Charlotte Perkins Gilman
|Born:||July 4, 1860
|Died:||August 17, 1935
|Occupation(s):||Short story and non-fiction writer, novelist, commercial artist, lecturer and social reformer.|
|Magnum opus:||"The Yellow Wallpaper"|
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent American feminist, writer, lecturer, and social reformer during the early 1900s. She was born into the renowned Beecher family that included notables like author and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and abolitionist ministers, Lyman Beecher and Henry Ward Beecher. Although her works went largely unnoticed for decades, interest in her writing was revived by adherents of women's studies in the 1970s. Her short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," which sparked a controversy in her day, is her best known work. The tale, told in a Gothic mode, is a fictional account of her own struggle with depression and the subsequently misguided medical advice that she received. In an era when women were beginning to challenge traditional concepts about their role in society, Gilman advocated greater awareness in many areas of a woman's life.
Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of Mary Perkins (formerly Mary Fitch Westcott) and Frederic Beecher Perkins, a librarian and magazine editor, and nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Her father abandoned the family and left them with his progressive aunts, who also included Catharine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker. Her mother was forced to move often and lived with various relatives in order to support the family; as a result, Perkins was largely schooled at home. She was a highly imaginative child who loved the fiction of Louisa May Alcott, but her mother discouraged her writing and her tendency to live in a "dream world." She came to be deeply influenced by her reform-minded aunts who encouraged friendships with other females within their intellectual circle. Her best friend was Grace Channing, granddaughter of the eminent Unitarian thinker William Ellery Channing.
After two years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gilman supported herself as a greeting-card artist. In 1884, Charles Walter Stetson, a fellow artist, repeatedly asked for her hand in marriage. Although she had misgivings, she felt it was her duty to conform to societal expectations. Her only child, Katharine Beecher Stetson, was born that same year. Adjustment to marriage and motherhood was difficult for Perkins, and she suffered from depression, which would periodically return throughout her life.
In 1885, she traveled alone to California to visit Grace Channing, leaving her husband and daughter behind. She would return there in 1891, after separating from her husband, and became involved in the Nationalist Club, a reform movement that centered around Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward (written in 1888). Her husband came to California in an attempt to reconcile with her, but in 1894, after their divorce was finalized, he ended up marrying her friend, Channing. Subsequently, her daughter went to live with her father and stepmother and the whole situation ignited a public scandal.
She began to earn a living through publication of her poetry and short stories, and became active on the lecture circuit, mostly promoting the ideas of socialization of the home, a recurrent theme of Perkins throughout her life and career.
After her first serious bout with depression in 1886, Gilman's family sent her to see renowned neurologist, Silas Weir Mitchell, who advocated a "rest cure" which consisted of an admonition, "to never write or paint again." This misguided advice would become the basis for the story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," first published in 1892, in New England Magazine. The story tells of a woman suffering from depression, who is virtually locked away in an attic room by her physician husband "in order to rest." As she lays there, unoccupied and immobile, she begins to imagine that the pattern in the wallpaper has come alive. She sees a woman's figure in the wallpaper, especially at night, and the "trapped" woman takes on the persona of her own alter ego. The woman slowly goes mad and even her well-intentioned—but patronizing—husband is unable to make a difference for her. In its time, "The Yellow Wallpaper," was considered provocative and controversial. It has been favorably compared to the horror fiction of Edgar Allen Poe.
Gilman's subsequent short stories are told in a similar vein and have recurring motifs of ghostly apparitions and supernatural encounters. An excerpt from the story shows how the protagonist begins to identify with the "woman in the wallpaper:"
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.
She traveled extensively and, after visiting England and meeting with George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, she became a contributor to the monthly American Fabian, a literary digest published by the Fabian Society. Gilman's writings and travels would soon culminate in the publication of her magnum opus, Women and Economics.
With the publication of Women and Economics in 1898, Gilman received international recognition. It was immediately compared to John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women (1869), and was widely read in both North America and Europe. Subsequently, it was translated into seven languages. The premise of the book states that maternal and domestic roles are over-emphasized for women and true freedom comes in the form of economic liberation for a woman. The inherent philosophy reflects the influence of both Marxist theory and Social Darwinism. Gilman was particularly influenced by the theories of sociologist Lester Ward, who was known as a reformed Darwinist.
Gilman's second marriage in 1900, was to her first cousin, New York lawyer George Houghton Gilman. He was supportive of her work and they enjoyed a long and satisfying partnership until his death in 1934. Her daughter came to live with the couple in New York City until the time of her own marriage.
Almost immediately after the marriage began, Gilman started a period of high productivity that addressed her utopian vision of a women's role in the world and included: In Concerning Children (1900), which advocated the use of professional child care, and The Home (1903), which advocated a "kitchen-less home."
In 1909, Gilman founded the literary magazine, Forerunner, which published short stories, essays, and book reviews. It also serialized Gilman's novels such as Herland, a utopian novel about a lost colony comprised entirely of women.
In 1922, Gilman moved from New York to Norwich, Connecticut, where she wrote her social critique, the book, His Religion and Hers.
After the sudden death of her husband in 1934, Gilman moved back to California in order to be closer to her daughter and her family. She was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer, which was found to be inoperable. A proponent of euthanasia, she committed suicide on August 17, 1935, by inhaling chloroform. Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published posthumously.
When it came to envisioning new roles for women, Gilman, in some respects, was ahead of her time. Her view that women who were more talented at nurturing young children should be society's child care providers bears relevance in today's modern world.
Her other controversial views included support of eugenics, which advocates "sterilization of the unfit" and birth control, before it was legalized.
According to one biographer, Gilman was a Deist and "she foresaw that women… would someday form a religion that would focus on creating a paradise on earth." Her idea that women were biologically geared towards peace bodes well for the modern age where more and more women are taking leadership roles on the national and world stage.
All links retrieved February 7, 2017.
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