Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"In my judgement, 'the woman question' has hardly been asked, much less answered. We have had the struggle for rights, and all this uproar about sex, but hardly any study of the biologic and sociologic effects of the aborted development of half the race."
In the summer of 1860, Charlotte was born to father Fredrick Beecher Perkins and mother Mary Fitch Westcott. Her father was an accomplished librarian and writer and influenced Charlotte's love of literature and devotion to intellectual pursuits throughout her life. After the death of the fourth child during infancy, doctors recommended that Mary have no more children because of dangers to her health. After this, Fredrick left the Perkins family. From birth, Charlotte was surrounded by strong and rebellious female figures. Her father was the nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe and after his departure, Charlotte's aunts played a critical role in aiding the impoverished family. In addition, Charlotte's aunt Catherine Beecher was the founder of the Hartford Female Seminary, one of the first educational institutions in the United States for women promoting "domestic feminism," and her aunt Isabella was a dedicated suffragist. Due to the absence of her father, Charlotte "learned early to question the sanctity of the home, the 'domestic mythology' and the role assigned to women within the conjugal family"(Scharhorst 2). Charlotte's education was a sparse combination of seven formal institutions and home instruction from her mother. She attended the Rhode Island Institute of Design and began cultivating a living as an artist.
When she was twenty-one, Charlotte met a painter named Charles Walter Stetson who proposed after a brief aquaintance. For the next two years, Charlotte wavered back and forth on her decision to accept the proposal. She feared that through marriage she would compromise her position for public service. Charlotte believed that a woman had the right to attain marriage and motherhood, while maintaining full devotion to her work. In 1884, she married and bore her first child a year later. During her pregnancy, she suffered severe bouts of depression that only worsened after the birth of her daughter Katherine. Prior to marriage, Charlotte enjoyed both economic and spiritual independence. As a result of the marriage, she was forced to undertake the traditional roles of wife and mother. The pressure of seemingly condtradicting roles are revealed in her journals that she had been keeping since she was fifteen.
January 1st 
My journal has been long neglected, by reasons of ill health. I am better now, and hope to keep it regularly and to some purpose. This day has not been a successful one, as I was sicker than for some weeks. Walter also was not very well, and stayed at home; primarily on my account. He has worked for me and for us both, waited on me in every tenderest way, played to me, read to me, done all for me as he always does. God be thanked for my husband! I have done nothing today in way of work. Have slept and idled and read a little. No one has been here but Carl to wish us A Happy New Year. This last year has been short. I have done little, read little, written little, felt and thought--little to what I should have. I am a happy wife. I bear a child. I have been far from well. I do not know that I am better in any way. Unless it be better to be wider in sensation and experience, and, perhaps, humbler. Ambition sleeps. I make no motion but just live. And I am Happy? Everyday almost finds me saying so, and truly. And yet--and yet--"call no man happy until he is dead." I will see what my life counts when I am old. I do harm to no one that I know of; and one soul at least is the happier by me. Another soul is comming. Much depends on that. If it and possible others are world helpers then indeed I shall hope. God knows. I should not be afraid to die now; but should hate to leave my own happiness and cause fierce pain. Yes. I am Happy.
excerpt from "Abridged Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman" pg85
Sharnhorst describes Charlotte's ambivilance to her situation after Katherine was born and the continuing pressure she felt daily:
"Every morning the same hopeless waking," she wrote in her diary, "the same weary drag. To die mere cowardice. Retreat impossible, escapre impossible." Her dark thoughts turned to self accusation and self mortification. "You did it to yourself! You had health and strength and hope and glorious work before you--and you threw it all away," she angrily reproached her objectified "normal" self. "You were called to serve humanity and you cannot serve yourself. No good as a wife, no good as a mother, no good aat anything. and you did it yourself!" Meanwhile, she nursed the baby ans, for five months, "instead of love and happiness, she felt "only pain...Nothing was more utterly bitter than this, that even motherhood brought no joy."
excerpt from "Charlotte Perkins Gilman" by Gary Scharnhorst pg7
After suffering for some time, she decided to be treated by a "rest cure" from S. Weir Mitchell. Mitchell "disapproved of intellectual activity on the part of women and classified it as pathological. Upon her arrival he told Gillman scornfully that he had already treated two "Beecher" women." Convinced that their illness had been exacerbated by their stubborn, unnatural imitation of men, he suspected his new patient of similar tendencies"(Allen 39). His method was basically to put the woman into bed, keeping her infantilized and completely dependent upon the doctor. Mitchell's treatments were applauded by most physicians at the time; the female ailments were seen as distracting to their roles as wife and mother. After a month of treatment, Mitchell sent Charlotte home with the following advice: "Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hourse intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live" (Allen 39). It was the time spent on rest cure that inspired and directed her most famous short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
Charlotte and her husband seperated in 1888, and divorced in 1894. She moved with Katherine and a friend to California to launch her writing career and a year later to care for her sick mother. She shared custody of Katherine with Stetson and his new wife and in 1894 sent Katherine to live with them permanently. After the death of Charlotte's mother in 1895 she moved back east and reconnected with a cousin Houghton Gillman, with whom she became romantically involved. They lived in Norwhich, Connecticut until Houghton's death in 1934 from cerebral hemmhoraging. She returned to California where she lived until she commited suicide in 1935 after being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Taking life into her own hands, she wrote in her suicide note that she "chose chloroform over cancer."
While living in California, Gillman was extremely involved in women's academic and socialist organizations including, but not limited to the PCWPA (Pacific Coast Women's Press Association), The Ebell Society, The Women's Alliance, The Economic Club, The Parent's Association, The State Council of Women, etc. She spoke at the 1896 convention of the National American Women's Suffrage Association and attended the International Socialist and Labor Congress as a delegate of California. Her works range from poetry to novels, short stories to political essays and lectures. Her most famous works include "The Yellow Wallpaper" published in 1892 and Women and Economics in 1898.
During this period of history, an emphasis was placed on seperate spheres for males and females. It was acceptable for men to enter the labor force and earn money to support the familiy, the true "breadwinner" of the time, but females were confined to a domestic sphere of maintaining the household and raising children. Women did not have a vote. Women did not have much of a say. "The woman question" became the popular blanket term to describe the ongoing debate on the role and nature of women in these changing times. On the ideology of the time, Polly Wynn Allen writes: "It was built on the conviction that 'the home required women's moral and spitirual presence' on a full time basis. Articulated in sermons, religious tracts, women's magazines, housekeeping manuals, and novels, it addressed the snxiety and guilt aroused by the culture's increasing preoccupation with material gain. It soothed the collective conscious by designating women as the homebound representitive of such traditional values as spirituality, impersonal warmth, and home centerdness. It explained the apparent uncoupling of economic significance from the home by sentamentalizing woman's place within it. It characterized the strenuous process of feeding, cleaning, and nurturing people as something other than socially valuable labor, classifying them not as "work" but rather as the natural expression of woman's inherently giving, nurturant character."
from Building Domestic Liberty pg15
The first major assembly adressing women's rights was convened in Seneca Falls by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848, leading to the formation of NWSA (National Women's Suffrage Association). A movement largely led by middle-class white women, they concerned themselves with suffrage, labor and economic rights, and of course women's rights. A concept known as "material feminism" emerged which influenced Charlotte Perkins Gilman's ideas. This movement was based on the "conviction that the exploitation of women's domestic labor was central to the perpetuation of sexual inequality"(Allen 20). The novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy advocates women working outside the domestic sphere, with government provided means of domestic services such as laundry facilities, nurseries, days schools, etc. In Women and Economics Gillman articulates these ideas of encouraging women to hire others to help in domestic work so that women can better participate in the outside labor force. It was this balace that she advocated, something that was obviously inspired by her years as wife, mother, and writer, and the pressures that time entailed.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892)
Easily Gilman's most well-known work, "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written in response to treatment she received from Weir Mitchell for depression and fatigue. It is one of her most critically reviewed works, but interestingly Gilman took a rather diminutive view of it, saying, "I wrote it to preach. If it is literature, that just happened" (Karpinski 63).
The narrator is kept on a strict rest regiment by her husband to cure her nervous condition. Her secret journal entries show an increased obsession with the yellow wallpaper in the nursery of their rented summer home. She believes there is a woman trapped in the pattern of the wallpaper, constantly circling the walls looking for freedom. In an attempt to free the women, the narrator rips down all the wallpaper. After doing so, she tells John, her husband, "I've got out at last . . . And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!" (Karpinski 222). She has become the woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper.
Susan Lancer describes the narrator's descent into madness as an escape from the "patriarchal prison" her husband and society has imposed upon her (Davis 40). She sheds her real self for an identity that cannot be ordered around and controlled by her husband.
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898)
Gilman outlines her answer to the Woman Question in her most famous nonfiction book, Women and Economics. She calls for emancipation from the home through economic independence. She writes:
The political equality demanded by the suffragists [is] not enough to give real freedom. Women whose industrial position is that of a house-servant, or who do not work at all, who are fed, clothed, and given pocket-money by men, do not reach freedom and equality by use of the ballot (Karpinski 1).
In other words, women will not be freed from the domestic sphere by the vote alone. Independence from the patriarchal system that orders their lives is needed.
Herland(1915) Three men explore an all-female society secluded from the rest of the world. When they refuse to comply with the inhabitants of Herland, they are imprisoned. Tutors attempt to teach them the customs and language of Herland, so they may be liberated from the ideals of their former society (America) and incorporated into Gilman's utopian society.
Herland is a dramatization of the theories Gilman supports in her works such as Women and Economics. She explores how a society that shares the responsibilities of rearing children eliminates the need for a traditional family, which sustains a patriarchal structure (Murton). The women of Herland live in a completely egalitarian society.
"Because the role of women has been limited to acting as house servents for adult males, women have failed in their duty to the child and race. If women were allowed equal participation in truly human activities, society would benefit not only from their direct works, but also from benefits to children who would finally have two fully human parents"(Karpinski 125).
-Loui Magner on Gilman's view of motherhood
Gilman views motherhood as one of the highest callings women can fulfill. However, she felt that women shouldn't be relegated to just maternal and domestic duties, and the Victorian model of a family did exactly that.
Gilman held that men and women were inherently different, and true to popular belief, women were more fit to raise children. Therefore, "...the proper growth of society would be enhanced more by the progress of women..." ie by the independence of women. Gilman did not wish to eliminate the family structure, but to redefine motherhood within it (Davis 146). Because being a good wife came before being a good mother, women's ability to raise superior children was hampered by the patriarchal hierarchy of families.
Bringing it Back to Kate
Kate Chopin's The Awakening was published in 1899, at the height of Gillman's lecture tours and the year after the publication of Women and Economics. Many of the anxieties and stresses of women being confined to traditional roles of wife and mother can be seen in both women's works. Specific similarities in themes include the repressed wife character in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Chopin's "The Story of an Hour." On a basic level, Mrs. Mallard and the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" find freedom through extreme circumstances; the former through insanity and the latter in death.
However, Chopin and Gilman differ greatly on what they deem to be the most important thing for women to gain. For Kate Chopin, the self is the highest good. A woman must identify her own needs and identity independent of her husband's and children. Gilman agrees that a woman's independence from her husband is crucial, but the greatest good is motherhood, and the self falls behind this responsibility.
Davis, Cynthia and Denise Knight, eds. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Karpinski, Joanne ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992.