Herland is a wonderful wonderful book.
I sought it out after hearing it discussed on the partially examined life podcast (http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2011/09/05/episode-42-feminists-on-human-nature-and-moral-psychology/)
It is ostensibly an old-fashioned tale of discovery and exploration, full of social commentary, without it seeming shoehorned in, in fact the story would be impossible without it. Herland is the tale of three explores who having heard tales of a land inhabited only by women succeed in finding said land but it is vastly different from their expectations of what a society of only women could be like.
They expect frivolousness and bickering, what they find is more or less utopian. A Society of well-educated, strong and cooperative individuals organised in such a way that all individuals have their needs met and where education is paramount, and is of the progressive rather than controlling variety.
To begin with they can’t believe that there aren’t men somewhere behind the scenes pulling the strings. The book was written in 1915 when the prevailing view was that the behaviour of the sexes was biologically determined, which the author does her best to challenge. Incidentally the society is descended from a single individual some 2000 years before who, when the men were wiped out in war and a volcanic explosion, was able to reproduce parthenogenetically, which while ludicrously far-fetched, does have precedent in other animals that reproduce sexually, such as commodo dragons.
problematically this is presented in such a way as to give the impression that women have no sexuality that’s not directed towards reproduction. However the best books have bits you disagree with. It stops you from reading them complacently, it keeps you thinking. It makes you examine the contrasting views more closely.
Overall the book makes you question how much you think you know about groups of individuals is due to the structure of the society they live in. Obviously we no longer have the same rigid views of what a woman is, that they had in the early 1900’s but we still have notions that there are differences between the behaviour of men and women, the question remains how much of this is social conditioning. I recommend this book highly both for its historical perspective and it’s undeniable merits as an adventure story.
Verdict: It’s good. Read it.