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Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860 - 1935)

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins, a librarian and writer, and Mary (Westcott) Perkins. Among her father's forebears was the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was his aunt. Perkins abandoned his wife after their infant died in 1866 - Mary Perkins lived with her children on the brink of poverty and was often forced to move from relative to relative or to other temporary lodgings.

Charlotte was a voracious reader and largely self-educated. She studied two years at Rhode Island School of Design (1878-80) and then earned her living by designing greetings cards. In 1884 she married Charles Walter Stetson, an aspiring artist. After the birth of their daughter Katharine, she was beset by depression and began treatment with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell in 1886. His recommendations, 'live as domestic a life as possible' and 'never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live' were later satirized by Gilman in her autobiography. She also used the recommendations as discussions in her most renowned short story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper,’ which first appeared in New England Magazine (1892). The narrator is a young mother suffering from a temporary nervous depression. John, her husband, is a physician, who doesn't believe in supernatural things. He has ordered her to 'rest' in the bedroom of their rented house. The patterns of the room's hideous yellow wallpaper start to haunt her. She sees a woman creeping around it, as if she wanted to get out. "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling snakes it all over." Finally she locks herself inside the room to creep around as she pleases.

In 1888 Gilman separated from Stetson (finally divorced in 1894), and moved to California, where she wrote her first books in the 1890s, starting with In This Our World, a collection of satiric poems with feminist themes. Gilman became active in Nationalism, a reform movement inspired by Edward Bellamy's utopian socialist romance Looking Backward. This work influenced her utopian novel Herland (republished in 1979), in which a group of scientists discover a peaceful, lost civilization, populated entirely by women who reproduce parthenogenetically (self-fertilization).

"It would be so wonderful -- would it not? To compare the history of two thousand years, to see what the differences are -- between us, who are only mothers, and you, who are mothers and fathers, too. Of course we see, with our birds, that the father is as useful as the mother, almost. But among insects we find him of less importance, sometimes very little. Is it not so with you?" (from Herland)

Gilman's best-known work is Women and Economics (1898), in which she attacked the old division of social roles. According to Gilman, male aggressiveness and maternal roles of women are artificial and not necessary for survival any more. "There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver.” Only economic independence could bring true freedom for women and make them equal partners to their husbands. In Concerning Children (1900) Gilman advocated professional child-care.

Gilman married her cousin George Gillman, a New York lawyer, in 1902. During the next two decades she gained fame with her lectures on women's issues, ethics, labor, and social concerns. Gilman founded, edited and wrote her own monthly journal, Forerunner, from 1909 to 1916. Several of her novels also appeared first in the paper.

Annoyed with life in a multiracial metropolis, she moved in 1922 with her husband from New York to Norwich, Connecticut, and wrote His Religion and Hers, in which she planned a religion freed from the dictates of oppressive patriarchal instincts. In 1932 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her husband died in 1934, she returned to California to live near her daughter. Gilman died on August 17, 1935, in Pasadena, California - she ended her own life by taking an overdose of chloroform. Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), appeared posthumously. Gilman’s mystery novel, Unpunished, was not published during her lifetime, but appeared in 1997 in The Feminist Press. Gilman and her work were mostly forgotten for two decades until the feminist movement of the 1960’s revived interest in her.

Suggested sites for Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

Encyclopedia article about Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Texts by Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper
A new mother is told by her doctor to 'abandon her intellectual life', a suggestion that plunges her further into despair.

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