Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the key figures in the development of First-Wave Feminism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her works influenced generations of feminist thinkers. Gilman's philosophy transcended the issue of suffrage - she also analysed the economic aspects and implications of gender inequality. A prolific novelist, philosopher, and activist, Gilman dissected the oppression of women through the lens of her own experiences. In this article, we explore the importance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's thoughts and the impact of her famous works. We will also examine Gilman's work critics who accuse her for promoting eugenics and state-directed reproduction.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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    Eugenics studies how best to strengthen the human race by ensuring that future generations inherit the most 'desirable' genes. Popularised in the late nineteenth century, it was discredited entirely once it was utilised by the National Socialist party in Germany to justify ethnic cleansing.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman Biography

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut on the 3rd of July 1860. She was the second child of Mary Perkins and Frederic Beecher Perkins. Gilman's father abandoned the family early on, leaving them close to destitution. With her mother unable to support them, they lived with Frederic's sisters in Providence, Rhode Island. Here, Gilman was influenced by her Aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1878, aged 18, Gilman enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design.

    In 1884, aged 24, Gilman married artist Charles Water Stetson. One year later, Gilman gave birth to their daughter, Katherine. Following the birth, Gilman entered a phase of depression that today would be diagnosed as post-partum depression. However, in the nineteenth century, this condition was deemed hysteria. Gilman was subjected to a structured 'rest cure', prescribed by Dr Silas Weir Mitchell and then enforced by her husband, which isolated her from creative pursuits and social activity. This ordeal inspired her famous work, The Yellow Wall Paper (1892).

    In 1888, it was decided that the only solution to Gilman's 'condition' was the dissolution of her marriage, and in 1894 their divorce was legally recognised. During these years, Gilman began her productive working life. She wrote her first novel in 1888 and, in 1890, began work on The Yellow Wallpaper, published two years later. Also, Gilman entered a close relationship with Adeline Knapp during this period.

    In 1894, Gilman moved to San Francisco and lectured on topics such as labour, ethics, and the place of women. In 1896, she was made a delegate to the London International Socialist and Labour Congress. This experience developed her economic analysis of gender inequalities, laying the foundations for the book Women and Economics (1898).

    Marrying George H. Gilman in 1900, Gilman's productive life continued throughout the early part of the twentieth century. From 1903 - 1916, she was the sole contributor and editor of her publication, The Forerunner. Following its closure, Gilman turned her attention to social activism. In 1932, Gilman received a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, and her productive life ended. In 1935, Charlotte Perkins Gilman took her own life, leaving a note saying she had 'chosen chloroform over cancer'.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gilman Portrait Biography, StudySmarter Fig. 1 - A portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Famous Work

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman has a lot of famous works, but perhaps most are The Yellow Wallpaper, and Women and Economics.

    The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)

    The protagonist of Gilman's seminal fictional work is subjected to the 'rest cure' prescribed to Gilman in 1885. From this quote, we can see that the speaker is subject to the thoughts of a male of 'high standing', who has diagnosed a 'slight hysterical tendency', but who she is incapable of challenging or speaking out against - 'what is one to do?'

    If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?

    Ultimately, the protagonist loses hold of reality and enters a world where her fixation with wallpaper becomes all-consuming before she is driven to suicidal thoughts. This analogy - a young woman, seriously ill and being held captive by men who claim to know what is best - for Gilman seemed to encapsulate the feminine domestic experience.

    Hysteria: a quasi-medical term adopted by doctors in the Victorian era to characterise exaggerated emotional displays, typically used to diagnose women suffering from post-partum depression. The word is rooted in the Greek word hystera, which means 'uterus'.

    Women and Economics (1898)

    Gilman's work, Women and Economics, discusses a number of themes including the marriage marketplace, exclusion of women from the economy, and a new domestic model.

    The Marriage Marketplace

    Gilman contests that under capitalism, the marriage process mirrors the economic system of supply and demand. Here, she is arguing that women are commodified during the process of finding a husband and that they are forced to do so to secure financial stability. On the other hand, men must display their capability to provide financial stability to find a wife

    It is to her economic advantage to secure a mate. It is to his sex advantage to secure a mate. The sex functions to her have become economic functions. Economic functions to him have become sex functions

    Exclusion of Women from the Economy

    Here, Gilman criticises marriage under capitalism for excluding women from the productive economy. She argues that women, being confined to domestic roles, come to have their lives reduced to their ability to reproduce. She illustrates how this is abhorrent on a level of human fulfilment and makes no economic sense as it denies half the population the opportunity to contribute to the economy.

    Half the human race is denied free productive expression, is forced to confine its productive human energies to the same channels as its reproductive sex-energies

    A New Domestic Model

    Gilman wanted to offer solutions to liberate women - and men - from the constraints in which they lived. Gilman visualised a new domestic model, where 'prehistoric' domestic chores would be mechanical and other roles such as cooking could be carried out communally or professionally.

    The home would cease to be to us a workshop or a museum, and would become far more the personal expression of its occupants - the place of peace and rest, of love and privacy

    This work propelled Gilman to international fame, and by 1920 it had been translated into seven languages. So, how did Gilman use this fame to develop her feminist philosophy further? We will now move on to explore this question in the next section.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Print of a painting showing the treatment of a hysteria patient,  Study SmarterFig. 2 - A print of a painting by Pierre-André Brouillet showing the treatment of a hysteria patient by Dr Charcot in Lyon, France 1887

    Importance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Work

    The importance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's work lies in her challenge to traditional gender roles and stereotypes, advocating for economic independence, political activism, and social equality for women. Her influential work promoted feminist ideals during her lifetime and continues to inspire generations of feminist thinkers, writers, and activists.

    In 1894, Gilman took the post of editor at Impress, a journal published by the Pacific Coast Women's Press Association (PCWPA). Using her platform, Gilman helped to organise the 1895 Women's Conference. Here Gilman met suffrage campaigner Susan B Anthony, who invited her to speak about female enfranchisement at the 1896 Women's Suffrage Convention and the House Judiciary Committee. In 1915, she joined female pacifists and assisted in the creation of the anti-war Women's Peace Party.

    One of the key focal points of Gilman's work was the struggle of women in the domestic sphere to the broader economic implications of capitalism. In Women and Economics (1898), she argued that subjugating women to a life of domesticity made no economic sense. She was a delegate at the International Socialist and Labour Congress n 1896, where she met prominent socialist philosophers like George Bernard Shaw. Her insights on the need to revolutionise the domestic sphere profoundly impacted Second-Wave Feminist thinkers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

    The importance of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's work in fiction cannot be understated as it inspired a new generation of feminists to embrace Utopian Feminist ideals. In her 1915 novel Herland, Gilman portrays a Utopian society where women are the sole occupants and can procreate without men. This society was notable for the absence of war and the presence of universal education. In 1979, the book was re-published with the subtitle 'A Lost Feminist Utopian Novel'.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman Feminist Theory

    Here, we will summarise the key components of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist theory developed during her public life:

    • Economic Theory: Gilman attributed the existence of capitalism to the continuation of the patriarchal system in which men dominated women. Her theory was that if capitalism were to be fundamentally changed, both in the domestic and public sphere, women would be liberated.

    • Revolution in the Domestic Sphere: Gilman wanted to revolutionise domestic life, harnessing modern technology and breaking down the gender norms which prohibited women from entering into public life.

    • Utopianism: the idea of Utopian feminism appeared in Gilman's fictional work. Stories such as Herland (1915) were rooted in Utopian ideals and went on to heavily influence Second-Wave Radical Feminists.

    • Suffrage: as a feminist campaigner in the early twentieth century, it was unthinkable that Gilman would not have a part to play in the fight for women's suffrage. Although she involved herself in many other endeavours, Gilman undoubtedly played an important role in the US suffrage movement.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman Work's Critics

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman's work critics have argued that, in her vision of a world where women exercised freedom in the public and private spheres, Gilman associated reproductive freedom with the choice to find the most genetically superior partner. Thus, her theories on sexual reproduction became inextricably linked with eugenics which was prevalent across the US and Western Europe at this time.

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the idea of genetically engineering a superior race and restricting reproductive rights to those with genetically-desirable traits has been widely rejected as morally unacceptable. This rejection is largely due to the fact that eugenics was a central part of the ideology of Nazism, and today is widely associated with racism and ableism.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A poster by the Eugenics Society showing a tree and hand with a pliers. In the crown of the tree is the sentence: Release the strangle-hold of hereditary disease and unfitness, Study SmarterFig. 3 - A poster produced by the Eugenics Society in the 1930s, taken from the Wellcome Library Eugenics Society Archives

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman - Key takeaways

    • Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 and died in 1935 after a diagnosis of terminal breast cancer.
    • Following the birth of her first child in 1885, Gilman suffered post-partum depression and was prescribed a 'rest cure' by her doctor.
    • The experience of profound isolation and depression led Gilman to write her most notable fictional work, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892).
    • During the 1890s, Gilman wrote prolifically and was propelled to fame by her 1898 work Women and Economics.
    • Gilman's Utopian feminist theories were rediscovered by the 1970s Radical Feminist movement.
    • However, her work has been heavily criticised for its links to eugenics.

    References

    1. Fig. 3 - A Eugenics Society poster (1930s) from the Wellcome Library Eugenics Society Archive, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Eugenics_Society_Poster_%281930s%29.png, CC BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en
    2. Fig. 1 - Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman_c._1900.jpg, by C.F. Lummis (Original copyright holder, presumably photographer) Restoration by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
    3. Fig. 2 - A print of a painting by Pierre-André Brouillet showing the treatment of a hysteria patient by Dr Charcot in Lyon, France 1887, https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101411921-img, Public Domain.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Charlotte Perkins Gilman


    What was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most famous work? 

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman's most famous fictional work is The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), and her most notable non-fiction work is Women and Economics (1898) 

    What did Charlotte Perkins Gilman do for feminism? 

    She helped develop feminist theory which was rooted in an economic assessment of women's role under capitalism, as well as producing a number of Utopian Feminist works and founding organisations such as the Women's Peace Party (1915) 

    What is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s biography? 

    Gilman was born in Connecticut in 1860. She was the niece of author Harriet Beecher Stowe. She released her seminal work, The Yellow Wallpaper, in 1892. Gilman was a prolific feminist philosopher and author, as well as an female equality campaigner. She died in 1935

    What is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s belief? 

    Gilman's central beliefs were that, under the capitalist economic system and the domestic situation it creates, women were denied the opportunity to become productive members of society

    Why is Gilman considered a feminist writer? 

    Gilman was an author of fictional stories such as The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and Herland (1915). She was also a philosopher and produced writings on Feminist Theory, her most notable work being Women and Economics (1898). Lastly, Gilman was the sole editor, writer and publisher of her own publication, The Forerunner, 1903 - 1916.

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