Adistinguished social reformer and feminist, Gilman produced several works of nonfiction devoted to her social and economic theories, as well as fictional texts embodying those principles. Her most famous works are The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), depicting a young mother's descent into madness, and the utopian fantasy Herland (1915).
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATIONBorn July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, Gilman was the daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins, a librarian and magazine editor, and Mary Fitch Wescott Perkins. She was the grandniece of the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the feminist Catherine Beecher, and the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker. Gilman's father, known for his volatile temper, had difficulty measuring up to the standards of the Beecher family; he tried several professions before finally devoting himself to literature. He served as assistant director of the Boston Public Library, and in 1880 became director of the San Francisco Public Library. He left the family shortly after Gilman was born and provided only meager financial support on an irregular basis until 1873, when Mary Perkins filed for divorce. Plagued by financial difficulties, Gilman, her mother, and Gilman's older brother Thomas moved frequently and occasionally stayed with relatives. Gilman was thus exposed to the independence and social activism of her great aunts.
When she was fourteen, aided by an inheritance, Gilman began attending a private school. Within two years she was teaching art and working as a commercial artist. At the age of nineteen, Gilman began studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she met her first husband, artist Walter Stetson. They were married in 1884 and a year later had a daughter, Katherine Beecher Stetson. Following Katherine's birth, Gilman began suffering from depression and traveled to California for an extended stay with her good friend, Grace Channing. When she returned, she began writing articles and poetry which were published in People, a weekly newspaper in Providence, and Women's Journal, a publication of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Her depression soon returned, however, and she consulted S. Weir Mitchell, the famous Philadelphia neurologist noted for his "rest cure." The prescribed treatment—complete inactivity and isolation—brought Gilman, in her own words, "perilously close to losing my mind." It was an experience that would later form the basis for The Yellow Wallpaper.
In 1887 the Stetsons separated, and mother and daughter moved to Pasadena, California, where Gilman took up life as a writer and activist. She lectured throughout the United States and England on labor reform and women's issues, and began publishing her nonfiction theoretical works. In 1891 she moved to Oakland and became active in a number of reform movements, including the Nationalist Party, a socialist group devoted to the program of social reform outlined in Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. In 1900 Gilman married George Houghton Gilman, who proved very supportive of her work as an activist. From 1909 to 1916 she served as writer and editor of The Forerunner, a monthly journal devoted to social reform, which featured Gilman's essays, poems, short stories, and sketches. In 1932 she was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer; two years later her husband George died, and the following year Gilman took her own life to escape the pain and inevitability of a slow death from her condition. She died August 17, 1935.
During her lifetime, Gilman's most influential work was the theoretical piece Women and Economics (1898), in which she outlined the consequences of women's economic dependence, both for individual women and for society as a whole. Her other major theoretical writings include Concerning Children (1900), containing her thoughts on educating and disciplining children; The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), dedicated to dispelling the common myths surrounding the sanctity of the home and describing the price women pay for lives of domestic service; and Human Work (1904), a discussion of the social and civic functions of labor, considered by Gilman her most important work.
Much of Gilman's literary output was published in her monthly magazine The Forerunner, which she published from 1909 to 1916, serving as both its editor and sole contributor. The magazine contained short stories and plays, poetry, essays, reviews of current books and articles, and an advice column called "Personal Problems." Some of her works, both fiction and nonfiction, were originally serialized in The Forerunner; one such work was The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture, which appeared in the magazine in 1909 and was published in book form two years later. Gilman's fictional contributions to the magazine were normally devoted to the themes and concerns raised in her works of social and political theory. Many of her stories involved the wrongs inflicted on women by men, including extramarital affairs, venereal diseases, and physical abuse.
Gilman is best known for her novella The Yellow Wallpaper, originally published in New England Magazine and reprinted in William Dean Howell's collection The Great Modern American Stories (1920). The work has been variously interpreted as a gothic horror story, a feminist polemic, and an autobiographical tale of the author's own experience with the popular medical treatment of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. The Yellow Wallpaper, along with Gilman's feminist utopian novel Herland, were rediscovered by feminist scholars in the 1970s, after many decades of critical neglect. Herland originally appeared in serial form in The Forerunner (1915) and depicts an all-female world where men are unnecessary, even for reproduction. Three males from the outside world enter Herland and, along with three of its inhabitants, engage in an extended dialogue that points out the differences between their respective cultures. Both The Yellow Wallpaper and Herland were reissued in the 1970s and remain among the most-studied works in women's studies courses.
Gilman's reputation during her lifetime was based on the vast body of nonfiction work she produced on social and political issues. Her contemporaries praised Women and Economics, her most celebrated work, and compared it to John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women. Such social reformers as Jane Addams and Florence Kelly contributed to the book's positive reception. However, Women and Economics, like most of Gilman's writings, entered a long period of critical neglect until feminist scholars in the 1970s led a revival of interest in her fiction. A reassessment of her nonfiction works began later, with her treatise on women's economic dependence on men gaining recognition as an important work in the field of economics as well as in the area of women's studies.
Although scholars generally agree that Gilman was a pioneer in analyzing social and economic relationships based on gender, many modern critics fault the narrowness of her reformist vision. According to Ann J. Lane (see Further Reading), Gilman "seriously neglected issues of class, race, and ethnicity and their complex interaction with gender. She believed in laws of racial development, which today are read, usually correctly, as racist and ethnocentric." Similarly, Shelley Fisher Fishkin acknowledges that some of Gilman's theories "do not wear well" today, among them "her racism, her ethnocentrism, her anti-Semitism, her homophobia, her xenophobia, and her simplistic faith in evolutionary progress." However, many of Gilman's ideas on gender relations seem as relevant to contemporary students as they were in Gilman's own time, and Fishkin reports the widespread use of Gilman's texts in American college courses, ranging from literature and women's studies to economics and American studies.
Most prominent of the Gilman texts used in the classroom today is The Yellow Wallpaper. Catherine Golden reports that not only was the work virtually unknown until the early 1970s, Gilman originally had great difficulty getting the story published. Golden reprints a rejection letter from the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who was so disturbed by the piece that he claimed he could not make his readers as miserable as he had made himself by reading it. In the twenty-first century, the work frequently appears in anthologies and has established "a firm place in the feminist literary canon," according to Golden, and criticism of the story has reached a point of such complexity that "critics openly debate central aspects of the story with each other," and are "as actively engaged in reading and responding to each other's interpretations of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' as they are in reading the story itself." Golden attributes this debate to the open-ended quality of the text, which "seems to raise more questions than it answers."