Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman; drawing by David Levine

“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.

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman has obvious gaps and tantalizing reticences. It is not surprising that the new feminist scholarship has turned with the greatest curiosity not only to Gilman’s work but to her life. The arrival of a Gilman collection at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library for the study of women in America in 1971 and 1972 was one of the library’s major acquisitions. The director had learned that Gilman’s daughter had manuscripts, diaries, and letters covering almost all of her mother’s life and acquired the lot, which now occupies thirteen feet of shelf-space in acid-free boxes and is reproduced on six hundred microfiches which have since been repeatedly borrowed by scholars (a microfiche, it should be observed, reproduces for viewing by enlargement forty-nine frames, that is, forty-nine separate documentary objects). And the library is still seeking more—it hopes to acquire the papers of Grace Channing, the second Mrs. Stetson, Charlotte’s friend and her daughter’s other mother. Other libraries are also busy. At the Rhode Island Historical Society, for example, there is a revelatory series of Gilman letters written to a school friend, Martha Luther, whose friendship gave her, the autobiography merely says, her “first deep personal happiness.”

To those who have looked into these documents, it has been obvious for some time that Gilman did not tell all, that a true story of the life would show a personality even more conflicted and complex than she admitted. There is the matter of her female friendships. That with Martha seems to have been an instance of those close, passionate attachments between women characteristic of the nineteenth century. It may have been a relationship which one would be quick to call lesbian today, but which probably did not have such meaning in a time when women, isolated from the male world, were driven upon each other for emotional support, and tended to invest in a female friend all hope of understanding and tenderness. Gilman may have been truthful when she wrote in the autobiography, “She was nearer and dearer than any one up to that time. This was love not sex.”

The letters to Martha Luther give an unforgettable picture of the young Charlotte, yearning for freedom, convinced that marriage was a form of self-immolation. But Martha became, too, Charlotte’s “little kitten,” her “pussy,” her “sweetheart” whom she rejoiced in “cuddling” and who would, she declared, “make up to me for husband and children and all that I shall miss.” Another female attachment, that with “Dora,” is identified in Gilman’s diaries in the Schlesinger Library as Adeline E. Knapp, with whom she lived while separated from Stetson in 1891. To Houghton Gilman, later, she wrote of “the passionate love I had for her.” She was, Charlotte said, “a friend with whom I sincerely hoped to live continually.” Here, too, it is difficult not to view the relation as part of a range of emotional expressions of affection and dependence which grew out of the deprivations of female life.

The Schlesinger Library’s several hundred letters written to Houghton Gilman between 1897 and 1900 are, however, the most important additions to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s autobiography. They are the record of an extraordinary courtship during which Charlotte analyzed her own character, tried to come to terms with her past, struggled, sometimes advancing, sometimes retreating, with the idea of committing herself again in marriage. In the beginning, she wrote Gilman, “These years, when I stop doing things and my mind settles and things come up into view, most of those are of so painful a nature that I have to rush around and cram them into their various (right here I had to stop and write a poem on ‘closed doors’ which I will show you later—a nasty little thing).” But soon she opened the doors. “Cheerfully will I run around the world the rest of my life—a tentless Arab—living in a pair of handbags and a sleeping car! Cheerfully will I forgo the whole gamut of family affection. Yes, rather would I never again see a face I know than to suffer again as I have suffered for years!” She reviewed her painful motherhood after she had seen a child who reminded her of her own “when she was little—and O so lovely!—and I knew it, but couldn’t feel it.”

It is in the letters to Gilman that she analyzed her attitudes toward men. “As a girl I was unattractive, indeed repellent to men. Within the past four years I have changed in some way. I told Walter once I wished he were a woman, and it seemed to hurt his feelings. I can see why now, but I didn’t then.” Stetson had been a romantic-looking fellow, generous-spirited and gentle within the limits of a normal amount of male egoism. But Gilman, seven years younger than she, unimpressive to judge by his pictures, was able to remove her old terrors. And her attitudes toward men had been changing. She confessed her experiences in the San Francisco bohemia in 1893-1894:

I took that queer turn and became “attractive.” Queer unfeminine girl that I was, there was first the long devoted love of him who called himself my husband; then, when I thought myself a morbid strange cold sort of monster—no woman at all—came the convincing proof that I was more woman than most—a strong lasting love of more than one man and the knowledge of—of—well, sometimes I feel like “a heathen goddess come again” a wonderful struggling mixed feeling, half shame half pride, of being—to most people’s knowledge a stern cold thinker, a calm pleasant friend of men, dearly loved by women, the favorite of children—a widow—a celibate, a solitary—and inside—Ashtoreth!

She nevertheless warned Gilman that she could not “make him a home” in the conventional sense. “I was trying this morning in the dreary half hour or so that is between waking and rising to plan some way in which I could dare to marry you in the good old housekeeping terms—earn my bread as a capable house-maid and cook—and have the joy of serving you thrown in. But I daren’t undertake that. This thing has overthrown me before now in the midst of housework, and then the essential duties of the day drag and grind like juggernaut.”

Mary Hill’s biography of Charlotte Gilman is the first of several large projects in the Gilman industry to reach print. It is only the first of two volumes, and stops short of the Houghton Gilman courtship (most of the letters just quoted from have been excerpted by me from the Schlesinger Library’s files). But Hill has drawn upon this correspondence for the light it casts on Gilman’s earlier life, and by placing the manuscript diaries and other letters against the autobiography she has made the younger Charlotte visible. She is particularly good in her study of Gilman’s relation with her mother. The autobiography tends to stress the author’s loneliness and submissiveness—but the diaries give a different picture. Hill argues convincingly that she sensed not only her mother’s “spaniel” character, but the hidden strength that developed out of her enforced independence of her husband. This neglected wife had learned to care for her children alone, turned to esoteric cults, rejecting the unfulfilled promises of conventional religious upbringing, and even experimented with alternatives to the conventional family in a Swedenborgian cooperative.

Hill examines the curious demonstration of stony strength which the autobiography reports without explaining—Mary’s refusal to caress her child or to accept signs of affection (“I used to put away your little hand from my cheek”) and calls this “one of the most destructive aspects” of Gilman’s childhood. But she observes that in this way Mary “exposed some of the conflicts between the myth and reality of motherhood.” Perhaps even in this thwarting fashion she was communicating resistance that was to be useful to Charlotte. Perhaps Charlotte sensed from her mother’s bitterness the cost of her own passions—pregnancy that had been almost killing, the dragging weight of motherhood, abandonment.

A close reading of the diaries and her early journalism and poetry enables Hill to clarify Charlotte’s relationship to Walter Stetson. A few months after her marriage, Charlotte wrote in her diary: “Perhaps it was not meant for me to work as I intended. Perhaps I am not to be of use to others. I am weak. I anticipate a future of failure and suffering. Children sickly and unhappy. Husband miserable because of my distress.” She blamed herself in the autobiography and exonerated Walter, but contrary feelings, Hill shows, emerged in articles she just then began to write for the feminist press in which she charged that men push women into marriage, without any appreciation of their real characters.

Hill’s strongest theme in this volume is that Gilman’s early personal experiences coalesced with the drift of social thinking moving women into greater self-consciousness in her time. As early as 1890 she was a convert to Nationalism, the movement that produced clubs throughout the country composed of reform-minded admirers of Edward Bellamy after the publication of his utopian socialist romance Looking Backward. It was in the Nationalist, the Bellamy magazine, that Gilman published an early poem praised by Howells, and before the Nationalist Club of Los Angeles she gave her first speech. A poem also introduced her in 1886 to the Woman’s Journal, edited by Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of the famous reformers Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. That year she attended her first suffrage convention and agreed to write a regular suffrage column for a Providence labor weekly, The People.

The air was full of denunciations of social wrong, and everyone was reading Bellamy, Henry George, Hamlin Garland, Lincoln Steffens, and Jacob Riis. In California, where Charlotte soon settled, there were sixty-five Nationalist Clubs. Temperance and trade unionism, moral “purity,” and the settlement movement were mixed up with the demand for the vote, discussed in hundreds of women’s clubs which merged in a General Federation in 1890. In that year Gilman was lecturing to some of these and to Nationalists, Single Tax clubs, church groups, whoever invited her in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and turning out two or three articles a week for one or another reform organ.

She was now a national figure. In 1896 she was the representative of California at the National Woman’s Suffrage Convention in Washington. Susan B. Anthony presided over the debate provoked by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible which argued the Biblical basis of women’s equality and shockingly suggested that God might be female; twenty-seven years later Gilman would take cues from Stanton in His Religion and Hers. In Washington she also met Lester Ward, who became a stronger influence on her thinking with his “gynaecentric theory of life,” his argument that “woman is the unchanging trunk of the genealogic tree,” man a secondary offshoot, and that the inversion of their positions in modern society is the cause of its degradation. That same year she went to England to the International Socialist and Labor Congress and met Shaw, the Webbs, William Morris, Jaurès, and on her return became a contributing editor of The American Fabian.

She was ready to consolidate her theories. It is to be expected that Hill will deal in her second volume with the question of Gilman’s final importance, and evaluate the books she began to write after 1896. For this reviewer the sense of recognition that come as one picks up Women and Economics, her major text, makes appraisal difficult. It took the twentieth century a long time before Simone de Beauvoir pointed out the arbitrary nature of the view of women in our culture. Only recently have cultural historians like Foucault and his followers suggested that the very organization of the family is a conceptual habit acquired by each person as one acquires language in the course of personal development. What did Gilman say?

Inspired by Ward, she thought that female disadvantage had an evolutionary basis. It originated when man monopolized social activity, thrust woman from her proper position, and confined her to the functions of motherhood and household care. Modern woman’s chief handicap, since, has been economic. She depends on the male for support. Household labor does not make this less so. Like the slave or the draft animal, woman’s energies simply belong to man, and what she receives does not in the least depend on the nature or extent of her services. Those who labor least, the wives of rich men, receive most. Does maternity constitute a woman’s contribution to the economy of the family? Those who have the smallest families—the rich, again—often “get” most, those who bear no children are not made to suffer for their failure to produce. Schemes to award the houseworker salary for her efforts only prove that this is not the true basis of her position, for the cook’s or char-woman’s or nursemaid’s wages bear no relation to the economic status of a married woman, which is established by her husband’s income.

What, then, if not her labor, does woman offer in the exchange market that gives her her “living”? Gilman put no gloss upon it—it is sex—her function as a sexual commodity. It is for this reason, she argued, that sexuality is so exaggerated in woman; it becomes her only significant characteristic, whereas in other animals it is only one of the female’s species characteristics. It is for this reason that her difference from a man is insisted upon from infancy, the likeness minimized, and the demand for the accoutrements of femininity—clothes, ornaments—becomes so obsessive and inordinate, especially among the wealthy. The positions of the prostitute and wife are based on the same bargain: “the transient trade we think evil. The bargain for life we think good,” said Gilman. Not unreasonably were women referred to as “the sex,” she noted.

Gilman’s commiseration went beyond the stunted specialized being, the human female. In man, too, sexuality had been hypertrophied, his human quality reduced. The loss of the gentler “female” traits by the man, the excessive demand placed on him to maintain others besides himself, perverts him—and perverts society. “Between the brutal ferocity of excessive male energy struggling in the market-place and the unnatural greed generated by the perverted condition of female energy, it is not remarkable that the industrial evolution of humanity has shown peculiar symptoms.” Women, concentrating on their limited “duties,” have devoted themselves to their family’s physical needs, exaggerating the importance of the satisfactions they serve. We are, in a word, depraved. In the woman cowardice (disgraceful in a man) is encouraged, personal vanity and ignorance (if she is intelligent we say she has a “masculine mind) are praised. In a man it is brutality, selfishness, pride, gluttony (“the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”). In the young of either sex an expectation of what we now call “instant satisfaction” of the most trivial craving is cultivated by mothers who have no other function than to feed and cosset.

Nothing in the above is startling except that it was said eighty-two years ago. Gilman was the first feminist to focus her attention upon the most sacred institution of her society, the home, and call for its near-demolition. All household work, she felt, must be relocated leaving it only as a place of rest and retreat—the functions of the kitchen and the nursery could be centralized elsewhere and performed by experts, even the maintenance of interiors handled by teams of professionals exactly as streets are. There was, of course, no movement for such changes. America would remain home-centered—and this despite the development of labor-saving devices which would supposedly “free” the housewife. Gilman did not see that what she called for would require a major socialization of vast areas of life, an availability to all of communal alternatives tuned to such a pitch as has never been realized in Western society save on the most restricted scale. She was a middle-class idealist, a Beecher; her socialism was utopian. And perhaps it gives a hint of her limitations, like an ugly squint in her good keen eye, that she did not like the poor when she met them in the neighborhood of Hull House. She had a particular distaste for immigrants and fled New York City to settle, gratefully, in Norwich, Connecticut, among “native stock.” And yet, “How she knew!”

This Issue

April 17, 1980