Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

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 INFORMATION

Born 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.

MAJOR WORKS

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...

(The entire section is 36,330 words.)