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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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).
Gilman wrote more than one thousand works of non-fiction, including articles, essays, book reviews, and lectures.
Gilman lectured across the USA. The following is a sampling of newspaper coverage of her lectures:
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1877
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