Dust on the Bookshelf

Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
August 21, 2011, 11:53
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Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.”

Zora Neale Hurston captured the old blues song. Charlotte Perkins Gilpin wrote the novel. But most recently it has been discovered that a certain species of mites has been doing it without men, though not without some incest…

Check out this National Geographic headline: Cloned Fathers Mate with Insect Daughters–From Inside: The self-fertilizing females may eventually make males obsolete, model suggests”

As the image might not suggest, sometimes, when female cottony cushion scales “develop in fertilized eggs, excess sperm grows into tissue within the daughters. … This parasitic tissue, genetically identical to the female’s father, lives inside the female and fertilizes her eggs internally—rendering the female a hermaphrodite and making her father both the grandfather and father of her offspring, genetically speaking.”


According to the article, this parasitic male is like “an epidemic” that will eventually render all male scales obsolete.  The female cottony cushion scales will rule and create an unprecedented all-girl world, if on a minuscule…scale.

However, this world is not a new conception. It was imagined in early-twentieth century American fiction with the 1915 novel, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilpin. (CPG is most famous for her wonderfully creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” –read it!)

Herland is about these male explorers who discover the isolated all-female world of Herland. After losing all of their community’s men in a volcanic eruption and slave rebellion and finding themselves geographically isolated by a mountain range, the women of Herland decided to continue life until they died out. Until one day a funny thing happened.

One of the women realized that she was with child even though she had not been with a man. Essentially, this sort of immaculate or hermaphroditic conception becomes a genetic trait of the clan– and thus Herland grows.

These women live off the land and are proud of their independence from men. Over time, many generations cannot remember men or have never seen any– until the society is penetrated by the sociologist explorers. The tale is interestingly narrated by a man, the student Van.

Gilpin’s utopian story reflects on societal constructions of gender and marriage, what it means to be a man or woman, husband or wife. It ends with uncertainty as one of the women leaves with Van. What her fate will be in American society is uncertain at best.

Returning back to the old blues lyrics that Zora Neale Hurston recorded in 1930’s for the Federal Writers’ Project, it is clear that this sort of post-male world has long been imagined if not pined over and feared by Americans.

“Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.”

The ominous tone of these lyrics suggests that the time is coming when a woman won’t need a man. It is upon us, the singer says. In this blues line, the repetition of the exact same phrase means that the alteration in tone can only be found in the melody or the inflection of the singer. Instead of a blues riff that said something like, “Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man. Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man. Oh, comes at a time that we can’t understand,” this riff is consistant. To me, this adds to the ominousness– we cannot imagine what this “time” will mean for society, we can only repeat the prophecy over and over.

Gilpin took a stab at imagining this world, but did not come to a firm conclusion. The blues laments and warns of this unknown society. I Guess all we can do is keep watching the scales.