Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

views updated May 18 2018

GILMAN, Charlotte Perkins

Born 3 July 1860, Hartford, Connecticut; died 17 August 1935, Pasadena, California

Daughter of Frederick Beecher and Mary A. Fritch Perkins; married Charles Walter Stetson, 1884 (divorced 1894); George Houghton Gilman, 1900; children: one daughter

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's father left the family soon after she was born. Although he made infrequent visits home and provided meager support for his family, he was largely responsible for Gilman's early education, emphasizing reading in the sciences and history. Her only formal education consisted of brief attendance at the Rhode Island School of Design. Like her great aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gilman was a reformer. At an early age, she recognized the plight (particularly the economic servitude) of her mother and many New England housewives. By age twenty-one, she was writing poetry that described the limitations of being female in late-19th-century New England.

As a teenager, Gilman was a commercial artist, art teacher, and governess. Ten months after her marriage to Charles W. Stetson, also an artist, their only daughter was born. Gilman suffered extreme depression after the birth and made a recuperative trip to California. She moved there in 1888 and divorced Stetson in 1894.

Gilman did not establish her reputation as a forceful writer and lecturer until the last decade of the century when she published a series of satiric poems in the Nationalist. She also began lecturing on a wide variety of topics. For a time she was a member of the National Movement, during which her writing and lectures reflected this group's nationalistic fervor.

In 1893, Gilman collected about 75 poems into a small volume entitled In This Our World. Gilman designed the cover, "based on Olive Screiner's Three Dreams in a Desert." The book was first published in England but enjoyed scanty success in the U.S., where, besides Gilman's family and friends, William Dean Howells first recognized its greatness. He called Gilman "the only optimist reformer he ever met." The poems outline Gilman's economic and social views and are considered by many to be a classic statement on the women's movement.

Women and Economics, originally titled Economic Relation of the Sexes as a Factor in Social Development, appeared in 1898 (reprinted 1998). This book's arguments in behalf of women's rights arise out of a firm and broad philosophical and historical base. Gilman calls American society "androcentric" and illustrates how traditionally male values have dominated almost every aspect of American life. It is considered one of the most important works on the women's movement.

Written in 1890 but not published as a separate work until 1899, The Yellow Wall-Paper is a fictional though partially autobiographical treatment of a woman artist's nervous breakdown. Having recently given birth, she is forced by her husband and physician to spend the summer in isolation in a Gothic-style country estate. She is forbidden to write, which is the one thing she truly wants to do. The result is the woman's madness, her delusion that another woman is trapped behind the wallpaper in her attic bedroom.

Gilman's Concerning Children (1900) and The Home (1904) expand on arguments originally advanced in Women and Economics. Both suggest children's lives can be stunted instead of enriched by a home in which the mother's sole occupation is housekeeping. Gilman argues instead for day care centers where children are well cared for, and where they can continue to explore the "thrilling mystery of life." Gilman called The Home "the most heretical—and the most amusing—of anything I've done."

In 1900 Gilman married her first cousin, George H. Gilman, a lawyer from New York. During their honeymoon, Gilman read him the book she had been writing, Human Work (1904). It attempts to make the same claim for work that Cardinal Newman made for knowledge: that it is intrinsically valuable, its own end. According to Gilman, work is both a responsibility and a pleasure. One does it because one is obligated to the human community.

In 1909 Gilman began a seven-year editorship of her own monthly periodical, the Forerunner. Written entirely by Gilman and containing 21,000 words per issue, Gilman figured theForerunner equaled four books a year, of 36,000 words apiece. The periodical contained articles on social and economic issues (invariably about women) and some poetry and fiction. It published two full-length novels by Gilman: What Diantha Did (1910) and The Crux (1911). The Man-Made World (1911) was also published in Forerunner. It juxtaposed male and female values: women, Gilman wrote, are peace-loving and concerned with community. Contrarily, the prevailing values in our society are male: aggressiveness, competition, and destructiveness.

His Religion and Hers (1923) was published six years after Gilman had resigned from the Forerunner. In it, Gilman compares the male conception of the world (a postponement and preparation for the afterlife) with the female (heaven in the present time and place). She directs her argument toward current social considerations, suggesting that if women controlled society, they would place greater emphasis on practical issues: how to live comfortably and peacefully from day to day.

Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), is an excellent source for understanding Gilman's life, work, and death. Suffering from cancer and surviving her husband's unexpected death in 1934, Gilman lived quite peacefully for a time near her daughter in Pasadena, then committed suicide by chloroform. The conclusion of her autobiography is an appropriate epitaph and was part of a letter left to her survivors: "The one predominant duty is to find one's work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that. The religion, the philosophy, set up so early, have seen me through."

Interest in Gilman exploded in the 1980s and 1990s with numerous new editions of her writings—including her previously unpublished diaries—and an outpouring of critical literature. Many of these writers suggested that Gilman was a woman before her time: she articulated questions that seemed irrelevant to most of her contemporaries, but are vital and unresolved a century later.

Some critics have focused on Gilman's fiction. Her short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," has become a classic. It is often read in literature and women's studies classes as a launching point for discussing domesticity, work and activity, sanity and madness, relationships between husbands and wives, and/or the power of medical authority. Gilman's utopian novels, Herland (serialized 1915) and With Her in Ourland (serialized 1916), explore what a society of women might be like and how a person from such a society might react to ours. Critics have used these novels to deepen conversations about separatism, differences between men and women, and the role of imagination in cultural change.

Other people—and sometimes the same people—have focused on the more material aspects of Gilman's work. She believed the root cause of women's subordination is their economic dependence. The stand-alone single-family home, she argued, mires women in the endless tasks of cooking, cleaning, and child care. In order to free women to participate in the work of the world, living spaces must be redesigned to allow domestic work to be done collectively and efficiently. As feminists have become more aware of how economic structures and physical surroundings shape women's lives, they have become more interested in Gilman's insights into these issues.

Gilman is a complex figure, and most of the recent scholarship does not attempt to address all aspects of her life and work. One exception is Ann Lane's biography, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1990), which uses a psychological analysis of Gilman's early family experiences to illuminate her later actions, motivations, and priorities.

Other Works:

Moving the Mountain (1911). The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1994). A Journey From Within (1995). The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1996). The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories (1997). Unpunished (1997). The Abridged Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1998). Herland and Selected Writings (1999). The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (1999). Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Novels (1999).


Allen, P., Building Domestic Liberty: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Architectural Feminism (1988). Dell, F., Women as World Builders (1913). Golden, C., The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper (1992). Karpinski, J., Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1992). Kessler, C., Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings (1995). Meyering, S., Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work (1989). Peyser, T., Utopia and Cosmopolis (1998). Wellington, A., Women Have Told: Studies in the Feminist Tradition (1930).

Reference works:

DAB (Supplement 1). HWS (V, VI). NAW. NCAB (13).

Other references:

AQ (Spring 1956). Canadian Magazine (Aug. 1923). Century Magazine (Nov. 1923). PMLA (1996). Poet-Lore (Jan.-March 1899). Women's Studies (1989, 1991). Utopian Studies (1995, 1997).



Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

views updated May 18 2018

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1860–1935) Gilman was an American writer who published a huge range of work across a broad spectrum of disciplines, including sociology, literature, political science, economics, and women's studies. Her best-known volume is The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), written after her nervous breakdown in 1885. It can be taken as a semi-autobiographical record of psychiatric treatment and the descent into ‘madness’, but can also be interpreted as a metaphorical account of women's situation generally, and particularly that of married women in a patriarchal society. Her more specifically sociological work addressed the culturally repressed status of women and how this impeded full intellectual development.

Like Harriet Martineau in her earlier works, and also some contemporary radical feminists, Gilman suggests an analogy between women's social situation and slavery. She rejected Herbert Spencer's theory of social determinism, and maintained that humans are dynamic agents who are not determined by inherited traits or ruthless competition, but can plan and direct their own destiny. She subscribed to Lester Frank Ward's gynecocentric theory, which saw women as the original and dominant form of the species, with men serving only as assistants in the fertilization process. She thus dismissed the basic tenets of Marxism because she saw sex as a more fundamental social division than class, arguing that women's social repression is a direct result of their singular role of motherhood, a role that impedes and minimizes creativity and expression.

Children, she believed, should be entrusted to child-care experts, and she saw strong state agencies as essential to maintaining a more just society for women. Similarly, she argued that private housekeeping was both inefficient and wasteful, and suggested that households and the economy generally would be more productive if women worked in the labour force and co-operative kitchens were set up for the mass-preparation of food. Gilman published some 2,173 written works, including Herland (1915), and The Home: Its Work and Influences (1903).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

views updated May 17 2018

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