Women and Economics

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Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, published in 1898 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), is considered a classic among American women's nonfiction writing. The book combined feminist, economic, and evolutionary theories in a bold program calling for the improvement of society.

At the heart of Gilman's treatise is a critique of what she calls women's "sexuo-economic" relation to men. Because women are expected to depend upon men for their support rather earning their own living, she argues, they are obliged to develop their feminine and sexual attributes at the expense of human characteristics in order to attract husbands and thus to ensure their survival. In Gilman's view, this practice renders marriage little more than legalized prostitution. To solve this problem, Gilman asserts that women should be free to perform productive work outside the home. This arrangement would not only grant women economic independence, which would make it unnecessary for them to exaggerate their femininity (what Gilman calls being "over-sexed") and thus allow them to develop all of their human faculties; it would also improve society because women would be able to contribute to the world around them. "Woman," Gilman proposed, "should stand beside man as the comrade of his soul, not the servant of his body" (p. 237).

For this new vision to become a reality, of course, societal infrastructure and domestic organization would have to undergo fundamental changes. Gilman therefore proposed that traditional women's work be professionalized. If child care were performed by "well-trained professional nurses and teachers," women would be free to pursue meaningful work in the world, making them "wiser, stronger, and nobler" mothers (pp. 242, 290) and making the children less individualistic and more civic-minded. If cleaning and laundering were "done by efficient workers" more suited to the tasks, women again would be able to engage in their profession of choice, and household labor would come to be recognized as labor by being remunerated (p. 242). If cooking were made a "reputable, well-paid profession," wives and mothers with no specialized training in nutrition or food preparation would be free to do their professional work and their families would be the healthier for it (p. 240). This cooking, moreover, would be done outside the home; believing that the environment shaped the lives of its occupants, Gilman envisioned dwellings without individual kitchens. Such changes in domestic labor and architecture would create citizens who were not only equals to one another but also focused outward to social service—to improving the human race as a whole.

These theories were held together by an evolutionary worldview: Gilman claimed that "the duty of human life is progress," in which people "build up the ever-nobler forms of life" in a process of "social evolution" (p. 207). Human development operates on an upward trajectory that is driven by natural forces that can be assisted (or thwarted) by human intervention. In Gilman's view, the "sexuo-economic" relation warped human evolution because it caused women to overevolve those characteristics that would please men, depriving women of the strength, skill, and interest necessary for advancing humanity. Originally, Gilman suggests, women were the leaders of race development, having the initiative in sexual selection (the choosing of mates), while men were individualistic and opportunistic beings useful mainly for fathering offspring. Evolution then took a temporary detour: women became subordinate to and dependent upon men so that men could develop social, rather than individualistic, traits, which they would acquire through providing food and shelter for those now-dependent women. This detour was a temporary necessity that would bring men into line with the evolutionary plan, but by Gilman's time, it had gone too far for too long, causing excessive sexual differentiation. "The time has come," she pronounced, "when it is better for the world that women be economically independent, and therefore they are becoming so" (p. 316). Gilman's treatise was intended to convince people to cease resisting this natural, evolutionary change toward women's equality and instead to help it along.


Gilman began developing the theories that would become famous in Women and Economics as a poet and lecturer during the 1880s, and she would return to the same ideas in both fiction and nonfiction for the remainder of her career. Fittingly, this sociological treatise reenvisioning the home was written during a period of Gilman's life in which she had no fixed address. Moving among the households of friends as she traveled on the lecture circuit in 1897, she reportedly drafted the volume in an outpouring that took less than three weeks.

Women and Economics met with immediate and wide acclaim both at home and abroad. It went through several editions during Gilman's lifetime, including translations in German, Italian, Polish, Dutch, Russian, Hungarian, and Japanese. Reviews were wide-ranging and often enthusiastic. The Nation called the book "the most significant utterance on the subject since Mill's Subjection of Woman" (Degler, p. xiii), and a review in the Arena called it "the book of the age" (Bederman, p. 122). Reviews also appeared in other prestigious periodicals, such as the American Fabian, The Dial, the Independent, the Humanitarian, the London Daily Chronicle, the New York Times, and Woman's Journal.

As such reviews suggest, the book was welcomed among social reformers and activists, rendering Gilman an international celebrity and the American women's movement's "leading intellectual" for the next two decades (Degler, p. xiii). Carrie Chapman Catt, leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, pronounced Gilman "the most original and challenging mind which the movement produced" (Hill, p. 4). The reformer Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's Hull-House, called it "a Masterpiece," and Florence Kelley, a lawyer and factory inspector whom Gilman met at Hull-House, wrote that it was "the first real, substantial contribution made by a woman to the science of economics" (Kessler, p. 31). The volume was even assigned as a textbook at Vassar College. Women and Economics cemented Gilman's place in the intellectual vanguard of feminists, socialists, and economic theorists at the dawn of the new century.


Central to Women and Economics is the idea that women's economic dependence upon men has made them excessively feminine and insufficiently human. Women were, in Gilman's terms, "over-sexed"—overly feminine and thus abnormally weak, passive, and concerned with physical appearance—at the expense of developing their strength, talents, and intellect. In this excerpt, Gilman uses the analogy of the wild cow and the milk cow to illustrate the process whereby the distinction between the sexes has been overdeveloped. Though Women and Economics is a work about human evolution, Gilman frequently uses examples from the animal kingdom in order to ground her arguments in the firm language of nature and science. This excerpt illustrates why the book appealed to both academic and popular audiences, showcasing Gilman's straightforward language and trademark wit.

To make clear by an instance the difference between normal and abnormal sex-distinction, look at the relative condition of a wild cow and a "milch cow," such as we have made. The wild cow is female. She has healthy calves, and milk enough for them; and that is all the femininity she needs. Otherwise than that she is bovine rather than feminine. She is a light, strong, swift, sinewy creature, able to run, jump, and fight, if necessary. We, for economic uses, have artificially developed the cow's capacity for producing milk. She has become a walking milk-machine, bred and tended to that express end, her value measured in quarts. The secretion of milk is a maternal function,—a sex-function. The cow is over-sexed. Turn her loose in natural conditions, and, if she survive the change, she would revert in a very few generations to the plain cow, with her energies used in the general activities of her race, and not all running to milk.

Gilman, Women and Economics, pp. 43–44.


Gilman's sociological treatise was formulated in the 1890s, when the worst excesses of Gilded Age capitalism were sparking impulses for reform that would come to characterize the Progressive Era, in which Gilman reached the height of her fame. Like many of her associates, Gilman deplored the self-serving doctrine of Social Darwinism propounded by Herbert Spencer and the economic elite, which used the Darwinian theory of "survival of the fittest" to justify social inequalities and industrial exploitation of the working class. Others, such as the educator G. Stanley Hall, were alarmed at the growing trend among women of the higher classes to seek "male" prerogatives (such as higher education, sexual and reproductive self-determination, and economic independence); they used the theory of evolution to criticize these developments, arguing that increased sexual differentiation was a mark of evolutionary progress.

Gilman put her own spin on the same Darwinian theory of evolution in order to counter these impulses, drawing upon the work of many thinkers in formulating her ideas. She was a follower of Reform Darwinism, which incorporated the commonly held Lamarckian theory that acquired characteristics could be inherited by the next generation and therefore maintained that human beings could intervene in the process of evolution to change the course of their development. In this, she was greatly influenced by the sociologist Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913), who theorized that human evolution would progress only through cooperative, self-directed action. Central to Ward's work was his "gynaecocentric theory," proposing that women were the original sex and had the prerogative to choose their mates, with men evolving later and secondarily. Ward's 1888 essay "Our Better Halves" along with Sir Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thomson's biological tract The Evolution of Sex (1889), which explored theories of sexual differentiation in the human and animal kingdoms, were the only works Gilman acknowledged publicly as bases for Women and Economics (Living, p. 259). The volume drew, however, upon many other works, theories, and traditions from Gilman's time and before.

Edward Bellamy's Utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888), which Gilman greatly admired, was one such source, as was the Nationalist movement it inspired—a movement Gilman joined in the late 1880s under the mentorship of her uncle, Edward Everett Hale. Gilman's work also intersected with that of Thorstein Veblen, whose The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) critiqued what he called "conspicuous consumption," in which women functioned as idle consumers in order to display men's wealth. Similarly, Gilman's work followed Fabian socialism: while she agreed with the socialist Karl Marx that economic relationships were the root of all other inequalities, she preferred the Fabians' nonconfrontational philosophy of gradual change within capitalism, with the ultimate goal of a nationalized industry led by enlightened politicians, benevolent capitalists, and progressive intellectuals. Gilman's economic theory also aimed to account for women's experience, which Marx's did not.

Gilman was not the first to link the struggle for women's economic and social equality with reorganizing the home, including socializing child care and housework and doing away with the private kitchen. These progressive impulses had their roots in the Utopian socialist movement inspired by Robert Owen and Charles Fourier more than half a century before. Such earlier experiments with social, family, and architectural organization, including Utopian communities and the free-love movement, provided ample precedent for Gilman's later reforms. More generally, Women and Economics was part of a long tradition of women's writing on women's rights, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Closer to her own time, Gilman owed much to feminist reformers such as Melusina Fay Peirce and Marie Stevens Howland, who had begun designing socialized, kitchenless dwellings soon after mid-century; the suffragist Mary Livermore, a proponent of cooperative housekeeping; and Gilman's associate and friend Helen Campbell, author of the 1897 tract Household Economics (dedicated to Gilman), with whom she worked on many housekeeping reforms. Gilman also visited several established models of socialized housekeeping, such as Jane Addams's Hull-House, a settlement house she used as her base while lecturing in the 1890s.

Gilman's work was thus informed by her own life experience, which bore out the truth of some of her theories. Separated from her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson (whom she divorced in 1894), and moving with their daughter to California in 1888, Gilman learned firsthand the social and economic impediments to being both a mother and a professional when "there were neither affordable systems of quality child care nor reasonable housework support services available to her" (Allen, p. 41). Unable to earn a living doing her meaningful work and to look after her home and her daughter Katharine properly, Gilman sent Katharine to live with her former husband and his new wife in 1894. Her manifesto was written, in part, to free future women from having to make this choice.


Women and Economics contributed to the theories and practices of the women's and socialist movements in the early twentieth century. It provided renewed inspiration for feminist architects, who continued to propose kitchenless dwellings, and for activists, who responded to the volume by setting up community dining groups and food delivery services. It even merited notice by the likes of Upton Sinclair, who mentioned Gilman by name in The Jungle (1906). Because Women and Economics built upon the ideas of so many reformers and activist organizations, the book had the potential to appeal to a wide range of interests. "Gilman's great achievement was to broaden the constituencies for domestic reform established by her predecessors. She reached beyond the small numbers of women in the cooperative movement, the free-love movement, the suffrage movement, and the home economics movement" (Hayden, p. 202).

Though Gilman articulated her theories and proposals in universal terms, however, she spoke most directly to the interests of white, middle-class professional women in Western societies; the reach of her reforms is therefore more limited than it might seem. Certainly, Gilman makes gestures toward elevating the status of domestic work in her move to professionalize it. Yet she implicitly maintains its secondary status in relation to the middle-class professions pursued by the women central to her narrative, those who will be freed to pursue such work through the aid of housework and child care "specialists." Her analysis also presumes that certain people are more suited for such "servile labor" than others (p. 266); these laborers, most of whom were working-class and women of color, seem destined merely to make others' freedom possible. Similarly, Gilman's satisfaction with benevolent capitalism did not address the problems of wage labor and alienation that concerned more radical socialists of her time.

On a more global level, the "others" against whom Gilman defines her version of the "genus homo" and its progress in the volume are "savages," "Orientals," Africans, or Jews. She alludes in Women and Economics to the belief she propounded elsewhere that Anglo-Saxon and Germanic races were more highly evolved than, and separate from, other races, and such ideas overlapped with those of the eugenics groups, nativist organizations, and genealogical societies of her time, who were anxious to maintain white, Protestant supremacy in the United States. While there is some debate among scholars as to the extent of Gilman's nativism, racism, and classism in this particular work, then, critics generally agree that the volume expresses such views. These sentiments were not inconsistent with Gilman's progressive, feminist impulse; indeed, they were inextricable from it. Like many turn-of-the-century reformers, Gilman used what she had at hand—the knowledge and theories of her own world—in order to bring what she saw as a radically new world into being.


The publication history of Women and Economics over the twentieth century reveals the book's dynamic relationship to its context. Its journeys in and out of print seem to correspond to currents in American culture, particularly those around the status of women. Though Women and Economics was widely cited among reformers for several years after its initial publication, its popularity waned as mainstream American culture became less tolerant of socialism and radical politics after the First World War; similarly, as the women's movement lost much of its urgency after women gained the national vote in 1920, so did Gilman's proposed reforms seem less necessary.

The book did not come back into print again until 1966, at a time in which "second wave" feminists called once again for women to be freed from domestic ideology and to achieve economic independence. Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan helped to spark this resurgence of the women's movement by observing that women, still the "second sex," wielded influence only through manipulating "the feminine mystique." Over half a century earlier Gilman had explored precisely these problems in Women and Economics; her book was once again relevant and addressed problems that still had not been solved.

By the 1980s, however, middle-class women had finally achieved some degree of the economic independence Gilman had called for. They were no longer limited to the domestic sphere, and even if not in proportionate numbers, women had entered politics and the professions. Perhaps in response, the book fell out of print again. Yet crucial problems remain unresolved, for, as Gilman prophesied, women's gains cannot provide full personal or societal improvement unless they are accompanied by fundamental changes in the socioeconomic infrastructure and in men's roles. Domestic duties, including housework and child care, remain unsocialized, and most professional women are still struggling to balance fulfilling careers with fulfilling home lives (in which they are still expected to perform a "second shift" of many of the same domestic duties about which Gilman wrote), a conflict that remains nearly unheard of for men (Kimmel and Aronson, pp. lx–lxiv). Predictably, then, Women and Economics reemerged in 1998 and, until its work is completed, will continue to speak Gilman's message to new generations of readers.

See alsoDarwinism; Feminism; Labor


Primary Works

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 1935. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Women and Men as a Factor in Social Evolution. 1898. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Secondary Works

Allen, Polly Wynn. Building Domestic Liberty: CharlottePerkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A CulturalHistory of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Degler, Carl. Introduction to Women and Economics: AStudy of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.

Hayden, Dolores. The Grand Domestic Revolution: AHistory of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981.

Hill, Mary Armfield. 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 with Selected Writings. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

Kimmel, Michael, and Amy Aronson. Introduction to Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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

Scharnhorst, Gary. "Historicizing Gilman: A Bibliographer's View." In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna S. Zangrando, pp. 65–73. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.

Zauderer, Naomi B. "Consumption, Production, and Reproduction in the Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman." In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, edited by Jill Rudd and Val Gough, pp. 151–172. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Jennifer S. Tuttle

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