‘‘Three Thanksgivings,’’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was first published in Gilman’s magazine, Forerunner, in 1909. The story and many of the other works published in the magazine have received very little critical attention, since most critics have tended to focus on Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wallpaper. Nevertheless, ‘‘Three Thanksgivings’’ contains themes that are common to many of Gilman’s stories, including women’s struggle for economic independence despite social pressures and the possibility of women being forced to enter into undesirable marriages. The protagonist, Mrs. Delia Morrison, is a widow who wishes to remain in the house that her father built and where she has lived most of her life. However, in two years, Mrs. Morrison owes a small mortgage to Mr. Peter Butts, a persistent man who hopes to marry her. If she cannot pay the mortgage and interest, she will have to sell the house and live with one of her children or marry Mr. Butts and live with him in her house as his servant. In addition to sharing the traits of many of her other stories, Gilman’s ‘‘Three Thanksgivings’’ gives a portrait of the times, accurately reflecting the attitudes toward women that were prevalent in the early twentieth century—when women were fighting for many rights, including economic independence and the right to vote. A copy of the story can be found in The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings, which was published by The Modern Library in 2000.
When ‘‘Three Thanksgivings’’ begins, Mrs. Delia Morrison, a fifty-year-old widow, has just finished reading two letters—one from Andrew and one from Jean, her two children. Both have sent travel money to Mrs. Morrison, asking her to come and stay with them for Thanksgiving. In addition, they have both requested that she sell her house. Andrew is most interested in Mrs. Morrison’s safety, whereas Jean’s husband, Joe, mainly wants to invest her money in his own business.
Mrs. Morrison ponders her financial situation. She has stopped taking in boarders at the Welcome House, a spacious manor built by her deceased father. She hates having boarders and decides that it is useless anyway, since the money is only enough to pay the interest—but not the principal—on her small mortgage. After dinner, Mr. Peter Butts, a friend and lifelong suitor of Mrs. Morrison, pays her a visit. Mr. Butts holds the mortgage on the Welcome House and tries to use this fact to pressure Mrs. Morrison into marriage. He says that if she cannot pay her loan when it is due in two years, she will either have to sell the house or marry him anyway. He also believes that she will not be able to raise the money on her own. Nevertheless, Mrs. Morrison says that she will find a way and politely declines Mr. Butts’s offer.
Mrs. Morrison decides to go to Andrew’s house for Thanksgiving. Although Andrew and his wife, Annie, are gracious, Mrs. Morrison is not happy. She is used to her spacious home, so the room they give her feels very small. Although Mrs. Morrison is a skilled manager—from her many years as a minister’s wife—there is no place for her to help out; Annie, Andrew’s wife, is more than capable enough to help Andrew in his own ministry. In addition, Andrew, Annie, and their neighbors insist on treating Mrs. Morrison as if she is old. She only stays a week before returning to the Welcome House, determined to save her home.
Mrs. Morrison makes a thorough inventory of her assets, finding that her father’s political meetings and her husband’s religious events have helped to increase the stock of supplies in the house. She finds hundreds of extra chairs and a large stock of bedding, towels, and table linens, but she rules out the idea of opening a hotel because the other hotel in Haddleton is never full. She finds a large stock of china and cups, but she rules out the idea of a girls’ school, which would take time and money to establish. As she starts to think of all of the women she knows in the community, she has a brainstorm and gets to work.
Shortly thereafter, word spreads that Mrs. Morrison is going to entertain all of the country women at the Welcome House. Hundreds show up to hear Mrs. Isabelle Carter Blake—a noted social activist and family woman—and her friend, a European countess, talk about the rapid growth of women’s clubs in the United States and Europe. Over the next few days, Mrs. Blake goes to many church meetings, encouraging the farm women to start their own dues-based clubhouse in Haddleton, which they could use on Saturdays when they are in town doing their shopping. The women think it would be too expensive to find a facility and hire a manager, but Mrs. Morrison offers to convert the Welcome House into a women’s club and to manage the organization for a mere ten cents a week from each woman. By the time Mrs. Blake leaves, the Haddleton Rest and Improvement Club has been established at the Welcome House. Hundreds of women join immediately, and the small weekly due paid by each woman adds up quickly.
The next Thanksgiving, Mrs. Morrison goes to Jean’s house. The room that Jean gives her is small, like the one in Andrew’s house. However, instead of being coddled, Mrs. Morrison gets put to work helping out with Jean’s four children, ruining her silk clothes in the process. At the same time, Joe urges her to sell the house and come and stay with them, because he could use the capital for his business. As at Andrew’s house, Mrs. Morrison stays only one week before leaving.
Mrs. Morrison pays her yearly interest to Mr. Butts and renews her efforts at growing the club and paying off her loan. Using management skills and a refined personality that she has honed as both a senator’s daughter and a minister’s wife, Mrs. Morrison expands the range of the organization. She rents out rooms for all sorts of club meetings, including boys’ clubs, and invites speakers and other entertainment. Mrs. Morrison makes a nice profit the first season, and the second season is even better.
By the next Thanksgiving, Mrs. Morrison has made enough profit to pay back her interest and principal on the loan, as well as a little extra money. She sends part of this money to Andrew and Jean, inviting them and their families to come and stay with her for Thanksgiving. After dinner, Mr. Butts shows up, thinking he will be taking either the house or Mrs. Morrison—or preferably both. He is therefore very surprised when she hands him a check for his interest and principal and says that she could not possibly have made all that money from her club and that she must have had help from her family. Nevertheless, he takes the check and leaves.