Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, New York: Pantheon, 1979, 147 pp., $8.95/$2.95
The rebirth of the women's movement in the United States has given rise to a new interest in literature written by women. Works that, for better or worse, have fallen into obscurity and out of print are being revived and studied by a new generation of women and men curious to learn what their predecessors thought about feminism. Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is one of these "found" books. A utopian, feminist novel, it first appeared in 1915 in a magazine Gilman published herself.
The story involves three male adventurers who chance upon an isolated country inhabited solely by women, who not only have developed a complete society but have the ability to bear children parthenogenically. Thus, Gilman has set up a situation in which men are not biologically necessary and has placed her three male characters smack in the middle of it. How they adapt to their plight has much to do with their individual characters.
The focus of all activities in Herland is motherhood, and the society that has developed is "miraculous" in that Gilman provides no economic or sociological justifications for it other than the tremendous motivation of these women to provide the best for their children. Gilman believes that women have unique qualities that, if allowed to flourish, benefit society. In Herland, these qualities have surfaced.
Gilman apparently regarded Herland, not as a normal and desirable state of affairs, but merely as an extreme for exhibiting the heights to which women can rise when unhampered by the false assumptions of traditional society. She wrote a sequel to Herland—Ourland—in which the balance between man and woman is restored.
Like so many utopian novels, Herland sacrifices story line to ideology. The read is often slow. But the real reason for reading Herland is not for its plot but to see what a woman in 1915 thought about the role of women. If you are seeking this kind of understanding, your interest will find its way.