Womanhood and Motherhood: Or, Sisters do it Better

A few weeks ago, whilst shopping in Solihull, my local town, I noticed an elderly woman coming towards me. Nothing unusual about that: the busy shopping centres in the town are used by shoppers of all ages. As we approached one another on what seemed to be a collision course, I could not help noticing that she looked very like my dear mother who passed away about eighteen months ago. There was something recognisable about the determined use of the woman’s walking aid and something familiar about her large hat, overcoat and glasses. To the casual passerby, the woman looked much like lots of “little old ladies”. As our trajectory towards one another neared the point when I would have to change course, I found myself glancing at the woman, largely on the basis that her hat reminded me of my mum’s usual headgear.

Instead of the fleeting eye contact that one usually encounters when strangers pass one another in the street, the woman fixed me with an intense gaze that, although we were moving towards each other and only a few feet apart, completely unnerved me: I felt almost as if the woman was looking past my eyes. Her steady gaze seemed to slow time, giving her time to appear to be searching for something. Then her gaze averted and we passed each other and lost each other in the crowd of shoppers.

I walked on, feeling unsettled and visibly shaken by the brief encounter. It seemed fanciful at the time but I could not throw off the intense feeling that my mum was making sure I was okay via the medium of the little old lady in the shopping centre.

To my regular, and irregular, readers: please don’t give up on me at this point, I haven’t lost my rationality: I know what you are thinking – “Dave has lost it, gone a bit weird.” All he saw was an old lady who looked a bit like his mum. It would be nice to think that my mum was looking out for me though.

Which brings me to the subject of this week’s blog: womanhood in general and motherhood in particular.

At the other end of the age spectrum, I learned some wonderful news last week when I visited my dentist. Well over a year ago, J the young dental nurse was diagnosed with cancer. When I saw her at the surgery about a year ago, she told me that her treatment was progressing well and that she was pregnant: “My little miracle,” was her description. On my most recent visit in March, a double miracle had occurred: J is well and baby E was born. Motherhood has come to a young woman whose life had been in severe danger. I left the surgery and stepped into the bright sunshine barely able to see through a mist of nascent tears.

Apart from the two manifestations of motherhood recounted above, this blog was also prompted by a response from a friend, Hazel, following my most recent blog about my grandfather and his role in the First World War at the Western Front in France in September 1915. In essence, Hazel’s response was: “If women ruled the world, there would be no war.”

This powerful statement, together with an article and a letter in the Guardian last month, set me reading two items of feminist literature. It is not my intention to use the remainder of this blog to set out my feminist credentials; I leave that to my wife, my women friends and relatives. Suffice it say that I hope that I show respect to the women I know. I use the word ‘respect’ because I read an article recently about a well-known actor who died a short while ago. The women he acted with, quoted in the article, all said – amongst other things – that he respected women. The women seemed to value that attribute in the man.

To return to Hazel’s oft-heard plea: the two items of literature that I turned to were Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in 1915, and Sultana’s Dream by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, published in 1905, in which the narrator dreams about a land called Ladyland. Thus we have Herland and Ladyland as a soubriquet for Utopian ideals of societies ruled by women.

I was reading Hussain’s short story (on my iPad) at the dentist last week when the hygenist called me in to her surgery. She asked me what I had been reading while waiting for my appointment. When I explained the theme of Hussain’s story, her comment was: “Won’t the women [in such a society] bitch all of the time?”.

On the contrary, Ladyland is a place of peace and harmony. Men are restricted in some kind of male equivalent of purdah, where they cook and look after babies. The country was saved from the foolishness of men by the sheer brainpower of the women. One of the universities of Ladyland invented and put to use a device that could extract as much water as was needed for domestic and agricultural use: thus, there were no water shortages. The other university invented a device that concentrates, stores and distributes solar power for all manner of uses, including cooking and ‘air-cars’ for the population to get about. Solar power: this was written in 1905!

Devices that use electricity till fields of vegetables and fruit –the diet is vegetarian.

Clearly the women of Ladyland are highly educated in general and in science in particular and had developed a society free of crime, sin and disease.

The narrator’s dream is all too short: Hussain’s book is only about 20 pages but includes such gems as solar-powered aircraft, an amazing idea given that it was posited in 1905.

In Gilman’s vision of an all-female society, three men land up in Herland, a remote land where men have been bred out of existence. The population of women self-fertilise – I’ve forgotten the biological term – and give birth to baby girls who grow up in kind of all-embracing family of women where there is a very strong emphasis on individual and group motherhood: indeed, the role of motherhood is absolutely paramount. In the story of Herland, there is less emphasis on technological developments than in Ladyland, although it is evident that Herland is an advanced society. Rather, Gilman’s story focuses on the societal aspects of Herland. The men are perplexed by what they find: a society at peace; there is no war, no crime, no hunger or waste. There is social order, justice and social harmony based on wisdom and a highly developed system of education. Towards the end of the story, one of the men behaves unacceptably to one of the women and, by way of punishment, all three men are expelled from Herland on condition that they never reveal its whereabouts: they agree to this condition and leave.

Suffice it to say that both Herland and Ladyland underline my friend Hazel’s proposition: in a world run by women, there is no war. In short, sisters do it better. Although both visions of worlds run by women were published one hundred years ago, the ideas enshrined in both of these visionary books are – in my humble opinion – as relevant today as they were deemed to be (by their authors) a century ago.  There is no doubt in my mind that sisters do it better.

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