Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 3rd July, 1860. Her father, Frederick Perkins, abandoned the family shortly after her birth and she grew up in poverty and received very little formal education. Her aunts, Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, had a major influence on her upbringing.

In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she argued that her mother was not affectionate and to stop them from getting hurt, insisted she did not make close friends or read novels. Charlotte added that her mother only showed affection only when she thought her young daughter was asleep.

In 1878 she briefly attended classes at the Rhode Island School of Design, and supported herself as a painter of trade cards. During her studies she met local artist, Charles Walter Stetson and the couple were married in 1884. A daughter was born the following year but soon afterwards "she fell into extreme despondence, leading to near nervous collapse."

The couple moved to Pasadena but in 1890 Stetson returned to Rhode Island to look after his mother. Charlotte began writing stories and articles for various journals including the New England Magazine. This included the publication of her most important story, The Yellow Wallpaper. Published in January 1892, recounts her own mental breakdown. She later claimed she wrote the story how women's lack of autonomy is detrimental to their mental, emotional and physical well being.

In 1892 she gained a divorce and returned her daughter to the care of her husband. In 1894, Gilman sent her daughter to live with her husband and his second wife, Grace Ellery Channing. Charlotte later explained that her daughter "had a right to know and love her father."

Charlotte continued to write stories and articles for various journals. She also gave lectures on women's suffrage and trade unions. In 1895 she settled in Chicago where she lived with Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop in Hull House.

Charlotte was greatly influenced by the work of Edward Bellamy and became a socialist. She joined the Socialist Labor Party and in 1896 she was a delegate to the International Socialist Congress in London. While in England she met leading socialists such as Keir Hardie, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw. As her biographer, Mari Jo Buhle, has pointed out: "As her reputation spread and she became known for her discussion of women's topics as well, she devoted most of her time to the national lecture circuit."

In 1898 Charlotte published Women and Economics where she advocated equal work for women. In the book she criticized men for desiring weak and feeble wives and urged the economic independence of women. This was followed by other books on social issues such as Concerning Children (1900), The Home (1903) and Human Work (1904).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1900)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1900)

In 1900 Charlotte married her cousin, George Houghton Gilman. The couple moved to Norwich, Connecticut, whe she continued to campaign for women's rights and in 1909 founded Forerunner, a literary journal devoted to contemporary social issues. Most of the journal was written by Charlotte and she addressed questions of private morality, such as prostitution, social diseases and marriage.

Perkins also wrote several novels including What Diantha Did (1910), Herland (1915) and With Her in Ourland (1916). These novels illustrated her feminism and in many of her stories the traditional sex roles are reversed. Herland, considered to be her most impressive novel, is about a community of women without men.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Perkins and a group of women pacifists in the United States, began talking about the need to form an organization to help bring it to an end. On the 10th January, 1915, over 3,000 women attended a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Jane Addams was elected chairman and other women involved in the organization included Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Crystal Eastman, Carrie Chapman Catt and Sophonisba Breckinridge.

Perkins continued to write and other books published included His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (1923), Our Changing Morality (1930) and a autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935).

Suffering from breast cancer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman committed suicide on 17th August, 1935. She left a note that said: "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."

Primary Sources

(1) Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics (1898)

Many women would continue to prefer the very kinds of work which they are doing now, in the new and higher methods of execution. Even cleaning, rightly understood and practised, is a useful, and therefore honorable profession. It has been amusing heretofore to see how this least desirable of labors has been so innocently held to be woman's natural duty. It is woman, the dainty, the beautiful, the beloved wife and revered mother, who has by common consent been expected to do the chamber-work and scullery work of the world. All that is basest and foulest she in the last instance must handle and remove. Grease, ashes, dust, foul linen, and sooty ironware, - among these her days must pass. As we socialize our functions, this passes from her hands into those of man. The city's cleaning is his work. And even in our houses the professional cleaner is more and more frequently a man.

The organization of household industries will simplify and centralize its cleaning processes, allowing of many mechanical conveniences and the application of scientific skill and thoroughness. We shall be cleaner than we ever were before. There will be less work to do, and far better means of doing it. The daily needs of a well-plumbed house could be met easily by each individual in his or her own room or by one who liked to do such work; and the labor less frequently required would be furnished by an expert, who would clean one home after another with the swift skill of training and experience. 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 - than it can be in its present condition of arrested industrial development. And woman will fill her place in those industries with far better results than are now provided by her ceaseless struggles, her conscientious devotion, her pathetic ignorance and inefficiency.

(2) Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Forerunner (November, 1909)

Then the rich, sure food of mother-milk, the absolute adaptation, the whole great living creature an alembic to gather from without, and distil to sweet perfection, what the child needs. Contrast this with the chances of new-born fish or fly, or even those of the bird baby, whose mother must search wide for the food she brings. The mammal has it with her.

Then comes the highest stage of all, where the psychic gain of the race is transmitted to the child as well as the physical. This last and noblest step in the life process we call education. education is differentiated motherhood. It is social motherhood. It is the application to the replenishment and development of the race of the same great force of ever-growing life which made the mother's milk.

Here are the three governing laws of life: To Be; To Re-Be; To Be Better. The life force demands Existence. And we strain every nerve to keep ourselves alive. The life force demands Reproduction. And our physical machinery is shifted and rearranged repeatedly, with arrayed impulses to suit - to keep the race alive. Then, most imperative of all, the life force demands Improvement. And all creation groaneth and

travaileth in this one vast endeavor. Not merely this thing - permanently; not merely more of this thing - continuously; but better things, ever better and better types, has been the demand of life upon us, and we have fulfilled it.

Under this last and highest law, as the main factor in securing to the race its due improvement, comes that supreme officer of the life process, the Mother. Her functions are complex, subtle, powerful, of measureless value.

Her first duty is to grow nobly for her mighty purpose. Her next is to select, with inexorable high standard, the fit assistant for her work. The third - to fitly bear, bring forth, and nurse the child. Following these, last and highest of all, comes our great race - process of social parentage, which transmits to each new generation the gathered knowledge, the accumulated advantages of the past.

When mother and father labor and save for years to give their children the "advantages" of civilization; when a whole state taxes itself to teach its children; that is the Life Force even more than the direct

impulse of personal passion. The pressure of progress, the resistless demand of better conditions for our children, is life's largest imperative, the fullest expression of motherhood.

But even if we confine ourselves for the time being to the plane of mere replenishment, to that general law under which animals continue in existence upon earth, even here the brief period of pre-paternal excitement is but a passing hour compared to the weeks and months, yes, years, in the higher species, of maternal service, love and care. The human father, too, toils for his family; but the love, the power, the

pride of fatherhood are not symbolized by the mischievous butterfly baby we have elected to worship.