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

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

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…

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