Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist author during the late 1800’s and on through the early 1900’s. She wrote almost exclusively about feminist issues, and in a style that was more straightforward than artistic. Her most famous work was a short story entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman goes crazy essentially because she is forced to live in a male dominated society. This type of message was typical in Gilman’s many poems, novels, and short stories, and conveyed her belief that women were held down because they were forced to be dependent upon men. Recently, Gilman has been experiencing another wave of popularity; many people are rediscovering her works and messages.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Frederick Beecher Perkins, a writer and nephew to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mary Perkins. In 1866, Frederick abandoned his wife when their infant died, and Mary was forced to take on the responsibility of the family, often being forced to move. Because of this, Charlotte received a only a brief education, ending when she dropped out of Rhode Island School of Design after only two years.
In 1884 she married Charles Walter Stetson, an aspiring local artist, and gave birth to their first child. After her daughter was born, she became deeply depressed and suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1886 she began treatment for her depression with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Mitchell’s advice was for her to cut out any creative activity, to get lots of sleep, and to live as domestic a life as possible. This was common treatment for women at the time, as it was the general belief that creative activity caused them depression. She followed Mitchell’s advice for two months, but only got worse. Believing that it was her ‘treatment’ that making her worse, she decided to do something that was considered very drastic at the time.
In 1888 she separated from Stetson and moved to California, leaving their daughter in his care. In 1890 she began writing, starting with “In This Our World”, to not only support herself but to also maintain her sanity. In 1898 Gilman's wrote “Women and Economics”, in which she argued that the sexual and maternal roles of women had been overemphasized to the detriment of their social and economical potential, and that only economic independence could bring true freedom. In 1899 Gilman wrote her most successful work, “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The Yellow Wallpaper contained many personal themes to Gilman; it was about a woman who was told to stick to domestic activity after she became depressed over the death of her child. The woman slowly goes insane after being confined to a room with strange yellow wallpaper. This short story remains Gilman’s most powerful piece, and was made into a film in 1996.
In 1902 Gilman married her first cousin George Gilman, a lawyer in New York. Over the next 20 years, Gilman gained fame with lectures and articles published in her own monthly journal, Forerunner, which was in circulation from 1909 to 1916. After reading the utopian socialist romance “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy, Charlotte Gilman became active in the Nationalist movement. Inspired by “Looking Backward” she wrote her most successful novel, “Herland”, in 1915. “Herland” played largely upon utopian, socialist, and feminist concepts; it was about a group of scientists whom discover a peaceful lost civilization populated entirely by women who reproduce “parthenogenetically”.
Annoyed by her multi-racial environment, Gilman moved with her husband in 1922 to Norwich, Connecticut. There she wrote “His Religion and Hers”, in which she planned out a feminist religion. In 1932 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in 1934 after her husband died she returned to California to be with her daughter. On August 17, 1935 Charlotte Perkins Gilman committed suicide by inhaling chloroform. She was virtually forgotten for twenty years until the 1960’s, when the feminist movement took interest in her writing. To this day she is still recognized as a major theorist, social critic, influential essayist, lecturer and writer.
Gilman’s main focus throughout her writing was the fact that women were held down creatively and economically because of their dependencies on men. Her works, including “The Yellow Wallpaper”, “Herland”, and “Women and Economics” all portray this idea and how it affects women. It is fairly obvious that Gilman’s ideas were caused by her childhood, in which her father left her mother, and forced the rest of the family to live in virtual poverty for many years. Gilman never believed women to be the weaker gender, however strangely she was quite the racist, and also a socialist, not to mention guilty of incest.
Gilman left a legacy for many young women, and had great impact on the women’s lib movement of the 1960’s. During this time her works gained new audience, and her ideas helped women gain the economic and social independence they have today, though sadly Gilman never got to experience.
Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co. (1898)
Concerning Children. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co. (1900)
The Home: Its Work and Influence. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. (1903) Human Work. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. (1904)
The Man-Made World; or, Our Andocentric Culture. New York: Charlton Co. (1911) Our Brains and What Ails Them. (1912)
Social Ethics. (1914)
The Dress of Women. (1915)
Growth and Combat. (1916)
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)
The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography.. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Co. (1935)
"The Yellow Wallpaper" in New England Magazine, (1892).
The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co. (1899).
What Diantha Did. New York: Charlton Co. (1910)
Moving the Mountain. New York: Charlton Co. (1911)
The Crux. New York: Charlton Co. (1911)
Benigna Machiavelli. (1916)
With Her in Ourland. (1916)
Originally written as a research paper by me for English class. Bibliography obtained from http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/gilman/gilmancp-bibliography.html