that if a woman can make a nice home cooked meal, why shouldn’t a man.
I once asked my husband, “How come you are not like the rest of your brothers (die hard, macho men)?”
“I hated seeing my mother taking crap not only from my father, but also from my brothers, and I figured, I shouldn’t be one of them,” he said.
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Just like that!” he said.
Why is it then, that the difference between men and women will perpetually be subject of debate? The reason is because as long as our society insists on viewing men and women in their “assigned” roles, the roles of the strong male sex and the weak female sex, then there is little room for giving each gender a chance to fully realize each other’s potential. Furthermore, gender ideology will continue to be a heated discussion until we as a society become knowledgeable enough to realize that “it seems rather cold-blooded to say ‘we’ and ‘they’ as if we were… separate couples, with our separate joys and sorrows…” (104). Surely in the end, neither of the sexes can do much without the other in terms of the continuity of humanity. And as such faltering to realize the invaluable benefits that both sexes can contribute to the flourishing the whole, the debate will go on and on.
Now, how to soothe the unhappy, whiny child, who is always complaining about daddy’s peanut buttering technique on his sandwich, one slice as opposed to two? Well, I guess the time has finally come for me to teach my darling boy how to make his own peanut butter sandwich. I’d rather like to think, that I should be glad he will learn now, and my loving guidance will inadvertently spare him from the future nagging wife, who no doubt, will try to tell him that peanut butter sandwiches must have butter on both slices of bread. And indeed it is true, every society needs to have a harmonious “we” to make it flourish in peace and love.
Gilman Perkins, Charlotte. Herland. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.