In Herland and other writings, Gilman shows that her society is unjust to women and does not allow them to achieve their full human potential. Women’s lives, she reveals, are too consumed by difficult, unremunerated “women’s work,” such as childbearing, child rearing, and domestic labor. Because women are limited to this domestic world, they are made out to be less “fully human” than men in their potential for development. Given the chance, Gilman says, women can embrace the whole of life just as much men, and the women of Herland—strong, intelligent, and self-reliant—are the fictional embodiment of this point. All three of the male characters in Herland start out with the assumption of female inferiority, and all three must eventually alter their world views in their dealings with the Herlandian women, to varying degrees of success.
The men’s relationships with Ellador, Celis, and Alima show the difficulties that arise when women demand to be treated as equals in love as well as in society. Terry and Alima end in open conflict, while Jeff and Celis simply fail to understand one another at all. Van eventually relates to Ellador as a full human being, not merely a woman, and Gilman portrays their relationship as the most successful. Gilman suggests that once equality between men and women has been established, romantic partners will achieve a sense of privacy and pleasure in sexual difference. As Van and Ellador begin their journey at the end of the novel, part of their mission is to completely re-imagine the sexual and romantic bond between men and women, with the full humanity of women as part of the equation.
Herland is organized along socialist lines and represents an idealized form of how society should behave. In a socialist economy, the government manages business, industry, and economic activity on behalf of the people. This is the opposite of a “free enterprise” system, in which the central authority may regulate industrial and commercial activity, but not control or direct it. One of socialism’s attractions is that it proposes to replace a social structure based on competition and individualism with one based on community and cooperation. Thanks to Herland’s isolated location and the extreme interdependence of its inhabitants, its members must put the community’s needs before their own. Herland is organized more as a family than as a state, and each member is happy to sacrifice for the greater good. From the communal farming of the forests to the common education of the young, Herland is organized around the principle that work and reward are to be shared by all, to the maximum benefit of the greatest number. Herlandian society is therefore highly rationalized. The entire community deals with internal problems, without favoritism, individual ambition, or family feeling to interfere with reaching the most rational solution.
Perhaps the most striking example of Herland’s rational society is the way the women calmly embrace the population controls required to sustain the population on their isolated plateau. Although many of the women would prefer to have multiple children, they are limited to just one, and some are forbidden to reproduce at all so that bad qualities may be “bred out” of the population. Van is struck by the simplicity of this solution and by the shared sacrifice required of all of the women to make it work. Van comes to see his own society as simply an aggregation of individuals, each in competition with the other, and predicated on the oppression of the female half of the population. Gilman argues that disease, crime, war, pollution, and poverty, all unknown in Herland, would be conquered if they were viewed as issues for the whole society to tackle and if society had the power to remake itself along the most rational lines.
The extreme rationalization of Herlandian society is possible in part because of Herland’s complete rejection of tradition. For example, when Jeff mentions that the men’s society is based on traditions thousands of years old, Moadine responds that Herland has no laws over one hundred years old and very few over twenty. Having been created essentially from scratch, the laws and customs of Herland are subject to constant scrutiny and revision. The women see their society and culture as human creations, meant to serve human needs in the present, so neither the institutions nor the practices of the past are sacred. Even the games the children play are new inventions, created for their educational value. Religious tradition is no exception, and the religion of Herland is a rather simple worship of motherhood and nature, in which there is no vested authority or sacred canon and from which all negative or unpleasant aspects have been purged.
Though Van initially views the women’s attitude toward the past as irreverent and disrespectful, Ellador explains that, from the Herlandian perspective, it makes no sense to give the same weight to the opinions of ancestors as to those of the present generation. Knowledge and understanding have increased over the years, and the best way to honor the departed women of Herland is to continue their example of conscious improvement of the land and of themselves. Gilman understands that her project of advancing feminism and moving the United States toward a socialist economy places her in direct opposition to many firmly rooted traditions, especially those regarding the family. Gilman saw traditional Christianity as opposed to many of the changes she was proposing. By subjecting tradition in general, and Christianity in particular, to the reasonable but quite sharp questions of the women of Herland, Gilman hopes to displace tradition from its privileged seat and thereby prepare the way for serious political changes.
The women of Herland have a nearly religious attitude toward motherhood. The rationality and the constant drive for self-improvement that mark Herland’s culture are meant to be in service to the overarching ideal of motherhood. The miraculous ability of the women of Herland to conceive children on their own leads them to see motherhood as the central aspect of their beings—their greatest duty and their greatest honor. They think of God as a sacred mother, a personification of the love that pervades the whole universe. One of the sharpest contrasts Gilman draws is between the judgmental, patriarchal male God of Western monotheism and the nurturing, mothering, female spirit of Herland’s religion.
In addition to being a religious imperative, motherhood in Herland is the dominant principle of social organization. Each woman in Herland is allowed, with rare exception, to give birth only once, and she does not raise her child herself. Instead, children are raised by specialists, as their education and nurturing are simply too important to society as a whole to be left in private hands. Each child has a whole country of mothers, and each woman has millions of objects for her boundless love. In a society that truly values mothers and children, Gilman suggests, children are not possessions, and motherhood is not merely incidental to a woman’s sexual being. One of the major problems for Van and Ellador’s marriage is Ellador’s inability to grasp the idea that sex has a romantic, pleasurable aspect as well as a procreative function. Any social arrangement in which children are not the highest priority seems immoral to the women of Herland, and this perspective that makes the men unwilling to admit how often children are neglected in the “civilized” world. The women are horrified when Van mentions abortion. For Gilman, Somel’s extreme, disbelieving reaction to the reality of abortion is one more piece of evidence that our society, not Herland’s, is the truly strange one.
In Herland, Gilman contrasts the way things are done in Herland and the way “we” do things. At first, these contrasts seem neutral, the incidental differences any two cultures would have. As the men become more familiar with Herland, however, a pattern emerges. In any realm in which there is a contrast between the customs of Herland and those of the outer world, the policies of Herland inevitably appear to be more rational and more effective. One example is the contrast drawn in the matter of the domestication of animals. Herland’s cats are model citizens, intelligent, healthy, and beautiful. They have been systematically bred for good behavior, chasing rodents only and leaving birds alone. Somel and Zava are shocked and disgusted to hear about the dirt, danger, and disease associated with dogs in the outer world and marvel that such a situation is tolerated. Eventually, after increasingly embarrassing comparisons, Van and his friends are forced to wonder why their society does tolerate such things. At every stage of the novel, Gilman contrasts a society built on reason, equality, and cooperation—all standards we claim to value—with one organized along the lines we have in fact chosen: tradition, inequality, and competition.
When Van, Terry, and Jeff first encounter their future brides, the extreme physical prowess of Herland’s women is strikingly clear. This encounter is only the first in a series of scenes in which Gilman shows our conventional notions of male physical superiority to be completely inaccurate, at least in the case of the Herlandians. Gilman uses the women’s amazing athleticism to illustrate one of her recurring points: that the inferiority and supposed weakness of women is entirely a product of culture. For instance, during their confinement and education into the customs of Herland, the men are allowed to exercise—and are humiliated by the ease with which the older women match and beat them. Later, the men play a stone-tossing game with the three girls, who easily beat them. Van comments on the naturalness of the girls’ physicality—vastly different from the women back home. Gilman wants to show that women would soon cease to be the “weaker sex” if they were not treated as such. The assumption of female frailty becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which women are sheltered because they are weak and weak because they are sheltered. The unique history of Herland explodes the myth of female weakness.
One of the first observations the men make about Herland is how carefully the forestland around the city is maintained, and Jeff confirms that every tree in the forest is fruit- or nut-bearing, or in some way useful. The entire forest is not so much a wilderness as an immense garden. The forests exemplify the Herlandian way, especially with regard to nature. First, the forests are completely under human control. Every aspect of the ecosystem has been rationalized and made to serve the women in the most efficient way possible, but without the waste and ugliness associated with industrial exploitation. The useful, pleasant aspects of nature have been encouraged to flourish, and the aggressive, wasteful elements have been bred out. The women have gently forced nature to cooperate.
Though men such as Terry associate nature with ferocity and physical challenge, the Herlandian forests represent a different kind of relationship between humans and their environment. Natural life is humanized; it cooperates with and supports humanity rather than reduces human behavior to so-called “natural laws” that tend to favor competition and the domination of the strong over the weak. The women are disgusted to learn the barest details of the modern meat industry, which stands in sharp contrast to the Herlandian women’s relationship to their well-tended forests.
Contrary to the men’s expectations, the Herlandian women’s clothes are not frivolous, but rather, practical and stylish: the women wear a one-piece undergarment, hose, and either a tunic or a long robe, which is attractively stitched and has many useful pockets. In our society, women are often assumed to be vain and frivolous because of their clothing, and thus, Gilman uses the Herlandians’ clothing to confound the shortsighted expectations of the men, who are forced to admit that the women are no less attractive for having shorter hair and practical clothes. In time, Jeff and Van even come to prefer the Herlandian style. The men, too, must adopt Herlandian dress, and they find the clothes comfortable and becoming, which suggests that Herland’s style is fitting for both men and women alike. When Van eventually leaves Herland, he misses the clothing, and, by extension, the eminently reasonable, attractive, and comfortable lifestyle that those clothes represent.