Authors: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is not ordinarily thought of as a humorist, but her feminist utopia,
, is a very funny book. Prominent at the turn of the century as a social critic and lecturer, Gilman was best known as the author of
Women and Economics
, a serious and sweeping analysis of the history, sociology, and political economy of the female sex; and
The Yellow Wallpaper
, a chilling and largely autobiographical study of insanity. But much of her fiction, the least known of her work, relies on humor for its social commentary. Ideologues—and Gilman was one of the best—rarely can establish sufficient distance between themselves and their cause to laugh and make others laugh with them. The women’s movement is only now coming to recognize the power of humor as a device for social criticism, a power which, as with Gilman, is located essentially in imaginative work.
Gilman appealed to an assortment of our comic sensibilities—the satiric, the whimsical, the sardonic, the rousing belly laugh—all in the interest of exposing the absurdities of accepted pieties, particularly as they applied to woman’s “eternal place” or “eternal nature.” She used the marginality forced upon her as a woman in Victorian America to shape a distinctly woman’s humor.
is an example of Gilman’s playful best.
What makes Gilman’s skill even more special is the facility with which she moved back and forth from humor to serious social and historical analysis, and the setting in which
appeared well illustrates her virtuosity. Written in 1915,
was serialized in Gilman’s monthly magazine,
and until now it was never published separately.
appeared each month from November 1909 through December 1916, beginning with “no capital except a mental one,” and ending when Gilman decided that she had said what she had wanted to. She wrote every line of the thirty-two-page magazine, including the few advertisements she tolerated for a short while. Moore’s Fountain Pen and Fels-Naphtha Soap were personally endorsed, the first because it did not leak when one bent over to wash floors or change diapers, the second because it was “artistically and antiseptically clean” and a “solid comfort” in her kitchen. Each year two books were serialized; the full seven-year run of
equaled in pages twenty-eight full-length books.
Every issue contained editorials, critical articles, comments and observations, book reviews, essays, poetry, and fiction that dealt with a whole range of subjects from venereal disease to noise pollution, but the overriding commitments were to the rights of women and to socialism. Writing in the years when the women’s movement and the socialist movement were each trying to win mass support, Gilman sought to unite them by demonstrating their essential and necessary interdependence. Her impudent and heretical pieces, unacceptable to professional journals or popular magazines, flourished in
The Forerunner. Herland
cannot be described as a typical selection, for no
selection can be; but it characterizes the spirit and style of Gilman during this period.
Charlotte Anna Perkins
was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 3, 1860. Her father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, a man of letters and one-time head of the Boston Public Library, was the grandson of the distinguished theologian Lyman Beecher, and nephew of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Perkins left his wife, Mary A. Fitch, soon after Charlotte’s birth, and thereafter provided his family with little support, emotional or financial. Charlotte and her brother grew up in an unhappy, cheerless home. Mother and children lived on the edge of poverty, moving nineteen times in eighteeen years to fourteen different cities.
As a young woman still living at home, Charlotte Perkins supported herself as a designer of greeting cards, an art teacher, and a governess. In 1884, after much vacillation, she reluctantly married Charles Walter Stetson, a local artist. Katharine Beecher, their only child, was born a year later. Soon after, Charlotte Stetson became so deeply depressed and despondent that she consulted S. Weir Mitchell, the well-known Philadelphia neurologist who specialized in women’s nervous disorders. Mitchell’s famous “rest cure” forbade Charlotte Stetson ever to write and sharply limited her reading time. The treatment almost drove her mad. She ultimately rejected his regimen, as she was all her life to reject “expert” advice, and fled to California, away from husband and child. There the depression lifted. When efforts to reconcile with her husband failed, she moved permanently to California with her daughter. She and Stetson later divorced. He immediately married Grace Ellery Channing, Charlotte Stetson’s closest friend, and the three remained good friends throughout their lives.
For a time Charlotte Stetson barely managed to support herself, Katharine, and later her mother, by running a boarding-house. During these difficult years she launched her writing and lecturing career. In 1892
The Yellow Wallpaper
appeared, a bitter story of a young woman driven to insanity by a loving husband-doctor, who, with the purest motives, imposed Mitchell’s rest cure. It was Charlotte Stetson’s retaliation for the damage done to her and others by the powerful psychiatric profession and might be placed in the tradition of black comedy, although its comic quality has not previously been acknowledged.
The Yellow Wallpaper
reflects a woman in torment,
a woman at play. The caged creature in the first achieves her freedom, and thereby her sanity, in the second.
In 1893 she published a book of verse,
In This Our World
. In 1894 she edited, with Helen Campbell,
, a journal of the Pacific Coast Woman’s Association. She was contributing editor to
The American Fabian
, along with Henry Demarest Lloyd, Edward Bellamy, and William Dean Howells, who did much to sustain her career. Bellamy’s novel
pictured the world in the year 2000 under a form of Utopian socialism—which he called Nationalism—and inspired the formation of Nationalist clubs to implement the ideas espoused in the book. Charlotte Stetson found herself drawn to the ideas of Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist movement, as well as caught up in the women’s movement.
She earned her living by lecturing to women’s clubs and men’s clubs, to labor unions and suffrage groups, to church congregations and to these Nationalist clubs. Like the Beechers from whom she came, she was a preacher, but the message was uniquely hers.
Soon after Walter Stetson remarried, both parents agreed that their child should live with her father and his new wife, whom the child knew and loved. Charlotte Stetson, by this time moderately well known, was attacked in the press, particularly in California, for “abandoning” her child and for being an “unnatural mother.” Unnerved, she fled her home. From 1895 until 1900, she led a nomadic existence, ceaselessly lecturing and writing, forging for herself a role as ideologue and propagandist, a humanist-at-large. Here is a woman in late-Victorian America, denying the social definition of herself as wife and mother, first with a scandalous divorce (scandalous because it was amicable and seemingly without cause), then by “abandoning” her child to its father, and finally by denying the very reality of home. She created a kind of self-imposed exile, reproducing, but this time by choice, the marginality of her early life.
Out of this environment came her most famous book,
Women and Economics
, which appeared in 1898, was soon translated into seven languages, and won her international recognition. In 1900 she published
The Home: Its Work and Influence;
Man Made World: Or Our Androcentric Culture;
and in 1923,
His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers
. Three novels serialized in
were later published separately:
What Diantha Did
, 1911; and
Moving the Mountain
In 1900, after a long and agonizing courtship, she married George Houghton Gilman, her first cousin, also a descendant of Lyman Beecher’s. They lived, very happily it seems, in New York, until 1922, when they moved to Norwich, Connecticut. Houghton Gilman died suddenly in 1934, two years after Charlotte Gilman had learned that she suffered from inoperable cancer. After her husband’s death, she moved back to Pasadena, near her daughter, who lives there still. Grace Channing Stetson, also a widow, joined her there, thus reuniting the women of the family. In 1935, Gilman completed her autobiography,
The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
, made certain that the royalties, which were never to be substantial, would be a legacy to her daughter, and selected the cover for the book. She said good-bye to her family, and with the chloroform she had long been accumulating, ended her life. The note she left appears in the last pages of her autobiography:
No grief, pain, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But 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.
Gilman had an enormous reputation in her lifetime, but she is almost unknown to ours. A serious critic of history and society whose intriguing ideas have never been adequately examined, she tried to create a cohesive, integrated body of thought that combined feminism and socialism. She struggled to define a humane social order built upon the values she identified most closely as female values, life-giving and nurturing. She constructed a theoretical world view to explain human behavior, past and present, and to project the outlines of her vision for the future. It was a theoretical structure that encompassed anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, and ethics. Her cosmic efforts were not always successful, but she did create a social analysis that is largely coherent internally and awesome in its proportions.