November 2, 2004

CPG: A Feminist Hero

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"The glory of our race is its power of communication.
We share our strength and knowledge and rise as one; we share our failure and weakness and help each other bear it."

Charlotte Perkins Gilman,
"Our Place Today," 1891

Imagine writing eight novels, six nonfiction works, 200 short stories, hundreds of poems, plays, and thousands of essays; marrying, having a child, be coming hysterical, divorcing, marrying a first cousin, running a magazine, and starting a grassroots party that battles a retrogressive society---all in 75 short years.

Not only did Gilman lead the independent feminist revolution, but she also started a “thinking war” that provoked questions about women’s equality. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. The daughter of Frederick Beecher and Mary Ann Fitch Perkins, she was bound for glory. Her family had a history of being movers and shakers. Lyman Beecher, her great-grandfather, was a staunch Calvinist reformer who raised a few liberal, freethinking children. One was the noted abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Isabella Beecher Stowe, a famed feminist who founded the New England Suffrage Association in 1868. Beecher’s other daughter Catharine was a renowned feminist, also.

Gilman was introduced to a rather unique perspective by her aunts as she matured. Not often did a girl in the nineteenth century question men’s behavior or challenge society’s beliefs as Charlotte did. Soon after her birth, Frederick left. His departure caused quite a role reversal in Mary Ann’s life. Mary Ann was forced to work outside the home to support herself and two small children. Working was uncommon for women in those times. While watching her mother work, Charlotte began forming ideas that would eventually cause the socialized childcare system to form. This system enabled a working woman to work while ensuring that her children were being cared for.

Frederick Beecher Perkins was an individualist who cared for himself, and only himself. Because of Frederick’s beliefs Charlotte adopted that exact opposite ideas. Instead of being self-involved, Charlotte was altruistic. She put the world first, herself, second.

During her teen years, Charlotte became concerned with women’s rights and adopted feminist views. Feminism is the belief in a social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Also at this time, she became a leading socialist. Socialism is defined as a system in which the means of producing goods are publicly owned with all sharing in the work and goods produced. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a hero to socialists and feminists everywhere. In the late 19th and early 20th century, socialism was perceived differently than now. In those days, socialism was the alternative to capitalism, the supposed root of women’s oppression. Today socialism is associated with a negative connotation and viewed by most as something that is almost communistic.

In 1884, Charlotte married Charles Walter Stetson and had a daughter. After the birth, their marriage was severely strained and Stetson placed Charlotte under the care of Dr. Silas Weir. Weir was a noted alienist, a physician who is court approved to decide a person’s metal competence, who helped Charlotte recuperate from her hysteria by isolating her for an entire summer and taking away challenging stimuli. It was during this period that Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” When she recovered, she left Stetson and went to California.


In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is confined to her bedroom to treat nervousness caused by post-partum depression. She descends from neurasthenia, a neurotic disorder characterized by fatigue, loss of memory, weakness, and general malaise, into insanity during her confinement. Her husband insists that she remains inactive and will not let her write. The room she is in was formerly a nursery with ugly yellow wallpaper that has a recurring pattern that becomes her obsession. She begins to see the pattern as a confined woman. The narrator has an emotional breakdown, crawls on the floor, strips off the paper with her hands and finally, with her teeth.

In 1900, Gilman married her first cousin, George Houghton Gilman and continued writing. During this time she wrote Herland a book that merged feminist theory with the concept of socialism. In Herland, women are the catalysts for change, and are encouraged to live up to their full potential.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman inspired many feminists through her actions. From 1909 to 1915, she single-handedly operated a radical monthly, “The Forerunner,” giving herself an outlet to express her beliefs. In 1915, Gilman co-founded the Women’s Peace Party with Jane Addams. Batya Weinbaum writes music based on Gilman’s work.

Sadly in 1934, George Gilman passed away unexpectedly, leaving Charlotte to battle breast cancer alone. It was on August 17, 1935, that she took her life by inhaling chloroform to end the tremendous suffering.

Gilman’s message is still revered: we all have the opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the betterment of humankind. This message of empowerment is pertinent for the challenging times we live in. Her writing, her actions, her philosophy, her courage--this is what makes Charlotte Perkins Gilman a hero.

Posted by KatieAikins at November 2, 2004 4:55 PM
Comments

Katie,
Your talent ceases to amaze me...I was so confused after reading this story, but you really broke it down and made it understandable to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I wrote a little about you in my blog...I bow down to your greatness!!

~Lamb

Posted by: Katie Lambert at November 2, 2004 8:28 PM

Katie,

The research that you have done on your blog entry is absolutely fantastic!! You definitely read beyond just the text and went a step further. I am so impressed! The only thing that I was wondering is simply just your thoughts on the reading. I believe the research is wonderful and very insightful, but I want to know what you got from the story! I would really like to hear this because of your abilities to blog so well. I feel that hearing your viewpoint will only help me understand more in terms of context and meaning. I hope to hear back from ya!!

Melissa

Posted by: Melissa Hagg at November 3, 2004 9:57 AM

Katie,

I loved how you have a biographical statement how Gilman's life. I really understand why she wrote this story, and I didn't even know it related to her life. That was surprising to me. I would like to know what is your thoughts on the text? Did you like it?

I thought it was interesting because it related to her life. It's more personal experience and now it's just documented down on paper. It allows the readers to understand of things she went through her life. There was a huge debate whether or not it was right of John to be controlling. What is your thought of John? I thought John was considerate and caring as a physician. That was just how men were back in the late 1800's. Of course, no woman would tolerate it now. But back then, the attitudes of men were acceptable to women.

-Nabila :)

Posted by: NabilaUddin at November 3, 2004 5:58 PM

Melissa-

I thought the story was absolutely fabulous. My like Linda Fondrk said in her blog, I also believe the narrator is suffering from post partum depression. I can't personally blog on what that must be like, because I haven't suffered with this. However, it must be THAT horrible that you would want to rip wall paper off walls. I think it is a true to life story that some women might be afraid to express because of how society might react. It is so taboo, so hush-hush. CPG shed light on the matter in a rather eloquent way. :)

Nabila -

You steal the words right out of my mouth: John was kind and caring. This is the role of a physician. He was just trying to do what he thought was RIGHT for the situation. :) I would hope that my physician would care for me in the same manner: doing what he sees fit to make aid in recovery.

Katie

Posted by: Katie Aikins at November 3, 2004 8:14 PM