This is written from memory, unfortunately. If I could have brought with me the material I so carefully prepared, this would be a very different story. Whole books full of notes, carefully copied records, firsthand descriptions, and the pictures--that's the worst loss. We had some bird's-eyes of the cities and parks; a lot of lovely views of streets, of buildings, outside and in, and some of those gorgeous gardens, and, most important of all, of the women themselves.
Summary: The basic idea of Herland is easily summarized, and Gilman's own summary (from the sequel, With Her in Ourland) hits the essentials:
Three American young men discover a country inhabited solely by women, who were Parthenogenetic, and had borne only girl children for two thousand years; they marry three of the women.
The three men are Terry O. Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings. The three are basically types. Terry, the wealthy adventurer, is the hell-raiser, the lady's man, the man among men, alpha-male-ish and sure of getting his way. Jeff, the doctor and botanist, is the dreamer, the sentimental one, good in a pinch but inclined to worship women. Van, the narrator, is the level-headed sociologist, open-minded and cerebral, thoughtful and moderate. Out of a sense of adventure the three friends join a scientific expedition, and, hearing legends of a dangerous civilization of women, decide to look into it on their own. Thus they come to Herland, where they meet Alima, Celis, and Ellador, the women they'll eventually marry, and learn all about the customs of the society that has included only women for two millenia.
Herland is a utopia built on the concepts of motherhood and education. Lacking men for so long, they have no sense of most of the things that we define as femininity; they don't have the contrast case of masculinity, and in a society consisting only of women it makes no sense at all for roles to be divided by sex. Having for reasons unknown developed a capacity for parthenogenesis, they can nonetheless still have children, and their entire society is built around this. Motherhood is their idea of womanhood. But they are aware of the idea of fatherhood in animals, and they have record that they were once two sexes before the loss of their men, so when the three men come upon their country under circumstances showing that they must be from a fairly advanced civilization, they are intrigued by the thought that they, having had only motherhood for two thousand years, might be enriched by finally having fatherhood again.
It is unsettling for the young men. They come from a society that sees sex and interaction between the sexes as a matter of pleasure, not procreation, and pleasure, at that, mostly for the man. They have not learned to think of themselves as potential fathers, or of fatherhood as a summit of life and a thing to be upheld and cherished by all of society.
This is what gives much of Herland its satirical bite. Herland itself is a utopia, full of peace and prosperity; Ourland, as Gilman calls our world in the sequel, is far from it. But what makes the difference is not that Herland is a society of women, nor that Ourland is a society ruled by men. It's notable that when Ellador visits our world in the sequel, she is inclined to judge the women more coolly than the men for the state of affairs; she takes the domination of men over women as primarily the fault of the women. This is quite harsh, and to fully understand it one must keep in mind Ellador's background in a society in which no woman could even imagine ever standing for some of the things that women tolerate all the time in ours. But it is a clear sign that from the perspective of Herland, the faults of our society are not merely the faults of men. This book is not an attack on men, although they come in for plenty of criticism.
What makes the difference is that Herland is a society of mothers. Herland arose after a series of catastrophes brought their society to what seemed an inevitable extinction; but in the midst of that despair and resignation a miracle happened, and that miracle was, beyond all expectation or apparent possibility, motherhood. Motherhood is sacred to them; it is at the core of what they are. But in our world, we have nothing of this. We occasionally pay lip service to motherhood and fatherhood, but we do not treat them as sacred but as incidental. The relations between the sexes are not governed by what makes them sexes in the first place, but on individual pleasures and preferences. Because of the relation between the sexes is on a false foundation; it is not based on the things relationship between the sexes must be based on if it is to be coherent: motherhood, fatherhood, friendship. And since our sexual relations are not friendships between potential mothers and potential fathers, they degrade both men and women alike. Because motherhood and fatherhood are treated as secondary goals, and because friendship between mothers and fathers is not treated as a sacred thing, our society constantly does things that make no sense in light of any of these things.
Herland is a utopia, but it is not a perfect society. The Herlanders themselves recognize this. (And Gilman certainly thinks that they are right in this respect.) They are by nature incomplete. An excellent society of mothers is less rich, inevitably, than an excellent society of mothers and fathers; and, what is more, the interaction between mothers and fathers is the sort of thing that can make it easier to see them both as people -- which is something that even the Herlanders themselves have difficulty doing, so inevitable is it that they think of men primarily in terms of fatherhood. But the society to which even utopian Herland can aspire is not our society of mutual degradation, but a society in which fatherhood too is as highly rated and as universal in aspiration as motherhood in Herland and in which the relation between fathers and mothers is a relation of friendship between two people with two high callings, crowning offices, of utmost importance for all of society.
As to anthropology, they had those same remnants of information about other peoples, and the knowledge of the savagery of the occupants of those dim forests below. Nevertheless, they had inferred (marvelously keen on inference and deduction their minds were!) the existence and development of civilization in otehr places, much as we infer it on other planets.
When our biplane came whirring over their heads in that first scouting flight of ours, they had instantly accepted it as proof the higher development of Some Where Else, and had prepared to receive us as cautiously and eagerly as we might prepare to welcome visitors who came "by meteor" from Mars.
Recommendation: This work is an excellent example of utopian literature, in which the elements of the utopian society are largely given a thorough thinking-through, and in which the limits of such a society are kept in mind. Recommended.