Classics Club: Herland

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Herland is a thought experiment: what if there were a society on earth composed entirely of women? How would it develop? What would it achieve? And what would happen if and when it encountered the world of men again?

This is the premise put forth by Gilman, a prominent sociologist of her time, with three male explorers in an unidentified savage wilderness coming upon such a land of women, which thousands of years ago was cut off from the outside world. Similarly to the Houyhnhnm section from Gulliver’s Travels, in which a society of horses is found to be infinitely superior to that of human beings, Herland is portrayed as a paradise of peace, plenty, and wisdom. The three men, who represent three different attitudes toward this feminine utopia — complete acceptance, complete rejection, and, in our narrator, something between the two — are captured by and slowly integrated into this new world.

Plausibility is not the point here. The first problem of an all-female society — how to reproduce — is cavalierly solved by the convenient miracle of parthenogenesis. The development of electric cars, printed books, and other technology in such a limited, confined area strains credulity. And one would expect that even without men, there would be at least some jealousy, backbiting, and other unpleasant emotions, rather than the perfect harmony that reigns in Herland.

But again, that’s not the point. The point is to imagine that the traditional image of women — that they are unintelligent and weak, only fit to serve men — is false, and that feminine intelligence and strength are only being held back by a regressive, oppressive masculinity. By now, this is hardly a new idea, and while it’s interesting to see it played out in fictional, dramatic form, it’s lacking in subtlety. The women of Herland are not rounded enough as characters for a satisfying work of fiction, but this also weakens the novel as a polemical tool. They’re more like clones than real people — they did all come from a single common ancestor — with a hive-mind mentality that makes the perfect society a little too perfect, and that fails to recognize the real consequences of a one-sided development. The feminine principle has negative aspects as well as positive ones, and if we ignore the former we cannot truly comprehend it, nor its place in our full, two-sided humanity.

The disturbing side of Herland is only challenged by the “bad boy” of the trio of explorers, and while one can hardly condone his obsession with subduing and mastering the women, by making him so unpalatable Gilman disguises some legitimate objections. A society that leaves no room for imperfection, change, or creative conflict will lead to stasis and ultimately death. The women want to re-introduce men into their land, but it’s not clear why or how, since they still want to keep everything else exactly the same. While the portrayal of women as brave, strong, and inventive is stirring, there’s no sense of what therefore men can contribute to Herland — other than serving as stud in order to widen the gene pool. And that’s a rather oppressive thought right there.

Herland ends abruptly with the narrator and his bride leaving for the outside world. I hadn’t realized that there was a continuation, With Her in Outland, and that might bring some more balance and nuance to this initially one-sided presentation, so I’d like to seek it out. Even with its shortcomings, I did find that Herland raised some fascinating and important questions, which in our time are more important than ever to wrestle with. We all need to use our imaginations to try to create a better world, and such exercises can help us to find our way forward, even if they can’t provide a blueprint that works in reality.

Classics Club List #77


22 thoughts on “Classics Club: Herland

  1. Oh, I’d not come across this before, really interesting, Lory, and thanks for drawing attention to it. Reminds me faintly of the incident of Odysseus and Nausicaa with her handmaidens with a male coming unexpedly upon a company of women — thought the outcome is completely different.

    I’m happy for a novel to stimulate thought, even passions, but I also require it to be convincing in its own terms. Parables aren’t always great on plausibility but I can forgive that if it’s well told; thought experiments like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (which you instance) bring the necessary satirical bite to what in essence is a parable. I don’t quite get that impression from your review that this piece has that edge.


    1. No, Gilman is no Swift in rhetorical skill, though similar to him in her misanthropy — applied to half the human race rather than the whole. I personally do not find either attitude to provide any solution for our human predicament, although perhaps helpful for alerting us to some of the problems.


  2. This was so funny to see because I realized I read this years ago in college, for a lit class centered somehow around Feminist Science Fiction (I think..I racked my brain trying to remember and can’t) but I’d completely forgotten about it. I don’t remember being as impressed with this one as with others we read like Handmaid’s Tale, but still, some interesting concepts. Strange to be reminded of this one. Fantastic review!


    1. I read it in high school in a class on the theme of Utopia (this was before dystopias became the fashionable thing — though we read some of those too). The only thing I remember from that reading was how the women just miraculously started to reproduce on their own; the rest did not make much impression. Now, with far more actual experience of life and men and motherhood I found it very interesting but, as I said, rather limited. I would love to see a rewrite by Margaret Atwood — she could put a lot more bite and dimension into the idea.


  3. I read this after I’d read Edward Bellamy’s futuristic utopia, Looking Backward, in which he was unable to imagine a future in which women weren’t still basically locked in their gilded cage. Herland was a nice contrast to that 🙂

    I agree there are certainly limitations with this book, but Gilman busted stereotypes and wrote about physically strong, intellectually competent women living in stability, who had choices about their work, about motherhood and who were supportive and encouraging of each other.

    I also think the book speaks to its time–to first wave feminism and to a changing society that was questioning the strict code of conduct between men and women and in foreseeing a broader concept of women’s roles.

    I haven’t read With Her in Ourland, either, but I bet it would be interesting to see ‘modern’ life from a Herland immigrant!


    1. There is a lot that is empowering about those kick-butt Herland women and their achievements, and at first I was cheering for them. But as the book went on I felt there was something missing. First-wave feminism is a good way to describe it, but we’re past that now — although sometimes it feels like certain segments of society are trying to go backward. The struggle continues…


  4. Superb review of this book. I read this last year. I agree that while it was flawed it raised all sorts of interesting questions. This is such a fascinating subject. I have not read the sequel. I may also give it a try this year.


    1. Your review reminded me that I wanted to reread this, so thank you! The sequel seems to be difficult to find — too bad they were not published together, as apparently both were from a sequence of articles by Gilman in her magazine. I see there’s a Penguin Classics edition of Herland that includes some other writings and an introduction about her life, so I might check that out anyway.


    1. And I want to read Yellow Wallpaper, especially now I’m realizing I went through postpartum depression. I’m interested to learn more about this fascinating woman.


  5. I’ve read about Herland but never felt much inclination to actually pick it up for myself. Weirdly I feel very oppositional to utopian fiction, I think because I expect it to be lacking in drama and tending to polemic. The Yellow Wallpaper is brilliant though, I really recommend it.


  6. I think I would find this a very frustrating read. Even if the point it’s intended to make is essentially feminist in nature, it seems like it could easily stray into gender essential-ism. It seems ridiculous to act like simply disappearing all the men would leave us with a utopia.


    1. It is ridiculous, yet has some compelling features. To me it felt like Gilman needed to make a powerful cry: “You say women can’t do all these things, but we can!” We’ve now had so much more of a chance to prove what we can do, yet the resistance still exists, and is in some ways even more entrenched. How do we lift up and educate the backward-dragging aspects of human nature, rather than simply expelling them? That’s a question this book does not answer, yet it’s what I came away with.


  7. It can be difficult sometimes but it’s a great book in general and so much that can be considered. Though I have to caution against setting time aside for With Her in Ourland – it’s worth a peek but it’s more a lecture and the messages in it aren’t good.


  8. This definitely sounds like some essential reading as I put together a magazine issue devoted to the concept of “A World Without Men”! I’ll be adding this to my reading list ASAP. Thanks for sharing this review.


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