Who was she?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s was a writer, editor, social activist and lecturer: during her lifetime, producing over 180 short stories, 9 serialised novels, 3 poetry collections, 10 nonfiction books and a countless number of nonfiction essays and articles as well as lectures. Although she was perhaps more theorist than literary genius, some of the pieces she wrote, including Herland, Women and Economics and The Man-Made World, are genuinely remarkable for their radicalism, progressiveness and imagination.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1860, Gilman’s father left the family during her infancy. Consequently, she spent much of her early life in poverty, having to relocate often in order to stay with various relatives across the United States. Perhaps because of this Gilman was not inclined to marry, and, when she did, the relationship ended in a controversial divorce. During this marriage, Gilman gave birth to her only child, Katharine, fell into a dark bout of postpartum depression and was prescribed a rest cure, a period that has been well documented in the reception of her most famous work, the short story, ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’.
During the 1890s Gilman became actively involved in various social reform movements and published her first collection of poetry, a satirical series entitled In This Our World, in 1893. She also began to lecture, initially on nationalism and ultimately on a vast range of topics from women’s equality, ethics, human rights and social reform. Between 1909 and 1916 Gilman single-handedly wrote, edited, and published The Forerunner, a magazine with a readership of 1500 subscribers, which became the main forum for the publication of a wide range of her writing including short stories, serialized versions of her novels and utopian fiction, and her sociological writings, including The Man-Made World or Our Androcentric Culture.
Gilman’s second marriage, to her cousin George Houghton Gilman, was a happy one until his sudden death in 1934. In 1932, Gilman herself learnt that she had terminal breast cancer, and, knowing that she was dying, overdosed on chloroform in August 1935.
For Gilman, writing was an intrinsic aspect of her social reform; she believed ‘writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.’ While Gilman’s career as a lecturer and orator was often first and foremost in her mind, and its influence can be felt within many of her works, she recognized the unique power of the written word, stating:
We live, humanly, only through our power of communication. Speech gives us this power laterally, as it were, in immediate personal contact. […] Literature gives not only an infinite multiplication to the lateral spread of communion but adds the vertical reach. Through it we know the past, govern the present, and influence the future.
The written word’s appeal came from its permanence; its tangible form that enables both a ‘lateral spread’ – its dissemination through space – and a ‘vertical reach’ – its residual power through time. Unlike her lectures, which were restricted to a specific spatio-temporal environment and necessarily warped through repetition, the written word remained unchanged for future readers, maintaining its rhetoric impact.
Perhaps unusually however, the kind of writing Gilman focused on was not just theoretical or nonfictional, but fictional and literary, those ‘powerful addition[s] to [one’s] armoury.’ Gilman’s work shows extensive and masterful experimentation with various prose and lyric genres, often drawing upon the historical conventions of parable, fable, legend or homily: from the allegorical ‘An Extinct Angel’ to the fantasy ‘When I was a Witch,’ or ‘An Unnatural Mother,’ which takes the form of a legend retold through the voices of certain female locals. However, despite their disparate genres and styles, Gilman’s writing shares a uniform didactic intentionality. Gilman was well aware that the power fiction could play in calling upon the sympathies of one’s reader and rallying them into political action.
The influence of Gilman’s career as a lecturer can be felt throughout her work, as she transgresses what Cixous calls, ‘that scission, that division made by the common man between the logic of oral speech and the logic of the text.’ Stories such as ‘The Widow’s Might’ and ‘Mr Peeble’s Heart’ could be seen as written homilies in their use of simplistic characterisation, generic structure, and clear moral evaluation. These stories consistently offer practical solutions to escape the drudgery of sterile marriages, solutions that combine intellectual and personal stimulation with economic independence, inevitably resulting in mutual satisfaction for both husband and wife. Often Gilman includes exact monetary sums and explicit instructions for her readers, portraying women who establish their own commercial enterprises that scope from personal shopping (‘Mrs Elder’s Idea’), to crèches (‘Making a Change’), to housekeeping businesses (‘What Diantha Did’). Gilman’s stories are not only fictionally engaging but are also actively instructive.
Ultimately, Gilman absorbs the ‘logic’ of orality into her written stories and consequently creates an innovative generic hybridity. In many ways, her writing, although perhaps less sophisticated, seems to anticipate the stylistic fluidity and discursiveness of Virginia Woolf’s polemic or theoretical works Three Guineas and A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf integrates fictional asides in order to illustrate her point and maintain the reader/listener’s attention and imagination.
- Via her father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, Gilman was the great granddaughter of Lyman Beecher and the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
- Gilman coined the term ‘androcentric’, meaning focused or centered on men.
What kind of legacy did she leave?
This question is best left to scholars of Gilman’s work: as Ann Lane writes in Herland and Beyond, ‘Gilman offered perspectives on major issues of gender with which we still grapple; the origins of women’s subjugation, the struggle to achieve both autonomy and intimacy in human relationships; the central role of work as a definition of self; new strategies for rearing and educating future generations to create a humane and nurturing environment.’
Gilman is perhaps one of the better known female writers of this period. In academic circles there has been and remains a fair amount of interest in her work, perhaps more so in America, but sadly she remains relatively overlooked in public readership. Encouraged partly by feminist presses in the 1970s who somewhat reclaimed certain of her works, most reader’s knowledge of her work includes ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, and sometimes Herland. Oddly, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is somewhat singular in Gilman’s oevre with most of her work employing very different styles and tones, which might account for this lack of sustained interest. However, while many of her fictional stories can seem somewhat forcedly polemical, their brevity and accessibility make them worth a read, while her theoretical works offer a fascinating insight into the sociological and economic debates of Gilman’s time.
- The best biography is Cynthia J. Davis’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography.
Access to Works:
- Amazingly the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard have uploaded a huge amount of Gilman’s writing to this online archive.
- There’s also this website dedicated to her, which is pretty good despite its questionable font choices.
- If you prefer hard copy books then the Penguin edition of Herland & Collected Works is a good place to start!
- If you would like a comprehensive critical bibliography you can find one here.
However, online access to articles about Gilman’s work include:
- Justine Picardi, ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Pattern of Despair‘.
- Peter Dreier, ‘Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Radical Feminism Still Challenges Us‘.
- A radio broadcast of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’