Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a writer and lecturer who tried to create a cohesive body of historical and social thought that combined feminism and socialism.
Charlotte Perkins was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. She was raised by her mother, Mary A. Fitch Perkins, because her father left his wife and children soon after Charlotte's birth and thereafter provided little support, emotional or financial, to his family. Frederick Beecher Perkins, her father, was the grandson of the noted theologian Lyman Beecher, which made Charlotte's great aunt the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Beecher family was perhaps the most famous family in America, but when Charlotte's father left he took his family connection with him. She and her brother grew up in an unhappy, cheerless home. Mother and children lived on the edge of poverty, moving 19 times in 18 years to 14 different cities.
Charlotte studied art for a time and later earned her living by designing greeting cards, teaching art, and, for a brief time, tutoring children. At the age of 24, after a long period of uncertainty and vacillation, she married Charles Walter Stetson, a handsome and charming local artist. Their only child, Katharine, was born the following year.
From the beginning of the marriage Charlotte Perkins Stetson suffered from depression. She became so seriously depressed that she was persuaded by her husband to consult the well-known Philadelphia neurologist, S. Weir Mitchell, a specialist in women's nervous diseases. His treatment stipulated extended bed rest to be followed by a return to working as a wife and mother. She was to give up all dreams of a career, she was never to write or paint again, and she was never to read for more than two hours a day. She followed his regimen for a time and almost experienced a mental breakdown. Calling upon some inner sense of survival, she rejected both husband and physician and fled to the house of the Channings, friends in Pasadena, California, whose daughter, Grace Ellery Channing, was Charlotte's dearest friend. Charlotte and Walter were eventually divorced, and Walter married Grace Channing. The three remained friends thereafter and jointly raised Katharine.
For a time Charlotte Stetson barely managed to support herself and Katharine, and later her mother, by running a boarding house. During these difficult years she launched her writing and lecturing career. In 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper appeared, a chilling story of a young woman driven to insanity by a loving husband-doctor, who, with the purest motives, imposed Mitchell's rest cure. The next year she published a book of verse, In This Our World. In 1894 she co-edited The Impress, a journal of the Pacific Coast Woman's Association. She was soon earning her living by lecturing to women's clubs and men's clubs, to labor unions and suffrage groups, to church congregations and Socialist organizations.
Soon after Walter Stetson remarried, both parents agreed that their child should live with her father and his new wife. Charlotte Stetson, moderately well known by this time, was vigorously attacked in the press for being "an unnatural mother" and abandoning her child. Unnerved, she fled from her home, and from 1895 to 1900 she led a nomadic existence, ceaselessly lecturing and writing, endlessly travelling across the country. Out of this environment came her most famous book, Women and Economics, which appeared in 1898, was soon translated into seven languages, and won her international recognition. In 1900 she published Concerning Children; in 1903, The Home: Its Work and Influence; in 1904, Human Work; in 1911, Man Made World: Or Our Androcentric Culture; and in 1923, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers. From 1909 to 1915 she edited a monthly magazine, The Forerunner, for which she wrote all the copy. Each year two books were serialized; the full seven-year run of The Forerunner equalled in number of pages 28 full-length books.
In 1900, after a long and carefully examined courtship, Charlotte married George Houghton Gilman, her first cousin. They lived happily until 1934 when Houghton died suddenly. Charlotte Gilman, aware now that she suffered from terminal cancer, moved back to Pasadena to be with her daughter. Grace Channing Stetson, also a widow, joined her there, reuniting the women of the family. In 1935 Gilman completed her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She said good-bye to her family, and, with the chloroform she had been long accumulating, she ended her life. The note she left appears in the last pages of her autobiography.
No grief, pain, misfortune or 'broken heart' is excuse for cutting off one's life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one…. I have preferred chloroform to cancer.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman had an enormous reputation in her lifetime, but she is almost unknown today. A serious critic of history and society, she tried to create a cohesive body of thought that combined feminism and socialism. She struggled to define a human social order built upon the values she identified most closely as female values, life-giving and nurturing. She constructed a theoretical world view to explain human behavior, past and present, and to project the outlines of her vision for the future.
The most important fact about the sexes, men and women, is the common humanity we share, not the differences that distinguish us, Gilman said repeatedly. But women are denied autonomy and thus are not provided the environment in which to develop. Women are forced to lead restricted lives, and this serves to retard all human progress. Men, too, suffer from personalities distorted by their cultural habits of dominance and power. A healthy social organism for both men and women, therefore, requires the autonomy of women. She saw herself as engaged in a fierce struggle for the minds of women. She wrote historical treatises, sociological essays, short stories, novels, plays, and poems in an effort to win over women to her view of the past and, more important, to project a vision of the future. In sociological and historical works she analyzed the past from her peculiar humanist-socialist perspective. (Gilman insisted she was not a feminist; rather the world was "masculinist," and it was she who sought to introduce a truly humanized concept.) In her fiction she suggested the kind of world we could have if we worked at it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's life remains as an inspiration to subsequent generations. Her daily living, her ideas, her writing, her lectures are all of a piece. She wrote about the need for women to achieve autonomy, and she struggled in her own life to achieve autonomy. She drew upon the painful and debilitating elements in our own inner and outer experiences as a central focus of her world. In a sense she studied history and sociology, economics and ethics, in order to understand where she came from, why her parents were the way they were, why her life took the form it did, and ultimately how to learn to control her destiny and to manage her life.
The best way to become familiar with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's work is to begin with her books in print: Women and Economics (reprinted 1966), The Home (reprinted 1972), The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (reprinted 1975), and Herland (1979). "The Yellow Wallpaper" is available in pamphlet form published by The Feminist Press. It is also included in a collection of fiction by Gilman entitled The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, edited by Ann J. Lane (1980). The Forerunner, Gilman's monthly journal which ran from 1909 to 1916, was reprinted by Greenwood Press in 1968.
There are also manuscript collections of Gilman letters, diaries, lectures, and notes. The largest collection is at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at Radcliffe College, Cambridge.
There is as yet no complete published biography of Charlotte Gilman. The early years of her life are covered in Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist 1860-1896 (1980). Carl N. Degler wrote the biographical essay on Gilman in Notable American Women. For further critical assessment consult Carl N. Degler, "Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism," American Quarterly (Spring 1956), and Ann J. Lane's introductions to Herland (1979) and The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader (1980). □