Gilman, Charlotte Perkins: General Commentary
CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN: GENERAL COMMENTARY
MARY A. HILL (ESSAY DATE 1980)
SOURCE: Hill, Mary A. "Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Feminist's Struggle with Womanhood." In Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work, edited by Sheryl L. Meyering, pp. 31-50. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.
In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Hill discusses the development of Gilman's feminism within the confines of her prescribed roles as wife and mother.
In a letter written from Belmont, New Hampshire, September 2, 1897, Charlotte Perkins Stetson exclaimed, "Thirty-five hundred words I wrote this morning, in three hours!" A book's chapter in one sitting; a successive six-week dizzy pace of morning writing; elaborate consultations with her closest critic, Houghton Gilman, soon to be her second husband; and thus was Women and Economics dashed into print. Jane Addams, already emerging as one of America's foremost social reformers, expressed her gratitude to Charlotte, her "pleasure and satisfaction," her "greatest admiration" for the "Masterpiece." Florence Kelly, another pioneer of social settlement reform viewed it as "the first real, substantial contribution made by a woman to the science of economics." According to The Nation, "Since John Stuart Mill's essays on The Subjection of Women, there has been no book dealing with the whole position of women to approach it in originality of conception and brilliancy of exposition."1
Charlotte Gilman quite naturally felt increasingly elated as positive reviews rolled in, despite the societal distortions her book both reflected and described. A flamboyant speaker, a writer with a penetrating wit, she was rapidly emerging as a major theorist and popularizer for the woman's movement in turn-of-the-century America. Publicly she attempted to analyze and expose the ubiquitous effects of sex-based inequalities and the sources of female strength; and privately she acknowledged that many of her perceptions emerged as well from agonizing conflicts of her life. "We ourselves," she publicly and sweepingly asserted, "have preserved in our own character the confusion and contradiction which is our greatest difficulty in life."2 And privately she acknowledged the war between contending factions in herself. To Houghton Gilman she described a major challenge of her life: "To prove that a woman can love and work too. To resist this dragging weight of the old swollen woman-heart, and force it into place—the world's Life first—my own life next. Work first—love next. Perhaps this is simply the burden of our common womanhood which is weighing on me so."3
The seeds of Charlotte's radical feminism were rooted in an early struggle for independence, self-assertion, and self-respect. Raised primarily within a female kinship network necessitated by her father's absence, and deprived from early infancy of the motherly affection for which she yearned, Charlotte nonetheless disclosed in her diaries and notebooks a growing strength of character, a playful, lively, independent personality. Rebellious against the model of repressive discipline her unhappy mother, Mary Perkins, attempted to impose, she was active in physical fitness programs, lecture clubs, and language classes. Armed with books and reading lists provided by her librarian father, Frederick Perkins, Charlotte was well-read in contemporary philosophical, historical, and anthropological thought. She delighted in her physical as well as her mental agility; her effort to control her body was maintained within her larger program to control her life. By the age of 21, she was self-supporting, busy from 6 A.M. to 10 P.M., and thriving in the process.
Despite the limitations imposed in her mother's prudish discipline, Charlotte constantly had calls, visitors, and stimulating friendships with males as well as females. She enjoyed hiking, sleighing, rowing, playing whist, and was exhilarated in her triumphs at the chess board. She enjoyed inspiring evening talks with Ada Blake and Augusta Gladding, and many long walks with Grace Channing, who became her lifelong friend. Also, she developed an intimate relationship with Martha Luther, a relationship of mutual trust and shared interests. They delighted in each other's company. "With Martha I knew perfect happiness," she later wrote. "Four years of satisfying happiness with Martha, then she married and moved away."4
Charlotte's friendship with Martha provided the kind of support, encouragement, and mutual affection historians currently believe was central to the experience of most nineteenth-century women. The reality of Charlotte's love was quite apparent, her grief at the impending separation was intense and disruptive. In 1881, Charlotte noted that "some swain" was threatening her relationship with Martha, that because of marriage she might lose her "most intimate friend." On November 5th she wrote: "Pleasant, to ring at the door where you've always been greeted with gladness; to be met by the smile that you value all other above—to see that smile flicker and vanish and change into sadness because she was met by your presence instead of her love." On November 16th she noted, "Walk in the dark streets for an hour or so in dumb misery." In December, she summarized: "A year of steady work. A quiet year, and a hard one.… A year in which I knew the sweetness of perfect friendship, and have lost it forever."5 After a typical self-scourging, she became more stoic, striving to submerge her grief by helping others. But the vacuum left by Martha's absence heightened Charlotte's longings for affection, and may have paved the way for her acceptance of the comforting protection of a man.
On January 12, 1882, Charlotte met an aspiring artist, Walter Stetson. Within seventeen days of their first meeting he proposed. Her diary entry reads: "I have this day been asked the one great question in a womans [sic] life and have refused." Two days later she wrote:
Now that my head is cool and clear, now before I give myself any sense to another; let me write down my Reasons for living single.
In the first place, I am fonder of freedom than anything else—.…
I like to be able and free to help any and everyone, as I never could be if my time and thoughts were taken up by that extended self—a family.…
I am cool, fearless, and strong.…
For reasons many and good, reasons of slow growth and careful consideration, more reasons that I now can remember; I decide to Live—Alone.
God help me!6
For a time at least, Charlotte remained committed to her rationale for spinsterhood: "if I were to try the path you open to me I could never try my own," she wrote. "I know of course that the time would come when I must choose between two lives, but never did I dream that it would come so soon, and that the struggle would be so terrible." It was, as she put it directly to Walter, "a trial which in very truth does try me like fire."7
Despite her misgivings, Charlotte began to express increasing affection for Walter—"I am beginning to wonder how I ever lived through this winter, before you—;…You want to give me something! You are giving me back myself." By 1883, she was engaged to Walter and began to accept his sympathy, his comforting, his advice, even when it was constricting. For example, when a close friend gave her a new copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass she noted, "I am obliged to decline, as I had promised Walter I would not read it." She now resolved, first and foremost, to be "Absolutely unselfish … To find my happiness in the pleasurable sensations of others rather than in my own. To consider others, think of others, think first 'will he or she like it?' rather than shall I."8
As Charlotte's expressions of affection and self-sacrifice intensified, so also did her gloom. She experienced a loss of strength, discipline, and courage which she had worked so consciously to acquire. In December, 1883, she wrote: "Let me not forget to be grateful for what I have. Some strength, some purpose, some design, some progress, some esteem, respect—and affection. And some Love. Which I can neither feel, see, nor believe in when the darkness comes." She continued: "I mean this year to try hard for somewhat of my former poise and courage. As I remember it was got by practice." Nonetheless, a severe depression began to take its toll:
I would more gladly die than ever yet; saving
for the bitter agony I should leave in the
of him who loves me. And mother's pain.
But O! God knows I am tired, tired, tired of life!
If I could only know that I was doing right.9
Charlotte's expressed attitudes toward marriage and motherhood were fiercely ambivalent. Rationally aware of possible conflicts between self-development and love, she was largely unprepared to meet the complex unconscious as well as deliberate patterns of socialization which forced most women to accept self-sacrificing love as natural, inevitable, and right. Drawing from conflicting signals of her mother, Mary Perkins, Charlotte knew that women could achieve a modicum of independence, but always at a price. Mary Perkins was a divorced and eventually self-supporting woman, nourished and sustained by a female network of friends and relatives; her nonconformity strengthened Charlotte's capacity for independence. But suffering from the stigma of divorce, from economic hardship, from the guilt and emotional insecurity of her single lifestyle caused her, Mary quickened Charlotte's fear of spinsterhood. Both parents had also unwittingly encouraged Charlotte's independence by withholding their affection. Mary Perkins had denied caresses to her daughter: "I used to put away your little hand from my cheek when you were a nursing baby," Mary told Charlotte in her later years. "I did not want you to suffer as I had suffered." Likewise her librarian father, Frederick Perkins, kept his distance: "the word Father, in the sense of love, care, one to go to in trouble, means nothing to me," Charlotte wrote, "save indeed in advice about books and the care of them—which seems more the librarian than the father."10
A contemporary psychologist, Alexandra Symonds, discussed symptoms in her recent patients quite similar to those that Charlotte was beginning to exhibit. The women Symonds treated were active, vital, and self-assured before their marriages. Yet they were also often women who had to "grow up in a hurry." Denied experiences of warmth in childhood, they were encouraged to control their feelings and give the impression of strength and self-sufficiency. Symonds suggests a frequent pattern: "They repressed their healthy needs to be taken care of and repressed the child in them as well." Perhaps Charlotte's difficulties were rooted in the discipline and loneliness of youth, the loss of her friend Martha Luther serving only to exacerbate her thirst for love. Perhaps, as Symonds puts it, she desired "to put down a tremendous burden which she had been carrying all her life, and be the dependent little girl she had never been before."11
On May 2, 1884 Charles Walter Stetson and Charlotte Anna Perkins were married in Providence, Rhode Island. "O my God! I thank thee for this heavenly happiness!" she wrote in her diary the evening of the wedding.12
There were commonly expected roles of men and women in marriage that both Charlotte and Walter accepted. As a man, Walter was expected to provide for his family. He did not have to choose between marriage and his work. In fact, marriage lent further purpose to his artistic growth and creative efforts. Charlotte, by contrast, felt a momentous change occurring in her life. Formerly self-supporting, independent, and career-oriented, she found herself involved with time-consuming domestic chores which conflicted with the work she loved—painting and writing. Within a week, some spontaneous rebellion seemed to be occurring. She wrote in her diary, "I suggest he [Walter] pay me for my services; and he much dislikes the idea. I am grieved at offending him; mutual misery. Bed and cry." She was beginning to experience firsthand what later she would depict to trenchantly: "the home which is so far from beautiful, so wearing to the nerves and dulling to the heart, the home life that means care and labour and disappointment, the quiet, unnoticed whirlpool that sucks down youth and beauty and enthusiasm, man's long labour and woman's longer love."13
Although the personal dynamics of Charlotte's relationship with Walter remain elusive, sexual experiences may have contributed to her growing discontent. At times Charlotte viewed sexuality with traditional Victorian prudery: "Purity," she wrote in 1883, "is that state in which no evil impulse, no base thought can come in; or if forced in dies of shame in the white light. Purity may be gained by persistent and long continued refusal to entertain low ideas." Yet it is also clear that she was by no means always cold or unapproachable in early marriage. On June 15, 1884, she noted: "Am sad: last night and this morning. Because I find myself too—affectionately expressive. I must keep more to myself and be asked—not borne with." And on June 25 the same year she wrote, "Get miserable over my old woe—conviction of being too outwardly expressive of affection."14
Soon Charlotte was pregnant, a condition which lessened her physical and emotional stamina. Even after the birth of Katharine Stetson in 1885, Charlotte wrote in her diary, "Every morning the same hopeless waking … same weary drag." She appreciated her home, her healthy baby, the services of her mother and a competent domestic servant, yet was helpless and despondent: "and I lay all day on the lounge and cried."15 A failure in her own eyes, she looked to Walter for protective love, and increasingly for pity. She was assuming what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has referred to as those "character traits assigned to women in Victorian society and the characteristic symptoms of nineteenth-century hysteric: dependency, fragility, emotionality, narcissism."16 Charlotte did not as yet attack the religion of maternity, the assumption that all mothers are "saintly givers." Instead, she resigned herself to misery. She wrote, Walter "would do everything in the world for me; but he cannot see how irrevocably bound I am, for life, for life. No, unless he die and the baby die, or he change or I change, there is no way out." She described her "hysteria" as follows:
I could not read nor write nor paint nor sew nor talk nor listen to talking, nor anything. I lay on that lounge and wept all day. The tears ran down into my ears on either side. I went to bed crying, woke in the night crying, sat on the edge of the bed in the morning and cried—from sheet continuous pain.…
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.…17
In writing her autobiography, Charlotte described her "mental illness" as a disease beyond her understanding, an accidental misfortune. Suffering from recurrent depressions, she continued to believe that causes for her suffering lay not in the personal or political conflicts of her life, but in idiosyncratic weaknesses within herself. The price she paid for nonconformity was guilt, despite the fact that almost all of her feminist writings were inextricably related to her life, and despite the fact as well that her short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was itself a feminist-oriented autobiographical portrayal of insanity.
In "The Yellow Wallpaper," an "hysterical woman," overprotected by a loving husband, is taken to a summer home to recover from nervousness, and told to rest and sleep and try to use her "will and self-control" to overcome her miseries. The room her husband John assigns to her is covered with a yellow-patterned wallpaper. "The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight." Although the woman is quite ill, her husband, a physician, tells her that there is "no reason" for her suffering; she must dismiss those "silly fantasies." Of course, "it is only nervousness," she decides. But "it does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!…[and] such a dear baby! And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous." She tries to rest and do as she is told, but suffers doubly since her husband will not believe that she is ill. He "does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him." She thinks she should appreciate the protective love he offers. "He takes all care from me, and I feel so basely ungrateful not to value it more.…He took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose." And yet it is impossible to talk to him "because he is so wise, and because he loves me so." Efforts to discuss the matter only bring a "stern reproachful look" and send her back to bed in shame.
John offers tender love, but enforces the inactivity which deepens her despair. I "am absolutely forbidden to 'work' until I am well again." Here he comes, "I must put this away—he hates to have me write a word." Rest is what her physician husband says is right, so "he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal."
The first stage of the breakdown is one of self-blame. The woman follows the doctor's orders and tries to stop the fantasies that people tell her are unreal. When a physician of "high standing" assures "friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?" Gradually, however, the woman starts to believe in her fantasies. "There are things in that [wall-]paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will. Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.… I didn't realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman." Dramatically she trusts her perceptions and acts wildly but assertively. "I wasn't alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper." The protagonist begins to creep and crawl within her madness. She separates herself from the perception of others, and when in a climactic scene her husband faints, she crawls over his body and says, "I've got out at last … in spite of you!"18
"The Yellow Wallpaper" stands in dramatic contrast to Charlotte's autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. There, the separation from Walter Stetson is portrayed as resulting from her individual weaknesses, or equally simplistically, from a mismatched marriage. She was not inclined publicly or explicitly to indict loved ones in her life. Yet in "The Yellow Wallpaper," she presented insanity as a form of rebellion, a crucial turning point toward independence. Only in a fictional version of her illness would she publicly express her anger: "I've got out at last … in spite of you." Anger is also apparent in her diary. On April 18, 1887, she wrote:
I am very sick with nervous prostration, and I think some brain disease as well. No one can ever know what I have suffered in these last five years. Pain pain pain, til my mind has given way.… You found me—you remember what I leave you—O remember what, and learn to doubt your judgment before it seeks to mould another life as it has mine.
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.19
Although Charlotte often faced uncontrollable depressions during the bleak years of 1884-87, fortunately a determination to trust her own abilities remained. In part, she benefited from a visit in California with Grace Channing and her family in the winter of 1885-1886. In this supportive atmosphere she regained a measure of her former self-confidence. She felt more well, of gayer disposition, when she was separated from her family, a primary source of her guilt-induced anxiety. Moreover, the diaries indicate an emerging feminist consciousness during these same years; her reading, lecturing, and writing on women's issues predated and possibly contributed to her separation from Walter in 1888. For example, in 1883 she argued with a close friend, Jim Simmons, "till 11:45 nearly talking about Woman's Rights." He was a "man far from broad," she noted. In 1884 she read John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women (she also read it to her mother), and then began to lecture and to write on women's issues. She attended her first Woman's Suffrage Convention in 1886. In January 1887, she read Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century and "started a course of reading about women," although as she noted in her diary she stopped it temporarily to "oblige" Walter. By February she had accepted an offer from Alice Stone Blackwell to manage a suffrage column for a Providence weekly newspaper, The People.20
Many days Charlotte complained of weakness and exhaustion from domestic obligations yet found strength when she worked on articles or verse. Incensed by the situation of other women, she was depressed when she reflected on her own. On February 20, 1887 she had a "good talk" with a neighbor, Mrs. Smythe, who was "another victim" with a "sickly child" and an ignorant husband who was "using his marital rights at her vital expense." And a month later: "Getting back to the edge of insanity again … feel desperate. Write my 'column' though." She also returned to her physical fitness program. For example, on February 7, after getting "discouraged by Walter," she delighted in her "jolly time at the gym in the evening. I seem to slip into my old position of inspirer very easily. And the girls like it."21
What is most striking about Charlotte's life, particularly from 1884-1887, is that she had the energy to pursue any of the activities she found most satisfying. She was "ill," yet stubbornly ignored the admonitions of her family, refused their well-intentioned offers of "security," and proceeded to develop an independent plan of action. She rejected the advice of a nerve specialist, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell: "Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time.…Andnever touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live."22 Instead, she decided to try new alternatives. She believed that self-assertion, in her case the need to read, write, exercise, and enjoy the companionship of other women was crucial to her mental health. Lacking the support, or even the understanding of friends and relatives in Providence, Rhode Island, and with no income or well-defined plans for work, she determined to move herself and child to California in the fall of 1888. There, in Pasadena, the Channing family provided a brief respite of economic and emotional security.
Gradually, Charlotte began to meet other women like herself who were alone, without means of satisfying work, or without adequate income. Still personally distraught, she nonetheless moved toward a tactical involvement in the burgeoning feminist movement, began more seriously to analyze common problems women faced, and encouraged organizational and individual attacks on what she saw as pervasive social ills. Well-read in contemporary intellectual theory, and most particularly influenced by the writings of Lester Ward and Edward Bellamy, she became active in the lecture-writing circuit of the then highly politicized and often radical reform movements of the 1890s. Her expanding reputation brought her into close contact with socialist, nationalist, and Fabian thought. As a social theorist, she was eclectic rather than original. But in her partial adoption of socialist theory and in her continuing identification with oppressed groups, she was able to expand her feminist analysis beyond that of many of her contemporaries and to ground it in a broadly-based political perspective.
Turning now to the feminist analysis itself, I suggest that there were four major forces which Charlotte Gilman isolated as having created and perpetuated female inequality, or the "artificial" feminine personality. The underlying premise of her environmentalist analysis was the innate similarity of human potentials of males and females. As she put it:
That is masculine which belongs to the male sex as such; to any and all males without regard to species.… That is feminine which belongs to the female sex, as such, without regard to species.… That is human which belongs to the human species, as such, without regard to sex.… Every step of social development, every art, craft, and science … these have to do with humanity, as such, and have nothing to do with sex.23
The first of the major factors impinging on the lives of women, she perceived, was their economic dependence on men. Women had become in effect property of men. Women's work, she argued, had a use value but not an exchange value. She wrote, "whatever the economic value of the domestic industry of women is, they do not get it. The women who do the most work get the least money, and the women who have the most money do the least work." She insisted that economic dependence, wherever it occurred, necessarily resulted in a loss of integrity and self-respect. Encouraging women to view the political dimensions of their situation, she declared, "We have not as a class awakened to the fact that we have no money of our own."24
Charlotte Gilman's economic struggles as a separated and subsequently divorced woman, and earlier the child of a divorced woman, made her especially sensitive to woman's economic plight. She knew from experience that economic security in the home was a mirage, that if deprived of the support of a male protector, women would invariably confront extremely limited work opportunities, and often tragic impoverishment. Yet she recognized that it was the family itself, as a social and economic institution, which perpetuated female enslavement and denied women opportunity for economic independence. Consequently, she differed from many feminists who believed that no "fundamental economic change would be necessary in home relationships for women to achieve equality."25 For Charlotte Gilman, women's most essential goal was the building of an economic power base.
The second significant factor leading to "artificial" femininity, Gilman believed, was nonvoluntary alienating domestic servitude. She argued that inequality of women resulted from a division of labor along sex lines, further evidence of a causative relationship between the institution of the family and women's low level of achievement. Cooking, sewing, nursing, washing, caring for children—"not only do we undertake to have all these labors performed in one house, but by one person." Just consider, she wrote, "what any human business would be in which there was no faintest possibility of choice, of exceptional ability, of division of labor." She decried the fact that domestic industry had become a "sex function,… supposed to pertain to women by nature."26
Third, Gilman examined the effects of women's psychological dependence on men. An eclectic popularizer as well as a theorist, she reiterated and reshaped the theoretical arguments of her predecessors, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, for example; but in the process she also anticipated the direction of some of the most recent and perceptive feminist theorists: the concentration on the politics of the family, for example, the recognition that the personal is political, the understanding that only by examining the daily lives of women and their experiences of submission to the demands of family life could an explanation of female "difference" ultimately be found.27 Viewing women's powerlessness and dependence on men as both psychological and political phenomena, she argued that the female personality had become a slave personality. She wrote, "The position of women, after their long degradation is in many ways analogous to that of the freed slave. He is refused justice on account of his inferiority. To reply that inferiority is largely due to previous injustice does not alter the fact."28 The female personality was likewise conditioned to submission. "Of women especially have been required the convenient virtues of a subject class: obedience, patience, endurance, contentment, humility, resignation, temperance, prudence, industry, kindness, cheerfulness, modesty, gratitude, thrift, and unselfishness."29 Although the conditions of women's lives had important variations, Gilman believed there existed a common institutional experience—the home—which affected women whether rich or poor. The politics of the family crossed class lines.
Fourth, finally, and least persuasively, Gilman ventured beyond many of her socialist contemporaries in exploring the unique effects of sexual oppression on women. She believed that the sexual relationship had become an economic relationship, marriage very often itself being merely a legally enshrined version of prostitution. Forced to emphasize sexuality at the expense of humanity, woman had necessarily to give the impression of weakness, frailty, timidity, and passivity—in short to prove her capacity for submission, the male's for dominance and control. Gilman wrote:
We have been told so long that
"Love is of man's life a thing apart,
Tis woman's whole existence"
that we have believed it.… [O]ur whole existence was carefully limited to this field; we were dressed and educated to grace it; we were bloomed out into a brief and glorious career while under inspection and selection before our final surrender, and then we pursued the rest of our lives with varying devotion and satisfaction in this one department of life.30
She advocated the distribution of information on birth control and sex-related matters, the development of physical fitness programs for women, and an end to man-made fashion dictates. She called for human fulfillment, for women's full control of their bodies as well as their lives.31
However, Gilman's understanding of the causes for sexual oppression was far more impressive than her theoretical projections. In short, she could attack the "feminine" woman, but not envision an alternative of equal womanhood. Her life and writings were always inextricably related. Where she had achieved certain of her feminist goals—economic independence, physical fitness, and considerable psychological strength as well, she believed in woman's capacity for excellence. But because she could not interpret the conflicting loyalties which seemed to occur, both within herself and other independent women when they entered love relationships with men (and wavering herself between both strength and deference, self-righteousness, and self-sacrifice), Charlotte perhaps understandably concluded that certain stereotypes of "femininity" must somehow be innate.
The personal roots of Charlotte's theoretical contradictions are apparent in her early living, in her struggles with guilt as she faced her separation and divorce from Walter Stetson, and in her love relationship with Houghton Gilman, whom she married in 1900.32 She wrote letters of passionate intensity to Gilman, but she seemed to fear him as a threat to her marginally established independence. A sensuous woman, she was also a well-trained warrior in the feminist campaign. Unintentionally and tragically, she created sexual and psychological barriers against an intimate male-female relationship.
Charlotte had known Houghton as a child, as an affectionate first cousin eight years her junior, whose companionship she very much enjoyed. After a hiatus of some seventeen years, Charlotte visited Houghton in his law office to obtain legal advice concerning royalties on a publication. Erroneously, she assumed the relationship was "safe" from "complications" because of kinship, though she expressed her preference for even safer grounds than that: "I only wish I was your grandma or great aunt or I have it! an invalid sister that you simply had to have around you all the time!!!" She was delighted with his friendship: "You seem very near somehow—a background to most of my thinking when I'm not at work." Or again, "It's astonishing how many times a day I incline to write you."33 And write she did—twenty-or thirty-page letters, two or more times a week.
Nonetheless, expressions of increasing fondness for Houghton were interspersed with apologetic declarations of resistance:
To most people … I can behave nicely.…But as soon as any one comes near me and takes hold, I wobble awfully. Now as you may have seen I am getting exceedingly fond of you.…And I don't like it. It makes me unreasonable. It makes me feel—where I don't want to feel; and think—where I don't want to think. It sort of wakes me up where I'm dead, or where, if I'm not dead I ought to be.
Now I can't afford to be fond of anybody in that sort of way—man, woman, or child. I can't afford to want things.…But [your] being here … and being, to your sorrow—my "entire family"—why it brings out all that is worst and weakest in me, instead of what is strongest and best. It makes me unreasonable—sensitive—disagreeable—absurd. It makes me want to be petted and cared for—me! And then all this makes me very mad; and I say "go to! I'll get out of this in short order!"34
Charlotte seemed to vacillate wildly between feelings of strength and insecurity. She was "rich in the tricks and shifts of an old campaigner weather-beaten and coarsened by long exposure." But also, she felt "bitterly depressed, often defeated, lonely, imprisoned, scared and wounded beyond recognition but not crippled past all usefulness.…"She seemed to need to ask for pity. She felt a "compelling desire … to complain and explain, to whimper … and seek for sympathy which don't do me any good if I get it." She extended her growing trust in Houghton with a "childish femininity":35
I temporarily cuddle down and clutch you remorselessly. Later on I shall flop and wobble again. Later still soar off no doubt. But just for a little time—and with excellent reason that I can't help—behold me as it were a sleepy Newfoundland puppy in your overcoat pocket.36
Thus did a public advocate of woman's full equality privately reveal the anguish of her personal ambivalence. She wrote:
I wish I could make a picture of the thing [herself] as I see it—sulky, frightened, discouraged, "rattled" to a degree; one foot forward and the other back; ready to rush forward in tumultuous devotion one minute, and run away shrieking the next—fingers in ears.37
However tentatively and indecisively, Charlotte began to break the barriers of her self-imposed lonely isolation. Insecurities sometimes reemerged in the form of uncontrollable depressions, the "grey fog" she had faced since 1884. But increasingly she felt a passionate happy love for Houghton which, characteristically, she had to formulate in writing. She left, therefore, abundant documentation of her sensuous yearnings, as well as of her apprehensions:
I went to sleep with a smile on my lips and woke only to think again of the dear comfort that you are to me—of your unfailing loving kindness, your quiet strength, your patience and wisdom—and your tenderness. O it does feel so good! To have some one care for me enough to—well—to kiss me.38
She continued in December: "Everything is so different. I have a home now—in your heart." In February, 1898 she wrote: "Surely you can read it in my eyes—hear it in my voice, feel it in my arms about your neck—taste it on my lips that lean to you. You make me happy—so happy my darling. I love you—love you—love you!" And even more passionately for a supposedly "Victorian" lady, she wrote to him in May: "Sweetheart! You shall kiss me anywhere you want to and all you want to as soon as ever there is a chance. I will wait till you are exhausted and then begin operations on my own account."39
Despite such passionate declarations, Charlotte also delighted in the image of herself as cared-for child: "And it will be the wholesomest thing in the world to … settle down to the definite and particular feeling of being your little girl."40 Continuously she seemed to need protective reassurance; and when Houghton did not sufficiently comply, she responded angrily. So vulnerable did she feel, so intense was her level of hurt, that on one occasion in 1899, she threatened to break off the relationship entirely. She wrote: "When I think of what manner of letters I have written to you—of course I want to call them all back and burn them … and never think of love again lest I die of shame."41 She insisted that Houghton be strong and more assertive, and that she, as woman, should wait more passively:
If you don't love me more than to make dutiful responses to my advances it won't do to marryon.…42
It is a woman's business to wait, not a man's.
It is for a woman to be patient and still—not a man.
If you are truly lover and husband—show it. If not—God bless you and good bye.
Charlotte's outbursts were frequent but short-lived, her contests with self-hatred a recurring pattern of her life. She recovered from her anger, only to be tormented once again by uncontrollable anxiety. Back and forth she went: "I don't wholly like to be held—and yet I do!" She wanted protective love, yet despised herself for needing it. "Makes me kind of angry too," she later wrote. "Seems a weakness. To be so tangled up in another person."43 Torn between her feminist convictions and her feelings, she expressed discontent with what she thought she had become—a non-womanly woman:
Don't you see dear how much at a disadvantage I am beside you? Try and feel like a woman for a moment—put yourself in their place. You know what a woman wants to bring a man—a boundless whole-souled love, absolutely and primarily his own—all his own.
I haven't that … I can only give you a divided love—I love God—the world—my work as I love you. I have so little to offer—so pathetically little.…
O my dear—do you not see what poignant grief and shame it is to a woman to have no woman's gifts to give!44
Charlotte apologized for having achieved many of her goals: "I'm sorry," she wrote Houghton, "that I can't add my life to yours—woman fashion … the usual style of immersion of the wife in the husband." Theoretically and practically she insisted on the right to satisfying work; emotionally she felt she should give it up to him. Come to my lectures, she had pleaded with Houghton in 1899. "Then you'd know—know me, know why I have felt as I do about marrying and all that. Why I so seriously fear lest the housekeeping part of it [marriage] should prove an injury to my health and a hindrance to my work." But hardly consistently for a radical feminist, she continued, "You see I am so afraid of my own long … instincts getting the better of me—and that, in my love for you and natural wish to make you comfortable I shall 'settle' too firmly."45
Ambiguities expressed in Charlotte's letters to Houghton were also apparent in her public writings. An advocate of women's full equality, she inconsistently, ironically, contrasted masculine work-instincts with "feminine" instincts of nurturance and service, male adult-like strength and courage with female childlike insecurity and fear. Thus this "militant madonna" portrayed woman's "natural" yearning for a male's protective love.
If to a degree the "instincts" argument served to undermine Gilman's environmentalist analysis of the origins of sexual inequality, it also provided crucial leverage in her fight for female self-respect. Perhaps defensively, Gilman attempted to reverse traditionally negative connotations of "femininity" by emphasizing the virtues of womanhood instead. Like most of her feminist contemporaries, proudly she proclaimed the primacy of womanhood: Woman's archetypal innocence was concomitant to her moral virtue; gentle kindness was a means of power, an antidote to assertive male combativeness. Woman's uniqueness was thus her strength and glory, her mother-love a countervailing force within the baneful androcentric culture.
The most explicit statement of Gilman's admiration and love for women was expressed in the novel Herland (1915). Utopia, she told her readers, was a land inhabited only by women and girl children, procreation occurring through parthenogenesis. Faithfully worshipping the "Goddess of mother love," and interacting cooperatively, respectfully, and affectionately, women demonstrated their capacity to build Utopia. Because they were not confined within the isolation of the private selfish home, women could use their nurturant capacities for social and community service. Trusting childcare only to the "highest artists," they developed the true "womanly" virtues: "Beauty, Health, Strength, Intellect, Goodness.…" In Herland, the "essential distinction of motherhood was the dominant note of their whole culture." Motherhood was the "great, tender, limitless uplifting force."46
Theoretically as well as fictionally, Gilman asserted the natural superiority of the female sex. Enthusiastically endorsing the "scientifically based" Gynaecocentric Theory of the sociologist Lester Ward, she elaborated extensively on the civilizing capacities of women, the destructive combativeness of men. She wrote: "The innate underlying difference [between the sexes] is one of principle. On the one hand, the principle of struggle, conflict, and competition.…On the other, the principle of growth, of culture, of applying services and nourishment in order to produce improvement."47 Woman did not want to fight, to take, to oppress. Instead she exhibited "the growing altruism of work, founded in mother love, in the antiselfish instinct of reproduction."48 Fundamental to the evolutionary process was woman's inherent responsibility for the preservation of the race, the selection of a mate, and the nurturance of children.
Charlotte Gilman presents us with a paradox. Having developed a multidimensional feminist theory based on the idea of the natural equality of the sexes, having challenged patriarchal norms dividing males and females into their respective public-private spheres, she also enthusiastically maintained that women were the saintly givers, men the warring beasts. When she glorified female "instincts" of love and service, her radical theory of feminism dissolved into a sometimes sentimental worship of the status quo. Compromising her environmentalist analysis, she alternately emphasized not female powerlessness, but woman's natural passivity; not artificially imposed dependence, but an innate desire to love and serve; not cowardice, but peacefulness and cooperation; not the oppressive restrictions of motherhood roles, but the glories of mother love. By proclaiming women's natural differences, Charlotte Gilman, like many of her contemporaries, "put to a test the entire ideology upon which arguments for the liberation of women had been based in the United States."49
Yet while claims to female nurturant superiority were ultimately dysfunctional, they were nonetheless, historically, a viable response to women's need for expanded decision-making power. A vital struggle for political autonomy lay beneath the mother-worship proclamations. Moreover, "suffragists were not blushing Victorians but seasoned politicians who had learned how to beat the male at his own game."50 Charlotte Gilman refused to treat women purely as the victims—incompetents within the world of men. Instead, she urged women to develop self-respect on their own terms, not those exclusively defined by men. Thus, when she emphasized woman's role as "the moral redeemer and culture bearer," she was acclaiming a philosophy which "actually permitted women to enhance their self-image as individuals and as a group and, ultimately to organize for action."51 Whether tactically or ideologically, she seems to have understood that women might necessarily, if temporarily, expand their power by celebrating differences.
While Charlotte's dichotomous theories were in part an outgrowth of the intellectual and socioeconomic forces of her era, my purpose here has been to illustrate instead some private sources for her feminist perspectives. The existence of contradiction in her theories, her fiction, and her living by no means lessens the significance of her historical contribution. Her theoretical analyses were themselves impressive, but so also was her constant testing of those theories in the experimental laboratory of her life. Since she kept voluminous accounts of her private struggles, she unintentionally preserved in the panorama of her eccentricity and genius, a wealth of historical data which will enrich our understanding of the underlying dynamics of feminist theory and practice at the turn of the century.52
- Quotations from private letters are made with the permission of The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Letters from Charlotte Stetson to Houghton Gilman, September 2, 1897; letter from Jane Addams to Charlotte Stetson, July 19, 1898; letter from Florence Kelley to Charlotte Stetson, July 26, 1898; The Nation, June 8, 1899.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper ed., 1966), p. 331.
- Letter from Charlotte Stetson to Houghton Gilman, July 26, 1899. My focus here is on the relationships and experiences most richly documented in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman collection, particularly the relationships with Walter Stetson and Houghton Gilman. Charlotte's relationships with her parents, with female friends, and with many significant others will receive further attention in a forthcoming biography—Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Birth of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. For an interim biographical and theoretical analysis of the life and writings of Charlotte Gilman see Mary A. Porter (Hill-Peters), "Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Feminist Paradox" (Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University, 1975).
- Charlotte Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1935), pp. 78, 80. Diaries, 1879-1883.
- See particularly diary entries for October 12, October 30, November 5, November 16, December 16, 1881. Charlotte had many very close relationships with women during her lifetime, with Grace Channing, Adeline Knapp, Martha Luther, and Helen Campbell, for example. The data richly supports Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's suggestion that "women's sphere had an essential integrity and dignity that grew out of women's shared experiences and mutual affection." Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." Signs 1:1 (Autumn, 1975), 9-10. As historians increasingly appreciate the significance of female networks of support and companionship, we need also to consider the often painful feeling of rejection close female friends experienced with one another. Among Charlotte's most difficult emotional crises were the departure of Martha Luther and the disruption of the relationship with Adeline Knapp ("Dora" in Living, pp. 133, 141-44). See diary entries, 1892-1893.
- "An Anchor to Windward," Diary, January 31, 1882.
- Letters from Charlotte Perkins to Walter Stetson, February 20 and 21, 1882. According to the pre-1881 reading lists which Charlotte kept in her diaries, she was apparently unfamiliar with the rich feminist literature she might have drawn on. Moreover, it is striking that she did not mention her two successful great-aunts, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as she described to Walter the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between marriage and career (letter to Walter Stetson, February 20, 1882):
I am beset by my childhood's conscientiousness … the voice of all the ages sounds in my ears, saying that this [marriage] is noble, natural, and right; that no woman yet has ever attempted to stand alone as I intend but that she had to submit or else.…
I have nothing to answer but the meek assertion that I am different from if not better than all these, and that my life is mine in spite of myriad lost sisters before me.
- Letter to Walter Stetson, March 6, 1882; Diary, April 5, 1883; "Thoughts and Fingerings," November 3, 1883. Charlotte's acceptance in 1883 of Walter's authority contrasts strikingly with her self-confident assertions of February 13, 1882: "You are the first man I have met whom I recognize as an equal; and that is saying a good deal for me. I would call you grandly superior, but that I am fighting just now against a heart-touched woman's passion of abnegation." Letter to Walter Stetson, February 13, 1882.
- Diary, December 31, 1883.
- Living, pp. 10, 5.
- "Phobias" emerge, according to the Symonds thesis, from a denial of self-expression that women often felt must be the price of love. "Marriage then becomes their 'declaration of dependence'.… [T]hey tend to become the paragons of Victorian femininity—helpless, housebound, and ineffectual." See Alexandra Symonds, M.D., "Phobias after Marriage: Women's Declaration of Dependence," in Psychoanalysis and Women, edited by Jean Baker Miller, M.D. (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 288-303.
- Diary, May 2, 1884.
- Diary, May 9, 1884. Charlotte Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Influence (New York: McClure, Phillips and Company, 1903), p. 12.
- "Thoughts and Fingerings," November 3, 1883; Diary, June 15, June 25, 1884.
- Diary, August 30, 1885; Living, p. 89.
- Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "The Hysterical Woman: Sex Roles and Role Conflict in 19th-Century America," Social Research 39:4 (Winter, 1972), p. 671.
- Diary, August 30, 1885; Living, pp. 91, 96.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper," New England Magazine 5 (January, 1892), pp 647-56. I am taking the liberty of using "The Yellow Wallpaper" quite literally as autobiographical material. The names are different, but the fantasies symbolic; but when asked to what extent "The Yellow Wallpaper" was based on fact, Charlotte replied, "I had been as far as one could go and get back." Living, p. 121.
- Diary, April 18, 1887.
- See diary entries November 16, 1883; February 24, October 6, 1886; January 5, January 19, February 5, 1887.
- Diary entries, February 20, March 20, February 7, 1887.
- Living, p. 96.
- Charlotte Gilman, "Masculine, Feminine, and Human," Woman's Journal 35 (January 16, 1904), 18.
- The Home, p. 22; Women and Economics, p. 14-15; Gilman, "Her Own Money: Is a Wife Entitled to the Money She Earns?" Mother's Magazine 7 (February 1912), 7.
- Aileen Kraditor, Ideas of the Women's Suffrage Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), p. 121.
- Gilman, "Domestic Economy," Independent 56 (June 16, 1904), 1359-60; Gilman, "The Normal Social Group Today," The Forerunner 4 (July 1913), 175; Gilman, Women and Economics, p. 226.
- See particularly Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. Juliet Mitchell Woman's Estate (Vintage ed.; New York: Random House, 1973). Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: Pantheon, 1974). Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970). Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (Bantam ed.; New York: William Morrow, 1970). Sheila Rowbotham, Women, Resistance, and Revolution (Vintage ed.; New York: Random House, 1974). Sheila Rowbotham, Woman's Consciousness (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1973). Maria Della Costa, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (2nd ed.; Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press, Ltd., 1973).
- Gilman, "Educated Bodies," Woman's Journal 35 (June 1904), p. 178.
- Gilman, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (New York: The Century Company, 1923), p. 134.
- Gilman, "Love Stories and Life Stories." Woman's Journal 35 (May 7, 1904), p. 146.
- Charlotte Gilman's support of Margaret Sanger's work in the birth control movement began roughly in 1915. Adopting the racist and ethnocentric attitudes all too common to her generation, however, Charlotte viewed birth control as an issue not only of personal importance for women; she also maintained that it could be used as a protection against the pressures of population expansion, particularly of the "unfit." See Gilman, "Birth Control, Religion, and the Unfit," Nation, 134 (January 27, 1932), p. 109; Gilman, "Birth Control," The Forerunner, 6 (July 1915), pp. 177-80.
- This discussion is limited to Charlotte's attitude toward Houghton Gilman between 1897 and 1900 and is not intended as an interpretation of their marriage relationship from 1900 to 1934.
- Letter from Charlotte Stetson to Houghton Gilman, September 11, September 2, September 5, 1897.
- Ibid., October 3, 1897.
- Ibid., October 1, October 3, 1897; undated letter, October, 1897.
- Ibid., November 4, 1897.
- Ibid., November 7, 1897.
- Ibid., February 20, May 6, 1898. On a number of occasions Charlotte mentioned her desire to have a child with Houghton, but when she thought that she might be unable, she expressed delight: "Happy thought—take no precautions—take no treatment—all runs smoothly and nothing happens!!! There's an easy way out of the difficulty!!!" Sex without fears of pregnancy seemed a grand relief. Letter from Charlotte Stetson to Houghton Gilman, May 16, 1900.
Carl Degler argues that many nineteenth-century women may not have been so fearful of or opposed to the sexual experience as was formerly assumed. Historians have too frequently relied on prescriptive data, he maintains, thus distorting the actual attitudes and experiences of women themselves. See Carl Degler, "What Ought to be and What Was: Women's Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century," American Historical Review 79 (December 1974), pp. 1467-90. See also Charles E. Rosenberg, "Sexuality, Class, and Role in Nineteenth Century America," American Quarterly 25 (May 1973), pp. 131-53.
- Letter from Charlotte Stetson to Houghton Gilman, January 9, 1898. Also referring to a letter he had written, she responded, "This is the letter that says I'm your darling little girl, which remark I have kissed many times." Ibid., November 14, 1899.
- Ibid., January 22, 1899.
- Ibid., January 25, 1899.
- Ibid., June 2, November 6, 1898.
- Ibid., November 14, 1899.
- Ibid., March 14, 1900; February 28, 1899. On December 28, 1898 she wrote: "I quite envy those good women who really feel that the husband is their whole range of duty—it must be so sweet to have no call away from that dear love." In March she wrote, "Dear, it isn't fair! You ought to have a whole wife to give herself all to you." Although by November she more confidently asserted, "I want to carry out what I think is perfectly possible—a kind of married life that has both love and freedom. I see no need for the 'yoke.'" See letters, December 28, 1898; March 5, November 14, 1899.
- Gilman, Herland, in The Forerunner 6 (May 1915), pp. 127-29; Ibid., Forerunner 6 (July 1915), p. 186.
- Gilman, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (New York: The Century Company, 1923), p. 271. Lester Ward projected a theory of sexual differentiation which he claimed proved "that in the economy of organic nature the female sex is the primary, and the male a secondary element." Clearly Darwinism could not be used as a justification for the subjection of the female sex, he argued, because in fact it was the female who was responsible for the preservation of the species. Since the first function of the male was simply to enable the female to reproduce, it was she who was the source of life and therefore of superior importance. Lester Ward, "Our Better Halves," Forum 6 (November 1888), p. 266. See also Lester Ward, Dynamic Sociology (New York: D. Appleton, 1883); Lester Ward, Pure Sociology (New York: Macmillan Co., 1903); Samuel Chugerman, Lester F. Ward, The American Aristotle: A Summary and Interpretation of His Sociology (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1939). Of Ward's Gynaecocentric Theory, Charlotte Gilman wrote, "nothing so important to humanity has been advanced since the Theory of Evolution, and nothing so important to women has ever been given to the world." Gilman, The Man-Made World: Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Charlton Company, 1911), Dedication. Charlotte Gilman's support of the woman-as-superior argument, side-by-side with her environmentalist feminist position can also be interpreted as yet another manifestation of Social Darwinist and Lamarckian thought. Characteristically, turn-of-the-century thinkers blurred the distinction between inherited and acquired characteristics. Again, however, the emphasis of this paper is on the personal more than the philosophical roots of Charlotte Gilman's feminist paradox.
- Gilman, Human Work (New York: McClure, Phillips and Company, 1903), pp. 211, 207.
- Jill Conway, "The Woman's Peace Party and the First World War," War and Society in North America, ed. J. L. Granatstein and R. D. Cuff (Toronto: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1971), p. 52. See also Jill Conway, "Women Reformers and American Culture, 1870-1930," Journal of Social History, 5 (Winter 1971-72), pp. 164-77; Susan Hartman, "The Paradox of Women's Progress: 1820-1920" (St. Charles, Missouri: Forum Press); Mary Ryan, Womanhood in America (New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1975), pp. 139-248.
- Mary Ryan, Womanhood in America, p. 246.
- Barbara Sicherman, "American History: Review Essay," Signs 1:2 (Winter 1975), p. 470. Anthropologist Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo argues "that the very symbolic and social conceptions that appear to set women apart and to circumscribe their activities may be used by women as a basis for female solidarity and worth." Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, "Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview," in Woman, Culture, and Society, p. 39.
- Because of the complexities of Gilman's private correspondence, and also because of the rich body of feminist materials that have become available in recent years, I am currently in the process if revising my perspectives on the implications of Gilman's private correspondence with Houghton Gilman. My two earlier volumes (Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 (1980) and Endure: The Diaries of Walter Stetson (1985) cover the early origins of Gilman's feminist convictions. My forthcoming volume, however, will offer new interpretations of the rich correspondence with Houghton Gilman (1896-1900). It will not only show the depth of Gilman's anti-woman feelings but will also show her long-term struggle to attain a more positive affirmation of her womanhood. (Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Journey From Within, Temple University Press, forthcoming.)
SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. "Reading Gilman in the Twenty-First Century." In The Mixed Legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando, pp. 209-22. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Fishkin discusses Gilman's ideas and writings she deems relevant to contemporary students, and speculates on Gilman's potential reaction to the current condition of women.
When Constance Coiner took a job as an assistant professor at SUNY-Binghamton, she tells us that she
went immediately to the public elementary school, where the principal told me that the kindergarten Ana would attend ended at 10:30 A.M. Having had my expectations affected by 16 years in what Sixty Minutes dubbed the People's Republic of Santa Monica, California, I asked, "And what provisions are made for children after 10:30?" "Oh, their mothers come and pick them up," he offered with a shrug. "What about parents who work outside the home?" I said, emphasizing "parents" through gritted teeth. "Oh, they get babysitters," he replied.1
It was much more than a purely "academic" exercise, then, when Constance required her students that semester—most of whom were prelaw or pre-med or pre-graduate school—to read, as a companion piece to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper," the epilogue to Sylvia Ann Hewlett's A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America. Coiner writes that
The epilogue describes a reunion that Hewlett organized in 1984 for the female students she had known as a teacher at Barnard from 1974 to 1981. "The first topic the women gravitated toward," Hewlett reports, "was how to combine careers with children." These economically privileged, highly educated, and professionally successful women, who "at eighteen and twenty … truly felt the world was at their feet," expressed despair in the face of overwhelming family-work conflict.
Depending on their gender, my students respond to the epilogue in dramatically different ways: the females—many struck for the first time that combining their career aspirations with parenting might be at best difficult, at worst impossible—echo the anxiety expressed by the women at the reunion. But almost unanimously, males consider this a "women's issue."2
For Constance Coiner, as for Charlotte Perkins Gilman, these issues were human issues—not women's issues. And nothing less than the fate of society lay in the balance.
These passages come from Constance Coiner's essay titled "Silent Parenting in the Academy" that appears in the book Listening to Silences. Constance Coiner lost her life on TWA Flight 800 in the summer of 1996, as did her daughter Ana. Many of us mourn the loss of a friend. All of us are poorer for the loss of an eloquent and imaginative feminist voice—a voice which gave us, most recently, the remarkable book, Writing Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur. My remarks honor both the passion and the wry sense of humor that Constance brought to everything she did. The passion and the humor she brought to her work—and the passion with which she addressed the challenge of both doing meaningful world-work, as Gilman would have put it, and raising a child—continue to inspire and empower those who knew her.
How will our students read Gilman in the next millennium? Will they read her at all? Will she strike them as hopelessly dated, a curious memento of a bygone era? Or will she strike them as having things to say to them that they need to hear? What, in short, will last? Perhaps that question might best be approached by a quick look at what will not last.
A generation reared under Title IX is one likely to take working out as an entitlement. Gilman's pioneering campaign to give women access to a gym will interest them—since it will underline how relatively recently such access could not be taken for granted—but it will not impress them. Neither will they be impressed by Gilman's arguments in favor of suffrage: they were born, after all, with the right to vote. Gilman's assertion, in "The Humanness of Women," that "the functions of democratic government may be wisely and safely shared between men and women" will produce a yawn.3 Votes for women, like physical fitness for women, no longer sparks controversy. Equally dated will be Gilman's idea that world-work could be rewarding for women as well as men. The steady move of women into higher education and the work force has made this idea, as well, incontrovertible—although managing the demands of home and work remain highly challenging, as Arlie Hochschild's newest book, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work painfully demonstrates.4 Some of Gilman's improvised anthropology and social theory do not wear well; neither do her racism, her ethnocentrism, her anti-Semitism, her homophobia, her xenophobia, and her simplistic faith in evolutionary progress. And no young women of this generation or the next would consider for a moment eating food that had been kept hot in asbestos-lined containers!
Nonetheless, as Ann Lane comments in To Herland and Beyond, Gilman
offered perspectives on major issues of gender with which we still grapple: the origins of women's subjugation, the struggle to achieve both autonomy and intimacy in human relationships; the central role of work as a definition of self; new strategies for rearing and educating future generations to create a humane and nurturing environment.5
Since 1973 when Elaine Hedges first drew our attention to the gender issues it illuminated, The Yellow Wall-Paper has come into its own in the American literature classroom and the American studies classroom, as well as in the women's studies classroom, and in scholarly journals. I believe that as long as the social structures for running homes and raising children continue to be improvised and often chaotic, as long as every woman must invent her own strategies for meeting the challenge of melding motherhood and work, then it is likely that students will be able to relate to a pattern that is "dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study."6 And I believe that as long as double standards continue to confine women's horizons of expectations and achievement in the world, they will see the patterns shaping too many of their lives reflected in the yellow wallpaper's "lame uncertain curves [that] … plunge off at outrageous angles, [and] destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions" (13). This small masterpiece is likely to continue to spark stimulating discussions in the years to come.
Women and Economics also continues to be taught in American studies, women's studies, and sociology classrooms and still prompts impassioned debates in academic journals like the Review of Social Economy. And if a recent thread of discussion on H-AMSTDY, the American studies electronic discussion group on the Internet, is any indication, Herland is likely to remain in classrooms as well as in courses in feminist theory, women's studies, and utopian visions, despite the fact that in December 1996 the publication Christianity Today declared that it was "neither a good book nor an influential one." But some less familiar works, as well, engage today's and probably tomorrow's students in surprising and powerful ways.
Gilman's list of "Reasonable Resolutions" published in a Forerunner issue of January 1910 never fails to surprise my students. "Let us collectively resolve," Gilman wrote,
That we will stop wasting our soil and our forests and our labor!
That we will stop poisoning and clogging our rivers and harbors.
That we will stop building combustible houses.
That we will now—this year—begin in good earnest to prevent all preventable diseases.
That we will do our duty by our children and young people, as a wise Society should, and cut off the crop of criminals by not making them.7
My students often observe that these ideas are as reasonable today as they were eighty-eight years ago—and as honored in their breach.
What of Gilman's analysis of "Masculine Literature" in "Our Androcentric Culture" ? Gilman writes that while men can do all sorts of things in fiction, women are relegated to "the Love Story",
the story of the pre-marital struggle. It is the Adventures of Him in Pursuit of Her—and it stops when he gets her!8
Gilman's own stories, of course, broke this mold; but is it still the norm? Other plots seem to be available to women today, my students note. But a few choice excerpts from Joanna Russ's hilarious experiment in gender reversals, "What Can a Heroine Do?" quickly set off not only peals of laughter but clicks of recognition: maybe, they realize, things haven't changed that much after all. Can a woman heroine star in a made-for-TV movie without a love interest? Several students try to come up with examples. Others point out the man waiting in wings, an actual or potential love interest—a minor character, perhaps, in some cases, but one whose presence reinscribes Gilman's archetypal female plot.
What about Gilman's comments on dress? Consider Molly Mathewson's paean to pockets in Gilman's story, "IfIWereaMan" :
These pockets came as a revelation. Of course she had known they were there, had counted them, made fun of them, mended them, even envied them; but she never had dreamed of how it felt to have pockets.9
Will the unisex dressing of today's teenagers make Molly Mathewson's elation incomprehensible to them? Maybe not. Whenever I teach this story, I conduct my annual "pocket survey." I ask each student to count the pockets in his or her clothing (excluding coats and jackets) and have a census taker record the number in two columns, male and female. Even in classrooms where virtually everyone is dressed in jeans, the differences are striking. The average number of pockets the men have is always significantly higher than the average number of pockets the women have. Women students chime in about fake pockets and half pockets and women's suit jackets having none of the hidden real pockets mens' jackets have. Some even confess to buying their clothes in the men's department just for the pockets. Men are puzzled by the disparity. But eventually an underlying principle becomes apparent: the design of women's clothing—even sportswear—still puts form over function, silhouette over utility, while men's clothing puts utility first. The discussion inevitably broadens—as Gilman no doubt hoped it would—to the resonances of these gendered differences and where those differences come from. The number of women who have had their purses snatched always dwarfs the number of men who have had their pockets picked, providing, if you will, a gender-based index of vulnerability that is as thought-provoking as Gilman's story itself.
Gilman may not be generally known for her press criticism. But at least one sagacious column she wrote entitled "Do We Get The News?" has earned her my respect in this field, and the respect of my students. Here Gilman wrote,
These clamorous papers, justifying all sins by their mission as press-vendors, give us from day to day great masses of "facts" in no sense news, and other masses of "facts," new indeed, but of no earthly importance. Meanwhile, the vital incidents of the day—the era-making events, are sometimes passed over and sometimes so buried in unimportant details as to command no attention.10
This rather lacerating picture of newspapers of her day—filled with "great masses of 'facts' in no sense news, and other masses of 'facts,' new indeed, but of no earthly importance"—strikes my students as no less true of the papers of our day than of hers. What era-making events are today's paper missing? they ask. What kinds of massive, incremental changes pass below the radar of contemporary newsbeats and editorial strategies? A couple of years ago the editor of the Daily Texan turned up in my seminar. He was so impressed by the challenge Gilman posed to the press that he made "Do We Get The News?" required reading for his entire editorial board.
As for a piece by Gilman that works in the upper elementary school classroom and that might remain of interest to children in the future, I nominate "The Unnatural Mother." I taught it a few years ago to an enrichment class for fifth graders, and they understood the story and its implications about as well as my college students have.
Might there be approaches to Gilman and her work that are not yet salient but that may be useful to students and teachers in the near future? Let me briefly suggest three such contexts.
First, Gilman's views on architecture are likely to be reexamined with interest by contemporary advocates of co-housing, an increasingly popular strategy for building and structuring communities. [I always tell my students that if I hadn't lived in housing much like that which Gilman describes, my first book would have come out years after it did: I was a resident fellow in a Yale College during the first twelve years of my marriage, and my husband and children and I ate many pleasant meals in the college dining hall. The book got written in large part during the hours I would have spent shopping for, preparing, and cooking food.]
Second, Gilman's life and writings may well come to play a larger role in our growing understanding of the contours of romantic friendships among women in the nineteenth century. Her relationships with women including Martha Luther, Adeline Knapp, and others might help illuminate the spectrum of attachments between women that we are just beginning to explore as scholars. Might it be possible that some future scholar might read "The Yellow Wall-Paper" as a parable of thwarted lesbian desire? Will this scholar read it as an expressionistic fable about one woman's separation from another, a reading reinforced by Gilman's traumatic separation from Martha Luther by the latter's marriage?
Third, Gilman may have value to future generations of scholars interested in the challenge of how someone who is progressive and enlightened on issues of gender can be so myopic and unenlightened on issues of race and ethnicity. How these blind spots endure—how someone can decry discrimination against one group while tolerating it, even engaging in it, against another—is something we need to understand more fully in the present as well as the past. Unfortunately, Gilman can be "exhibit A" in our investigations of the phenomenon.
In a Forerunner piece entitled "Mind Cleaning," Gilman writes,
When we are housecleaning we should clear out and destroy, give or sell if we can, bury in the wholesome earth or consume with clean fire, as much old stuff as possible. Old papers, old bottles, old rags, old junk of all sorts—out it must go, if we are to have a clean house.
When we are mind-cleaning we should clear out and cast away the moldy heaps of old ideas, still to be found in the dark corners of the mind …11
We might as well face it: some of Gilman's own ideas belong in those moldy heaps we need to discard. But others—indeed, others like the very notion of tossing out worn and useless ideas as readily as we toss out a threadbare garment—are likely to remain fresh and vital for generations to come.
How would Gilman read "us" in 1997? What would this writer who fashioned herself as the consummate archeologist of the present say if she took a stroll to the newsstand today and perused such publications as Teen, Woman's World, McCalls, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Seventeen, Self, Ebony, Essence, New Woman, and Ladies Home Journal, among others?12
The Gilman who wrote, "For the health and beauty of the body it must have full exercise"13 would be pleased by the focus on women's fitness in these magazines—by a sportswear ad, for example, featuring a stunning, muscular woman athlete. The headline, "Sports Are Giving Women a Strong, Sexy, Smart, Female Bravado" would please the Gilman who wrote, "Men have filled the world with games and sports, from the noble contests of the Olympic plain to the brain and body training sports of to-day, good, bad, and indifferent. Through all the ages the men have played; and the women have looked on, when they were asked."14 She would be intrigued by an article entitled "How I Got Stronger—and Happier" about one woman's participation in a study of whether women were capable of physical tasks traditionally thought to be beyond them. An ad for clothes that "move the way you do" and another for comfortable shoes would please the author of "If I Were a Man." The "shocking answer" promised in an article on "How Different Are Men from Women" would not shock Gilman at all. The article's conclusions—that "The scientific evidence on sex differences is really quite paltry," and that "barriers between the sexes are more prejudiced than reasoned"—are things that Gilman knew all along. It's about time, she might sniff. She would probably approve of an article challenging teenage girls to judge whether they were thinking about boys too much ("Do You Have Boys on the Brain?"). And she would be pleased by articles entitled, "Why It's Better Not to Be Perfect," "Protect Your Family from Food Poisoning," and "Are You Too Good a Wife?" Ads and articles featuring women doing work in the world as entrepreneurs and professionals would please her, too, as would a story in Teen about a girl named Molly who is a whiz in shop.
But Gilman's pleasure in Molly's story would be offset a bit by other aspects of the June 1997 Teen Magazine that undercut this image of strong, competent American girlhood. In 1894 under the heading, "Woman's Exchange," Gilman wrote in The Impress:
It was asked of the editor, eagerly, if The Impress could be written to about matters of special interest of women and women's clubs; if it was to be a medium for exchange of thought on such subjects. That is one of the things The Impress is for. Letters should be short, very short, and only those dealing with matters of real importance will be answered.
No inquiries as to what is good to remove freckles, and whether a lady should take a gentleman's arm or he hers, or what color goes with what kind of dress you want to make over will be answered here.15
What would the Gilman who refused to answer inquiries about what is good to remove freckles make of the pressing questions considered here: "What's the hottest look for toenails this summer?" and "What's the best way to remove glitter nail polish?" Or how would she read a similar column in a magazine pitched to the teenager's mother that deals with how to conceal a beauty mark? And what would she make of the cover of Teen Magazine, which features, alongside an article on "How to Show Your Hair Who's Boss," a "true story" titled, "My Mom Killed Herself"? Or of an ad featuring a girl who changes her nail polish every time she calls a boy and hangs up?
Gilman's pleasure in ads for clothes that move as you do and comfortable women's shoes would be diluted by the opposing images of what women should wear that appear alongside them. Omnipresent ads for spike heels would prompt her to repeat a comment she made in her essay, "Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress": "The present style of dress means, with varying limits, backache, sideache, headache, and many other aches; corns, lame, tender or swollen feet, weak, clumsy and useless compared to what they should be;…with a thousand attendant … restrictions and unnatural distortions amounting to hideousness."16 As she wrote in a poem entitled "The Cripple," "There are such things as hoofs, sub-human hoofs, / High-heeled sharp anomalies; / Small and pinching, hard and black, / Shiny as a beetle's back, / Cloven, clattering on the track, / These are hoofs, sub-human hoofs …"17 Some of the more outré concoctions in the fashion pages might prompt her to repeat the observation that women tend to put upon their bodies "without criticism or objection every excess, distortion, discord, and contradiction that can be sewed together" (The Home 55). And she would be disheartened by the piece entitled "Guy Spy" featuring a young man who opines that comfortable shoes and clothing look "ridiculous" on a girl.
The Gilman who wrote—probably with things liked cinched waists in mind—that "physical suffering has so been so long considered an integral part of a woman's nature, and is still so generally borne, that a little more or less is no great matter"18 might, nonetheless, be shocked at the physical suffering today's women voluntarily undergo in the name of beauty (not that Gilman was against reconstructive plastic surgery for accident victims, as her novel Unpunished demonstrates).
Regarding the vibrant young women enjoying themselves ecstatically in the ubiquitous cigarette ads that target women, Gilman would likely repeat a comment she had made in a letter to Katharine: "The mass of women are the same old fools they always were.… I have small patience with them—painted, powdered, high-heeled, cigarette-smoking idiot. To deliberately take up an extra vice—or bad habit—just to show off—imbecile."19
In these magazines, ads for romance novel book clubs, provocative, steamy ads for perfume, and ads for china sculptures featuring Clark Gable scooping Scarlet O'Hara up in his arms would give Gilman ample reason to assume that the "love story" plot was no less prevalent in our day than in hers.
An ad for crystal candles and porcelain collectibles which asks, "What do women want?" and answers, "Beautiful things," would leave Gilman muttering to herself,
To consume food, to consume clothes, to consume houses and furniture and decorations and ornaments and amusements, to take and take and take forever,—from one man if they are virtuous, from many if they are vicious, but always to take and never to think of giving anything in return except their womanhood—this is the enforced condition of the mothers of the race.
(Women and Economics 118-19)
Gilman would sigh at the level of meaningless consumption of an ad that urged women to change the sheets on their beds every night.
She would be intrigued by the labor-saving devices for the home that she would see advertised in these magazines—washing machines and dishwashers that would revolutionize housework. But Gilman would soon recognize that these machines were being marketed for private kitchens in private homes, and her old anger would rise.
We have to pay severally for all these stoves and dishes, tools and utensils, which, if properly supplied in one proper place instead of twenty, would cost far less to begin with; and, in the hands of skilled professionals, would not be under the tremendous charge for breakage and ruinous misuse which now weighs heavily on the householder. Then there is the waste in fuel for these nineteen unnecessary kitchens, and lastly the largest of any item except labour, the waste in food.
First the waste in purchasing in the smallest retail quantities; then the waste involved in separate catering, the "left overs" which the ingenious housewife spends her life in trying to "use up"; and also the waste caused by carelessness and ignorance in a great majority of cases.…
Count as you will, there could hardly be devised a more wasteful way of doing necessary work than this domestic way.
(The Home 118-19)
A washing machine ad that asserted, "Washing clothes is a job with no end in sight. But now it can be a cleaner, quicker, easier job with no end in sight," would make it clear to Gilman that not that much had changed. She would fume,
The bottled discord of the woman's daily occupations is quite sufficient to account for the explosions of discord on her wall and floors. She continually has to do utterly inharmonious things, she lives in incessant effort to perform all at once and in the same place the most irreconcilable processes.
She has to adjust, disadjust, and readjust her mental focus a thousand times a day; not only to things, but to actions; not only to actions, but to persons; and so, to live at all, she must develop a kind of mind that does not object to discord. Unity, harmony, simplicity, truth, restraint—these are not applicable in a patchwork life, however hallowed by high devotion and tender love.
(The Home 151-52)
But what in the array of publications on the newsstands today would really ignite Gilman's ire? And what figure on the publishing scene today would make her sputter with frustration and rage? Her bette noire, I suggest, the "Darth Vader" against whom she would willingly do battle, would be none other than the self-anointed queen of the home herself, Martha Stewart.
Gilman anatomized the isolation of the single-family home, the psychic pain that that isolation inflicted on the wife and mother, and the waste of human energy and fossil fuel in its maintenance; she devoted much of her life to trying to transform it. Gilman would be appalled by Martha Stewart's efforts to make that home even more demanding and more time-consuming than it already was. "The free woman," Gilman wrote,
having room for full individual expression in her economic activities and in her social relations, will not be forced to pour out her soul in tidies and photograph holders. The home will be her place of rest, not of uneasy activity; and she will learn to love simplicity at last.
(Women and Economics 257)
While Gilman bemoaned the hours women felt obligated to spend fashioning useless antimacassars, Stewart would have us stitch our own upholstery. While Gilman urged families to abandon the single-family kitchen for more efficient communal dining, Stewart would have the housewife become adept in the fine art of crafting crystallized sugar flowers. "'Fancy cookery,'" Gilman writes, is "a thing as far removed from true artistic development as a swinging ice-pitcher from a Greek vase … neither pure food nor pleasure, but an artificial performance, to be appreciated only by the virtuoso" (Women and Economics 232). Gilman might be impressed by the multiplicity of media through which Martha Stewart pushes her message—magazines, cookbooks, decorating books, television programs, even a line of household paints. But she would mince no words about what is wrong with the ideals Stewart is projecting and glorifying:
For each man to have one whole woman to cook for and wait upon him is a poor education for democracy. The boy with a servile mother, the man with a servile wife, cannot reach the sense of equal rights we need today. Too constant consideration of the master's tastes make the master selfish; and the assault upon his heart direct, or through that proverbial side-avenue, the stomach, which the dependent woman needs must make when she wants anything, is bad for the man, as well as for her."20
The "kitchen mind," Gilman wrote,
focused continually upon close personal concerns, limited in time, in means, in capacity, and in mechanical convenience, can consider only; a, what the family likes; b, what the family can afford; and c, what the cook can accomplish.
What gets neglected, in Gilman's view, is "matters of real importance" with which women, as well as men, need to concern themselves not just for their own good, but for the good of the world.
Gilman also wrote,
What sort of citizens do we need for the best city—the best state—the best country—the best world? We need men and women who are sufficiently large-minded to see and feel a common need, to work for a common good, to rejoice in the advance of all, and to know as the merest platitude that their private advantage is to be assured only by the common weal. That kind of mind is not bred in the kitchen.
(The Home 318)
"The home," Gilman wrote,
is one thing, the family another; and when the home takes all one's time, the family gets little. So we find both husband and wife overtaxed and worried in keeping up the institution according to tradition; both father and mother too much occupied in home-making to do much toward child-training, man-making!
(The Home 71)
In her tour of today's magazines for women, then, Gilman would find the same perplexing mixed messages that we ourselves encounter daily: be strong and athletic, but make sure you know the right way to make crystallized sugar flowers; seek out comfortable clothes that move as you do, but also be prepared to torture your feet in the time-honored tradition of spike heels; go out into the world as a professional, but welcome the romance plot lurking in the wings, be sure you consume your quota of beautiful things, and if you feel like being creative and productive, go for it: wrap your wine bottle in five festive ways.
Gilman would take a deep breath. Then she would sigh. Then maybe—just maybe—she would smile and recall the old saying that the good part of working for social change is that at least you know you've got steady work.
For better or worse, much of Gilman's writing is nowhere close to being obsolete. There is still much cultural work left for her to do.
Who else, after all, has the guts to take on Martha Stewart where she lives?
- Constance Coiner, "Silent Parenting in the Academy," in Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 198.
- Ibid., 218.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Humanness of Women," Forerunner 1 (January 1910): 13.
- See also Arlie R. Hochschild, "A Work Issue That Won't Go Away," The New York Times, 7 September 1998, A17.
- Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 3-4.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall-paper, ed. with afterword by Elaine Hedges (New York: The Feminist Press, 1973). 13.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Reasonable Resolutions," Forerunner 1 (January 1910): 1.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Masculine Literature" [part 5 of serialized version of "Our Androcentric Culture: or, The Man-Made World"] Forerunner 1 (March 1910): 18.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "If I Were a Man," in Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 33.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Do We Get 'The News'?" Impress, 20 October 1894, 2.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Mind Cleaning" Forerunner 3 (January 1910): 5-6.
- All of the advertisements cited here appeared in the May or June 1997 issues of Teen, Woman's World, McCalls, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Seventeen, Self, Ebony, Essence, New Woman, and Ladies Home Journal. The ads were part of national advertising campaigns, running in multiple publications. When this essay was originally presented as the closing plenary talk of the Second International Charlotte Perkins Gilman Conference at Skidmore College in June 1997, it was accompanied by slides of all the advertisements and articles from Teen, Woman's World, McCalls, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Seventeen, Self, Ebony, Essence, New Woman, and Ladies Home Journal.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home, Its Work and Influence (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), 261.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 308.
- "The Woman's Exchange," Impress, 6 October 1894, 4.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Why Women Do Not Reform Their Dress," Woman's Journal, (23 October 1886): 338.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Cripple," Forerunner 1 (March 1910): 26.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Why Women," 338.
- Gilman's letter to Katharine quoted in Lane, To Herland and Beyond, 342.
- Gilman, "Kitchen-Mindedness," Forerunner 1 (February 1910): 9.
Select Bibliography by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Benigna Machiavelli. Serialized in Forerunner 5 (1914). Reprint, Santa Barbara: Bandanna Books, 1993.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Edited with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon, 1990.
Concerning Children. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1900.
The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. 2 vols. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Forerunner. Vols. 1-7 (1909-16). Reprint, with an introduction by Madeleine B. Stern, New York: Greenwood, 1968.
Herland. Serialized in Forerunner 6 (1915). Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, New York: Pantheon, 1979.
His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. New York and London: Century Co., 1923. Reprint, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924. Reprint Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1976.
The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1903. Reprint, New York: Source Book Press, 1970.
In This Our World. Oakland: McCombs & Vaughn, 1893, 3d. ed. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1974.
"Kitchen-Mindedness." Forerunner 1 (February 1910): 7-11.
The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. Foreword by Zona Gale. New York: Appleton-Century, 1935. Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture. Serialized in Forerunner 1 (1909-10). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1911.
"Mind Cleaning." Forerunner 3 (January 1912): 5-6.
"Moving the Mountain." Serialized in Forerunner 2 (1911). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1911.
"The New Motherhood." Forerunner 1 (December 1910): 17-18.
"The New Mothers of a New World." Forerunner 4 (June 1913): 145-49.
Unpunished. Edited with an afterword by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight. New York: The Feminist Press, 1997.
What Diantha Did. Serialized in Forerunner 1 (1909-10). Reprint, New York: Charlton Co., 1910.
With Her in Ourland. Serialized in Forerunner 7 (1914).
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1898. Reprint, edited with introduction by Carl N. Degler, New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
"The Yellow Wall-Paper." New England Magazine (January 1892): 647-56. Reprint, with an afterword by Elaine R. Hedges, Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1973. Revised ed. 1996.
The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1899.
"The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited with an introduction by Denise D. Knight. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.
Ceplair, Larry, ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Golden, Catherine, ed. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper." New York: The Feminist Press, 1992.
Hill, Mary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Emergence of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.
——. The Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1995.
Karpinski, Joanne, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. (Includes critical essays by Catherine Golden, Elaine Hedges, Mary Hill, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joanne Karpinski, and Gary Scharnhorst.)
Kessler, Carol Farley. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia, with Selected Writings. Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press, 1995.
Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
Kolmerten, Carol A. "Texts and Contexts: American Women Envision Utopia, 1890-1920." In Utopians and Science Fiction by Women, edited by Jane A. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.
Lane, Ann J. To "Herland" and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
Lanser, Susan. "Feminist Criticism, 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' and the Politics of Color in America." Feminist Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 415-41.
Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989.
Robinson, Lillian S. "Killing Patriarchy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Murder Mystery, and Post-Feminist Propaganda." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10, no. 2 (Fall 1991): 273-85.
Rudd, Jill and Val Gough, eds. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. Forthcoming.
——. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Very Different Story. Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1998.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.