Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel about the feminist utopia has such promise but ultimately flops at your feet like a dying fish. Wonderful premise– women live hidden away in a country the size of Holland with all exits sealed off from volcano or earthquake, existing without men for 2,000 years. The society is fair, just, healthy, reasonable, intelligent, caring, cooperative. Three men breach the walls with a plane and set off exploring, men of the varying types of typical brutal male, poet, and scientist. The brute doesn’t ever make peace with the things he’s learning, but the poet and scientist find that this society is much better than the one they left. There’s no crime, wars, violence, or poverty. The men are captured and held as friendly prisoners, given tutors to learn Herland’s language and history. In turn, the women carefully question the men about their society, noting terrible things without judgement and also noting what the men are uncomfortable revealing (that women aren’t supposed to work, they’re supposed to be taken care of, oh yeah except for the millions of women who live in poverty with their children). At one point they have to explain why they think milk is food:

Still they looked puzzled. I pointed to my outline of a cow. “The farmer milks the cow,” I said, and sketched a milk pail, the stool, and in pantomime showed the man milking. “Then it is carried to the city and distributed by milkmen–everybody has it at the door in the morning.”
“Has the cow no child?” asked Somel earnestly.
“Oh yes, of course, a calf, that is.”
“Is there milk for the calf and you, too?”
It took some time to make clear to those three sweet-faced women the process which robs the cow of her calf, and the calf of its true food; and the talk led us into a further discussion of the meat business. They heard it out, looking very white, and presently begged to be excused.

Things start to go off the rails for the story once Gilman allows the men to couple up with three ladies, preposterously proposing marriages (and the women accept, but refuse the idiotic custom of taking the men’s names thank-you-very-much). The men then want to have separate homes for their “families” but the women think in “we” and not in “me”, rejecting this idea. Eventually the brute forces himself on his “wife” and is banished from Herland. A very lame ending where the men must promise not to reveal the location of Herland, the brute says hell no I won’t promise, and the ladies say ok you’re staying here forever, and then he promises. End scene, close book, start working on a massive re-write?