Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3 1860 – August 17 1935) was a prominent American novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and non fiction,
and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper", which she wrote after a severe bout of post-partum depression.
Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins
in Hartford, Connecticut
, to Mary Perkins (formerly Mary Fitch Westcott) and Frederic Beecher Perkins
, a librarian and magazine editor. She had one brother, Thomas Adie, who was fourteen months older than her. A physician advised Mary Perkins that she might die if she bore other children. Sometime thereafter, her father moved out, leaving his wife and children on the brink of poverty (Living
5). The only real contribution her father gave Charlotte was a shared rampant thirst and love of literature. Gilman grew up with an awareness of her progressive great aunts, Harriet Beecher Stowe
, (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin
), and Catharine Beecher
, both advocates of domestic feminism, and Isabella Beecher Hooker
In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gilman reported that her mother showed affection only when she thought her young daughter was asleep (Living 10-11). Charlotte's mother banned Charlotte from forming strong friendships with other children because she did not want her daughter to become too reliant upon human affection. Charlotte's mother also prohibited her from reading fiction because she did not want her daughter to have fanciful, wishful notions of the world. (Living 5).
Much of Gilman's youth was spent in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1878, the eighteen-year-old enrolled in classes at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Gilman supported herself as an artist of trade cards. She also became a tutor, but she really did not enjoy teaching. In 1884, she married the artist Charles Walter Stetson, and their only child, Katharine Beecher Stetson, was born the following year. Charlotte Perkins Gilman suffered a very serious bout of post-partum depression in the months after Katharine's birth. This was an age in which woman were seen as "hysterical" and "nervous" beings, thus, when a woman claimed to be seriously ill after giving birth, her claims were sometimes dismissed as being invalid.
In 1888, Gilman separated from her husband--a rare occurrence in the late nineteenth century. The two divorced in 1894. Following the separation, Gilman moved with her daughter to California, where she was active in organizing social reform movements. She began lecturing on Nationalism and gained visibility with her first volume of poetry, In This Our World, published in 1893. In 1894, Gilman sent her daughter East to live with her ex-husband and his second wife, Grace Ellery Channing, who was a close friend of Gilman's. Gilman reported in her memoir that she was happy for the couple, since Katharine's "second mother was fully as good as the first, [and perhaps] better in some ways" (Living 163). Gilman also held progressive views about paternal rights and acknowledged that her ex-husband "had a right to some of [Katharine's] society" and that she "had a right to know and love her father" (Living 163).
For a time Gilman lived with Adeline Knapp, a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Call, who shared her interests in social reform and the Nationalist Club, based on Edward Bellamy's socialist utopian vision. She also became friendly with a number of California writers: Edwin Markham, Ina Coolbrith, Joaquin Miller, and Charles F. Lummis.
Gilman's second marriage to her first cousin, New York attorney George Houghton Gilman, lasted from 1900 until his sudden death in 1934, but their marriage was not a happy one. In 1922, Gilman moved from New York to Houghton's old homestead in Norwich, Connecticut. Following his death, Gilman moved back to Pasadena, California, where her daughter resided.
In 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer. An advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, Gilman committed suicide on August 17 1935 by inhaling chloroform. She left a suicide note explaining why she had decided to terminate her life.
Gilman's first book was Gems of Art for the Home and Fireside (1888). Her now-famous short story, "The Yellow Wall-Paper," was published in 1892. It was her first volume of poetry, however, In This World (1893), a collection of satirical poems, that first brought her recognition. During the next two decades she gained much of her fame with lectures on women's issues, ethics, labor, human rights, and social reform. She often referred to these themes in her fiction.
In 1894-95 Gilman served as editor of the magazine The Impress, a literary weekly that was published by the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association. In 1897, she wrote the first draft of Women and Economics, (1898), which was published the following year, propelling Gilman into the international spotlight. In 1903, Gilman addressed the International Congress of Women in Berlin, and the next year toured in England, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
From 1909 to 1916 Gilman single-handedly wrote and edited her own magazine, The Forerunner, in which much of her fiction appeared. Over seven years and two months the magazine contained eighty-six issues, each twenty-eight pages long. The magazine had nearly 1,500 subscribers and featured such serialized works as What Diantha Did, (1910), The Crux, (1911), Moving the Mountain, (1911), and Herland. Her autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman appeared posthumously in 1935. Her detective novel Unpunished, left in manuscript at the time of her death, was published in 1997. For two decades Gilman was largely forgotten along with her work. Carl N. Degler is credited with having resurrected interest in Gilman when he reissued Women and Economics in 1966.
Rest Cure Treatment
Gilman married Walter Stetson in 1884, and less than a year later gave birth to their daughter Katharine. Already susceptible to depression, her symptoms were exacerbated by marriage and motherhood. In her memoir, Gilman reported that when she held her baby, she felt pain rather than happiness. In 1885, she accepted an invitation from Grace Channing to spend the winter in Pasadena, but when she returned to the East coast, she again sunk into a deep depression.
In April 1887, Gilman sought help from the nation's premiere nerve specialist, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. He diagnosed exhaustion of the nerves and prescribed the Rest Cure, a controversial treatment that Mitchell pioneered. The treatment he prescribed Gilman was called the Rest Treatment; it included: 1. bed rest, 2. isolation from family, 3. overfeeding to increase fat volume, 4. massage and occasional use of electricity on the muscles. To begin, the patient could not even leave her bed, read, write, sew, talk, or feed herself.
After a month, Gilman was sent home with Mitchell’s instructions, “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. . . . Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” She tried for a few months to follow Mitchell's advice, but her depression deepened, and Gilman came perilously close to a full emotional collapse.
After she left Walter Stetson and returned to California with Katharine, Gilman's depression lifted, and she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” with embellishments, to illustrate the impact of the Rest Cure: The story, she said, "was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked”. She sent a copy of it to Mitchell; he never responded, but in her autobiography, Gilman reported that Mitchell had altered his treatment after the reading the story , a contention that has never been corroborated.
Gilman called herself a humanist
, and believed the domestic environment oppressed women. She argued that male aggressiveness and maternal roles for women were artificial and no longer necessary for survival. "There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver" (from Women and Economics
, 1898). Gilman believed economic independence is the only thing that could really bring freedom for women, and make them equal to men.
In January 1896, Gilman attended the 28th Annual Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C., where Lester Frank Ward, the leading reform Darwinist at the time, hosted a reception on her behalf. Two years later, she published Women and Economics, a theoretical treatise which argued, among other things, that women are subjugated by men, that motherhood should not preclude a woman from working outside the home, and that housekeeping, cooking, and child care, would be professionalized. “The ideal woman," Gilman wrote, "was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good-humored.”
Gilman became a spokesperson on such topics such as women’s perspectives on work, dress reform, and family. Housework, she argued, should be equally shared by men and women, and that at an early age women should be encouraged to be independent. In many of her major works, including "The Home" (1903), Human Work (1904), and The Man-Made World (1911), Gilman also advocated women working outside of the home.
While Gilman is most famous for "The Yellow Wallpaper", a thinly veiled indictment of the Rest Cure, she also published hundreds of poems, works of fiction, non-fiction, dramas, and an autobiography.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) initially met with a mixed reception. One critic wrote to the Boston Transcript: “The story could hardly, it would seem, give pleasure to any reader, and to many whose lives have been touched through the dearest ties by this dread disease, it must bring the keenest pain. To others, whose lives have become a struggle against heredity of mental derangement, such literature contains deadly peril. Should such stories be allowed to pass without severest censure?”
Although Gilman had gained international fame with the publication of Women and Economics in 1898, by the end of World War I she seemed out of tune with her times. In her autobiography she admitted, "unfortunately my views on the sex question do not appeal to the Freudian complex of today, nor are people satisfied with a presentation of religion as a help in our tremendous work of improving this world.
Ann J. Lane writes in Herland and Beyond that “Gilman offered perspectives on major issues of gender with which we still grapple; the origins of women’s subjugation, the struggle to achieve both autonomy and intimacy in human relationships; the central role of work as a definition of self; new strategies for rearing and educating future generations to create a humane and nurturing environment.”
Quotations by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The first duty of a human being is to assume the right functional relationship to society -- more briefly, to find your real job, and do it.”
“There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.”
“There was a time when Patience ceased to be a virtue. It was long ago.”
“To swallow and follow, whether old doctrine or new propaganda, is a weakness still dominating the human mind.”
"It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it."
"The softest, freest, most pliable and changeful living substance is the brain -- the hardest and most iron-bound as well."
"A house does not need a wife any more than it needs a husband."
"When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one." (from her suicide note).
- In This Our World,1st ed. Oakland: McCombs & Vaughn, 1893.
- Suffrage Songs and Verses. New York: Charlton Co., 1911.
- The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
Gilman published 186 short stories in magazines, newspapers, and in her self-published monthly, The Forerunner
. Among her z
- "The Unexpected." Kate Field's Washington. 21 May, 1890, 335-36.
- "The Giant Wistaria." New England Magazine. 4 (June 1891), 480-85.
- "The Yellow Wallpaper." New England Magazine. 5 (Jan. 1892), 647-56.
- "Through This." Kate Field's Washington. 13 Sept. 1893, p. 166.
- "An Unnatural Mother." Impress. 16 Feb. 1895, 4-5.
- "When I Was a Witch." Forerunner. 1 (May 1910), 1-6.
- "The Cottagette." Forerunner. 1 (Aug. 1910), 1-5.
- "Mrs. Beazley's Deeds." Woman's World. 27 (March 1911), 12-13, 58.
- "Turned." Forerunner. 2 (Sept. 1911), 227-32.
- "Old Water." Forerunner. 2 (Oct. 1911), 255-59.
- "Making a Change." Forerunner. 2 (Dec. 1911), 311-15.
- "The Chair of English." Forerunner. 4 (March 1913), 57-61.
- "If I Were a Man." Physical Culture. 32 (July 1914), 31-34.
- "His Mother." Forerunner. 5 (July 1914), 169-73.
- "Dr. Clair's Place." Forerunner. 6 (June 1915), 141-45.
- "The Vintage." Forerunner. 7 (Oct. 1916), 253-57.
Novels and Novellas
- What Diantha Did. Forerunner. 1909-10.
- The Crux. Forerunner. 1911.
- Moving the Mountain. Forerunner. 1911.
- Mag-Marjorie. Forerunner. 1912.
- Benigna Machiavelli. Forerunner. 1914.
- Herland. Forerunner. 1915.
- With Her in Ourland. Forerunner. 1916.
- Unpunished. Eds. Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight. New York: Feminist Press, 1997.
- "The Ceaseless Struggle of Sex: A Dramatic View." Kate Field's Washington. 9 April, 1890, 239-40.
- Three Women. Forerunner. 2 (May 1911), 115-23, 134.
- Something to Vote For. Forerunner. 2 (June 1911), 143-53.
Gilman wrote more than one thousand works of non-fiction, including articles, essays, book reviews, and lectures.
- Gems of Art for the Home and Fireside. Providence: J. A. and R. A. Reid, 1888.
- Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898.
- Concerning Children. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1900.
- The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York: McClure, Phillips, & Co., 1903.
- Human Work. New York: McClure, Phillips, & Co., 1904.
- The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture. New York: Charton Co., 1911.
- Our Brains and What Ails Them. Serialized in Forerunner. 1912.
- Social Ethics. Serialized in Forerunner. 1914.
- His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York and London: Century Co., 1923.
Short and serial non-fiction
- "Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress," Woman's Journal, 9 Oct. 1886. p. 338
- "Are Women Better Than Men?" Pacific Monthly. 3, Jan. 1891, pp. 9-11
- "Masculine, Feminine, and Human," Kate Field's Washington. 6 July 1892, pp.6-7
- "The Labor Movement." A Prize Essay Read Before the Trades and Labor Unions of Alameda County, California, 5 Sept. 1892. Oakland: Alameda County Federation of Trades, 1893.
- "The Automobile as a Reformer," Saturday Evening Post, (3), June 1899, p. 778.
- "Ideals of Child Culture," Child Study for Mothers and Teachers. Ed. Margaret Sangster. Philadelphia: Booklover's Library, 1901.
- "Social Darwinism," American Journal of Sociology. (12), March 1907, 713-14.
- "Children's Clothing," Harper's Bazar. (44), Jan. 1910, 24.
- "What is Feminism?" Boston Sunday Herald. 3 Sept. 1916, p. 7.
- "The Housekeeper and the Food Problem." Annals of the American Academy. (74), Nov. 1917, 123-30.
- "Concerning Clothes." Independent, 22 June 1918, pp. 478, 483.
- "The Socializing of Education." Public, 5 April 1919, pp. 348-39.
- "A Woman's Party." Suffragist. 8 (Feb. 1920), 8-9.
- "Progress through Birth Control." North American Review, (224), Dec. 1927), 622-29.
- "Divorce and Birth Control." Outlook, 25 Jan. 1928, pp. 130-131.
- "Feminism and Social Progress." Problems of Civilization, Ed. Baker Brownell. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1929), pp. 115-142.
- "Birth Control, Religion and the Unfit." Nation. 27 Jan. 1932, pp. 109-109.
- "The Right to Die." Forum, (94), Nov. 1935, 297-300.
Gilman lectured across the USA. The following is a sampling of newspaper coverage of her lectures:
- "Woman Suffrage League." Boston Advertiser, 10 Nov 1897: 8:1. [Re. "The Economic Basis of the Woman Question."]
- "Society and the Child." Brooklyn Eagle, 11 Dec 1902: 8:4.
- "A New Light on the Woman Question." Woman's Journal, 25 April 1904: 76-77.
- "Advocates a 'World City.'" New York Times, 6 Jan 1915: 15:5. [Re. Arbitration of diplomatic disputes by an international agency.]
- "The Listener." Boston Transcript, 14 April 1917: 14:1. [Re. Announcement of lecture series.]
- "Great Duty for Women After War." Boston Post, 26 Feb 1918: 2:7.
- "Mrs. Gilman Urges Hired Mother Idea." New York Times, 23 Sept 1919: 36:1-2.
- "Walt Whitman Dinner." New York Times, 1 June 1921: 16:7. [Gilman speaks at annual meeting of Whitman Society in New York.]
- "Fiction of America Being Melting Pot Unmasked by Charlotte Perkins Gilman." Dallas Morning News, 15 Feb 1926: 9:7-8 and 15:8.
Diaries, Journals, Biographies, and Letters
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist. Mary A. Hill. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.
- Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson. Ed. Mary A. Hill. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
- A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900. Ed. Mary A. Hill. Lewisburg: Bucknill UP, 1995.
- To Herland and Beyond: The Life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
- The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2 Vols. Ed. Denise D. Knight. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
- The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935; NY: Arno Press, 1972; and Harper & Row, 1975.
- Berman, Jeffrey. “The Unrestful Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and `The Yellow Wallpaper. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. Ed. Catherine Golden. New York: Feminist Press, 1992. 211-41.
- Carter-Sanborn, Kristin. “Restraining Order: The Imperialist Anti-Violence of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Arizona Quarterly 56.2 (Summer 2000): 1-36.
- Ceplair, Larry, ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.
- Davis, Cynthia J. and Denise D. Knight. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
- Deegan, Mary Jo. “Introduction.” With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland. Eds. Mary Jo Deegan and Michael R. Hill. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. 1-57.
- Eldredge, Charles C. Charles Walter Stetson, Color, and Fantasy. Lawrence: Spencer Museum of Art, The U of Kansas, 1982.
- Ganobcsik-Williams, Lisa. “The Intellectualism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Evolutionary Perspectives on Race, Ethnicity, and Gender.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Eds. Jill Rudd and Val Gough. Iowa City: U of Iowa P , 1999.
- Golden, Catherine. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Feminist P, 1992.
- ---. “`Written to Drive Nails With’: Recalling the Early Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Eds. Jill Rudd and Val Gough. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. 243-66.
- Gough, Val. “`In the Twinkling of an Eye’: Gilman’s Utopian Imagination.” In A Very Different Story: Studies on the Fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Eds. Val Gough and Jill Rudd. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998. 129-43.
- Gubar, Susan. “She in Herland: Feminism as Fantasy.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ed. Sheryl L. Meyering. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989. 191-201.
- Hill, Mary Armfield. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Journey From Within.” In A Very Different Story: Studies on the Fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Eds. Val Gough and Jill Rudd. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998. 8-23.
- Karpinski, Joanne B., “The Economic Conundrum in the Lifewriting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Catherine J. Golden and Joanne S. Zangrando. U of Delaware P, 2000. 35-46.
- Kessler, Carol Farley. “Dreaming Always of Lovely Things Beyond’: Living Toward Herland, Experiential foregrounding. In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Eds. Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2000. 89-103.
- Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Studies in Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1997.
- ---. “Introduction.” Herland, `The Yellow Wall-Paper’ and Selected Writings. New York: Penguin, 1999.
- Lane, Ann J. “Introduction.” Herland: A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1915. Rpt. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979
- ---. “The Fictional World of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ed. Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
- Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, `The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Rpt. “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Eds. Thomas L. Erskine and Connie L. Richards. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993. 225-256.
- Long, Lisa A. “Herland and the Gender of Science.” MLA Approaches to Teaching Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper and Herland. Eds. Denise D. Knight and Cynthia J. David. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2003. 125-132.
- Mitchell, S. Weir, M.D. “Camp Cure.” Nurse and Patient, and Camp Cure.
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1877
- ---. Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked.1887. New York: Arno Press, 1973.
- Oliver, Lawrence J. and Gary Scharnhorst. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman v. Ambrose Bierce:The Literary Politics of Gender in Fin-de-Siècle California.” Journal of the West (July 1993): 52-60.
- Palmeri, Ann. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Forerunner of a Feminist Social Science.” Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. Eds. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983. 97-120.
- Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
- Scharnhorst, Gary, and Denise D. Knight. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Library: A Reconstruction.” Resources for American Literary Studies 23:2 (1997): 181-219.
- Stetson, Charles Walter. Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson. Ed. Mary A. Hill. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1985.
- Tuttle, Jennifer S. “Rewriting the West Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Owen Wister, and the Sexual Politics of Neurasthenia.” The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Eds. Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2000. 103-121.
- Wegener, Frederick. “What a Comfort a Woman Doctor Is!’ Medical Women in the Life and Writing of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Eds. Jill Rudd & Val Gough. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. 45-73.
- Weinbaum, Alys Eve. “Writing Feminist Genealogy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Racial Nationalism, and the Reproduction of Maternalist Feminism.” Feminist Studies 27 (Summer 2001): 271-30.
The Yellow Wallpaper
, Suspense, CBS radio, 1948
Notes and references