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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the most prominent feminists and social activists in the period from the 1890s to the 1930s. Her Women and Economics (1898), an examination of women’s roles in the world of capitalism, earned her wide recognition, and for several decades she was considered the leading intellectual of the women’s movement. While her nonfiction promotes her social theories, her fiction depicts the realization of her feminist ideals with a humor and satire that had been, for the most part, unseen in feminist literature up to that time. Ironically, Gilman is best known today for her least characteristic work, ”The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), a short story based on her own experience, detailing with dramatic intensity and authenticity a young woman’s mental breakdown.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, to Frederick Beecher Perkins, a noted librarian and magazine editor, and Mary Fritch Perkins. Although Gilman’s father frequently abandoned the family for long periods of time and eventually divorced his wife in 1869, he directed Gilman’s early education, and emphasized her study of history and the sciences. This was unusual for the time, because women were generally educated only in domestic matters and were expected to remain the keepers of the household; they were still nearly fifty years from earning the right to vote in the United States, and farther still from other forms of equality with men.
Because of her father’s absence, Gilman frequently stayed with relatives, including her renowned reform-minded great-aunts: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), as well as the famous feminist activists Catherine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker. Such influential women were instrumental in developing Gilman’s feminist convictions and her desire to effect social reform.
The Rest “Cure”
In her early adulthood, Gilman supported herself as a teacher and commercial artist and, at the age of twenty-four, married Charles Walter Stetson, also an artist. Following the birth of their daughter in 1884, Gil-man suffered from severe depression, leading her to consult the noted neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed his rest cure. This treatment, prescribed almost exclusively to women, consisted of committing the patient to bed rest for months, during which time the patient was deprived of all mental, physical, and social activities—reading, writing, and painting were explicitly prohibited. For Gilman, the rest cure itself almost drove her insane, and she eventually removed herself from Mitchell’s care. Soon after, convinced that her emotional problems were in part the result of the confines of marriage, she left her husband.
In 1888, Gilman moved to California, where she helped edit feminist publications, assisted in the planning of the California Women’s Congresses of 1894 and 1895, and was instrumental in founding the Women’s Peace Party. After spending several months at Hull House in Chicago at the invitation of social reformer Jane Addams, Gilman toured the United States and England, lecturing about women’s rights and labor reform. During the 1890s, Gilman, who had been producing verse and journal entries for years, became increasingly active as a writer and in 1892 published her most famous work, ”The Yellow Wallpaper,” followed by In this Our World (1893), a collection of poems noted not only for their concern with feminist issues, but also for their humor.
A Forerunner in Feminism
In 1898, Gilman published Women in Economics, a feminist manifesto that has its origin in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In the book, Gilman argues that women’s secondary status in society, and especially their economic dependence on men, is the result of a male-oriented capitalist society, not a result of biological inferiority. In 1900 Gilman married George Houghton Gilman, a man who was supportive of her ardent involvement in social reform. Throughout the next several years, Gilman devoted her writing efforts to activism. She wrote essays, including Concerning Children (1900) and Human Work (1904), both of which asserted her view that women should work outside of the home for equal pay, fully using their abilities for the benefit of society and for their own satisfaction.
From 1909 through 1916, Gilman published The Forerunner, a monthly journal; at the end of each issue, she told her readers that the magazine was not a women’s magazine because it was designed to offer practical solutions for human existence. As a vehicle for advancing social awareness, The Forerunner is widely known as her single greatest achievement; however, Gilman could never make it financially profitable. During these years, Gilman also wrote fiction and poetry. In her fiction, Gilman portrays women struggling to achieve self-sufficiency or adapting to newfound independence. Her short stories frequently show women how to change their lives or redesign society, while her last three books of fiction, Moving and Mountain (1911), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916), are utopian novels depicting societies in which attitudes toward women and their abilities have radically changed.
The Simplest of Human Rights
After Gilman left The Forerunner in 1916, her productivity as a writer decreased considerably. Her next book was not published until 1923, and twelve more years passed before her autobiography appeared. That same year, after learning that she suffered from inoperable cancer, Gilman took her own life by inhaling a large dose of chloroform. She wrote in a final note that ”when one is assured of 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.” She died on August 17, 1935, in Pasadena, California, at the age of seventy-five.
Works in Literary Context
Besides her famous activist great-aunts, Gilman was influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women (1869), which proposes, among other progressive ideas, that the nature of women cannot be defined so long as women are denied access to intellectual pursuits and all social institutions. As women’s roles have continued to evolve, Gilman’s suggestions for the improvement of society through the power of women continue to be significant. Many modern feminist nonfiction works reflect the influence of Gilman’s ideas, and readers continue to discover in her thoughts much that is relevant to contemporary problems.
Limitations Placed on Women
Whether fiction or nonfiction, Gilman’s works exemplify the major themes supporting her lifelong conviction that women have rights, women have knowledge, and women have talents that should be respected. ”The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, conveys a general concern with the role of women in nineteenth-century society, especially within the realms of marriage, maternity, and domesticity. The narrator’s confinement to her home and her feelings of being dominated by her husband are indications of the many domestic limitations that society imposes on women, and the yellow wallpaper symbolizes this oppression of a woman who feels trapped by society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother.
Women and Economics expands this idea of a woman being controlled by a male-dominated world. In this essay, Gilman offers what was in her era a radical theory: the position of women in society is directly related to economic factors controlled by men, and because of these factors, women are dependent on men for their existence. She maintains that women need work of value in the marketplace and that their domestic responsibilities should be assigned value as well.
Gilman’s works also express her disapproval of the ways in which society discourages women’s creativity and self-expression. In Women and Economics, she points to women authors of the past such as Harriet Martineau, who had to hide her writing under her sewing whenever visitors came because sewing was an acceptable feminine activity, while writing was for men. Gilman fictionalizes this idea of subversive writing in ”The Yellow Wallpaper.” In the story, the narrator’s urge to express herself through writing is prohibited by her rest cure. Nevertheless, her creative impulse is so strong that she assumes the risk of secretly writing in a diary, which she hides from her husband. Ultimately, Gilman’s writings emphasize the fact that women have the same intellectual and creative capabilities as men, only women have not been permitted to exercise them as men have.
Works in Critical Context
In the years since Gilman’s death, her literary reputation has rested primarily on ”The Yellow Wallpaper,” which remains a classic both for its feminist perspective and its disconcerting depiction of madness. Her activist publications are less read today, but this is not because they are regarded as insubstantial; rather, it is because much of what Gilman advocates in terms of social equality has become more readily acknowledged as belonging to an ideal society. Additionally, her economic theories have appeared less radical in the years since her death.
”The Yellow Wallpaper”
Praised by Elaine Hedges as ”one of the rare pieces of literature we have by a nineteenth-century woman who directly confronts the sexual politics of the male-female, husband-wife relationship,” ”The Yellow Wallpaper,” considered Gilman’s best work of fiction, is also her least typical. Rather than an optimistic vision of what women can achieve, the story is a first-person account of a young mother’s mental deterioration, a tale ”wrenched out of Gilman’s own life . . . and unique in the canon of her works,” Hedges says. Even though ”the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell,” Gilman writes in her autobiography, ”and convince him of the error of his ways,” her contemporary readers were more frightened by the story’s narrative than inspired to change the treatment of depression. In fact, the work was reprinted as a horror story in William Dean Howell’s The Great Modern American Stories in 1920.
Although early reviewers interpreted ”The Yellow Wallpaper” as either a horror story or a case study in psychosis, most modern critics see it as a feminist indictment of society’s subjugation of women. Ann D. Wood, for instance, declares that ”The Yellow Wallpaper” reflects Gilman’s ”nightmare vision of sick women dependent on male doctors who use their professional superiority as a method to prolong their patients’ sickness and, consequently, the supremacy of their own sex.” Contemporary critics have discussed ”The Yellow Wallpaper” from a broad range of perspectives: biographical, historical, psychological, feminist, semiotic, and socio-cultural. Furthermore, the work has sparked an ongoing critical debate over the symbolic meaning of the wallpaper and the implications of the story’s ending.
- Allen, Polly Wynn. Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Architectural Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
- Beer, Jane. Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Studies in Short Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
- Dock, Julie Bates, ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York: Appleton-Century, 1935.
- –. The Yellow Wallpaper. Afterword by Elaine Hedges. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973.
- Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.
- Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
- Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.
- Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Meridian, 1991.
- Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Twayne, 1985.
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