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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896

by Mary A. Hill
Temple University Press, 362 pp., $14.95

We shall hardly outgrow her in long, long lives to come. In time to come they will be saying: ‘How She Knew!’ ” wrote Zona Gale when Charlotte Perkins Gilman died in 1935. But, in fact, Gilman rapidly began to be forgotten—this redoubtable circuit-rider of radical feminism, indefatigable lecturer and prolific journalist, author of poetry, novels, and half a dozen theoretical works on the condition of women, above all the much-reprinted Women and Economics. This, her first important book, published in 1898, set the tone of all her later messages—that the problem of women was at the very heart of our social structure, the key to mankind’s deviance from true humaneness.

Perhaps, in the long run, it was the very breadth of her criticism, so philosophical as to be beyond the scope of particular acts of law, that caused her to seem irrelevant as the struggle for female rights sharpened in her time to the demand for suffrage. Before the vote was gained at last her more diffuse and more fundamental recommendations had ceased to interest. Only with the rebirth in the Sixties of the movement for “liberation” did she come to mind again. By then, all of her books were out of print.

One by one now, however, her principal works have been republished: in 1966, Women and Economics and the complete run in seven volumes of The Forerunner, the monthly magazine she wrote and edited single-handed between 1907 and 1919, The Home (1903) in 1970, The Man-Made World (1911) in 1971. Upon its reappearance in 1972, her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), was seized upon as a testament of lost wisdom. The next year, a short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” came out as a little chapbook which was instantly famous in the underground readership of feminism. At its first appearance in 1891 in The New England Magazine it had seemed a tale of progressive lunacy told by a woman who imagines another woman struggling behind the pattern of her bedroom wallpaper. The story’s gothic power impressed such early readers as William Dean Howells, who called it a tale “to freeze…our blood” and wanted to accept it for The Atlantic.

In the story Gilman was only superficially imitating Poe. Her narrator is a wife suffering, we can suspect, from postpartum depression, whose physician-husband prescribes as treatment the very conditions that have provoked her breakdown—isolation, inactivity, submission of the will, and surrender of all desire and creative impulse. The result, a psychic rebellion enacted through hallucination, was understood in the Seventies as it had not been earlier.

Gilman’s renaissance continues: her first volume of poetry, In This Our World (1893), reappeared in 1974 and one of her later polemic tracts, His Religion and Hers (1923), in 1976. This past year saw the rediscovery, out of The Forerunner‘s buried pages, of a novel which achieved book publication after sixty-four years. Like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Herland is a fantasy, making use of utopian daydream this time, instead of the delusions of madness.* With wit and grace it realizes a hypothesis—that a race of women, having somehow discovered a way of reproducing parthenogenetically, might make something different of the human potential. What the inhabitants of Herland make is, simply, a better world, a life of beauty, rationality, and harmony in which the bemused male narrator-visitor finds that his preconceptions about female capacities and limitations fall to the ground. And individual, interpersonal love and the isolate family in its isolate home as he has known these things appear inferior to social affection, maternity raised to the height of solicitude for the race and for its continuity.

The Yellow Wallpaper,” as Gilman explained in her autobiography, is not only a fiction about marriage but a document reflecting her own experience. After the birth of her child following her marriage to Walter Stetson in 1884, Charlotte had herself become prostrated by depression and had consulted the famous “nerve” specialist for women, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who subjected her to his standard rest-cure in his Philadelphia sanitorium. His prescription for her future health was unforgettable: “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”

Following it, Gilman later thought, would have reduced her to the insanity that overwhelmed her heroine. Instead, after a brief trial of the Mitchell program, she took the direction suggested by the success of a trip to California away from her husband and child, where she had begun to write, enjoyed intellectual friends, and recovered her cheer and self-confidence. She broke then and forever with the conventional nuclear family, and her divorce was followed by her agreement to surrender much of her child’s upbringing to her husband’s second wife, her own friend Grace Channing. By that time she was already on the way to becoming a public person as a popular lecturer, and the “abandonment” of her child to another woman’s care was castigated in the press. Her subsequent development as a feminist theorist may be seen, from one point of view, as her construction of an apologia—not an apology—to refute the guilt placed on her by society.

In Hartford, Connecticut, in 1860 she was born, to begin with, a Beecher, which meant not only that she was destined to be a bearer of the gospel like her great-grandfather Lyman Beecher and his seven preacher sons, including the famous Henry Ward Beecher. She was the child of the female Beecher tradition, too—her great aunts were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Beecher (founder of the Hartford Female Seminary), and Isabella Beecher Hooker (a nationally known suffrage crusader and spiritualist who believed a matriarchal government was imminent). Her father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, son of a fourth daughter of Henry Ward, was himself something of a rebel, a writer interested in reform and a man who lightly slipped from the restraints and obligations of marriage. He was seldom at home, a romantic and resented far-away figure. A professional librarian, he wrote occasional letters and sent reading lists to his daughter.

Charlotte, who later envied and emulated his freedom, was also affected by his treatment of her mother, whose life she called “one of the most painfully thwarted I have ever known.” Although Mary Perkins was “the most passionately domestic of home-worshipping housewives,” she was forced to move nineteen times in eighteen years, fourteen of these moves being from one city to another while her husband dumped her first on one and then on another of their numerous relatives. She struggled to maintain herself, and was constantly in debt. Musically talented and well-trained, she was compelled to sell her piano to pay the butcher when her daughter was two, and never got another.

As a young girl, Charlotte Perkins was full of mischief and bounce, as she recalls in her autobiography. In Women and Economics, she declares that “the most normal girl is the tom-boy [as] the most normal boy has calmness and gentleness as well as vigor and courage.” Activity—and not the Victorian lady’s corseted faintness—was health, she believed, and she became a gymnastics enthusiast; she organized the first women’s gymnasium in Providence, Rhode Island, when she was twenty-one. She was also full of mental energy, eager to learn, to influence the life around her—fearful, consequently, of the conventional marriage trap. Her first significant emotional relationship with a person of her own age was, expectably, with another girl. With a young person of her own sex she could share those longings for an active sense of herself which seemed threatened by men.

Read today, Gilman’s autobiography may well prove the most interesting of her writings, reflecting as it does upon her experiments in the relation of theory to new ways of being female. During her long career after her divorce she made herself into a successful feminist propagandist. She was a wanderer not only by choice, however, but by reason of her placelessness, as an alien in a family culture she repudiated. There is pathos as well as valor in her reply to the question asked of her at one of her one-night-stand lectures in some small American town: “Where are you living now?” “Why, here,” she said. She did not successfully subdue her recurrent feelings of guilt for her separation from her daughter—she wept when someone asked her to hold a child, though she argues sensibly that her child’s father had had as much right to take charge of her upbringing and provided the more stable home. She suffered prostrations that belied her energetic presence on the lecture platform and the voluminous writing she turned out for one reform organ or another.

No one knew better than she the cost of cutting oneself off from domestic affections. When, early in her career, she lectured in Los Angeles in honor of Susan B. Anthony’s seventy-first birthday, she appealed to her audience to remember what the early reformers had sacrificed: “They had to triumph over their woman hearts and woman bodies and become human beings; they had to sacrifice in large measure the approbation and kindness of the other sex. Do you think this is a light thing? It is a terrible thing. Their heads knew they were right and they went ahead, but there were times when their hearts ached for the common woman’s need of praise and petting.”

She had many friends everywhere. In 1891 she made another female friend to whom she was perhaps erotically close, whom she names simply “Dora” in the autobiography. Bird of passage though she was there were many refuges. She found motherly protectoresses in Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago, in the household economics theorist Helen Campbell with whom she edited a reform journal, The Impress, and even in her father’s second wife, who kept a boarding house in New York. And soon she had closer friendships with men, such as the California poets Edwin Markham and Joaquin Miller.

She still signed herself in a visitor’s book, “Charlotte Stetson. At large.” But a new relationship, the most important of her life, began in 1897 with Houghton Gilman, whom she married in 1900. She had found it possible, at forty, at last to reconcile herself to marriage. “We were married—and lived happily ever after. If this were a novel, now here is the happy ending,” she says reticently. It was not, one infers, a capitulation. “Home” began resolutely in a kitchenless apartment in New York with eating arrangements at a boarding house, though in the end she had to buy some utensils for cooking when her visiting daughter came down with scarlet fever. But she fulfilled her conceived self, and her continuing years were, the hurrying last pages of the autobiography assert, a time of undiminished activity.

  1. *

    Recent Gilman republications: Woman and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, edited by Carl N. Degler (Harper & Row, 1966); The Forerunner, 1907-1919, seven vols. (Greenwood Press, 1966); The Home: Its Work and Influence (Source Book Press, 1970, University of Illinois Press, 1972); The Man-Made World or Our Androcentric Culture, Johnson reprint (University of Minnesota Series in American Studies, 1971), The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (Arno Press, 1972); The Yellow Wallpaper, afterword by Elaine R. Hedges (The Feminist Press, 1973); In This Our World (Arno Press, 1974); His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (Hyperion Press, 1976); Herland, Introduction by Ann J. Lane (Pantheon Books, 1979).

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