Gilman, Charlotte Perkins 1860–1935

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Date: 2002
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography
Length: 11,486 words

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1860–1935

Introduction

“WORK.” THIS SINGLE word served as a beacon, a signal flag for all that Charlotte Perkins Gilman did and all that she believed. To be a complete person, she wrote, one must have some sort of meaningful, self-defining work, and one must have the freedom of choice to determine for herself the nature, scope, and range of that work, unencumbered by social traditions, prejudice, or gender expectations. The answer to what was commonly referred to in the nineteenth century as the “woman question,” Gilman believed, was not to be found in women’s suffrage, in equal education, or in equality under the law, though she worked for all these causes at various times in her life and thought them important. Rather Gilman held that the economic imperative—the ability to earn one’s five hundred guineas, as Virginia Woolf would later write—enhanced one’s value in a patriarchy, which ultimately brings one a sense of self-worth as well.

Born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, Charlotte Anna Perkins, from early childhood on, felt herself destined for important deeds, coming as she did from one of New England’s most illustrious families, the Beechers. Her great-grandfather was Lyman Beecher, the family patriarch, and she was the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the preacher-reformer Henry Ward Beecher, the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, and the author-educator Catharine Esther Beecher. Her uncle was Edward Everett Hale, an author and Unitarian clergyman married to her father’s sister Emily, while Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, somewhat cold and distant, became a scholar and librarian of minor importance. Gilman would lament in a letter (reprinted in A Journey from Within, 1995) after his death, “So able a man—and so little to show for it.”

Gilman was the third and last child of Frederick and Mary Perkins. The oldest son, Thomas Henry, died in infancy, and the second son, Thomas Adie, was born the year before Gilman. Mary Perkins’ health was precarious, and Frederick Perkins left home shortly after Gilman’s birth, when her mother was told that having another child would be ill-advised. Thereafter Gilman’s father was only “an occasional visitor,” as Gilman would later write in her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), “a writer of infrequent but always amusing letters with deliciously funny drawings, a sender of books, catalogues of books, lists of books to read,” but never a real presence in her life. “By heredity,” she admitted, “I owe him much; the Beecher urge to social service, the Beecher wit and gift of words and such small sense of art as I have; but … I have missed the education it would have been to have grown up in his society.”

Growing up without his society meant a childhood filled with memories of railroad journeys, extended visits with relatives and friends, and always the specter of mounting debts and poverty. Watching her mother grieve for a lost husband and have to depend on the beneficence of family and friends became shaping events in Gilman’s life. She recalled that her “mother’s life was one of the most painfully thwarted I have ever known. After her idolized youth, she was left neglected. After her flood of lovers, she became a deserted wife. The most passionately domestic of home-worshiping housewives, she Page 194  |  Top of Articlewas forced to move nineteen times in eighteen years.” Her mother was trained as a musician yet sold the piano to pay for food when Gilman was two; she never had another. Mary Perkins detested debt, but debt followed her everywhere she moved: “Absolutely loyal, as loving as a spaniel which no ill treatment can alienate, she made no complaint, but picked up her children and her dwindling furniture and traveled to the next place.”

After thirteen years of such a life Mary Perkins divorced her husband, thinking to free him to marry another since he would not be a husband to her. Thereafter, however, Frederick Perkins and his family bitterly resented her: “So long as ‘Mary Fred’ was a blameless victim they pitied her and did what they could to help, but a divorce was a disgrace.” Yet Gilman’s mother loved Frederick Perkins until her death in 1893. Living with her daughter in Oakland, California—just across the bay from where Frederick worked as director of the San Francisco Public Library—Mary greatly desired to see him. “As long as she was able to be up,” wrote Charlotte, “she sat always at the window watching for that beloved face. He never came.”

To her daughter, Mary Perkins’ life became an emblem for all that was wrong with the lives of nineteenth-century women. Relegated solely to the domestic sphere, fated to endure one pregnancy after another, dependent upon a husband for one’s livelihood and social status, a woman like Mary Perkins had little for which to hope when the marriage contract failed or went awry. It was a flawed system of which young Gilman wanted no part. Other lessons learned from her mother’s failed life developed in Gilman a stoic self-control and self-denial accompanied by an extraordinary longing for affection. Gilman wrote in her autobiography that her mother judiciously determined that her children would not suffer lost affection as she had, and the remedy was to condition them against affection: “She would not let me caress her,” wrote Gilman, “and would not caress me, unless I was asleep. This I discovered at last, and then did my best to keep awake till she came to bed, even using pins to prevent dropping off, and sometimes succeeding.” When her mother then came into her room to see that she was tucked in, she pretended to be asleep: “how rapturously I enjoyed being gathered into her arms, held close and kissed.”

Yet for one whose life would shape her work, Gilman had an imaginative and intellectually rich childhood. With only four years of formal schooling, she thrived on the stimulus of the extraordinary parlor conversation of the Beechers and the Hales. At seventeen she requested a reading list from her father that would facilitate her understanding of human history, as she “wished to help humanity.” The books she read included some of the heroines of history, and at an early age she was interested in the variety of self-help programs that were currently in vogue, joining the Society for the Encouragement of Studies at Home and attending lectures by the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes. She wrote about these formative years: “I figured it out that the business of mankind was to carry out the evolution of the human race, according to the laws of nature, … [and that] we are the only creatures that can assist evolution.” Social evolution, she came to see, was “to be in human work,” and one’s first duty was “to find your real job, and do it.”

She also learned during these formative years how important to her peace of mind physical exercise was, a facet of healthy life too often ignored in the social conditioning of young girls. She discovered the power of her own will as well, recalling in later years one of those defining moments when her will was tested against her mother’s. In the fall of 1873 Mary Perkins had moved herself and her two children to a cooperative housekeeping group managed by a Dr. and Mrs. Stevens and inhabited by an odd array of esoterics and Swedenborgians, who Page 195  |  Top of Articlemore amused Gilman and her brother Thomas than inspired them. Gilman was commanded by her mother to apologize to Mrs. Stevens for some infraction that she did not commit, and she refused. Gilman’s mother, a severe disciplinarian, demanded the apology or else her daughter “must leave.” Gilman, again refusing to compromise her adolescent integrity, quietly looked at her mother and said: “I am not going to do it,—and I am not going to leave you— and what are you going to do about it?” Gilman’s mother’s response was to strike her daughter, but Gilman recalled, “I did not care. … I was realizing with an immense illumination that neither she, nor any one, could make me do anything. … one could not be coerced. I was born.”

From the beginning, necessity inspired Gilman to find ways to earn her keep, though she later wrote that the “lack of money never impressed” her much. An artistic nature and some training at the Rhode Island School of Design provided her with the skills to turn her considerable artistic talent to profit, painting advertising cards for Kendall’s Soap Company. She was once encouraged to devote herself to painting professionally and told that she could make a fine living painting still life, but she wrote: “This seemed to me a poor ambition, not conducive to my object—the improvement of the human race.”

During these teen years several close relationships developed that remained with her throughout her life: her intense and deep friendship at seventeen with Martha Luther, whose engagement in 1881 caused her considerable pain, and her relationship with Grace Channing, granddaughter of William Ellery Channing. Grace Channing would be an important presence throughout the twists and turns of her life. Of her friendships with women Gilman would write to her cousin and later husband, George Houghton Gilman: “I have an intense and endless love for women, partly in reverence for their high estate, partly in pity for their blind feebleness, their long ages of suffering.” Writing to Luther in 1881 she questioned why her contemporary world “so confounded love with passion that it sounds to our century-tutored ears either wicked or absurd to name it between women?” Advising Luther to destroy her letters, Gilman understood even at twenty-one the gossip-mongering and titillating nature of people: “What horrid stuff these letters would be for the Philistines!”

On January 10, 1882, Gilman wrote in her diary that she had been invited to visit “Mr. Stetson’s studio … and eke to an art thing tomorrow night.” Almost a year later she wrote despondently about Mr. Stetson: “I am weak. I anticipate a future of failure and suffering. Children sickly and unhappy. Husband miserable because of my distress. … Let me keep at least this ambition; to be a good and a pleasure to some one, to some others, no matter what I feel myself.” Despite Gilman’s better judgment, fears, and forebodings, Charles Walter Stetson swept his way into her life, proposing just two and a half weeks after he first set eyes on her. An up-and-coming young painter, unusually handsome, a combination of “Byron and Brando,” as Gilman biographer Ann Lane has written, Stetson had an extraordinary physical appeal to Gilman. She wrote in her autobiography of this dashing young man’s effect on her: “He was quite the greatest man, near my own age, that I had ever known. He stood alone, true to his art. … There was the natural force of sex-attraction between two lonely young people, the influence of propinquity.” Despite Stetson’s appeal, Gilman was ambivalent about their relationship from the beginning, seeing all the signs that she would never be able to have a great work and Stetson too.

Finally after “a terrible two years,” according to her autobiography, she reluctantly consented to marry Stetson. There had been a mighty Page 196  |  Top of Articlestruggle between the two, and he had won his Pyrrhic victory. About the time of Stetson’s first proposal Gilman had listed all the “reasons for living single” in her diary. The tenor of the rocky two-year relationship before their marriage can be observed in their diaries and letters as a war of wills punctuated by such incidents as the time Gilman declined a friend’s gift of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (later to become a favorite volume) because Stetson had disapproved of the explicit sexual references in the poem “Song of Myself.” After the event the two parted company for more than five weeks. Arguments were interspersed with periods of closeness and the kinship of two immensely talented young people who felt overwhelming physical appeal for each other. On one occasion Stetson wrote the following manifesto, reprinted in Gilman’s diary: “I hereby take my solemn oath that I shall never in future years expect of my wife any culinary or housekeeping proficiency. She shall never be required, whatever the emergency, to DUST.”

After they were wed on May 2, 1884, by Stetson’s father, a Baptist minister, there was only a semblance of truce, for Gilman was just beginning to come into her own at the very point that Stetson was expecting her to become his. Just a few months before, she was notified of her first publication, the poem “In Duty Bound,” published in the Woman’s Journal and later in her collection In This Our World (1893). Her reading during this time included John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, which could not have left her with a settled mind as she interacted with Stetson, whose notions about young women’s behavior were conservative and outspoken. At the same time, he was just beginning to have some tangible success with his own work. She reflected in her autobiography on this period: “I think Walter was happy. A most successful exhibition in Boston had established him more favorably and enabled him to meet domestic expenses; and an order for a set of large etchings was added.”

Stetson’s diaries during the period of courtship and early marriage (published in 1985 as Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson) are telling as he charts his progress toward “domesticating” Gilman. He proudly notes that his love is transforming her, that she seems less willful, daring, and independent, that she is “more like what is best in other women— thoughtful, bland, gracious, humble, dependent.” He marked the degrees that her will slowly bowed to his, that her pride began to dissipate; and he proudly declared, as if some momentous milestone in their relationship had been achieved: “She wants to be treated more as a child now than a woman.”

By the time Gilman gave birth to her daughter Katharine just ten months after marrying, she had plunged into deep gloom and nervous exhaustion. As she recalled in her autobiography, her “steady cheerfulness, the strong, tireless spirit sank away. A sort of gray fog drifted across [her] mind, a cloud that grew and darkened.” This was a period of profound gloom: “I, the ceaselessly industrious, could do no work of any kind. I was so weak that the knife and fork sank from my hands—too tired to eat.” She lay on the “lounge and wept all day.” Never before physically ill in her life, she found with her always a “constant dragging weariness miles below zero. Absolute incapacity. Absolute misery. To the spirit it was as if one were an armless, legless, eyeless, voiceless cripple.” Called to serve humankind, she could not even serve herself. And of her daughter, whom she nursed for five months, she recalled, “I would hold her close—that lovely child!— and instead of love and happiness, feel only pain. The tears ran down on my breast. … Nothing was more utterly bitter than this.”

It was almost as if she had foreseen this scenario in her poem “In Duty Bound,” written a few months earlier:

Page 197  |  Top of Article
A narrow house with roof so darkly low
  The heavy rafters shut the sunlight out.
One cannot stand erect without a blow:
      Until the soul inside
      Shrieks for a grave, more wide.
.................................................
           ...It takes supernal strength
  To hold the attitude that brings the pain.
And they are few indeed but stoop at length
      To something less than best,
      To find in stooping, rest.

Such stoic coming to terms with one’s lot, however, was not to be in real life. It was obvious that the “nervous prostration” that her physician had diagnosed was not going to disappear on its own. Thus she was ordered to wean Katharine and go away for a time. Her dear friend Grace Channing, now living in Pasadena, had asked Gilman to join her family for a short visit during the winter of 1886. So traveling across the country, stopping in Ogden, Utah, for a brief stay with her brother Thomas and in San Francisco for a short visit with her father, she met Channing and found “paradise.” She writes in her autobiography: “I recovered so fast, to outward appearance at least, that I was taken for a vigorous young girl. Hope came back, love came back, I was eager to get home to husband and child, life was bright again.”

Gilman was always extremely generous toward Stetson, writing in her autobiography: “A lover more tender, a husband more devoted, woman could not ask. He helped in the housework more and more as my strength began to fail.” Her diary records Stetson’s unfailing devotion, his offer to let her “go free,” his desire to do whatever was necessary to lift the dark and fearsome cloud. For the next year Gilman struggled valiantly to engage herself both in work and in motherhood. She continued to exercise, write, paint, and become involved in women’s issues. Her diary records reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh with Stetson in September, a story of a young woman’s struggle to reconcile being an artist with domesticity, which probably brought Gilman little sense of relief. A few months later Stetson brought home a copy of Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which they read together, and shortly after that, The History of Womankind in Western Europe, but his efforts were more perfunctory than sincere. Additionally he worried that too much reading on her own might be harmful. In February of that year (1887) Alice Stone Blackwell had asked Gilman to manage a woman’s suffrage column in the Providence newspaper, and she agreed to do it. She had recently met Blackwell (daughter of feminist icon Lucy Stone) and her husband, their egalitarian relationship standing in sharp contrast to her marriage. She wrote a play, articles on dress reform, and poetry, trying hard to reconcile domesticity with work. At length, again on the verge of nervous exhaustion, with talk of “pistols and chloroform,” she prepared to journey to the Philadelphia clinic of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose treatment of postpartum depression and female “hysteria” was touted as state of the art at the end of the century. A few days before leaving she wrote in her diary an apostrophe to Stetson: “I asked you a few days only before our marriage if you would take the responsibility entirely on yourself. You said yes. Bear it then.”

S. Weir Mitchell was hailed as the best “nerve specialist” in the country; he accepted Gilman’s case with unwavering confidence, certain that he could cure her depression and what she thought might be brain fever. He assured her that he had treated women like her before, informing her of the two types of people plagued with “nervous prostration,” which Gilman recalled in her autobiography: “the business man exhausted from too much work, and the society woman exhausted from too much play.” After ascertaining that her case was “hysteria” rather than “dementia” he prescribed a strict regimen:

I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. … After a month of Page 198  |  Top of Articlethis agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: “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.”

Gilman wrote that she returned home after a month of this treatment, diligently followed Mitchell’s instructions, and “came perilously near to losing my mind.” Her description of the months that followed her trip to Philadelphia ring remarkably familiar to anyone who has read “The Yellow Wallpaper”: “I made a rag baby, hung it on a doorknob and played with it. I would crawl into remote closets and under beds—to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress.” Then in a moment of “clear vision,” without blame and without quarrel, she and Stetson agreed to divorce. It was clear that if she “went crazy,” she later wrote, “it would do my husband no good, and be a deadly injury to my child.” For the first time in four years of marriage Gilman felt the shroud begin to lift.

“THE YELLOW WALLPAPER”

Written directly from her experiences with Stetson and Dr. Mitchell, “The Yellow Wallpaper” originally appeared in the January 1892 issue of the New England Magazine. William Dean Howells, eventually to become Gilman’s dear friend, had given the story to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who declined to publish such a disturbing piece of writing. When finally this remarkable story did find a publisher, Gilman was never actually paid the forty dollars the story was to have brought (her agent was supposedly paid but she never received the money), but Howells later asked to include it in a collection he was arranging called Masterpieces of American Fiction.

A classic in American fiction, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an extraordinary piece of writing, artfully written yet serving clearly Gilman’s straightforward aesthetic philosophy, as described in her autobiography: “In my judgment it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose.” The story, originally designated as a gothic tale, is about a young woman, a writer, a creative individual who has recently given birth and is struggling against postpartum depression. The protagonist, who is also the narrator, has been relegated by her physician-husband, John, to the upstairs nursery of a rented mansion while their own home is renovated and while she recovers from nervous exhaustion and “hysteria.” John is a paragon of proper Victorian manly virtues—attentive, watchful … controlling. He is also “practical in the extreme” and a creature of facts rather than feelings, a man who “has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition” and, as the narrator notes, who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.” Suffice it to say that John is a fitting symbol of the patriarchy. His sister, staying with the couple to help manage the household, functions as “keeper of the patriarchy” (Gilman was acutely aware that women often served to undermine any “sister” nonconformists). The narrator muses about her sister-in-law: “She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession.” Both husband and sister-in-law believe that the narrator’s writing has been the chief source of her illness, and from both she must hide her creative efforts as she whiles away the days in the nursery. The dilemma in which the narrator finds herself is thus both an emblem for nineteenth-century woman and for the female artist, specifically the creative woman who attempts to reconcile domesticity and her work.

As the narrator remains, day after day, isolated behind the closed doors of the nursery, she becomes transfixed by the strange pattern of the wallpaper in the room, at first disturbed and appalled by its color and pattern but later Page 199  |  Top of Articlemesmerized and obsessed. As time passes she observes that a particular spot on the paper appears to be in the shape of a “woman stooping down and creeping about behind the pattern.” The figure behind the pattern appears more clearly at night in the moonlight (a Romantic metaphor for both madness and creativity, lunacy and illumination). Eventually the narrator becomes completely absorbed in contemplating the paper—its smell permeates the house, the fabric rubs off on her clothing, and always the specter of the figure behind the pattern haunts her imagination. At times during the daylight she notices the figure skulking about, creeping down the shaded lanes of the garden or in the dark niches of the grape arbor: “I don’t blame her a bit,” muses the narrator. “It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight! I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.” At length she attempts to free the woman from behind the paper, and on the day before the family is to leave the house, John comes home to find her “creeping” in circles about the nursery, surrounded by a mass of torn wallpaper. The narrator tells her husband, “I’ve got out at last … in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” With that John faints, and she continues to creep in circles about the room, crawling directly over his prostrate body—having at last escaped her stifling, confining existence through her very madness.

What is particularly brilliant about the story is the multifaceted, rich symbolism of the yellow wallpaper, which is an overt metaphor for the stifling, smothering lives of nineteenth-century women trapped by limiting social expectations and narrowly defined roles. However, the paper is also a metaphor for women’s text and for women’s art, considered by nineteenth-century patriarchal society as atypical and substandard. It is no accident that the speaker is a writer, an artist stifled by her situation and the well-meaning help of family and friends. The speaker says of the paper, with its “uncertain curves,” “outrageous angles,” and “contradictions” of design, “I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.” Clearly Gilman crafted two dimensions to the story: the stifled mother and wife, discouraged from achieving any useful work, and the female artist whose work was judged as atypical and inferior by masculine critics of the day. The wallpaper serves also as an emblem for the “subtextual” quality of women’s writing, particularly women’s writing in the nineteenth century.

INDEPENDENCE AND A WOMAN’S WORK

In later years, Gilman wrote to her cousin Houghton Gilman that “to live steadily at an equal distance. … kills me. That is why ‘wife’ is a word unknown to me, and must be always.” During the long, bleak winter of 1887–1888, the letters of Grace Channing were all that raised Gilman’s spirits. The following summer she traveled to Bristol, Rhode Island, to stay for a while with Channing who was visiting there. The two wrote a play together, and Gilman determined to accompany Channing when she returned to Pasadena in October 1888. To afford the trip and to start a new life with her daughter Katharine, Gilman sold her property, paid her debts, and, saying goodbye to Stetson, left for California on October 8. By Christmas Stetson, having difficulty reconciling himself to the breakup of their marriage, followed. Gilman was adamant that they separate, however, and Stetson, with her blessing, turned increasingly to Channing for sympathy and consolation. Eventually, after his and Gilman’s divorce in 1894, Stetson would marry Grace Channing.

During that “first year of freedom,” as Gilman recalled in her autobiography, she wrote “some thirty-three short articles, and twenty-three Page 200  |  Top of Articlepoems, besides ten more child-verses,” as well as plays with Channing. Gilman also became active in community theater and performed regularly. During the next year her energy level was very high despite the economic worries, and she seemed to come into her own as a writer. A high point of accomplishment, she recalled, was receiving a note from Howells praising her poem “Similar Cases.” “We have nothing since the Biglow Papers,” Howells wrote, “half so good. … And just now I’ve read in The Woman’s Journal your ‘Women of To-day.’ It is as good almost as the other, and dreadfully true.” Gilman wrote a summary of the year 1890 in one of her diaries, noting that the period had been “cruelly hard” yet “a year of great growth and gain. My whole literary reputation dates within it—mainly from ‘Similar Cases.’ Also the dawn of my work as lecturer.” The next year she recorded in her diary a profound compliment from her uncle Edward Everett Hale: “You are getting to be a famous woman my dear!” The transformation had begun; she had become a writer, and she was free.

Over the next decade Gilman established her literary and activist reputation; became one of the most important female lecturers in the country; edited a major publication, the Impress; published a favorably reviewed collection of poems, In This Our World (1893); and wrote and published her magnum opus, Women and Economics (1898). On a personal level the decade was propitious as well, with the events of her life always shaping her ideas and her writing. California at this time was, as she recalled, “a seed-bed” for new ideas and forward thinking, particularly in the area of labor and economics.

One day while riding a bus she met a woman who invited her to speak at the Nationalist Club of Pasadena. The Nationalist clubs and their publication were the chief organs for the social doctrines of Edward Bellamy, whose book Looking Backward espoused his socialist, utopian theories of cooperative social change. The Nationalists repudiated Marxist doctrine that advocated class struggle and violent change, focusing instead on eliminating social injustices and economic disparities through democratic processes and the “evolutionary” molding of human nature through education and peaceful change. Gilman tried to make a distinction between her brand of socialism and that of Marx, writing in her autobiography that her “Socialism was of the early humanitarian kind, based on the first exponents, French and English, with the American enthusiasm of Bellamy. The narrow and rigid ‘economic determinism’ of Marx … I never accepted.” She also made clear that her main socialist interest was “in the position of women, and the need for more scientific care for young children.” Gilman always thought that women’s economic independence was “of far more importance than the ballot.”

As lecture engagements increased and essays and poetry found their way into publication, “Mrs. Stetson’s” activism increased. She organized a number of women’s congresses in California, where she met Helen Campbell, Jane Addams, and Susan B. Anthony, all becoming lifelong friends, as would the activist daughters of Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She also met in 1891 two women who would become personally important in her life, Harriet (“Hattie”) Howe, Nationalist program chair, and Adeline (“Delle”) Knapp, a reporter for the San Francisco Call. That year she had begun divorce proceedings against Stetson, and her mother had come to live with her. Thus by September 1891 Gilman, her mother, Katharine, and Knapp began living together. In February the following year they moved to a boardinghouse at 1258 Webster Street in Oakland. The owner, a Mrs. Palmer, shortly turned over the daily running of the house to Gilman, who would draw upon those experiences in her later Page 201  |  Top of Articlenovel Benigna Machiavelli (1914). As Gilman’s responsibilities increased and her mother grew more feeble, Howe too came to live at the boardinghouse to help with the work.

All during this time Gilman continued to write. Hattie Howe remembered her friend as an extraordinarily dynamic and charismatic speaker as well. In an essay she wrote after Gilman’s death (reprinted in Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1992), Howe described Gilman as a slender woman, even smaller behind the podium, but with an unforgettable presence: “Such eyes, magnetic, far reaching, deep seeing, nothing could be hid from such eyes, and a Voice, clear, compelling, yet conversational, easily reaching to the farthest end of the hall, entirely devoid of effort.”

Gilman’s relationships with Howe and Knapp have been the focus of much biographical attention. Certainly her diaries reveal a closeness that is unusual even within the confines of overly affectionate Victorian relationships typical of nineteenth-century women. Her friendship with Knapp was more volatile and short-lived but more intense than her relationship with Howe. Shortly after meeting Knapp, Gilman wrote: “Go and lunch with Miss Knapp. I love her.” As she wrote of going on a boat ride with her new friend, her words were unusually sensual—“a calm, delicious night, warm, starlit, with the light-engirdled bay all smooth, and we two happy together. She spends the night.” At times when Knapp was away on a journalistic assignment, Howe filled the void of affection: “Read poetry to Hattie in the evening and make love to her.” However one interprets such confessions, it is certain that because of these relationships Gilman’s burden of caring for her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was lightened somewhat, despite the frequent quarrels with Knapp, whose lifestyle and habits were incompatible with those of Gilman. On March 7, 1893, Mrs. Perkins passed away after a long and difficult illness. When Knapp left for the last time on July 15, 1893, an exhausted Gilman wrote, “It is a great relief to have her go.”

Increasingly Gilman became involved in more reformist organizations, including the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association (PCWPA) for whom she edited a small paper, the Impress, transforming it into a family weekly. She also belonged to the Woman’s Alliance, the Economic Club, the Ebell Society, the State Council of Women, and others. During these years (1893–1895), she viewed herself principally as a philosopher rather than a reformer, writing in her autobiography: “My business was to find out what ailed society, and how most easily and naturally to improve it.”

In April 1894 Gilman’s divorce decree was finally granted. A few months earlier Grace Channing had visited, and Gilman had spoken with her about Katharine’s staying for a while with her and Stetson. Katharine was nine now, and Gilman’s work was becoming ever more demanding, with long periods traveling and lecturing. The steady life that Stetson and Channing could provide was admittedly more settled and healthier for the child than what Gilman could offer her. “Giving up” her daughter was perhaps the most painful act of her life and certainly drew down the wrath of friends and foes alike, yet she knew that it must be done. Looking back on the event she wrote in her autobiography

Since her second mother was fully as good as the first, better in some ways perhaps; since the father longed for his child and had a right to some of her society; and since the child had a right to know and love her father … this seemed the right thing to do. No one suffered from it but myself.

The parenting relationship that Gilman, Channing, and Stetson forged was remarkable, as revealed in letters included in The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1992). Shortly after Page 202  |  Top of ArticleKatharine’s arrival at her father’s home, Stetson wrote to Gilman:

She sits at arm’s length from me—oh so beautiful! It makes tears fill my eyes—drawing for you. … No two persons could be more companionable than we are. I know what she wants before she says it. … truly, dear, I do not see how I can ever let her leave me again. … I wish we could have her together.

Gilman was always particularly appreciative of Grace Channing for her care of Katharine, writing some years later to her ex-husband, “I am unceasingly grateful to Grace for being what she is—have been ever since I knew her.”

Katharine’s memories of both her “mothers” were positive, and through living with her father, traveling to Europe, and receiving his encouragement she developed the artistic talents she had inherited from both parents. However, Gilman was haunted and guilt-ridden that Katharine had gone to live with her father, expressing in 1897 to her cousin Houghton Gilman how much she missed her child: “This baby down stairs makes me think of Kate so. Kate when she was little and O so lovely! … it aches and aches. I wish—no I don’t wish a thing.” Though Katharine would spend long vacations with her mother and would later live with her for periods of time, Gilman confessed to her cousin: “You see I can’t even let myself go toward Katharine, for the simple reason that it hurts so. And pain—emotional pain—means madness. I can not suffer any more. The spring is broken. To think much of her is to want her.”

Gilman was always bitter over the way many of her California friends and the public in general reacted to the decision she and Stetson made to share Katharine. She sarcastically recalled in her autobiography that while reporters and interviewers continued for years to question her about their decision and about her personal life, she had yet to read a single article in the media entitled “Should Artistic Men Marry?”

In the summer of 1895 the Impress folded and, at the invitation of Jane Addams, Gilman left California to travel to Chicago. Addams was one of the country’s leading reformers and activists, having established Hull-House as a settlement house offering community support services. For a short time Gilman lived at Hull-House, participating in the community and learning much from the wide array of reformers and thinkers drawn to Addams. Gilman later referred to Addams as “a truly great woman. Her mind had more ‘floor space’ in it than any other I have known.” Addams asked Gilman to take over the management of a new settlement house in a place called “Little Hell” on Chicago’s north side, but still fearful of her occasional emotional unsteadiness, she declined, suggesting her mentor and mother-figure Helen Campbell for the task. She did, however, attend the January 1896 Suffrage Convention in Washington and there meet Lester F. Ward, who had written to her praising “Similar Cases.” Ward, whom Gilman had long admired, was one of the leading thinkers in the new field of sociology and a Reform Social Darwinist. His ideas were immensely influential on Gilman’s writing.

On July 8 Gilman sailed for England to attend the International Socialist and Labor Congress as a delegate from California, this trip abroad to be one of many in the succeeding years. She made many valuable contacts while there and visited her English publisher, T. Fisher Unwin, who had recently published the British edition of her collection of poems, In This Our World. She met the playwright George Bernard Shaw and other Fabians and became close friends with the family of the poet William Morris, particularly his daughter May, who became a lifelong friend. She found herself known and admired in England and returned to America to commence what she referred to as her “wander years,” an “at large” delegate in the business of the world. The closest she came during this time Page 203  |  Top of Articleto a “home” was the New York boardinghouse that belonged to her stepmother (Frederick Perkins had remarried an old flame, Frankie Johnson, whom he had known before Mary Perkins). Gilman relished the opportunity to develop a relationship with her stepmother and stepsisters and even with her father, who was in declining health. In 1897, the following year, she began two important projects: getting reacquainted with her cousin Houghton Gilman and putting to paper a body of ideas that had been distilling for sometime in her mind— Women and Economics.

WOMEN AND ECONOMICS

The first draft of the most important book Gilman would write was finished in just seventeen days and written in five different houses. As was usually the case in Gilman’s writing during this time, ideas were first expressed in lecture form and then in written form, with little revision and in the same straightforward style as she spoke. However, these particular ideas had been fermenting for years, a brew derived from original thought as well as from a variety of general influences (Charles Darwin, Ward, Bellamy, Olive Schreiner, even Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson). Gilman was not in the habit of compiling bibliographies, and indeed, beyond study in general philosophy and sociology, her ideas were original or derived from the copious conversations that she enjoyed in the reformist circles in which she lived and worked. After Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mill’s The Subjection of Women, and Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Gilman’s Women and Economics is one of the most important and original contributions to feminist thought before the twentieth century. In her insistence that woman’s economic dependence on man was at the root of her servitude and excessively sexualized social role, Gilman was much ahead of her time, particularly in an age that still believed that political enfranchisement would secure gender equality.

Gilman began her argument by asserting that human beings are the “only animal species in which the female depends on the male for food, the only animal species in which the sex-relation is also an economic relation.” Yet she insisted that women did in fact render economic service through their domestic duty, but they were rarely compensated for that service. Women were likewise seldom encouraged to find useful nondomestic work for the period before and after their maternal service: “A human female, healthy, sound, has twenty-five years of life before she is a mother, and should have twenty-five years more after the period of such maternal service.” Women were instead, argued Gilman, encouraged to become parasitic creatures, whose living is obtained by the exertions of others.

Drawing upon her understanding of Darwinian determinism, Gilman asserted that “the human female was cut off from the direct action of natural selection, that mighty force which heretofore had acted on male and female alike … developing strength, developing skill, developing endurance, developing courage.” Nineteenth-century women erroneously saw their “economic profit” as coming solely through the “power of sex-attraction,” and that fact dominated every aspect of their lives. Just as Wollstonecraft found the female to be constitutionally and mentally inferior as schooled by eighteenth-century society, so too did Gilman: “Man has advanced, but woman has been kept behind. … By experience she is retarded.” But woman’s inferior condition she lays squarely at the feet of patriarchal society: “No wonder that our daily lives are full of the flagrant evils produced by [women’s] unnatural state. No wonder that men turn with loathing from the kind of women they have made.”

Gilman observed both sexes as debilitated by such a system whose result was an unnatural emphasis on the “sex relationship.” Woman Page 204  |  Top of Article“gets her living by getting a husband,” Gilman wrote. Man “gets his wife by getting a living. It is to her individual economic advantage to secure a mate. It is to his individual sex-advantage to secure economic gain. The sex-functions to her have become economic functions.” To focus female energy in such a limited way or to forgo that bountiful energy which might be channeled to areas of social good was a waste; by the same token, woman’s influence in the traditional working world would serve to balance the overabundance of male aggression in what was traditionally designated as solely his sphere. Gilman wrote, “Between the brutal ferocity of excessive male energy struggling in the market-place as in a battlefield and the unnatural greed generated by the perverted condition of female energy, it is not remarkable that the industrial evolution of humanity has shown peculiar symptoms.”

To those who charged that such economic equality would “unwoman” the female Gilman responded that work inculcates personhood and a sense of one’s usefulness to society. With characteristic talent at “turning the question,” Gilman argued that it is not, for example, “being a doctor that makes a woman unwomanly, but the treatment which the first women medical students and physicians received was such as to make … men unmanly.” To counter those who would assert that woman’s subjugation had the advantage of keeping her at home to preserve the cohesiveness of the family unit, Gilman declared such logic specious—indeed the real reason for woman’s subjugation and sex differentiation was simply to maintain the sexual and domestic services she provided. The consequences of the traditional nineteenth-century division of labor were a variety of types of personal deceit and perversions both in men and in women. A healthier state for both sexes would be to have woman “stand beside man as the comrade of his soul, not the servant of his body.”

HOUGHTON AND RESOLVING THE UNRESOLVABLE

The two central controlling emotions throughout Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s life were the need for love and the need for work, and until she knocked upon the door of her cousin’s Wall Street law office the afternoon of March 8, 1897, both appeared unresolvable. She recalled in her autobiography that she stood before her young cousin that day and asked, “You haven’t the slightest idea who I am”—to which Houghton Gilman replied, “Yes I have, you’re my Cousin Charlotte.” Two days later he repaid the visit, and Gilman wrote in her diary that evening: “Houghton Gilman calls. Like him.” They began to go about together to plays and museums, and as Gilman recalled, “This was the beginning of a delightful renewal of earlier friendship, still continuing.” Theirs was thus a “friendship,” as William Godwin once said of his relationship with Wollstonecraft, which melted into love.

If Walter Stetson were uniquely ill-suited for Charlotte Perkins, Houghton Gilman was happily uniquely right. He was a kind, supportive, gentle, unassuming, and intelligent man. She did not write a great deal about their relationship in her autobiography but to state simply that they “were married—and lived happy ever after. If this were a novel, now, here’s the happy ending.” The volume of her letters to him, however, records their deep affection and the singular care that both took in coming to terms with their love and attempting to forge a relationship that would both suit and last.

To be fair, Gilman had repeated the warning to her new suitor that she had written to Stetson almost twenty years before declaring that as much as she loved him, she loved “WORK better, & I cannot make the two compatible.” She cautioned, “Think another year dear boy. And— much as I love you—do not [let] your final decision be influenced by fear of its effect on me. … feel free to decide.” Her love letters to Houghton Gilman, seven years her junior, Page 205  |  Top of Articlerecord the difficult three-year struggle for both as they agonized whether marriage was the right thing to do. Writing to him in 1899 she declared without guile, “My position is this. First last and always I must so live as to do my work. … I shall have rooms of my own.” That they eventually came together so compatibly was due to Houghton’s willingness to accept Gilman as she was (something Stetson was not able do) and Gilman’s candor in dealing with Houghton. She wrote to him: “Mine is a self-absorbed and other-people-absorbing nature—I am apt to encroach. … You must not let me swallow you—pour my life and affairs all over you. I don’t mean to be selfish and exacting, but I fear I am.”

Gilman tried to convince her cousin that she could never be a domestic woman; she had already unsuccessfully tried that route. She wrote in an early love letter: “Houghton—as you value my life, my sanity, my love; use your clear mind and strong will to work out such plan of living as shall leave me free to move as move I must. You will have to give up a certain ideal of home; I shall have to give up even more.” She wanted him to understand her faults as well as her finer points: “My charms are essentially transient—I’m awfully nice for a while. But you hold me and I spoil on your hands!” She warns him in the same letter, “My love for you is a poor thing. It was not great enough in the first place to protect you from my own selfish longing for somebody to love me and care for me.”

Houghton Gilman was certainly human enough to have his own doubts about the monumental step they would take on June 11, 1900. Particularly he worried about being overshadowed by his wife, about being left in the lower gallery as she soared on to fame, about never quite measuring up professionally to her. Yet he succeeded where Stetson failed because his love was unselfish enough to accept her unconditionally and to attempt sincerely to understand her range of ideas and ideals. He asked her to suggest books to read, reacted to her writing, and attempted to enter into her sphere of understanding, and she repaid him with her undivided concern and admiration. Writing to him in 1897 she reflected, “How kind your eyes are. … You looked at me in a way that stays.” Houghton was willing simply to be there for her, and that was quite enough. “I cannot give you all—or even much,” she wrote to him in the year before they married. “It is simply that you will be there to come back to— and O how glad I shall be to come back!”

A NEW BEGINNING

The year 1900 was happy and personally fulfilling in a variety of ways. Gilman wrote in her diary at year’s end: “I am happy & content. Houghton—Katharine—Home.” As to her professional plans for 1901 she resolved, “May I grow stronger and do good work in spite of my happiness!” Her new beginning with her new husband in many ways marked a fresh start with her daughter as well. Two years before, thirteen-year-old Katharine had come for a long summer visit with her mother in the resort town of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. There mother and daughter renewed their relationship, and Gilman’s diaries and letters are filled with blissful comments about how good it was to have Katharine again, what a sweet, beautiful, and empathetic child she was. Gilman wrote to Houghton, “If I cry—she cries. … I spoke lightly … [of her] abundance of other parents; and she said promptly that none of them were as nice as I was! Last night, cuddling me closely, she inquired why it was that one’s mother was better than anything else in the world.” Yet despite the joy of being with Katharine again, the emotional pressure caused old haunts within to resurface, and she wrote to Houghton: “I felt very weak Monday morning, and low. … like the passing of a black cloud.” Page 206  |  Top of ArticleBy the end of August the strain was clear and present, and it was with some relief that the visit ended and Katharine left to rejoin her father and stepmother in California.

After Gilman and Houghton were married she seemed better able to cope, and her daughter, then fifteen, came to live with them in New York. With Houghton to help, Gilman was better able to integrate work and family, and when she was away on an extended lecture tour, her old friend and mentor Helen Campbell came to stay with Katharine and Houghton. The Gilmans lived in New York from 1900 until 1922 in successive apartments during an extraordinarily productive period. In 1902, after a serious illness with scarlet fever, Katharine joined Stetson and Channing in Italy to study art, with Gilman visiting her daughter after her 1905 international tour. This visit must have been particularly satisfying for Katharine, who had the opportunity to show her mother the country that had become her home.

Though she did not actually receive much financial return from Women and Economics, Gilman did establish both her place in the publishing world and her international reputation. Based upon the extraordinary popularity of this book she received a five-hundred-dollar advance on her next, Human Work (1904), which in her autobiography she called “the greatest book I have ever done, and the poorest.” She uncharacteristically revised and rewrote Human Work, never completely satisfied with the book, though it was important for developing several new ideas. For one, she articulated in it her conception of society as an “organic” unit which functions as a living organism, in which one poisoned aspect affects all other parts. One’s “highest duty,” she wrote, is to recognize these organic relationships and “to find and hold our proper place in the Work in which and by which we all live.” In particular she returned to the idea that female servitude and woman’s sex-based economic function are in themselves a “social disease,” and the woman “who makes her living by marriage” is essentially a “prostitute.”

While revising Human Work, Gilman wrote and published two other works: Concerning Children (1900) and The Home (1903). Concerning Children is a wonderful blending of sociological theory about the home and a practical approach to child rearing. Gilman believed that children were not merely individual members of a family group but formed a permanent and distinct class and should be respected and nurtured with that fact in mind. Certainly a child needs the love and kindness which the home provides, but the self-sacrificing mother, Gilman believed, only produces selfish children. Gilman also challenged the traditional Victorian attitude toward rearing children in the “habit of obedience”; conditioning them to reason and to think for themselves made more sense to Gilman. “It is a commonplace observation,” she adds, “that the best children—i.e., the most submissive and obedient—do not make the best men [or] … the best citizen[s].”

The Home develops the central thesis that as society has evolved the home has remained stagnant. Men have ranged freely and developed the modern industrial age while women have remained “home-bound” and ignorant not “necessarily of books, but ignorant of general life.” An interesting essay that follows this line of thought is “Domestic Economy,” published in The Independent (June 16, 1904). Here Gilman examined the inefficiency of the typical one-woman/one-home household and in particular the ideal—and to her mind false assumption—that a husband and wife are equal partners, his wife, in her fashion, “doing just as much as he … for the success of the firm.” Gilman maintained that it is a “waste” for “half the people of the world,” regardless of their potential talents or intellectual capacity, “to wait upon the other half, thus limiting the output of their labor.” Gilman posited instead a revisioning Page 207  |  Top of Articleof the home and cooperative home economy in which professional men and women would render their abilities and talents to the work world while skilled home workers provided services allowing the day-to-day functions of the home to carry forth. In the same fashion professionals would also teach and care for small children.

THE FORERUNNER YEARS AND AFTER

As the first decade of the new century drew to a close, Gilman continued to write in the same prolific fashion as before, but she began to encounter difficulty placing essays and books with publishers and journals. In her autobiography, she recalled a conversation she had sometime before November 1909 with Theodore Dreiser, then on the Delineator staff, who looked at her from across his desk and said, “You should consider more what the editors want.” Taking his words more to heart than he could have imagined she determined to become her own editor and publisher, embarking on an entirely new venture—the publication of her own monthly magazine, Forerunner, “written,” as she said, “entirely by myself.” Each issue contained one installment of a novel, the serial publication of a polemical piece, a short story, articles of various length, poems, verses, book reviews, and other types of writing. It was a huge undertaking, one that she sustained for seven years.

Another idea lay behind her foray into publishing: she understood that the writing of nonfiction had its limitations and that stories and novels which dramatically illustrated her ideas might reach a broader audience. Certainly she continued to produce philosophic and sociological studies— The Man-Made World (1911) examined the effects of masculine dominance on the family, art, literature, education and religion; Our Brains and What Ails Them (1912) looked at social problems resulting from people trained not to think logically; and Social Ethics (1914) explored the ethical weaknesses of organized patriarchal religion. However, by this point in time, it seemed to Gilman that fiction might touch the heart strings and accomplish more with the masses than nonfictional appeals to logic.

Gilman was candid about her writing, declaring in her autobiography that hers was “not, in the artistic sense, ‘literature.’” As far as method was concerned, her goal was simply “to express the idea with clearness and vivacity, so that it might be apprehended with ease and pleasure.” Certainly her assessment is true for the majority of fiction she wrote for Forerunner; however, some of the stories recall the fine writing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For example, “If I Were a Man,” printed in Physical Culture in 1914, is a delightful piece of satire utilizing the technique of “gender cross-fire,” allowing women to see how the other half lives. In it Gilman also made a statement of what for her would be a kind of androgynous ideal: a woman’s consciousness in a male body and with male freedom. Other interesting short stories published in the Forerunner are “The Cottagette” (August 1910), dramatizing how domesticity robs a woman of her life; “Making a Change” (December 1911), portraying a musician-mother who nearly loses her mind until allowed to reclaim her talent; “Turned” (September 1911), a powerful story of marital betrayal and a wife’s befriending the compromised servant girl; and “The Unnatural Mother” (November 1916), a metaphor for Gilman’s personal sacrifices in which a good mother sacrifices her life in order to save her town during a flood, only to be judged harshly by the townspeople for “abdicating” her responsibilities to her child.

Several longer works of fiction, all but one published in the Forerunner, exhibit Gilman’s virtuosity in terms of genres and styles, as well as provide fairly good storytelling—these are Page 208  |  Top of ArticleBenigna Machiavelli, the science-fiction fantasy companion volumes Herland (1915) and With Her in Ourland (1916), and the detective novel Unpunished (1997). Benigna Machiavelli is a non-traditional heroine who determines to forge her own way in life, using whatever Machiavellian methods she can muster. The story is told from the point of view of a precocious adolescent, and Gilman is able to direct a good deal of pointed satire at the patriarchy in this picaresque survival novel. Some of the more interesting ideas explored in the novel deal with Gilman’s awareness of the “reality” created through literature. For example, early in the story Benigna observes that the world needs “good people with brains, not just negative, passive, good people, but positive, active ones, who [give] their minds to it.” Indeed, she adds, what the world needs is a “good villain,” and she makes up her mind to become one. Thereafter Benigna “plays” her life as a heroine in a novel of her own making. Another associated motif is the actor/player theme, which serves as a metaphor for the flexibility and imagination that one needs for survival in this world.

Unpunished is a dark satire in the guise of a detective mystery. It tells the story of a villainous male authority figure and symbol for the patriarchy who happens to be a lawyer, Wade Vaughn—a man whose public face is the benevolent patron caring for his stepdaughter and dead wife’s disfigured sister, Jacqueline Warner. His private face, though, is that of a sadistic blackmailer, a powerful individual who thrives on controlling those around him at the expense of human decency. Vaughn’s murder opens the novel, and we learn in bits and pieces the nature of his crimes, as husband and wife detective team, Bessie and Jim Hunt, unravel the mystery in a manner later made popular by the Thin Man detective stories. The quick-paced, upbeat dialogue provides an interesting counter to the noir satire. The book provides an exposé on domestic violence and also presents some extremely modern feminist ideas—for example, the importance of “telling one’s story” or, as Carolyn Heilbrun would say, “writing one’s life” as both a therapeutic and shaping reality. Gilman presents some powerful symbols: the “will” as a metaphor for the patriarchy’s control of women, Jacqueline’s physical deformity as an ironic contrast to Wade Vaughn’s moral deformity, and the “mask” (Wade’s figurative mask and Jacqueline’s literal) as a metaphor for social deception. The story has many fascinating turns of plot, with the resolution of the murder providing a surprising denouement.

Two of Gilman’s most important books printed in the Forerunner are the satirical science-fiction fantasy Herland and its sequel, With Her in Ourland. While these works provide some of Gilman’s best writing, they also evince some characteristics that critics have observed mar her work: ethnocentrism and chauvinism. While the occasional ethnic slights and comments certainly detract from the body of Gilman’s work, it is important to place Gilman’s ethnocentrism within the context of the Social Darwinism and intelligentsia circles of her time, when talk of “race” superiority and ethnic characteristics were common. It is also important to understand that a different benchmark of political correctness was current at the turn of the century and that Gilman was often very blunt, seldom cloaking her ideas in softening language. It should be noted, as well, that comments which make us uncomfortable are often spoken by fictional characters we should not readily assume to be Gilman’s center of intelligence. We should consider also the whole body of Gilman’s work, as well as her personal life and actions. As Gilman biographer Ann Lane has noted, “Charlotte’s was the only voice raised at the 1903 convention of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association against a literacy requirement for the vote.”

As satire, which is essentially the way both Herland and Ourland should be read, these two Page 209  |  Top of Articlebooks fall within a genre in which Gilman exhibits considerable skill. Following the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson she employs the convention of cultural crossfire in both works. She allows her innocent ingenue—in most cases Herlander Ellador—to react to the young men who serve as foils and presents American culture and traditions for Ellador (and us) to observe and assess freshly without blinding cultural biases. The technique works well in Herland, which owes much to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and to a lesser extent in Ourland, a modern rendition of Johnson’s Rasselas.

Gilman uses many traditional rhetorical strategies of satire to expose the patriarchy: ironic inversion, as the men are viewed as sex objects in Herland, and cultural crossfire, as the societies of Herland and America are contrasted. In the process the overmasculinized system with its “sexuo-economic” values, which in large part Terry represents, is seen for what it is. At one point in the story Terry despairs over the women he sees in Herland: “They’ve neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women— they’re neuters!” The narrator assesses Terry’s biased point of view: “Terry did not like it because he found nothing to oppose, to struggle with, to conquer. ‘Life is a struggle, has to be,’ he insisted. ‘If there is no struggle, there is no life—that’s all.’” Because the world of Herland is centered on children, a nurturing, cooperative spirit rather than a competitive spirit drives society. Yet Gilman does not necessarily portray Herland as the definitive model, as the sequel Ourland makes clear.

With Her in Ourland carries the story from the world of women back to the men’s world. Jeff chooses to remain in Herland with Celis, preferring the world of women to the aggressive, competitive, and flawed patriarchy. Terry is cast out of Herland for his antisocial behavior when he attempts to take his unwilling bride Alima in a boorish fashion. Van and Ellador choose to leave Herland of their own accord, as Ellador wishes to study Van’s world to see if Herland might be improved. The couple travels through a broad range of patriarchal countries, and Ellador is anxious to see firsthand the European conflict brewing in France and Germany in 1915.

The last years of Gilman’s life were as the first, busy with work and writing, for she was prolific until the end of her life. Even after the Forerunner folded she continued to produce, contributing in 1919 and 1920 over three hundred articles to New York Tribune syndicates, including the Baltimore Sun and the Buffalo Evening News. Other major works were still to follow: His Religion and Hers in 1923 and her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was published posthumously in 1935. When Walter Stetson died in 1911, Grace Channing and Katharine moved near the Gilmans’ New York apartment. Katharine went on to become an artist like her father, eventually setting up a studio near both mothers in New York. After she married F. Tolles Chamberlin, a painter and sculptor, she moved to her beloved Pasadena and had two children.

In 1922 Gilman and Houghton moved from New York to Norwich Town, Connecticut, to live in Houghton’s family home, sharing the house with Houghton’s brother and wife, an unhappy arrangement with which they coped with marginal success. However, Gilman’s letters and autobiography suggest that all her years with Houghton were happy ones, and she worried after learning of her breast cancer diagnosis that he would be alone when she died. In 1934 Houghton suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and she remembered in her autobiography, “Whatever I felt of loss and pain was outweighed by gratitude for an instant, painless death for him, and that he did not have to see me wither and die—and he be left alone.” Afterward she flew to Pasadena to be near Katharine, and Channing joined her in a little house next to Katharine. Page 210  |  Top of ArticleUnwilling to repeat the circumstances of her mother’s illness and believing to the end that she was master of her fate, Gilman, with the blessing of those she loved, took a lethal dose of chloroform and died on August 17, 1935.

Selected Bibliography

WORKS OF CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN

FICTION

What Diantha Did. In Forerunner 1 (1909–1910); New York: Charlton, 1910.

The Crux. Serialized in Forerunner 2 (1911); New York: Charlton, 1911.

Moving the Mountain. In Forerunner 2 (1911); New York: Charlton, 1911.

Herland. New York: Pantheon, 1979; Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1998.

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Fiction. Edited with introduction by Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Benigna Machiavelli. Santa Barbara: Bandanna, 1994.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited by Denise D. Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Unpunished. Edited by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight. New York: Feminist Press, 1997.

With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.

POETRY

In This Our World: Poems. Oakland, Calif.: Mc-Combs & Vaughn, 1893; Boston: Small, Maynard, 1898; New York: Arno, 1974.

The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited by Denise D. Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

NONFICTION

Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1898; Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1998.

Concerning Children. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1900.

The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1903.

Human Work. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1904.

The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture. In Forerunner 1 (1909–1910); New York: Charlton Co., 1911.

Our Brains and What Ails Them. Serialized in Forerunner 3 (1912).

Social Ethics. Serialized in Forerunner 4 (1914).

His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York: Century, 1923.

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York: Appleton-Century, 1935; edited with introduction by Ann J. Lane, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader. Edited by Larry Ceplair. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited by Denise D. Knight. 2 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994. (An abridged version was published in 1998.)

A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897–1900. Edited by Mary A. Hill. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995.

OTHER WORKS

The Forerunner 1–7 (1909–1916). Reprint, with introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, New York: Greenwood, 1968.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1985.

CRITICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES

Degler, Carl N. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism.” American Quarterly 8:21–39 (spring 1956).

Golden, Catherine, ed. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Feminist Press, 1992.

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Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860–18 96. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

———. Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.

Karpinski, Joanne B., ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. (Includes Harriet Howe’s essay, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman—As I Knew Her,” pp. 73–84.)

Knight, Denise D. “The Reincarnation of Jane: ‘Through This’—Gilman’s Companion to ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper.’” Women’s Studies 20:287–302 (1992).

———. 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: Pantheon, 1990.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

—SYLVIA BAILEY SHURBUTT

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1380500020