The title of Gilman's novel may be a bit misleading. The novel is described as a feminist novel. Yet, this is not exactly acurate. The absence of men in the utopian society may seem extreme to some, and it is. This is how Gilman makes her point. She does not create a world without men because men are terrible creatures who have corrupted the world. The utopia which lacks men is a clean peaceful place, excelling in every way American society fails. But, it is neither the absence of men nor the presence of women that faciliates this.
Gender, in this novel, is symbolic for the most part. Gilman does separate the two genders to destroy steroetypes, but also to establish a concrete difference between the two worlds. The male world is not bad, and the female good. The world in which people are defined by others and limited to these defined roles is bad, while the world in which people are free to grow without being defined or compared to others, and are able to see the oneness of all people is good.
Comparing Herland to the reader's own world, Gilman begins destroying gender based stereotypes. Because there are no distinctions of gender in Herland, nor any superficial characteristics which accompany gender, Herland women take on the roles of all people without considering any limitations. These women are strong, agile, nurturing, intelligent, cooperative, and able to rely on themselves. They are not "typical" females. As Gilman explains through the male character Van, "Those 'feminie charms' we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity--developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfillment of their great process" (59). In the same way, stereotypes about men can be discredited. Such ideas have been made up to help people deal with the differences between men and women. Gilman shows the reader that if people stop basing their identities on what others want, they will no longer be slaves to limitations. They will be free to discover their true selves and will allow others to do the same.
Gilman shows readers that men and women are distinct people, but reminds us that they are people first. This can be seen when Somel, a woman of Herland, innocently questions a male visitor, "But surely there are characteristics enough which belong to People, aren't there?" (89). Focusing more on these characteristics, those belonging to "People," allows humans to fulfill their personal potential without fear of jealousy. The women of Herland are able to live in "such universal peace and good will and mutual affection" (99) because "they lacked the sex motive and, with it, jealousy" (99). The women of Herland are free and equal because they are secure enough in themselves to offer and accept help for a joint cause, the betterment of their world. All readers, men and women alike, can learn a great deal from this humanist utopian novel.