In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia, three men struggle to understand a female-ruled civilization they have reached. Defying instructions to stay within certain boundaries, they go exploring and encounter a diverse array of females who try to explain their nonviolent, collective way of life to the incredulous men.
When they first escape and venture out, as they reveal themselves, the native people come out to look. Vandyck Jennings, a young sociologist, is the book’s narrator.
And everywhere, open country, village, or city—only women. Old women and young women and a great majority who seemed neither young nor old, but just women; young girls, also, though these, and the children, seeming to be in groups by themselves generally, were less in evidence. We caught many glimpses of girls and children in what seemed to be schools or in playgrounds, and so far as we could judge there were no boys.
Somel, their tutor, tells them that the children are reared collectively, and each mother need not give a distinct family name to the child, or “product,” which does not remain private. The Herlanders see no reason to main the knowledge of their lineage.
“When they are babies, we do speak of them, at times, as ‘Essa’s Lato,’ or ‘Novine’s Amel’; but that is merely descriptive and conversational. In the records, of course, the child stands in her own line of mothers; but in dealing with it personally it is Lato, or Amel, without dragging in its ancestors.”
Ellador, a young forest dweller, gradually develops a romantic relationship with Jennings. She shows him around the children’s area.
From the first memory, they [Herland children] knew Peace, Beauty, Order, Safety, Love, Wisdom, Justice, Patience, and Plenty. By “plenty” I mean that the babies grew up in an environment which met their needs, just as young fawns might grow up in dewy forest glades and brook-fed meadows. And they enjoyed it as frankly and utterly as the fawns would.
As the relationship progresses, Jennings finds that having sexual relations with Ellador is not foremost on his mind. He understands a different kind of love.
If ever anybody worked to woo and win and hold a human soul, she did, great superwoman that she was. I couldn’t then half comprehend the skill of it, the wonder. But this I soon began to find: that under all our cultivated attitude of mind toward women, there is an older, deeper, more “natural” feeling, the restful reverence which looks up to the Mother sex.
After another man, Terry, tries to force the woman he “loves” to have sexual relations, he is tried for rape and banished. He must also promise never to return or bring any others there, for fear of disease as much as warfare. Ellador leaves with Jennings, curious to learn of the strange ways of his society.