Cover of Herland--three human busts, one female, sprouting out of a vine.Charlotte Perkins Gilman is well-known in literary feminist circles for her novel The Yellow Wallpaper, and for her periodical, which she published in the early decades of the 20th century. I didn’t know about Herland, a feminist utopian novel, until a few years ago. She wrote two sequels; With her in Ourland and Moving the Mountain. Herland is worth reading for historical context, and also for a lot of laughs—because in addition to being a genuine feminist utopian, Gilman is a virtuoso of social satire and commentary. Large parts of her “lost world” story is send-up after send-up of patriarchal societies. For this 21st century reader, this is both the strength and weakness of Herland.

Gilman sets up a “lost world” plot most readers will be familiar with. Three men, American adventurers, travel as part of an expedition. (The location is never mentioned for reasons that become clear later in the book). Van, our narrator, is a rationalist and scientist, pursuing a degree in sociology. (How convenient!) Jeff, a chivalrous “southern gentleman,” is a doctor, botanist  and poet.  Wealthy Terry is capable, full of physical prowess, supremely self-confident, and a womanizer. On the expedition, they make a side-trip to a plateau. Their guide warns them away from it, calling it “Women’s Country.” Our three travelers decide to go there in the small airplane of Terry’s.

Terry, in particular, is already verbalizing his fantasies about a land of beautiful woman where he will, of course, be instantly made king. Van, the “sociologist,” assumes technologically primitive factions of women who squabble, while Jeff imagines a nunnery. As Van says, “We were not any of us ‘advanced’ on the woman question, any of us, then.”

When they land, they experience one surprise after another, starting with the land and the buildings.

“’But they look—this is s civilized country!’ I protested. ‘There must be men.’”

When they meet three girls in a forest of fruit trees, Terry tries to lure one of them closer with jewelry, but even then Van notes that, “Her interest was more that of an intent boy playing a fascinating game than of a girl lured by an ornament.”   This is the observation of a male from a world where women only exist in relation to men, not as people on their own. Terry dangles the bait, and plans to treat the girl like prey, but in short order, the girls outsmart him and take off with the with necklace, laughing. Shortly after that, the men are rounded up by a cadre of stern-looking older women and put in seclusion while they are taught the language of Herland. Language leads to question-and-answer sessions that make a mockery of nearly everything the men believe, from dietary practices to hats.

As the men try to adjust, Terry fares the worst. He can’t understand why the young women insist on acting like his equal, and show no sexual interest in him. He resents the elders, who he calls nannies, “asexual” and “effete.” Of the three, he is the one who holds onto the delusion that there must be men, somewhere on the plateau. Spoiler alert, there aren’t.

The most important question might be; if there are no men in Herland, how are there children (and there are)? The men’s Puritanical delicacy keeps them from asking this question for long time, and when to do finally ask, it seems that the process of conception is virtually magical in this country. Certain women are chosen and go to a temple to meditate and over the course of that, often become pregnant. The women are quite aware that most other mammals incorporate two sexes in the procreation process. The explanation as to why there are no longer any men is clear and far less important to the ongoing story. The book is mostly concerned with two things; offering a critique of men’s worldview, and extolling the importance of motherhood—or maybe I should say Motherhood.

The part of the book I liked best was Gilman’s imagining of education. Instead of being an assembly-line process, education in Herland is a daily, hourly thing that encourages the children to explore the magic, delight and complexity of the world. This is delightful and idealistic, as is the value of Motherhood. All women in Herland are mothers; in the sense that they participate in the raising of children. Some women are chosen and don’t want to give birth, but they usually come around, or agree to go into solitude (which is a kind of exile). Some women yearn to give birth and aren’t chosen, and they seem to get over it. Like Van, I tend to think any society of people will eventually have squabbles—there are remarkably few in Herland. There is no crime. There is religion, a belief in a universal force associated with motherhood. A council and the temple attendants help people resolve interpersonal disputes. In rare, rare cases, a tranquilizer is used to sedate a person who is violent.

However, mostly Gilman uses Herland as a way to interrogate the “given” state of her world in 1915. Women wear hats with feathers and ribbons, but men’s hats are plain. Why? Why must women wear skirts, or have long hair? Men are protectors, our travelers tell them; and the woman ask, protect then from what? Well, mostly other men. The men agree that motherhood is sacred in their world too; but when they describe life for a mother from their perspective, the Herlanders are startled that the men do nothing to participate in parenthood. In Herland, everyone has what they need, so they don’t understand capitalism. Once they do understand it, they ask uncomfortable questions about why mothers aren’t compensated under that very system.

All three men pair off with the young women from the forest. Jeff, the “poet,” already idealizes women to some degree, and he settles into Herland the most easily. Van finds in Ellador an intellectual equal (or perhaps superior). Terry is attracted to the most athletic of the three. To the extent that Herland as a “plot,” Terry is the obvious driver of the plot complications.

In the final section of Herland, the women decide to send Ellador and Jeff’s partner with the men, out into the world on a field investigation. At this point, as a 21st century reader, I could not suspend my disbelief. The women of the plateau have already warned off the “native” men below—it is never plausible that they would send women out into a world they know is deadly dangerous. The plausibility shreds even further under the weight of the plot, when Terry tries to rape his partner Alima. Even allowing for Gilman’s coyness, it’s clear what happens. After this event, the women decide that the men must leave. Leave? And bring back more men like Terry? What kind of a decision is this? (I’m not the only one who has this question. Read James Tiptree J.’s story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” for a debate on exactly this issue.)

Do you really send three representatives of a dangerous adversarial society who outnumbers you by millions back into their world, when they know your location? This seems like an unjustifiable decision, even though the plot needs it for the sequels to work. Even if somehow the women agreed that Jeff and Van would keep their word, who on earth would trust Terry? The resolution to the Terry problem is simply that Alima says, “I’m sure he’ll promise,” to keep the secret. And off the go, and the book ends.

I’m well aware I’m applying a 21st century sensibility to this problem. At the time, Gilman hoped readers at least believed in the theory of honoring one’s word. It remains the weakest part of the story for me. I think my opinions are also shaped by the fact that I read the Tiptree short story, years ago, before I ever heard of Herland.

As a story and as a world-building exercise, Herland is badly dated, though no more badly than most of the “lost world” stories. As a critique of social mores, it holds up because of its needle- sharp humor. And, as an exercise, reading Herland and then “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” would engender some pretty interesting discussions.

One commenter will get a copy of Silvia Moreno Garcia’s The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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