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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).
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, Emily Bach, 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."
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.
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.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Today I woke up at 6AM to go to work. When I get home from work I did some laundry, my father made dinner, and then I had to babysit the rest of the night. This was a pretty average day for me other then having to babysit. Before this class I was not as observant to gender roles. This particular day at work after I finished helping a customer she went to walk away and this man cut right in front of her forcing her to stop abruptly. She then said somewhat under her breath, “Of course, don’t you love it when men just walk right in front of you.” This really caught my attention, it was a comment I might not have previously taken notice too but it was so important!
Individual human consciousness is a social product developed through socialization, language and interaction. Gilman believes people come to know the world not directly but through their idea of it. (Lengermann 115) The way this woman commented on the incident is as if she is used to being seen as invisible by man and that men just expect woman to cater to them.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman seeks to show the traditional division of labor (breadwinner husband/stay-at-home wife) is inherently problematic. Women are economically dependent on men and therefore stripped of their freedom. (Edles&Appelrouth 242) In my life this is completely different. Today my stepfather cooked dinner, which was not out of the ordinary. In my house my stepfather always cooks dinner and the majority of the time does a lot of the cleaning. However, growing up my father was in the Air Force and was not home very often so my mom did a majority of the cooking, cleaning and caring for my siblings and me. I grew up with the stereotypical family.
In terms of work and my specific day the gender roles were pretty stereotypical. At my place of work all of the high managers are men, we do have many woman in management positions just not at the highest level. My day was laundry and babysitting, things assumed a woman would do.
Appelrouth, Scott and Laura Desfor Edles. 2010. Sociological Theory in the Classical Era. 2 nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.
Lengermann, Patricia Madoo and Gillian Niebrugge. 2007. The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory 1830-1930. 1 st ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, as the first daughter and second child of Mary Perkins (nee Mary Fitch Westcott) and Frederic Beecher Perkins. She had one brother, Thomas Adie Perkins, who was just over a year older than her. Although families at the time tended to be much larger than two children, Mary Perkins was advised to not have any more children at risk of her health or even her life.
When Gilman was still a small child, her father abandoned his wife and children, leaving them essentially destitute. Mary Perkins did her best to support her family, but she was unable to provide on her own. As a result, they spent a great deal of time with her father’s aunts, who included education activist Catharine Beecher, suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, and, most notably, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Gilman was largely isolated during her childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, but she was highly self-motivated and read extensively.
Despite her natural and boundless curiosity—or, perhaps, especially because of it—Gilman was often a source of frustration to her teachers because she was a rather poor student. She was, however, particularly interested in the study of physics, even more so than history or literature. At the age of 18, in 1878, she enrolled herself at the Rhode Island School of Design, supported financially by her father, who had resumed contact enough to help out with finances, but not enough to truly be a presence in her life. With this education, Gilman was able to carve out a career for herself as an artist for trade cards, which were ornate precursors to the modern business card, advertising for businesses and directing clients to their stores. She also worked as a tutor and an artist.
Contributions to the First Wave
Gilman had strong views about gendered expectations in matters of marriage, family and society. Just before Gilman’s marriage to Stetson she wrote her poem titled “In Duty Bound” which reflected her rebellion against the societal demands placed on “dutiful house-wives” (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.6).
In duty bound, a life hemmed in
Whichever way the spirit turns to look
No chance of breaking out, except by sin
Any obligation pre-imposed, unsought,
Yet blinding with the force of natural law
The pressure of antagonistic thought
A house with roof so darkly low
The heavy rafters shut the sunlight out
One cannot stand erect without a blow
Cries for a grave—more wide.
A consciousness that if this thing endure,
The common joys of life will dull the pain
The high ideals of the grand and pure
Die, as of course they must,
That is the worst. It takes supernal strength
To hold the attitude that brings the pain
And they are few indeed but stoop at length
To something less than best,
This poem reflects the experiences that Gilman and many other women faced in marriage. These feelings and the demands of marriage would contribute to Gilman’s worsening mental health and eventual divorce from Stetson.
After Gilman’s first poems were published, she became increasingly involved in the feminist dress reform movement and the women’s rights movement. The first suffrage convention she attended was in 1886 and the following year she published a dress reform article titled “A Protest Against Petticoats” (Allen, 2009, p.36). She herself refused to wear a corset (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.4). Gilman argued in her writings that the restrictive and sex-enhancing dress of the day contributed to the over sexualization of women (Allen, 2009, p.106).
Gilman’s most famous work in terms of feminist and gender studies is her 1890 short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” which was published by the Feminist Press. “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a first-person narration of a mother who is suffering with postpartum depression. Her physician husband prescribes the “rest cure” which is carried out in a rented summer home. The woman’s yellow wall papered bedroom takes on the form of a prison as the woman descends into madness. This story is reflective of Gilman’s own struggles with postpartum depression, her subsequently prescribed “rest cure,” and the trapped feelings she had in her marriage and motherhood. The original edition of this story, containing an afterward by Elaine R. Hedges, has sold over 225,000 copies, making it the Feminist Press’ “all-time best seller.” Gilman’s story has been translated into multiple languages and continues to be influential, appearing in college textbooks for women’s studies as well as literature textbooks (Dock, 1998, p.1).
In 1894, Charlotte took on the post of editor for the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Associations journal Impress. She also served a term as the journal’s president (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.36-37). Under PCWPA leadership, Charlotte helped to organize the Woman’s Congress held in San Francisco in 1895. During this meeting, Gilman met a number of influential women, including Anna Howard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, and Jane Addams. She accepted an invitation from Addams to visit Hull House in Chicago (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.44). Gilman’s visit to Hull House was an inspiration for her utopian writings, which include her novel Herland. Gilman also developed a friendship with Anthony who later invited her to speak at the January 1896 Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington D.C. and address the House Judiciary Committee in support of suffrage (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.45).
Arguably, Gilman’s most important contribution to the First Wave was her 1898 book titled Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. The theory presented in this work is that human evolution shaped the socio-economic relations between the sexes. Perkins argued that the sexual domination and oppression of women by the strongest males, which originated in the prehistoric age as a necessary evolutionary preservation strategy, was no longer socially necessary or productive. She argued that the sex-relation was also an economic relation, referring to this as “the sexuo-economic relation” and was built on inequality (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.51). By 1920, this work had been translated into seven languages (Allen, 2009, p.1).
Gilman was influential, not only at home in the United States, but throughout the world. Her writings were translated into multiple languages, offering her international exposure. In addition to her writings, she had the honor of attending and speaking at multiple international meetings including the Woman’s Suffrage Congresses held in Germany and Budapest (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.84).
In 1909, Gilman launched Forerunner, her own feminist magazine. In just over seven years, she was responsible for writing, editing, and publishing all 86 issues, each consisting of 28 pages (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.86). Many of the stories she published during this time were fantasies which presented and promoted feminist ideals (Scharnhorst, 1985, p.96). Gilman continued to write, speak and advocate for women’s rights throughout the rest of her life.
In a sick society, women who have difficulty fitting in are not ill but demonstrating a healthy and positive response
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Goodreads, n.d.).
Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus: A Brief History
I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper” because I believe it can save people. That is one reason. There are more. I have taught Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1891 story for nearly two decades and this past fall was no different. Then again, this past fall was entirely different.
In our undergraduate seminar at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we discussed “The Yellow Wallpaper” in the context of the nearly 4,000-year history of the medical diagnosis of hysteria. Hysteria, from the Greek hystera or womb. We explored this wastebasket diagnosis that has been a dump-site for all that could be imagined to be wrong with women from around 1900 BCE until the 1950s. The diagnosis was not only prevalent in the West among mainly white women but had its pre-history in Ancient Egypt, and was found in the Far East and Middle East too.
The course is titled “The Wandering Uterus: Journeys through Gender, Race, and Medicine” and gets its name from one of the ancient “causes” of hysteria. The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. “Treatments,” including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place. “Genital massage,” performed by a skilled physician or midwife, was often mentioned in medical writings. The triad of marriage, intercourse, and pregnancy was the ultimate treatment for the semen-hungry womb. The uterus was a troublemaker and was best sated when pregnant.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was conceived thousands of years later, in the Victorian era, when the diagnosis of hysteria hit its heyday. Medical attention veered from the hungry uterus and was placed on a woman’s so-called weaker nervous system. Nineteenth-century physician Russell Thacher Trail approximated that three-quarters of all medical practice was devoted to the “diseases of women,” and therefore physicians must be grateful to “frail women” (read frail white women of certain means) for being an economic godsend to the medical profession.
It was believed that hysteria, also known as neurasthenia, could be set off by a plethora of bad habits including reading novels (which caused erotic fantasies), masturbation, and homosexual or bisexual tendencies resulting in any number of symptoms such as seductive behaviors, contractures, functional paralysis, irrationality, and general troublemaking of various kinds. There are pages and pages of medical writings outing hysterics as great liars who willingly deceive. The same old “treatments” were enlisted—genital massage by an approved provider, marriage and intercourse—but some new ones included ovariectomies and cauterization of the clitoris.
It is no accident that such a diagnosis took off just as some of these same women were fighting to gain access to universities and various professions in the US and Europe. A decrease in marriages and falling birth rates coincided with this medical diagnosis criticizing the New Woman and her focus on intellectual, artistic, or activist pursuits instead of motherhood. Such was the downfall of Gilman’s narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
“The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen.”
Good chance you read the story in school, but in case you didn’t or have forgotten, here is a synopsis. Following the birth of her first child, the narrator says she feels sick, but her physician husband has dismissed her complaints as a “temporary nervous condition—a slight hysterical tendency.” He has rented a country house and has put her to rest in the former nursery. She explains,
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
The narrator’s work is that of a writer. She sneaks paragraphs here and there when she is not being observed by her husband or his sister who is “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession.” The story documents the narrator’s frustrations with her so-called treatment and her husband’s resolve that she only needs to exercise more will and self-control in order to get better. “‘Bless her little heart!’ said he with a big hug, ‘she shall be as sick as she pleases.'”
We witness the narrator’s steady decline as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the room’s ghastly wallpaper: “the bloated curves and flourishes—a kind of ‘debased Romanesque’ with delirium tremens—go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.” Gilman—a prolific writer of fiction, poetry and profound and progressive books, including Women and Economics, a woman who drew large crowds as she made the national lecture circuit in her day—is masterful at showing us how things fall apart for her protagonist. In the final scene of the story, the narrator creeps along the edges of the former nursery amidst shreds of wallpaper, stepping over her crumpled husband who has fainted upon discovering his wife in such a state.
A number of 19th-century practitioners gained fame as hysteria doctors. S. Weir Mitchell, a prominent Philadelphia physician, was one of them. He championed what he called “the rest cure.” Sick women were put to bed, ordered not to move a muscle and instructed to eschew intellectual or creative work of any kind, fed four ounces of milk every two hours, and oftentimes required to defecate and urinate into a bed-pan while prone. Mitchell was so renowned he had his own Christmas calendar.
Mitchell was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s physician. His rest cure was prescribed to some of the great minds of the time, including Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Scores of white women artists and writers were diagnosed as hysterics in a period when rebelliousness, shamelessness, ambition, and “over education” were considered to be likely causes. Too much energy going up to the brain instead of staying in the reproductive organs and helping the female body do what it was supposed to do. As Mitchell wrote, “The woman’s desire to be on a level of competition with man and to assume his duties is, I am sure, making mischief, for it is my belief that no length of generations of change in her education and modes of activity will ever really alter her characteristics.”
Transgressing prescribed roles would make women sick. British suffragettes, for instance, were “treated” as hysterics in prison. Outspoken proponents for women’s rights were often characterized as the “shrieking sisterhood.” In our seminar discussion, we made the comparison to the numbers of African American men diagnosed as schizophrenics at a State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ionia, Michigan in the 1960s and 70s as documented in psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl’s powerful book The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. A diagnosis can be a weapon used as a way to control and discipline the rebellion of an entire demographic.
As we discussed “The Yellow Wallpaper” and its historical context, I could see that Allie was becoming more and more outraged. She looked as if she might bolt from her classroom seat. Her hand shot up, “Would you believe that my high school English teacher told us, ‘If this woman had followed her husband’s instructions, she wouldn’t have gone crazy?!'”
If I’d had a mouth full of something, I would have done a spit take. In all my years of teaching the story, I cannot remember ever hearing this jaw-dropping explanation. But Allie opened the flood gates. Bec raised her hand, “We read it in eighth grade. We were all concerned and confused, especially the girls. And disturbed by the ending. No one understood what was wrong with the woman. The story didn’t seem to make any sense.”
Max added, “In my A.P. Psychology class, our teacher asked us to use the DSM 4 to diagnose the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I remember a number of student guesses, like Major Depressive Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, as well as OCD, Schizophrenia, and Bipolar with Schizotypal tendencies.”
Noëlle said she remembered a fellow high school student describing the narrator as “animalistic” and the teacher writing it on the board. There was no discussion of what “hysteria” actually meant.
Keeta encountered the story in a college literature seminar titled “Going Mad.” Class discussion focused on the insane and unreliable narrator. “A missed opportunity for me to learn about something very real and current, and in some ways I feel wronged by that,” Keeta said. They explained that they had a similar feeling when watching the film Beloved in middle school. “Here’s your heritage, and it’s dumped in your lap, and you have no idea why this enslaved woman killed her child. If you had more information about the history of slavery and reproductive resistance, then you would be able to make better sense of what you were seeing.”
“So-called witches were accused of making men impotent their penises would “disappear” and it was claimed that witches would keep said penises in a nest in a tree.”
Cristina hadn’t read “The Yellow Wallpaper” before but said, “In the fourth grade in my all-girls Catholic school in Bogotá, my religion teacher told the class that we should only show our bodies to our husbands and doctors. Meaning they are the only ones that can touch our bodies. I think there is some connection here, no?”
I am always moved by the associations students make between the history of hysteria and their own lives and circumstances. We discussed how it is startling to learn about nearly four millennia of this female double bind, of medical writings opining cold, deprived, frail, wanting, evil, sexually excessive, irrational, and deceptive women while asserting the necessity of disciplining their misbehaviors with various “treatments.”
“What about Hillary?” Bec chimed in.
This wasn’t just any fall semester. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to consider the history of hysteria than September 2016, the week following Hillary Clinton’s collapse from pneumonia at the 9/11 ceremonies, an event that tipped #HillarysHealth into a national obsession. Rudolph Giuliani said that she looked sick and encouraged people to google “Hillary Clinton illness.” Trump focused on her coughing or “hacking” as if the uterus were still making its perambulations up to the throat.
For many months, Hillary had been pathologized as the shrill shrew who was too loud and outspoken, on the one hand, and the weak sick one who didn’t have the strength or stamina to be president on the other. We discussed journalist Gail Collins’ assessment of the various levels of sexism afoot in the campaign. On the topic of Hillary’s health, Collins wrote, “this is nuts, but not necessarily sexist.” We, in the Wandering Uterus, wholeheartedly disagreed. But, back in September, we did not understand how deeply entrenched these sinister mythologies had already become.
We returned to the Middle Ages to help us understand what we were witnessing unfold during the campaign. By way of the church, the myth flourished that women were evil. Lust and carnal pleasures were the problem with women who were, by nature, lascivious and deceptive. Female sexuality, once again, was the problem. So-called witches were accused of making men impotent their penises would “disappear” and it was claimed that witches would keep said penises in a nest in a tree. Unholy spirits were the cause of bewitchment, a condition that sounded a lot like earlier descriptions of hysteria. Its “treatment” led to the death of thousands of women. In their 1973 groundbreaking treatise, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English argue that the first accusations of witchcraft in Europe grew out of church-affiliated male doctors’ anxieties about competition from female healers. The violence promoted by the church allowed for the rise of the European medical profession.
In class, we continued to discuss the construction of she-devil, foul-mouthed Crooked Hillary who extremists berated with hashtags like #Hillabeast and #Godhilla and #Witch Hillary. How could we not compare the campaign season to the witch-hunts when folks at rallies started chanting “hang her in the streets” in addition to the by-then familiar “lock her up.” In short order, we witnessed a shift from the maligned diagnosis of a single individual to an all-out mass hysterical witch-hunt against a woman who dared to run for presidential office. We discussed the brilliant literary critic Elaine Showalter whose book Hystories, written in the 1990s, focuses on end-of-the-millennium mass hysterias. Prior to the existence of social media, Showalter presciently wrote, “hysterical epidemics. . . continue to do damage: in distracting us from the real problems and crises of modern society, in undermining a respect for evidence and truth, and in helping support an atmosphere of conspiracy and suspicion.”
We discussed the fact that social media had allowed for this rapid circulation of Hillary mythologies. I explained that the witch-hunts in Early Modern Europe happened to correspond to the invention of the social media of their day. First published in 1486, Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches by Reverends Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger became the ubiquitous manual that spread the church’s methods of identifying witches through questioning and torture in large part by means of the contemporaneous invention of the printing press. For nearly two centuries, this witch handbook was reprinted again and again, disseminating sentences that would later inspire the anti-Hillary playbook, “She is an imperfect animal who always deceives.” “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
By midterm presentations, we talked about the ways in which hysteria had gone viral with other women candidates, like Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and activist running for Congress, who found herself on the receiving end of attack ads that featured a close-up of her face with a red-lettered CRAZY stamped on it.
Upon closer investigation, this form of political slander was not limited to the current election season or the US. In Poland, women who marched against a recent abortion ban were called feminazis, prostitutes, whores, witches, and crazy women. While in 2013, Russian news reports suggested that members of the band Pussy Riot were “witches in a global satanic conspiracy in cahoots with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.” That should have been a clue to what would follow.
During the weeks running up to the election we veered from the topic of hysteria and discussed the history of gynecology and enslaved women as experimental subjects, sexual anatomy and disorders of sexual development, and queer and trans health care, but we still began each class by sharing recent developments from the campaign trail: Muslim registries, pussy grabbing/sexual assault, and bullying. We discussed Trump’s remarks that soldiers living with PTSD are not “strong enough,” echoing medical and military attitudes from the previous century that associated male hysteria with WWI and “shell shock.”
The Sunday before the election, I was invited by students belonging to the school feminist group, Maverick, to meet at the Hull-House Museum. We sat on the floor of Jane Addams’ bedroom which houses her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize as well as her thick FBI file, evidence of the one-time moniker “most dangerous woman in America.” We talked about the founding of the Settlement House, that Addams knew that “meaningful work” was important for this first generation of white women that had received a college education. At the Hull-House, Addams and other young women residents worked together with some of the poorest immigrants to improve living conditions, to promote child labor laws, to build playgrounds. They celebrated various immigrant traditions over large shared meals and Italian opera and Greek tragedy.
I told the group that Charlotte Perkins Gilman visited the Hull-House on a number of occasions. It was at the Hull-House that she developed some of her ideas about women and economics, about group kitchens and shared domestic responsibilities. I told them how amazed I was to learn that, as a young woman, Addams, as well as a number of Hull-House residents, had also been under the care of the famed Dr. Mitchell.
I read them excerpts of Addams’ writings during WWI when she was blacklisted for her promotion of peace her health failed, and she hit the depths of depression. Remarking on her colleagues’ suffering, she wrote: “The large number of deaths among the older pacifists in all the warring nations can probably be traced in some measure to the peculiar strain which such maladjustment implies. More than the normal amount of nervous energy must be consumed in holding one’s own in a hostile world.”
When our class met two days following the election, we talked about deportations, anti-Muslim hate crimes, LGBTQ vulnerabilities, and climate change. A number of us confessed that we were physically ill as we watched the returns come in. I mentioned one friend who wrote me that he felt as though he were drinking poison. Two other friends were struck down by bouts of diarrhea and dry heaves on election night. When they went to their doctor, she said that she had seen an inordinate number of sick people. Something was going around.
For many of these students, the election results were just an added stress to that of a long-time civil war back home, to having undocumented family, to losses from gun violence, or to being targeted when walking down the street because of race and/or gender presentation and/or sexuality and age. For some of us, this next administration would be yet another thing to get through. For more of us, we were only beginning to understand that our democracy and our rights were fragile things.
I didn’t tell them that I was waking up each morning feeling nauseated, my belly distended. I knew I was clenching my gut as if I had been sucker-punched. This clenching plus many surges of adrenaline had set off an old familiar pain in my gallbladder area. A friend told me about his neck pain. Another said her hip pain had returned. I was reminded of Showalter again: “We must accept the interdependence between mind and body and recognize hysterical syndromes as a psychopathology of everyday life before we can dismantle their stigmatizing mythologies.” Who could ever claim that mind-derived illness is not true illness? Pain is not fiction.
The readings for the class immediately following the election included Billye Avery on her creation of the National Black Women’s Health Project. She wrote about the importance of really listening to each other, that issues like infant mortality are not medical problems, they are social problems. We also discussed an excerpt from Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, words that were remarkably fresh some 30 years later: “I’ve got to look at all my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful. I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose. . . We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world. . . Battling racism and battling heterosexism and battling apartheid share the same urgency inside me as battling cancer.” We took heart in Lorde’s reference to, “The African way of perceiving life, as experience to be lived rather than as a problem to be solved.”
Our syllabus continued to portend current events even though it had been composed back in August before the start of the semester. At the escalation of the Standing Rock water protectors’ protests, we discussed Andrea Smith’s “Better Dead than Pregnant,” in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, about how the violation of indigenous women’s reproductive rights is intimately connected to “government and corporate takeovers of Indian land.” We discussed Katsi Cook’s “The Mother’s Milk Project” and the notion of the mother’s body as “first environment” in First Nations cultures, which led environmental health activists to the understanding that “the right to a non-toxic environment is also a basic reproductive right.”
“For some of us, this next administration would be yet another thing to get through. For more of us, we were only beginning to understand that our democracy and our rights were fragile things.”
The week the students were to begin their final presentations, we discussed the Comet Ping Pong Pizza conspiracy, that a man actually stormed a DC pizza parlor with an assault weapon because of fake news claiming that this establishment was the locus of Hillary’s child sex slave ring. I would not have been surprised if the fake news writers had taken inspiration from the Malleus Maleficarum and reported that the parlor also served Hillary the blood of unbaptized children.
Emma said she was tired of Facebook and where was the best place to get news?
A good deal of the election’s fake news had been dependent on the power of a nearly 4,000-year-old fictional diagnosis. Both news and medical diagnosis masqueraded as truth, but they were far from it. How to make sense of this fake diagnosis in relation to the idea that illness can be born from our guts and hearts and minds? Is there anything truer? And yet, psychosomatic illness continues to be deemed an illegitimate fiction.
We know that the social toxins of living in a racist, misogynist, homophobic, and otherwise economically unjust society can literally make us sick, and that sickness is no less real than one brought on by polluted air or water. In actuality, both social and environmental toxins are inextricably intertwined as the very people subject to systemic social toxins (oppression, poverty) are usually the same folks impacted by the most extreme environmental toxins. And the people who point fingers and label others “hysterical” are the ones least directly impacted by said toxins.
Then there are the lies leveled at fiction. What of the fake criticism students had encountered during their former studies of “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Our histories provide us with scant access to the so-called hysteric’s words or thoughts. But Gilman was outspoken about her experience. She wrote about it in letters, in diaries, in the ubiquitous “The Yellow Wallpaper” and in a gem of a 1913 essay titled “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” In this 500-word piece, required reading for anybody assigning”The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman describes her experience with a “noted specialist in nervous diseases,” who, following her rest cure, sent her home with the advice to “‘live as domestic a life as far as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.” She obeyed his directions for some months, “and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” Then she went back to work—”work, the normal life of every human being in which is joy and growth and service”—and she ultimately recovered “some measure of power” leading to decades of prolific writing and lecturing. She explains that she sent her story to the noted specialist and heard nothing back. The essay ends,
But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading”The Yellow Wallpaper.”
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.
I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper” because it is necessary to know and to revisit. I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper” because a deep consideration of this story in relation to its historical and medical context teaches us how much more we can learn about every other narrative we think we already know, be it fact or fiction. I teach this story because I believe it can save people.
The semester is over and New Year’s Day 2017 has passed. I am struck with a nasty flu that lingers for weeks. There is a pulling pressure in my head, a stuck feeling in my ears, unpredictable flushes. I can’t focus. I can barely write the sentences required to finish the letters of recommendations that are due.
Surfing online scratches some productivity itch. Like an obsessed survivalist chipmunk, I stock up on nuts and canned goods and vitamins that will line basement shelves. I donate to a hodgepodge of organizations and causes. . . NRDC, Standing Rock, IRC, African Wildlife Foundation, and more. I sign online petitions as quickly as they enter my inbox. I cough my way through calls to my members of Congress, imploring them to reject various cabinet picks. I come across an article about the surge of visits to therapists for “post-election stress disorder” and “post-election depression syndrome.” The fever continues and still there is that loss of appetite, all laced with a deep sense of foreboding. I sleep through President Obama’s farewell speech.
I wake up the next morning from a fever-induced delirium and am convinced that it is of the utmost importance to locate PVC-free window film. Once the right product is identified, I will affix these decorative wallpaper-like opaque sheets to the bottom sashes in the kitchen so that pedestrians on the nearby sidewalk cannot see in. Suddenly, I must have more privacy. But I want privacy and light. I look at various patterns. One pattern is called “atomic energy.” It is lovely but would probably prove monotonous. I finally land on “rhythm” for its non-descript pattern. In the end, I decide that the wood blinds that are already there work just fine.
I blow my nose and steam my head through more news of Russian election intervention and continued nasty tweets, this time aimed at civil rights legend John Lewis. As Inauguration Day inches closer, I lie on the couch under a blanket, looking out my Chicago window at the rain that should be snow.
A friend on the phone tells me that a fever is the releasing of anger. I feel semi-human. I am haunting my own couch. I leave the house only twice in 17 days to see Frank, the acupuncturist, who tells me that he is treating scores of people with the same upper respiratory thing. He has seen an uptick in ailments since the election. Maybe things will be better after the inauguration, he says hopefully, maybe the anticipation is worse.
I hear myself say aloud to my body, “Please work with me here.”
I read about Jan Chamberlin, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who refuses to sing at the inauguration. A CNN anchor says that her comparison of Trump to Hitler sounds “kind of hysterical. . . ”
I recall one student from a few years ago. She raised her hand and said that the diagnosis of hysteria was like being called a “crazy girl.” “I am called that all the time,” she said. I was confused. Crazy girl? But as she continued on about that label, many of her classmates nodded emphatically. “If I get upset about something said in conversation or on social media,” she said, “I’m dismissed as ‘crazy girl.'”
Class projects are piled on the floor of my office. There is Max’s poem about the horrifying beating he experienced as a teenager, a hate crime at a mall witnessed by his boyfriend and dismissed by the police. There is Virginia’s small book that she made for her teenage nieces, advice for being a young Latinx person in this country. There is Sylvie’s project, an artist’s book collaboration with her dead mother’s journal writing. Noëlle’s educational coloring book for kids with diabetes that she made with her eight-year-old brother as adviser. I imagine that most, if not all, of these amazing young people would have qualified at one time or another as hysterics because of gender presentation and/or sexuality, and their artistic, scholarly, or activist pursuits. Me too. We are all part of a long history, members of tribes that have been, at times, misinterpreted, misunderstood, or worse.
The misunderstandings have not stopped. Each semester that I teach this class, a few students share stories of bodily symptoms, their own or a family member’s, that could not be explained by organic causes according to conventional Western medicine. Inevitably they were told by a healthcare provider that the problem is all in their heads. These stories contribute to conversations about the power of the mind and how many great ideas and possibilities arise from the very “irrational” place that has been and continues to be so often undervalued.
That is another reason I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman’s text reminds us that we must defy Mitchell’s treatment we must use our minds, our critical faculties, and our imaginations more than ever to question and to act.
The fever has lifted, but I still cancel my trip to DC. Standing in the cold for hours would be a bad idea given what my body has been through. I know I must rest. But I can finally focus again. And write. I am so grateful. As Gilman says, “work, the normal life of every human being in which is joy and growth and service.”
I refuse to tune in for the inauguration. I cannot bear to watch it by myself. After it is over, I read the transcript of the apocalyptic “carnage” speech and witness comparison photos between the last inauguration and this one, proving the small number of people in attendance, a fact that will become the focus of more lies. These “alternative facts” are aided and abetted by Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway who will be increasingly subject to strikingly familiar misogynist bitch and witch-based attacks of her own. Hysteria is a bipartisan weapon.
The following day, I watch videos and livestream of millions of participants assembled for Women’s Marches all over the world. A proliferation of photos collect online in a blink. My stomach releases a bit.
From my couch, I work on my syllabi for spring semester while reading Hannah Arendt on tyranny, Michel Foucault on defending society, and bell hooks on love. I am not teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper” this semester. But it will be on my syllabus next fall. And the following fall. And again. And again.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman - History
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
On July 3, 1860, Charlotte Anna Perkins (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Gilman became a prolific writer whose subject matter ranged from the differences between women and men to gum chewing in public. She was also a lecturer and supporter of women’s suffrage and women’s economic independence in the early 20th century. Gilman’s paternal great-grandfather was Dr. Lyman Beecher, the renowned Calvinist preacher, and Gilman revered her famous great-aunts, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Beecher, and Isabella Beecher Hooker.
Gilman is best known for her semi-autobiographical story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was loosely based on the rest cure she received under medical supervision. The story depicts a woman sent to “rest” in the bedroom of a rented summer home where she ultimately descends into madness.
In 1932, Gilman discovered that she had inoperable breast cancer and moved to California to be near her daughter. An advocate of euthanasia, Gilman ended her life at the age of 75 with an overdose of chloroform she stated in both her diary and suicide note that she “preferred chloroform to cancer.”
Although Gilman’s literary reputation had declined in the years before her death, the advent of the women’s movement in the 1960s brought about a revival of attention to her work. In 1993, a poll commissioned by the Sienna Research Institute named Gilman the sixth most influential woman of the 20th century, and in 1994 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Feminist Writer, Lecturer, and Thinker
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a feminist writer, lecturer, and thinker at the turn of the 20th century. Despite her lack of formal education, she authored Women in Economics, a foundational text of early feminism, and became known as a preeminent sociologist, philosopher, and social critic. Her works of fiction represented the psychological impact of traditional female roles on housewives and mothers, and her utopian novel Herland inspired Dr. William Moulton Marsten to create his character Wonder Woman as a model of “strong, free, courageous womanhood.”
Charlotte was born into the prominent Beecher family – famous for author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker – but her father abandoned her when she was young, leaving the family in poverty.
Charlotte received almost no formal education, describing her schooling as “four years among seven different institutions, ending when I was fifteen.” Despite this, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1878 to 1883, and financed her education by providing drawing lessons, painting advertisements for soap companies, and selling watercolors.
[bctt tweet=”Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland inspired the character of #WonderWoman”]
At 21, Charlotte married her first husband Charles Walter Stetson, despite her vow at an early age to remain unmarried and devote her life to public service. Soon after she gave birth to her daughter Katharine, but she realized early on that she was unsatisfied with life as a housewife and mother. Scholar Cynthia Davis writes that “that before marrying Stetson, Gilman insisted he swear that he’d never expect her to cook or clean and never require her, ‘whatever the emergency, to DUST!’”
After her pregnancy, Charlotte fell into a deep depression that lingered throughout her life, and was treated with the “rest cure,” a period of forced inactivity prescribed primarily to women diagnosed with hysteria or nervous disorders. Her sense of boredom and inadequacy only worsened during this period later she would write her famous work, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman forced to undergo the same treatment who goes mad while imprisoned in her bedroom for weeks.
[bctt tweet=”‘There is no female mind. Might as well speak of a female liver.’
Charlotte soon realized that the best cure for her depression was independence.
At a time when divorce was still scandalous, [Gilman] divorced Stetson, but she also facilitated his remarriage to her best friend, Grace Channing, with whom Gilman remained close. She then sent her nine-year-old daughter back east to be raised by the new couple.
Rescinding her role as wife and mother, Charlotte moved to Pasadena, CA and lived their briefly with her daughter, before sending her back east to live in more traditional society with her father and stepmother.
It was during these years that Charlotte authored her most famous texts – her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” (1892), first novel In This Our World (1893) and critical work Women in Economics (1898) were all published in the years after her divorce. During this period, Charlotte had a long affair with Adeline Knapp, an author, journalist, and suffragette associated with the San Francisco Bay area. After their affair fizzled out, Charlotte married her cousin and second husband George Houghton Gilman, “a man supportive of her career goals and willing to accept them.”
Later in her life, Charlotte began to tour and lecture on social politics and philosophy. She started a magazine called The Forerunner, which ran from 1909 until 1916 and published essays, fiction, and poetry, including a serialized version of her utopian novel Herland.
George Houghton Gilman died in 1934, and soon after Charlotte was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer. Always devoted to her usefulness, Charlotte committed suicide three years later. Her suicide note was published in the newspapers, and read in part “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.”
Charlotte’s legacy of spitfire feminism, economic empowerment for women, and a more just and egalitarian society lives on in the work of modern activists and organizations devoted to social progress. Her feminist utopian novels, in which women live separate from men on an island and use parthenogenesis to reproduce, were some of the first imaginings of science fiction, and are widely acknowledged as foundational texts for William Morsten’s creation of Wonder Woman.
Charlotte demonstrated that that women were strong and capable through her own recovery and independence, proving that:
It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman - History
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer, lecturer, social critic and feminist, lived at a time of tremendous upheaval in this country's history. From the Civil War to Reconstruction and Industrial Revolution, and from the Women's Movement to the development of the major schools of the social sciences, Gilman witnessed events that had a profound effect on the development of the American society as we live and understand it today. Unwilling to watch these events go by without scrutiny, she became a commentator on the evolving social order, especially of its effects on the status of women. "She used her energies and her gifts in an effort to understand the world and her place in it and to extend that knowledge and those insights to others" (Lane, 1990, p. 229). Furthermore, "she saw the submergence of women as a critical handicap retarding the best development of society" (Lane, 1990, p. 232). Thus, although she was never trained in the methods of social science research and critique, Gilman should be recognized for her contribution to our knowledge in this area in addition to her recognition as an utopian author and a feminist.
In order to understand Charlotte Perkins Gilman as writer and intellectual, we must first know something of her personal life. For, although Gilman tried to keep the two personae separate in her own lifetime, we inevitably see conflict in the reality of her experience. For example, in creating her autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gilman painted a public image she felt women should emulate while the diaries she left behind reveal the frailties of common human existence (Hill, 1980, p. 6-7).
(Biographical information compiled from: Kessler, Carol Farley (1995). Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her progress toward Utopia with selected writings. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. pages 14-40). Charlotte Perkins was born on July 3, 1860 to Frederick Beecher Perkins and Mary A. Fitch. It is with her parents that these dueling personae began to take shape as each was from a prominent Rhode Island family with conflicting worldviews. Frederick sprung from the Beecher family, one well known for its radicals including Isabella Beecher Hooker, a famous suffragist and Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and the renowned author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Fitches, on the other hand, were a founding family of Rhode Island and well known for their conservatism. Thus,
Frederick Perkins left the family in 1859, despite his public espousal of the sacredness of the family, and provided only sporadic support for his estranged family. This forced Mary to be Charlotte's sole support emotionally and physically, but would prove to be only moderately successful in both regards. To provide money and shelter, she took on jobs when possible and relied on the kindness of relatives who offered housing during visits of various lengths. Because her own experience taught her of the dangers a soft constitution pose to a woman, Mary withheld affection and emotional displays from Charlotte and wanted the girl under her strict control.
In spite of the adversity she faced in girlhood and the inadequacies of her early education of which she described as, "four years among seven different institution, ending when I was fifteen," Charlotte managed to attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1878 through 1883 (Kessler, 1995, p. 18). To finance her education, Charlotte gave drawing lessons, sold watercolors and painted advertisements for soap companies and continued to do so to support herself after the completion of her studies.
During this time, Charlotte's friends were predominantly young women, a theme that would continue throughout her life. She shared an especially intimate relationship with Martha Luther. Gilman describes their relationship in her autobiography:
This time after her separation and divorce proved fruitful. Charlotte published "The Yellow Wallpaper," a fictional short story based on her experience with the rest cure, in 1892. In addition her first book, In This Our World, was published in 1893 and she finished writing Women and Economics during this period as well. Furthermore, she became a journalistic advocate of the radical Nationalist Party as well as world-renowned lecturer. At the same time, Charlotte remained close to her ex-husband who had married her best friend, a fact that gained her the disdain of the press, who also criticized her for giving up the care of her daughter to the couple. The press were not the sole critics, though. Katharine Beecher Stetson, as she grew older, came to resent her mother for what she saw as her abandonment. Likewise, Charlotte was critical of herself for this decision as well, as part of her wanted to fulfill the motherly role successfully, to give Katharine all the love she had never received from her own mother. However, her aspirations as a writer and lecturer superseded any goal of traditional womanhood.
Before long, though, Charlotte was not able to evade the call of marriage. In George Houghton Gilman, she found the best of both worlds. Here was a man supportive of her career goals and willing to accept them. The two were married on June 11, 1900. Continuance of her lecture tours and evidence of her prolific writing from this time indicate that Charlotte found in Houghton "the support and collaboration of a caring companion" which gave her the freedom she needed to work (Kessler, 1995, p. 33). Consequently, during her second marriage, Charlotte remained quite productive as she began a magazine in 1909, The Forerunner, for which she was the sole writer. In 1925, she finished her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was to be published after her death. In addition, she continued to lecture, advocating the release of women from the economic imprisonment that comes from the roles of unpaid wife and mother.
In 1934, Charles Houghton Gilman died and Charlotte was living with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Thus, in 1935, Gilman ended her life covered her face with a rag soaked in chloroform on August 17, 1935. In her suicide note Gilman wrote, "I have preferred chloroform to cancer" (Kessler, 1995, p. 40).
Fortunately, we did not lose Gilman's work when she died. Her writings, both fictional and non-fictional, still offer a critique of society that still ring true in today's "kinder, gentler" structure. In her work, Gilman dedicated herself to raising the standard of life for women of her time by deconstructing institutions such as the home and the economy through her non-fiction and by creating new worlds for women in her fiction. Lane describes Gilman's goal as this, "to draw upon anthropology, biology, history, sociology, ethics and philosophy to comprehend the contours of human evolution and human society in order to create a humane social order" (Lane, 1990, p. 230). Her true understanding of the underlying structures of society comes out bitingly in her work making it valuable to the social sciences despite her lack of formal training in the area.
In her book The Grounding of Modern Feminism, Nancy Cott describes the efficacy of Gilman's work,
Through her Utopian fiction, Gilman described the kind of world she envisioned for women. In "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), although not Utopian, she depicts the escape of a women from the pressures of seemingly a seemingly unwanted marriage and consequent marriage into a new self housed in the wallpaper of her bedroom. Gilman's disdain for the state of forced marriage facing women of the time comes across vividly in this harrowing story. The Utopian stories such as Herland (1915) and With Her in Ourland (1916) create a new world based on the principles of equity she promoted in her non-fiction and lectures.
Thus through popular fiction as well as intellectual writing and speaking, Gilman attempted to reach a wide variety of people with her social commentaries, especially women, in an attempt to awaken them to her revolutionary ideas. These concepts continue to intrigue feminists in the social sciences as can be attested by her inclusion in many books on early feminism and her inclusion in women's studies courses. Although she was well known in her time, her radical ideas failed to truly take root. With the "third-wave" of feminism now working for many of the same social changes Gilman advocated, her life and work are an inspiration to feminists young and old.
- Cott, Nancy F (1987). The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
The Trouble with Charlotte Perkins Gilman
When I first read &ldquoThe Yellow Wall-Paper&rdquo years ago, before I knew anything about its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I loved it. I loved the unnerving, sarcastic tone, the creepy ending, the clarity of its critique of the popular nineteenth-century &ldquorest cure&rdquo&mdashessentially an extended time-out for depressed women. The story had irony, urgency, anger. On the last day of the treatment, the narrator is completely mad. She thinks she&rsquos a creature who has emerged from the wallpaper.
The rest cure caused the illness it claimed to eliminate. Beautifully clear.
The unnamed first-person narrator goes through a mental dance I knew well&mdashthe circularity and claustrophobia of an increasing depression, the sinking feeling that something wasn&rsquot being told straight. Reading &ldquoThe Yellow Wall-Paper&rdquo felt like a mix of voyeurism and recognition, morphing into horror. It was genuinely chilling. It felt haunted.
The story is based on Gilman&rsquos experiences with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, late-nineteenth-century physician to the stars. Mitchell administered this cure of extended bed rest and isolation to intellectual, active white women of high social standing. Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Jane Addams all took the cure, which could last for weeks, sometimes months. Gilman was clearly disgusted with her experience, and her disgust is palpable.
&ldquoThe Yellow Wall-Paper&rdquo was not iconic during its own time, and was initially rejected, in 1892, by Atlantic Monthly editor Horace Scudder, with this note: &ldquoI could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself [by reading this].&rdquo During her lifetime, Gilman was instead known for her politics, and gained popularity with a series of satirical poems featuring animals. The well-loved &ldquoSimilar Cases&rdquo describes prehistoric animals bragging about what animals they will evolve into, while their friends mock them for their hubris. Another, &ldquoA Conservative,&rdquo describes Gilman as a kind of cracked Darwinian in her garden, screaming at a confused, crying baby butterfly. &ldquoSimilar Cases&rdquo was considered to be among &ldquothe best satirical verses of modern times&rdquo (American author Floyd Dell). It sounds like this:
There was once a little animal,
No bigger than a fox,
And on five toes he scampered
Over Tertiary rocks.
Gilman is best known for &ldquoThe Yellow Wall-Paper&rdquo now, due to Elaine Ryan Hedges, scholar and founding member of the National Women&rsquos Studies Association, who resurrected Gilman from obscurity. In 1973, the Feminist Press released a chapbook of &ldquoThe Yellow Wall-Paper,&rdquo with an afterword by Hedges, who called it &ldquoa small literary masterpiece&rdquo and Gilman &ldquoone of the most commanding feminists of her time&rdquo though Gilman never saw herself as a feminist (in fact, from her letters: &ldquoI abominate being called a feminist&rdquo). Nor did she consider her work literature. In the introduction to the copy I received, Gilman was quoted as saying she wrote to &ldquopreach &hellip If it is literature, that just happened.&rdquo She considered her writing a tool for promoting her politics, and herself a one-woman propaganda machine. Hedges notes in her afterword that Gilman wrote &ldquotwenty-one thousand words per month&rdquo while working on her self-published political magazine, The Forerunner.
The essays Berkin 1992, Degler 1956, and Hill 1980 listed below are excellent introductions to Gilman’s life and career. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society website contains biographical sketches of Gilman and links to other sites, including e-texts of her major works. The monographs Knight 1997 and Scharnhorst 1985 survey wide swaths of her writings.
Berkin, Carol Ruth. “Private Woman, Public Woman: The Contradictions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Edited by Joanne Karpinski, 17–42. New York: Hall, 1992.
Originally published in Women in America: A History, 1979. A psycho-biographical sketch of Gilman through the age of 40 that emphasizes the influence of her parents on her character. Defends the dubious proposition, promulgated by Gilman in her autobiography, that she remained a psychological cripple for most of her life.
Includes a biographical sketch of Gilman and information about the Gilman Society, the Gilman listserv, and Gilman works and resources online.
Degler, Carl N. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism.” American Quarterly 8 (Spring 1956): 21–39.
The pioneering article that sparked the modern revival of interest in Gilman, “the major intellectual leader of the struggle for women’s rights . . . during the first two decades of the twentieth century” (p. 22). Particularly valuable on Women and Economics and The Man-Made World.
Hill, Mary A. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Feminist’s Struggle with Womanhood.” Massachusetts Review 21 (1980): 503–526.
A thoroughly documented sketch of Gilman’s life through the end of the 19th century that situates her major ideas in intellectual context.
Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Comprehensive critical survey of Gilman’s short stories 1886–1916. Discusses her feminism and her ideological stances, including reform Darwinism, with particular reference to “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and other early tales, her imitations of other authors in the Impress, and several stories in the Forerunner. Also reprints selections of Gilman’s essays on writing and a sheaf of reviews.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
A groundbreaking and succinct critical study of Gilman’s entire life and major works based on both primary and secondary sources.
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