Authors: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist, short-story writer, and social critic.

July 3, 1860

Hartford, Connecticut

August 17, 1935

Pasadena, California

Biography

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was the leading intellectual in the women’s movement during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Born Charlotte Anna Perkins, she was the daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins and Mary Fitch Wescott Perkins. In 1866, Frederick Perkins left his wife and three children. Gilman looked to her mother and her great-aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, for role models and learned early that a woman alone could lead a satisfying and useful life.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(Library of Congress)

Gilman taught herself to read before she was five years old, and in adolescence she amused herself by writing extravagant tales of heroic fairy princesses until her mother ordered her to stop. In her later life as a writer, she would continually distrust her imaginative side, although she occasionally gave it free rein. With only four years of formal schooling, Gilman was determined to educate herself, and she continued to read voraciously throughout her life. When she was seventeen she wrote to her father, who was working as a librarian, and asked him to recommend books for her.

As she matured, Gilman came to feel keenly the injustices women suffered in the world. In her early twenties she earned a modest income giving private lessons and working as a commercial artist, but she aspired to a career as a writer. She wrote poetry, exercised her body to make it strong and fit, refused to wear constricting clothing, and lived as independently as she could.

In 1882 Gilman met Charles Walter Stetson, who proposed marriage less than three weeks after their first meeting. She wavered for more than two years but finally married Stetson on May 2, 1884. Although Stetson respected Gilman and understood her objections to a traditional marriage, it was not to be a happy union. Gilman was pregnant within a few weeks, and she was subject to extreme fits of depression throughout the pregnancy and afterward. She began to feel more and more a prisoner—not of her husband, but of the institution of marriage—and trial separations and treatment for her “nerves” failed to help. Late in 1887 she and her daughter left Stetson. The failed marriage was to be the inspiration for several poems that helped establish Gilman’s reputation and for her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (originally “The Yellow Wall-Paper”), which has become her most widely anthologized work.

Living in California, Gilman continued to publish poems and stories in the important magazines of the day, and she became president of the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association (PCWPA). Her first book, a collection of poems titled In This Our World (1893), was a great success. In 1894 she became editor of the Impress, the PCWPA’s literary weekly, but within four months the weekly was forced to shut down because its readership could not accept an independent divorced woman as an editor. It was a bitter lesson for Gilman. Nevertheless, her work with the Impress had brought her into contact with the women’s movement, and she spent much of the next several years lecturing at women’s congresses across the United States and in England.

In 1898 Gilman published her most significant work, Women and Economics, a history of the economic inequality between men and women since prehistoric times. In it she gathered together the arguments that she had been making in her writing and speaking for years: that a mother may work outside the home; that wives, like prostitutes, are forced to barter sex for money; that traditional division of labor weakens the human race; and that professional housekeepers and childcare workers could free women to work outside the home and strengthen marriage. The book was an instant success at home and abroad; it was widely read and discussed, translated into seven languages, and adopted as a textbook. It made Gilman a sought-after writer and lecturer and a financially independent woman at last.

The life of a celebrity, however, was a lonely one, and in 1900, when she was forty years old, Gilman married an old friend and distant cousin, Houghton Gilman. It was understood from the beginning that they would continue their separate careers, and this freedom, along with the freedom to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy, gave her great contentment. During the first eleven years of her marriage she lectured in six countries and published seven more books, including three didactic feminist novels and four social treatises.

From 1909 to 1916 Gilman was the sole writer, editor, and publisher of a magazine called Forerunner, which featured serialized novels and nonfiction works, short stories, essays, poems, reviews, and editorials. The magazine lost money with every issue, but Gilman took on outside writing and speaking jobs to cover the costs. Several important works of hers first appeared in the magazine, most notably the utopian fantasy Herland (1915), but the magazine never attracted a large readership.

For the next few years Gilman wrote little, contributing short pieces to periodicals when she needed the money. She published essays on urban planning in 1920 and 1921, and her final major treatise, His Religion and Hers, in 1923. She had completed most of her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), by 1925, and in the late 1920s she attempted to write a detective novel, which was never published. By 1930 her popularity had all but ended, and a manuscript called “A Study in Ethics” was rejected by six publishers.

In 1932 Gilman was diagnosed as suffering from inoperable breast cancer. After her husband’s death in 1934, Gilman moved to Pasadena to be near her daughter. There she took her own life rather than suffer the pain of her cancer. She was seventy-five years old, and nearly forgotten by the public. It was not until 1956 that Carl N. Degler published “Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism,” the first scholarly assessment of Gilman’s work. When in the 1960s the women’s movement in the United States began to reemerge, her major works were reissued, and she was hailed as an early advocate of the same causes that were being supported by a new generation.

Author Works Long Fiction: What Diantha Did, 1910 The Crux, 1911 Moving the Mountain, 1911 Benigna Machiavelli, 1914 (serial), 1994 (book) Herland, 1915 (serial), 1979 (book) With Her in Ourland, 1916 (serial), 1997 (book) Short Fiction: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” 1892 (magazine), 1899 (book) The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, 1980 (Ann J. Lane, editor) The Yellow Wallpaper, and Other Writings, 1989 (Lynne Sharon Schwartz, editor) Herland, and Selected Stories, 1992 (Barbara H. Solomon, editor) “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1994 (Denise D. Knight, editor) The Yellow Wall-Paper, and Other Stories, 1995 (Robert Shulman, editor) Herland, The Yellow Wall-Paper, and Selected Writings, 1999 (Denise D. Knight, editor) Poetry: In This Our World, 1893 Suffrage Songs and Verses, 1911 The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1996 (Denise D. Knight, editor) Nonfiction: Gems of Art for the Home and Fireside, 1888 Women and Economics, 1898 Concerning Children, 1900 The Home: Its Work and Influence, 1903 Human Work, 1904 The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture, 1911 His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers, 1923 The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography, 1935 The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1994 (2 volumes; Denise D. Knight, editor) A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900, 1995 (Mary A. Hill, editor) Bibliography Davis, Cynthia J., and Denise D. Knight, editors. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts. U of Alabama P, 2004. A collection of essays by Gilman scholars that offers a wealth of biographical and critical information and places Gilman’s opinions among those of her contemporaries. Golden, Catherine, editor. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on The Yellow Wallpaper. Feminist Press, 1992. Devoted entirely to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The “Backgrounds” section of the volume includes essays on nineteenth century attitudes and treatment of women’s psychiatric complaints. The collection of criticism of Gilman’s most-discussed story is extensive, including Elaine Hedges’ 1973 feminist afterword to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860–1896. Temple UP, 1980. Primarily a biographical exploration of the roots of Gilman’s social theories, the insights of this work are based on a reading of Gilman’s private journals and letters. Includes comments on the autobiographical short fiction, particularly “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Karpinski, Joanne B., editor. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. G. K. Hall, 1992. Includes the Shelley Fishkin essay “Making a Change: Strategies of Subversion in Gilman’s Journalism and Short Fiction.” Knight, Denise D. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne Publishers, 1997. A most useful volume of critical analysis of the short fiction. Part 1 discusses Gilman’s short fiction, its influences, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and other stories. Part 2 provides Gilman’s reflections on writing, from primary sources, and Part 3 is a collection of criticism of several of Gilman’s short stories. The editor makes a point of going beyond “The Yellow Wallpaper” so that readers may expand their appreciation of Gilman’s range as a writer of short fiction. Lane, Ann J. “The Fictional World of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, edited by Lane. 1980. U of Virginia P, 1999, pp. xv–xlviii. Lucid, concise analysis of Gilman’s fiction as a whole. Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Pantheon Books, 1990. Primarily a biography. Recognizing the connection between Gilman’s life and work, Lane devotes a solid pair of chapters to an analysis of the work. Detailed synopsis of Women and Economics as the foundation of Gilman’s thought. Discussion of the short fiction is brief, but analytic and informative. Scharnhorst, Gary. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Twayne Publishers, 1985. Scharnhorst, an authority on Charlotte Perkins Gilman who has also compiled an extensive bibliography, has written a literary biography, a study of her imaginative work as a whole, relating her poetry and fiction to her pioneering nonfiction. The theme of this monograph is that Gilman’s entire canon shares a unified didactic purpose.

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