Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
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 aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, for role models and learned early that a woman alone could lead a satisfying and useful life.
Gilman taught herself to read before she was five, 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 was continually to 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 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 of 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,” 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 Women’s Press Association. Her first book, a collection of poems titled In This Our World, was a great success. In 1894 she became editor of Impress, the association’s newspaper, but within four months the paper was forced to shut down because its readership could not accept an independent divorced woman as an editor. It was a bitter lesson. 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, she 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 appeared in the magazine, most notably the Utopian fantasy Herland, but the magazine never attracted a large readership.
For the next few years she 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, by 1925, and in the late 1920’s 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 1960’s 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.