In many ways, Ellador is Gilman’s ideal woman. Beautiful and athletic, an unusual combination in the literature of Gilman’s time, Ellador defies the frail, delicate Victorian feminine ideal without seeming in any way masculinized or unwomanly. She is intelligent, courageous, and curious about the larger world. She is also a career woman: her work as a forester is inspired by the praise she received as a child for helping destroy an insect pest that threatened Herland’s trees. All of these aspects combine to make Ellador a walking rebuke to the stereotype of the modern, “liberated” woman as a waspish, unfulfilled man-hater. Gilman means for Ellador to exemplify woman’s human potential—that is, woman’s potential for wholeness, beyond the conventional boundaries of traditional femininity. Given the chance, Gilman is saying, women can be like Ellador: equal to a man spiritually, intellectually, and even physically.
Ellador’s mission to the outside world is part of her quest for an understanding of human nature in its wholeness. Ellador senses that, despite the amazing progress made in Herland, their society remains incomplete as long as there is no contribution from the masculine half of humanity. Ellador is driven to understand the masculine “other” both through her romantic relationship with Van and, at the end of the novel, by exploring the outside world in his company. There is still a tentative, unsettled quality to Ellador’s relationship with Van at the conclusion of the novel, as though both the characters and the author were still trying to figure out what a truly equal sexual relationship would look like. In a typically clever reversal of traditional characterization, Gilman has Ellador in the role of cool rationalist, not seeing the point of nonprocreative sexuality—while Van argues for the emotional, passionate, romantic (and traditionally “feminine”) side of sexuality. If the women of the future are anything like Ellador, Gilman seems to say, many of our traditional expectations will have to be radically revised.