Three adventurous friends—Vandyck Jennings (the narrator, also called Van), Terry Nicholson, and Jeff Margrave—join a scientific expedition to one of the few remaining uncharted areas of the world, although Van leaves the exact region ambiguous as he tells the story. As they travel, the friends hear persistent rumors of a strange land, hidden high in the mountains, that is populated only by women. Intrigued, the men investigate the rumors and do, in fact, find evidence of an advanced, isolated culture in the mountains, cut off from the rest of the world. Doubtful about the existence of an all-female country, the men are nevertheless excited by the chance to explore an unknown land, and they resolve to return on their own to find it. The three are driven by a genuine desire for knowledge, a love of adventure, and, although Van is ashamed to admit it, by fantasies stoked by the tales they have heard of a land full of women without men.
The friends equip an expedition back to the hidden plateau and begin to survey the area using Terry’s airplane. From the air, they see signs of an advanced civilization and decide to land. As they explore the hidden country, the men notice the obvious cultivation of the forests and the great skill with which the roads have been laid. Terry takes these signs of agricultural and technological skill as evidence that there must be men around after all.
At first, the men are unable to discover any of the inhabitants, but soon they notice three young women watching them from the trees. The men make several attempts to entice them to come closer but have little luck, although the women obviously find the men interesting. Terry uses a necklace to draw one of the women closer, then makes a grab for her. The women flee, showing amazing athleticism. The men give chase but are soon left behind. The men follow them into the nearest settlement, where they are greeted by a large gathering of women. The women are unlike any the men have ever encountered: strong, self-confident, clearly intelligent, and obviously unafraid of men. The women indicate that they want the men to follow them, but the three friends are unwilling to be taken into custody. The men decide to make a break for it, but they are soon overcome by the women, who drug them into unconsciousness.
The men awake to find themselves unharmed but captive. The women treat the men well and begin to teach them their language, although the men are still not allowed to roam freely. After a while, the men, especially Terry, become impatient and decide to attempt an escape. They fashion a crude rope and lower themselves to the ground outside their window. From there, the men sneak back toward their airplane, hiding themselves carefully during the day. When they find the airplane, the men also encounter the three young women they met upon their arrival: Celis, Alima, and Ellador. The men begin talking to the women and become so distracted that they are soon recaptured. Back in custody, the men learn that their escape attempt had been anticipated and that they had, in fact, been observed the whole time.
Now resigned to their gentle captivity, the men begin to question their tutors about the history and organization of what they have come to call “Herland.” They are told that Herland has been without men for 2,000 years, ever since a sequence of wars, natural disasters, and internal strife combined to leave a small population of women alone atop their hidden plateau. Forced to fend for themselves under extreme circumstances, the women organized their society along the most rational lines possible, realizing that they would never survive without cooperation. After a time, a young girl miraculously became pregnant, and her descendants (each of whom was female, and each of whom inherited the gift of solo reproduction) are the present inhabitants of Herland. Over time, the women of Herland developed a peaceful, orderly, highly efficient society in which competition, crime, and antisocial behavior are unknown. As befits a society of mothers, childbearing is the greatest honor of the women’s lives, as well as their highest duty. In fact, Herland is essentially a giant family, an organic community pursuing the common good. As such, property is held in common, there is a loose system of authority based on experience and wisdom, and the wellbeing and education of children are the highest priorities.
As the men, especially Van and Jeff, come to learn about and appreciate the social structure of Herland, the women begin to learn, through the men, about the outside world. All three men begin with the assumption that any comparison of Herland and the “civilized” world of Europe and the United States will be to the advantage of the latter. Van and Jeff, however, soon realize that, in comparison to the society they have left behind, Herland is a veritable paradise. The women of Herland are shocked to hear of the poverty, disease, exploitation, and violence of the modern world, so much so that the men find themselves dissembling out of shame and often hiding the full truth. The women are able to perceive the true nature of the society the men describe, despite their reticence: women are particularly exploited in the competitive, money-driven modern world, as their maternal function is used to keep them in a subordinate position. The women are horrified to learn of the practice of abortion, for example, seeing it as violence against motherhood itself. The more Van and Jeff see of Herland, the more they are convinced of its goodness and of the fundamental sickness of their own society. Terry, however, refuses to see anything good in Herland apart from the beauty of its inhabitants. Terry is convinced that women are naturally subordinate to men and that women, in fact, desire to be “mastered” by men. The very existence of Herland is an affront to Terry’s sensibilities, and the more he learns of it, the more he resents the “unnatural” state of affairs.
The women of Herland are themselves concerned about their lack of men, feeling that their society would benefit from a masculine perspective and contribution. Accordingly, Celis, Alima, and Ellador are encouraged to continue the courtship the men had so crudely begun upon their first arrival. The primary obstacle the lovers have to overcome is the assumption, by the men, that theirs is the active, dominant role in the relationship. The young women see themselves as equal partners with the men and cannot understand why the men would want it any other way. Jeff is a romantic, full of chivalry and southern notions of gallantry, and his tendency to put women on a pedestal sometimes becomes condescending and hampers his relationship with Celis. Jeff is, however, the most ardent convert to the ways of Herland. Terry, in contrast, woos Alima in a brusque, aggressive way, convinced that she desires a “masterful” man and that all men should have a submissive mate. Alima is fascinated by Terry, but wary; the two quarrel and make up often. Van and Ellador have the best, most equal relationship, soon becoming best friends and true lovers. The entire society of Herland watches the three couples with great interest, seeing that the outcome of the experiment could determine the future of Herland and mark their return to a “bi-sexual” state.
At the insistence of the men, a marriage ceremony is arranged for the three couples. After the wedding, the women are uncomfortable with the idea of “private life,” preferring to remain part of the larger community. They are also confused by the notion of nonprocreative sexual activity. The men respond to this new challenge in different ways. Jeff is a thorough believer in the superiority of Herland. Van wants to find some way to combine the best aspects of companionate marriage as he understands it, including romantic and sexual intimacy, with the socially minded attitude of Herland, in which the needs of the larger group always prevail. Ellador shares this desire, feeling romantic love for Van along with her familial desire to procreate for the community. Terry is outraged by Alima’s continued insistence on her own autonomy, feeling that he now “owns” Alima by marriage.
Terry’s sexual advances become more aggressive and even brutal, and Alima is forced to defend herself physically. The leaders of Herland are shocked by Terry’s attempted rape of Alima and decide to exile the men. Celis is now pregnant, much to the joy of the Herlanders, and so Jeff decides to stay behind with her forever. Terry is more than pleased to leave Herland behind. Though he threatens at first to return in force, he eventually promises to keep the location of the plateau a secret. Ellador decides to accompany Van in order to see the outer world in his company and to report back on what she observes to Herland. Taking the airplane on which the men first arrived, Terry, Van, and Ellador return to the troubled world below.