Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman was an author, lecturer, social reformer, and major theorist of the early-twentieth-century feminist movement in the United States.
Born Charlotte Anna Perkins on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, Perkins was the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Perkins grew up in near poverty after her father abandoned the family when she was nine years old. The family reportedly moved 19 times in 18 years, with Perkins receiving a total of four years of formal education at various institutions, including the well-respected Rhode Island School of Design.
Perkins's somewhat reluctant first marriage to Charles Walter Stetson in 1884 brought on a deep depression, intensified by the birth of their daughter Katherine Beecher Stetson in 1885. Suffering from melancholia (possibly postpartum depression), Perkins sought a rest cure with Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in Philadelphia. Renowned for treating women with nervous disorders, Mitchell's therapy included forced rest, assisted bathing and dressing, and the banning of all arts or letters. After returning home Perkins suffered a nervous breakdown from the strain of this oppressively infantile routine, which she later dramatized in her 1892 novel, The Yellow Wallpaper. Perhaps her most famous work, the novel suggests that women, when forced to subsume their natural desires for work and intellectual engagement to the demands of subjugated domesticity, face insanity.
In 1898 Perkins published her first major contribution to the women's movement, what is now considered a classic feminist manifesto: Women and Economics. Perkins argued that women had to eliminate their economic dependency on men, which forced them to perform housework and sex in return for survival. Only by working outside the home could women gain personal autonomy and a more equal social position that better represented the natural order as exemplified by all other species. The book was generally well received by critics and academics. Considered quite radical for the time, it was a bestseller and translated into several languages.
In 1900, Perkins married her cousin, George H. Gilman, and resided in New York while continuing to write and tour the lecture circuit. Later works expanded or refined parts of Women and Economics along with Gilman's views on the vices of men, including Concerning Children (1900), Human Work (1904), The Man-Made World (1911), and His Religion and Hers (1923). She also single-handedly wrote, edited, and published Forerunner Magazine from 1909 to 1916. Although a leading feminist of the era, Gilman was concerned mostly with middle- and upper-class white women, aligning herself with eugenic thought based on social Darwinism in many of her works and lectures.
Initially published as a serial in Forerunner, Gilman's 1915 novel Herland described a populist, all-female utopian world based on her ideas. Her views on the benefits of feminizing society were shared by other eminent sociologists, such as Lester Ward and Jane Addams, with whom she stayed at Hull House for a short time. Gilman and Addams also cofounded the Woman's Peace Party in 1915, although Gilman was never active in the organization.
Gilman wrote her memoirs, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography in the years directly preceding her death. Living in Pasadena near her daughter, Gilman ended her own life on August 17, 1935, through an overdose of chloroform after a failed battle with inoperable breast cancer. In 1994, Gilman was introduced into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Christina D. Mune
See also: Addams, Jane (1860–1935) ; Bellamy, Edward (1850–1898) ; Feminism ; Progressivism ; Social Darwinism
Allen, Judith A. The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism. Women in Culture and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Davis, Cynthia J. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and American Council of Learned Societies. Women and Economics. 1898. Reprint; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and Catherine Golden. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wall-Paper: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. Routledge Guides to Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.