Classic Author Focus: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

On the one hand, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American writer, early feminist, social reformer, and humanist. On the other hand, she was a believer in eugenics, a popular idea at the time but one that is now considered abhorrent. She is best known for her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which she wrote after she suffered a bout of postpartum depression.

Charlotte has an interesting literary lineage. Born in Connecticut, she spent most of her childhood in Rhode Island. Her family was deserted by her father when she was an infant, so she grew up in poverty. However, her family spent a lot of time with her aunts, Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist; Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and the educator Catherine Beecher. Despite such influences, her mother forbade her children from reading novels or making strong friendships. In an autobiographical work, Gilman wrote that her mother only showed her and her brother affection when she thought they were asleep. Isolated, inconsistently educated, and poor, Gilman spent a lot of her childhood in the public library.

When she was eighteen, she enrolled in classes at the Rhode Island School of Design with the financial assistance of her father. She earned her living for a while as a designer of trade cards.

In 1884, she married Charles Walter Stetson, and it was a severe bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter Katherine that inspired her famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about how a serious illness is viewed by doctors as women’s hysteria and treated dismissively. Charlotte separated from her husband after three years of marriage and eventually moved to Pasadena, California, and began a serious relationship with Adeline Knapp. In California, she became active in feminist and reformist organizations. Her poem, “Similar Cases,” was a satire against people who resisted social reform. It was published in 1890, the same year as “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In 1893, she published a volume of poetry, In This Our World, which gained her first literary recognition. She became a successful lecturer and gained fame with social reform activists and feminists. Her most critically acclaimed book, The Home: Its Work and Influence, suggested that the home and living environment of women needs to be changed for their mental health.

After her mother died, she returned to the east and eventually married her cousin, Houghton Gilman, and enjoyed a much more successful marriage. The couple resided in Connecticut until his death, when she moved back to Pasadena.

From 1909-1916, Gilman wrote and published her own magazine, The Forerunner, for which over the years she published 86 issues, contributing much of the content. Her utopian novel, Herland, appeared in one of the issues as did others of her works. After the magazine was wound up, she continued to publish hundreds of articles in other magazines.

Gilman was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 1932. A believer in euthanasia for the terminally ill, she committed suicide in 1935.

Dates: 1860-1935

Most popular works: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Herland, In This Our World, The Home: Its Work and Influence

Other works: “Circumstances Alter Cases,” “The Giant Wisteria,” “The Rocking-Chair,” and many more

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