Charlotte Perkins Gilman was recognized as one of the foremost intellectuals in the United States womens' rights movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her key work Women and Economics was considered her highest achievement; however, her current reputation rests more on her fiction, including the often-anthologized short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Although none of Gilman's works were in print by 1930, a resurgence of interest in her work began in the mid-1960s and continues to this day.
Through her father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, Gilman was related to the prominent Beecher family, which included her aunts Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), both models for women's social service. After her father left his wife and family when Gilman was very young, she saw little of this intellectual man throughout her life; he provided only sporadic financial support for the family, and his contact with his daughter was limited to infrequent correspondence and suggested reading lists. Her mother, Mary Westcott, struggled with the emotional and financial demands of raising two children alone and starved her children emotionally.
Gilman's early education was irregular, having moved 19 times in 18 years, but she was ambitious to develop an identity that combined a career and public service with a private life. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, worked as an artist and briefly as a governess to earn her way, and was determined to remain unmarried. At age 24, however, Gilman married young artist Charles Walter Stetson after a long courtship; their only daughter, Katherine, was born ten months later. Friction began between the pair almost immediately over the inequality of the roles of husband and wife, and following their daughter's birth, Gilman suffered from a severe depression. She consulted famed neurologist S. Weir Mitchell and undertook his well-known "rest cure," which included relaxation and seclusion for the patient, overfeeding and massage, all of which helped to bring an adult women to a coddled, childlike state. After a month Gilman left his treatment, with the admonition never to paint or write again, and to have, as she would later recall in The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "but two hours' intellectual life a day." This regimen only exacerbated Gilman's condition; she soon stopped the treatment and formally separated from her husband. She then moved to California, where she shared a home with her lifetime friend Grace Ellery Channing and became involved in the Nationalist movement. Channing would later marry Stetson--with Gilman's blessing--and play an active role in raising Gilman's daughter.
During this period Gilman gave attention to her writing. She had always been a prolific correspondent and kept a series of diaries and journals, but her first national recognition as writer came with the publication of her early satirical poetry. "Similar Cases" appeared in the Nationalist in April 1890. Gilman credits this as the starting point of her literary reputation and her popularity as a lecturer.
Gilman's early work is important because most recent criticism has tended toward reexamining her literary output. Without question, her best known story, which is atypical of her canon, is "The Yellow Wall-Paper," also written in 1890. William Dean Howells, who had noticed Gilman's poetry, brought the story to Atlantic Monthly editor Horace E. Scuddler's attention. Scudder refused to print the story, writing to Gilman that "I could not forgive myself if I had made others as miserable as I have made myself"; she could not find a publisher until two years later, when it was printed in New England magazine. Gilman claimed "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and convince him of the error of his ways." She sent him a copy and later, learning through friends that he had modified his treatments since its publication, remarked that "If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain." "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is indeed grim, tracing the first-person narrator's descent into madness under a regimen of treatment much like Dr. Mitchell's; Gilman emphasizes her heroine's obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her room and the figures she sees trapped inside it. Early critics regarded the heroine with a horror more typically associated with Poe's protagonists. The story is significant as a criticism of the oppression women faced in their restrictive late-19th-century society; however, not until the Feminist Press reprinted the text in 1973 with Elaine Hedges's explication did critics begin to examine the story as a feminist commentary on sexual politics. Subsequent readings of the story range from autobiographical analysis to consideration of the literary craft to psychoanalytic interpretations.
In 1893 Gilman published a small volume of poetry, In This Our World; as contemporary critic Henry Austin noted, the cover of this work, which Gilman designed, is based on British feminist Olive Schreiner's Three Dreams in a Desert (The Bookman, June 1895). The poems outline Gilman's economic and social views, admonishing women to reconsider their situations. In one poem, "Young Wife," she writes:
Are you content with work? To toil alone,
To clean things dirty and to soil things clean,
To be a kitchen maid--be called a Queen--
Queen of a cook-stove throne?
Reviews of this volume were positive, but public opinion of Gilman, who had left her daughter for long periods to pursue a career, was hostile; she was referred to in the press as an "Unnatural Mother," a phrase she would take later as the title of one of her short stories.
Despite the negative press, Gilman continued her work and achieved the height of her fame with the publication of Woman and Economics (1898), a social treatise based on the arguments of Darwinian and the work of American sociologist Lester Frank Ward. Gilman's work follows the tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Margaret Fuller's Woman in the 19th Century (1845) in its consideration of women's roles and responsibilities. Although associated with feminists of her day, Gilman preferred to refer to herself as a "sociologist" and distanced herself from the women's suffrage movement, claiming in The Living that "the political equality demanded by the suffragists was not enough to give real freedom." As she outlines in Woman and Economics, this real freedom, and any genuine improvement in society, could come only through recognizing and reforming the social structure in which women, because of their economic dependence on men, do not make a full contribution to social progress. The work firmly established her reputation as a social theorist in England and in the United States, where it was used as a textbook in the 1920s.
During this time Gilman consulted her cousin George Houghton Gilman on a legal matter; they began an intimate correspondence and were married on 11 June, 1900. She continued producing non-fiction works, including Concerning Children, The Home, and Human Work, all of which expand on themes identified in Woman and Economics: day care, the weaknesses of the single-family home, and the necessity of work.
After years of writing for other editors, Gilman decided to publish a periodical of her own that would afford her some independence and a chance to speak her mind free of restrictions. The Forerunner (1909-1916) was indeed a remarkable achievement. During the seven years of its run, Gilman wrote, edited, and published the magazine virtually on her own; her essays, commentary, short fiction, poetry, and several serialized novels appeared in its pages before Gilman stopped production because of lack of readership. Gilman published some of the serialized works, The Man-Made World, What Diantha Did, The Crux, and Moving the Mountain with the Charlton Press, which she formed with her husband; other novels, such as Herland and Benigna Machiavelli, a female coming-of-age tale, have only recently been reprinted.
Unlike "The Yellow Wall-Paper," much of the fiction in The Forerunner is optimistic in tone and best characterized as more concerned with a reformist agenda than with literary craft. Of primary interest is the feminist utopian novel, Herland (1915). In Herland Gilman fictionalizes her social program and demonstrates that the utopian novel suits her literary agenda. As Ann Lane notes in her introduction to the novel, the form allows Gilman to appeal to a broad audience "and at the same time make socialism a legitimate, appealing and reasonable idea."
In the text, three male explorers discover a society composed entirely of females that has become so self-sufficient that it reproduces parthogenically--effectively recreating the "virgin birth." The tale is told by one of the male travelers, whose views of women fall between his companions'--one of whom idealizes women, the other who objectifies them. The men see a world in which communal living, standardized practical fashions, and labor for each member according to her skills contribute to the maintenance of a non-violent, progressive order. Expecting that any "civilized" society could not function without a male presence, the travelers find their attitudes about gender, as well as most social institutions, challenged when they learn that the inhabitants construct their identity as "people," not around preconceived qualities of femininity or masculinity--and they view their visitors in the same light. According to Gilman, reform can come only when people are willing to be open-minded and reject established definitions.
After the demise of The Forerunner, Gilman continued a productive public and personal life, publishing several works and appearing frequently on the lecture circuit. Her most significant later work is the autobiography titled The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. At the age of 75 Gilman was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer; in a characteristic act, she approached death on her own terms and died of a self-administered overdose of chloroform on 17 August 1935. In a letter explaining this final decision, Gilman wrote: "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."
Continuing interest in Gilman's works stems form its unquestionable relevance to issues facing women today. Her vision of the need for social reform remains pertinent, and much of what she said resonates within the attitudes and actions of the Women's Movement in the later 20th century.
Nationality: American. Born: Hartford, Connecticut, 3 July 1860. Family: Married 1) Walter Stetson in 1884 (divorced), one daughter; 2) George Houghton Gilman in 1900. Career: Writer and lecturer. Editor, writer, and publisher, The Forerunner (magazine), 1909-16; co-founder, with George Gilman, Charlton Press, New York. Contributor to periodicals, including Century, Cosmopolitan, Forum, Harper's Bazaar, Nationalist, New England, Times, and Worthington's Illustrated. Died: Ended her own life after diagnosis of breast cancer, Pasadena, California, 17 August 1935.
- The Yellow Wall Paper. Boston, Small Maynard, 1899 .
- What Diantha Did (first serialized in The Forerunner, 1, 1909 -10). New York, Charlton, 1910 ; London, Unwin, 1912 .
- The Crux (first serialized in The Forerunner, 2, 1911 ). New York, Charlton, 1911 .
- Moving the Mountain (first serialized in The Forerunner, 2, 1911 ). New York, Charlton, 1911 .
- Herland (first serialized in The Forerunner, 6, 1915 ). New York, Pantheon, and London, Women's Press, 1979 .
- Benigna Machiavelli (first serialized in The Forerunner). Santa Barbara, California, Bandanna Books, 1994 .
- The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Fiction, edited by Ann J. Lane. New York, Pantheon, 1980 ; London, Women's Press, 1981 .
- The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. New York, Bantam, 1989 .
- Herland and Selected Stories, edited by Barbara H. Solomon. New York, Signet, 1992 .
- "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Denise D. Knight. Newark, Delaware, University of Delaware Press, 1994 .
- The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories, edited by Robert Schulman. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995 .
- In This Our World: Poems and Sonnets. Oakland, California, McCombs & Vaughan, 1893 ; London, Unwin, 1895 ; enlarged edition, Boston, Small Maynard, 1898 .
- Suffrage Songs and Verses. New York, Charlton, 1911 .
- Three Women (one-act), in Success, 11, August 1908 ; in Images of Women in Literature, edited by Mary Anne Ferguson. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986 .
- A Clarion Call to Redeem the Race! Mt. Lebanon, New York, The Shaker Press, 1890 .
- The Labor Movement. Oakland, California, Alameda County Federation of Trades, 1893 .
- Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston, Small Maynard, 1898 ; London, Putnam, 1899 ; 3rd edition, Boston, Small Maynard, 1900 .
- Concerning Children. Boston, Small Maynard, 1900 ; London, Putnam, 1901 .
- The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York and London, McClure Phillips, 1903 .
- Human Work. New York, McClure Phillips, 1904 .
- The Punishment that Educates. Cooperstown, New York, Crist Scott, 1907 .
- Women and Social Service. Warren, Ohio, National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1907 .
- The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture (originally published in The Forerunner, 1, 1909 ). New York, Charlton, and London, T.F. Unwin, 1911 ; 3rd edition, 1914 .
- Does A Man Support His Wife? with Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. New York, National Woman Suffrage Association, 1915 .
- His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York and London, Century, 1923 .
- "Social Darwinism," in American Journal of Sociology, 12, March 1907 .
- "The Waste of Private Housekeeping," in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 48, July 1913 .
- "Toward Monogamy," in Nation, 118, 11 June 1924 .
- "Feminism and Social Progress," in Problems of Civilization, edited by Baker Brownell. New York, Van Nostrand, 1929 .
- "Parasitism and Civilized Vice," in Woman's Coming of Age, edited by S.D. Schmalhausen and V.F. Calverton. New York, Boni & Liveright, 1931 .
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, edited by Larry Ceplair. New York, Columbia University Press, 1991 .
- The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,forward by Zona Gale. New York and London, Appleton-Century, 1935 .
- The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Denise D. Knight. Charlottesville, Virginia, University Press of Virginia, 2 vols., 1994 .
- A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900, edited by Mary A. Hill. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University, 1995 .
- The Forerunner, Volumes 1-7. New York, Charlton, 1909 -1916 ; with an introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, New York, Greenwood Press, 1968 .
- The Yellow Wallpaper (film), 1978.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Bibliography by Gary Scharnhorst, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1985.
- Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College.
- "`The Yellow Wallpaper': A Rediscovered `Realistic' Story" by Beate Schöpp-Schilling, in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, 8(3), summer 1975
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 by Mary A. Hill, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1980
- "The Dissolving Vision: Realism in Jewett, Freeman, and Gilman" by Julia Bader, in American Realism: New Essays, edited by Eric J. Sundquist, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982
- Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism by Polly Wynn Allen, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988
- Feminist Utopias by Frances Bartkowski, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1989
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work by Sheryl L. Meyering, Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1989
- To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman by Ann J. Lane, New York, Pantheon, 1990
- The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper, edited by Catherine Golden, Old Westbury, New York, Feminist Press, 1992
- Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gillman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski, New York, G. K. Hall, 1992.