Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1860–1935)

views updated

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1860–1935)

American feminist and socialist writer and orator who was controversial in her day for criticizing the nuclear family and for advocating careers for women. Name variations: Charlotte Anna Perkins (1860–1884); Charlotte Perkins Stetson (1884–1900); Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1900–1935). Born Charlotte Anna Perkins in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 3, 1860; committed suicide in Pasadena, California, after cancer treatments had proved ineffectual on August 17, 1935; daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins (a librarian) and Mary Fitch Westcott; educated at home and at the Rhode Island School of Design; married Charles Walter Stetson (an artist), in May 1884 (separated 1887, divorced 1894); married her cousin George Houghton Gilman (a New York lawyer), in June 1900; children: (first marriage) one child, Katherine Stetson (b. 1885).

Moved to Pasadena, California (1888); published short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892); published In This Our World (1893); edited, with Helen Campbell , The Impress, organ of the Pacific Coast Woman's Press Association (1894); was resident of Jane Addams' Hull House (1895); went on lecture tours (1895–1900); appointed delegate to the International Socialist and Labor Congress in London (1896); published Women and Economics (1898), Concerning Children (1900), The Home (1903), Human Work (1904); founded and edited The Forerunner (1909–16); published What Diantha Did (1910); published The Man-Made World, Moving the Mountain, and The Crux (1911); founded, with Jane Addams, the Woman's Peace Party (1915); published His Religion and Hers (1923); lived in Norwich, Connecticut (1922–34); diagnosed with cancer (1932); moved to Pasadena, California (1934); published Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935). Unpunished, a detective novel, was published by The Feminist Press in 1997.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman scandalized most of her contemporaries when she condemned the middle-class family as outmoded and oppressive. She was one of the most active Progressive reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prolific as a writer, inexhaustible as a traveling lecturer, and fearless as an advocate of unpopular ideas. Like many of her contemporaries, she lived to see part of the feminist agenda completed but not in the way she could approve, so that her success was tinged with regret.

The daughter of Mary Perkins and Frederick Beecher Perkins, Charlotte was the third of four children born in rapid succession (two of whom died) to a well-connected New England family. When Charlotte's mother learned that further pregnancies would endanger her life, Charlotte's father, a distinguished librarian, abandoned the family. Mary and her children were obliged to depend on the charity of relatives, many of whom belonged to the influential Beechers, and on money Mary could raise by occasional grade-school teaching. The Perkins family moved 18 times in 19 years, and Charlotte had little sense of home stability. After the first decade of abandonment, Mary Perkins sued for divorce, lost some of her relatives' sympathies, and moved to a life of genteel poverty in Providence, Rhode Island, where Charlotte enjoyed one of her few periods of formal schooling, at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Afraid that Charlotte would develop the same kind of emotional attachment that had made her vulnerable, Mary became cold and remote. Charlotte grew up lonely, outwardly severe, while inwardly building an imaginary world of warmth and affection. The outward character dominated, especially once Mary ordered her 13-year-old daughter to stop writing fantasy fiction. As biographer Carol Berkin notes:

Her childhood diaries reveal a self-consciously stoical Charlotte, a character ruthlessly creating itself, always disciplining and reprimanding, always self-critical, trusting in rigorous programs for self-improvement to overcome unacceptable character-traits.

Gilman also believed in strenuous physical exertion, then and later. As an adult, she walked five miles a day, and she joined Barnard College's basketball team when she was 42.

Having resolved in her late teens never to marry and to dedicate herself to social uplift, she met and fell in love with Walter Stetson, an aspiring and talented artist. They were married in 1884, when she was 24, but after a happy honeymoon she became morose and introspective and was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia. She gave birth to a daughter, Kate, in March 1885 but again fell into a severe depression, so that her mother had to take care of the baby. As Gilman wrote in her autobiography: "Here was a charming home, a loving and devoted husband; an exquisite baby, healthy, intelligent, and good; a highly competent mother to run things; a wholly satisfactory servant—and I lay all day on the lounge and cried." The episode was the basis for her superb short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (published 1892) about an unhappy woman with postpartum depression steadily descending into madness. Based closely on her own experience, it has greater power than most of her later didactic, hastily written fiction. Walter Stetson was supportive and sympathetic to his sick wife and offered her a separation, if she thought marriage was the source of her illness. She declined at first, but a journey to Pasadena, California, in 1886, transformed her into a healthy and happy woman. On the Pacific coast, she met her father as well as a close friend, Grace Channing , and seemed cured.

Gilman relapsed as soon as she returned to New England, however, and now visited Doctor Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia, an authority of that era on women's health, who believed that serious intellectual pursuits by women damaged their ability to be good mothers. She tried to follow Mitchell's orders for a calm home life (he told her not to read, write, or draw), but domesticity irritated her beyond endurance. She and her husband separated in 1887, but he remained close by, visiting often and always solicitous, mystified by what had happened. Still weak, Gilman decided to go West again, this time taking her mother and daughter along, and there began her career as a public lecturer and reform writer. It was a precarious living at first, and she had to supplement her income by managing a boarding house, but she gained literary celebrity with a poem in support of Darwin's theory of evolution entitled "Similar Cases."

Early solace came from an intense friendship (possibly an affair) with another reformer, Adeline Knapp , whom Charlotte nicknamed Delle, or Dora. But Knapp often treated Gilman like a housewife, the role she had tried to escape, and, after a stormy relationship, they separated in 1893. Gilman again blamed herself and wrote that she was permanently emotionally damaged by her unsuccessful marriage. In fits of recurrent illness, she was able to read for only about an hour each day, and to write for no more than three hours, before suffering disabling headaches. In view of these limitations, her lifelong literary productivity is astonishing. Already in 1894, she was editor of a weekly San Francisco journal, The Impress, for which she wrote a string of stories in imitation of the great Victorian authors. Despite praise from the president of Stanford University, as well as William Dean Howells and other literary figures, her reputation as an unconventional divorcee caused adverse publicity and the magazine's sponsors withdrew, forcing it to close after six months. More broad-minded readers and reviewers acclaimed her book of poetry, In This Our World, published the following year.

At the same time as her literary reputation developed, and despite her low self-esteem, continuing money problems, and psychological stresses, Gilman was becoming a well-known speaker on the reform circuit. After reading Edward Bellamy's enormously popular utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), she converted to socialism and, from that time, argued for a rationally planned society in Bellamy-inspired "Nationalist" clubs. She believed socialism could be accomplished peacefully, however, and was never a Marxist or revolutionary. Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams , and other prominent women reformers met and admired her, all impressed by her oratorical skill and persuasive writing. Gilman spoke on behalf of votes for women, women's right to work, and a child-care system for working women.

These themes were the subject of her best-known book, Women and Economics, which she wrote at high speed (17 days for the first draft) and published in 1898. It explained the economic basis of women's exploitation and purported to trace gender inequalities back to the prehistoric era. Influenced, like most of her contemporaries, by the ideas of evolution and progress, she argued that women at home were stuck in an evolutionary blind alley, doing the same dreary, psychologically stultifying tasks again and again while men, in the wider world of work and technology, carried civilization forward. Both sexes had suffered in consequence, and the divergence between men and women was now much wider than nature had intended. Housework and family life, as currently organized, were inefficient, she said, and should be collectivized. Rather than each family living in its own home, with each wife cooking, cleaning, and looking after the babies, these tasks should become specialized careers for a small number of women, leaving the rest to take up serious careers and to enter fully into public and work-life. Her plans for changed social arrangements were backed up by elaborate architectural and town-planning schemes, and, as Polly Wynn Allen writes: "Changing neighborhood architecture to support women's participation in a unified world was the most sustained, practical focus of Gilman's lifelong feminist, socialist campaigns." Her fellow progressives shared her faith in science, systematic study, temperance, and political reform, but few joined her in advocating an end to the nuclear family. Nevertheless, the biting satire of Women and Economics, its cogent development and assertive tone, made it a bestseller. It changed her image. Previously known mainly as a satirical poet, she now joined the ranks of social theorists.

In 1895, her ex-husband Walter Stetson married Charlotte's great friend Grace Channing. Far from taking offense at this match, Gilman, who was by then working at Jane Addams' Hull House Settlement in Chicago, was delighted and sent her daughter Katherine Stetson to live with them. Newspaper editors who knew of her as a public figure in the reform movement professed to be scandalized and said she had renounced her "natural" role as a mother, though Gilman believed the decision to send Katherine back to her father was in the child's best interest: she saw herself as acting dutifully, not selfishly.

In 1900, Charlotte married her cousin George Houghton Gilman, whom she had known and liked as a child. The ceremony took place in a Unitarian church because the first Protestant minister she asked refused to officiate at the marriage of a divorcee. George was seven years younger than she, worked as a New York attorney, and shared few of her reform interests, but they made a compatible couple, and he proved to be a valuable editor of her work. For four years before the wedding, they enjoyed a large, affectionate correspondence, with him staying in New York, managing her business affairs, and she traveling throughout America (and twice to England) to lecture on reform and women's suffrage. They wrote to each other every day when her tours kept them apart. At the time of her marriage, Women and Economics was a success, selling widely enough and enhancing her fame to such a degree that she was earning high lecture fees and becoming prosperous. Gilman had also won the admiring notice of many prominent reform intellectuals, notably the economic and social theorists Edward Ross, Thorstein Veblen, and Lester Ward. She thought Ward to be one of the greatest living thinkers and was flattered by his esteem.

The era between 1900 and 1914 was the most productive in her life, and she wrote nine

more books. None were so famous as Women and Economics, but some, particularly The Home (1903), were equally skillful and eloquent. The Home advocated the "kitchenless home" for most families, and praised utopian communities which had minimized domestic drudgery and made child-raising a scientific collective business. A characteristic passage of that book, showing her debts to evolutionary thought, reads:

The home in its essential nature is pure good, and in its due development is progressively good; but it must change with society's advance; and the kind of home that was wholly beneficial in one century may be largely evil in another. We must forcibly bear in mind, in any honest study of a long-accustomed environment, that our own comfort, or even happiness, in a given condition does not prove it to be good.

Between 1909 and 1916, she was editor (and sole contributor to) a feminist magazine, The Forerunner. Though it never made a profit, she kept it going with subsidies from her lecture fees and royalties. The 86 issues of the magazine each had 28 pages, blending stories with investigative journalism and reports on women's and socialist causes. She churned it out with prodigious speed. For the 1915 issues, Gilman wrote a serialized novel, "Herland," about a women's utopia, a land populated only by women, and run with collectivized kitchens and child care. The food was good, there was plenty of nurturance and a sensible way of life in Herland but, as Gilman admitted, there were no competitive sports, no dramatic literature, and no great science (all, in her opinion, the creations of men). "Herland," as historian Rosalind Rosenberg writes:

illustrated women's special gifts but it also revealed women's unique weaknesses, their lesser variability (and therefore want of genius), and their lack of ambition. For civilization to realize its highest potential, Gilman concluded, it must be able to draw on the full range of human talent. High civilization required one whole humanity, not two halves.

Of all the great feminist writers, [Charlotte Perkins Gilman] made the finest analysis of the relation between domesticity and women's rights, perhaps the most troubling question for liberated women and sympathetic men today.

—William O'Neill

Some of her feminist contemporaries, including Sweden's Ellen Key , saw feminism as a movement to bring women's nurturing qualities into public life through the vote, but warned that the idea of women's careers was "socially pernicious, racially wasteful, and soul-withering." For Key, the gender differences were too great ever to permit women to pursue careers. Gilman dissented strongly in a series of public disputes with Key, answering "that the main lines of human development have nothing to do with sex, and that what women need most is the development of human characteristics."

For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, as for many Progressive Era reformers, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was a shattering disappointment, a supremely irrational event which seemed to destroy her hopes of a disciplined, reasonable solution to all national and international frictions. Although she was a socialist, she was equally horrified by the brutality of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia three years later. Ironically, however, she had become convinced by 1917 that America should intervene in the First World War, in order, as President Woodrow Wilson said, to "make the world safe for democracy." Most of her New York feminist friends, members of the Heterodoxy club, disagreed with her hawkish views, and the dispute led to a temporary rift (which would heal by the early 1920s). Further disillusionment was in store in the '20s. Women's suffrage, assured by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (1918), for which Gilman labored hard in the National Women's Party, did not lead to the social and political improvements she had anticipated. Neither did she approve of the social customs of the '20s and the rapidly developing idea (helped by popular Freudianism) that sexuality was a liberating form of self-expression.

For 20 years, she and her husband had lived in New York, though she was often crisscrossing the country by rail on her extensive lecture tours (she lectured in all but four of the states). In 1922, they moved to Norwich, Connecticut, partly to get away from the polyglot population of the city. Like most Anglo-Saxon Americans of the time, she was a racial supremacist, believing that she belonged to the most gifted and civilized race in world history. By modern-day standards, her remarks about black, Jewish, and Asian people are insufferably condescending, and she admitted that she found it a relief in her last years to be living in an ethnically homogeneous white community. Her idea for immigrants was not the "melting pot" but rather a form of forced Americanization, and her novel Moving the Mountain, serialized in The Forerunner then published intact in 1921, had an ugly eugenic side, which advocated sterilization or even killing of the genetically "unfit."

When she discovered she was suffering from breast cancer in 1932, Gilman bought a bottle of chloroform and vowed she would use it when the disease became acute. Meanwhile, she settled down to finishing her autobiography, with which she had been tinkering since 1925. When her husband died in 1934, she returned to Pasadena. The following year, true to her word and self-disciplined to the end, she killed herself with the chloroform, leaving her autobiography to be published posthumously.


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

Berkin, Carol Ruth. "Charlotte Perkins Gilman," in Portraits of American Women. Edited by G.J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1991, pp. 311–338.

Cott, Nancy. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. NY: Pantheon, 1990.

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

Rosenberg, Rosalind. Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

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

suggested reading:

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Home: Its Work and Influence. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972 (originally published in 1903).

——. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. NY: Arno Press, 1972 (originally published in 1935).


Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute and Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

About this article

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1860–1935)

Updated About content Print Article