In 1934, knowing that she had inoperable breast cancer, the American feminist intellectual Charlotte Perkins Gilman decided to finish the autobiography she had begun a decade before. Her fame as a writer and speaker had faded; she was no longer in demand on the lecture circuit, and all of her six books were out of print. In keeping with her stoic philosophy, Gilman had made the decision to end her life with chloroform. ‘Human life consists in mutual service,’ she wrote in her final chapter. ‘When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.’ She read her proofs, chose the photographs, and approved the cover; then, on 17 August 1935, three months before the date of publication, she carried out her plan.
The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman sold fewer than a thousand copies when it was published, but it has been reissued now as part of a renewed interest in Gilman’s feminist ideas and writing. Conferences are planned for the 1992 centennial of her chilling Gothic story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, which has become a classic of the feminist literary canon, and recently a TV drama for the BBC.
It’s ironic, however, that ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ should have become the text by which Gilman’s reputation survived, for it was her work in economics, sociology and evolutionary theory that made her famous in her own day. Larry Ceplair’s anthology is a much-needed sampling of Gilman’s ideas, including substantial excerpts from her essays and lectures, and her books Women and Economics (1898), The Home (1903), The Man-made World (1911) and His Religion and Hers (1923). In these texts, as he explains, she argued that ‘the complete liberation of women was the sine qua non of the complete liberation of humanity.’ Gilman set out her agenda in the editorials of the Forerunner, a feminist periodical for which she wrote all the contributions from short stories to advertising. Here she advocated the social necessity of work, the importance of an organic community, and the values of monogamy, industrialised housekeeping, professionalised childcare, birth control and eugenics, lifelong education and dress reform. Overall, Gilman believed, progress was retarded because women still lived ‘in a prehistoric state of sub-social domesticity’. Until women had equal access to education, information, experience and responsibility, men would be mating with their evolutionary inferiors, as if ‘Mr Horse were mated to Mrs Eohippus’.
Witty and imaginative, Gilman nonetheless distrusted fiction as too womanish, and in the tradition of such other feminist intellectuals as Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller and Beatrice Webb, regarded her stories and poems as sugar-coated pills. ‘I have never made any pretence of being literary,’ she wrote in the autobiography; and even describing her own life did not interest her very much, for ‘my real interest is in ideas.’ Reason, logic, order, science and systems were the declared principles by which she governed her living and dying, and they dictate the neat, problem-solving form of most of her hundreds of stories and articles.
On the other hand, there are profound contradictions in her work around the ideas of female sexuality and maternity. A progressive feminist of the 1890s, Gilman glorified motherhood as the basis of women’s innate superiority, but recognised that domestic responsibilities, and especially childcare, kept women locked in their secondary status. While her feminist utopia Herland envisioned a sexless matriarchy where women reproduced out of sheer will-power, her journals reveal a lifetime of passionate bisexual desires. She devoted herself to women’s causes, and then confessed at the end of her life that she abominated ‘being called a feminist’.
Gilman tried to resolve some of the practical contradictions between her feminism and her humanism, her ambition and her conservatism, her sensuality and her horror of the appetites, in her crusade for the kitchenless home, a vision she explored in far-sighted essays and books about collective housekeeping and domestic architecture. If women were to be relieved of drudgery and freed to go out in the world, and yet maintain the comfort and security of The Home, with all its traditions, home-making had to be radically redesigned. An early advocate of quality time, Gilman argued that women would be more patient and loving parents if they were not full-time mothers. Her most prophetic solution to the problem was to centralise and industrialise cooking and child-care, with communal kitchens and nurseries servicing neighbourhoods or high-rise apartments. Although ‘the kitchen must go,’ the private dining-room would remain; singles, couples or families would order meals from the central kitchen, which would provide tempting, varied menus and professional cooks. Gilman’s plans for efficient food preparation and delivery anticipated the vestigial kitchenettes in many urban studios, and the boom in fast food, takeaway and other forms of professional catering that must accompany women’s participation in the work-force.
Yet the image of the kitchenless home is symbolically very harsh. The kitchen stood not only for the essence of Home itself, but also for an idealised maternity. It was the warm heart of the house, the place where Mother dispensed nurture and love. In the best-selling sentimental novels of 19th-century America, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the kitchen was to the house as the womb is to the woman. Gilman’s ideas, however scientifically and rationally explained, seemed cold and unappealing to younger women.
The fragmented narrative of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ gives a more sympathetic and powerful sense of Gilman’s hidden conflicts about mothering and service. Depressed after the birth of a child, the unnamed heroine of the story has been taken for a summer’s rest in the nursery of a rented country house by her physician husband, who has also forbidden her ‘story-making’. He is the voice of science and reason, while the woman represents the imagination and unconscious. In her secret journal entries we see that her sickness is her wish to work and write in a society which limits women’s creativity to the domestic and maternal. The conflict between her wish for self-expression and her guilty resentment of her husband and child finally drives her mad.
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was based on a pivotal experience in Gilman’s life. After the birth of her daughter Katherine, she had a severe post-partum depression which the Philadelphia doctor S. Weir Mitchell diagnosed as hysteria. He treated her with his rest cure, an enforced period of isolation, passivity, sleep and rich diet, followed by instructions to ‘never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live’. The prohibition of intellectual and artistic labour, she believed, plus his insistence that she should spend every minute of the day with her baby, nearly destroyed her sanity and left her with ‘effects of nerve bankruptcy’ that lasted all her life.
Following the episode, Gilman embarked on the most daring and scandalous decision of her life: to separate from and eventually divorce her young husband Charles Walter Stetson; to endorse his subsequent marriage to her best friend Grace Channing; and to give the couple custody of her daughter. Although Gilman made a happy second marriage, and was able to have Katherine with her for long periods, public disapproval of this act of unnatural motherhood haunted her up to her death, and much of the autobiography is given to defending and justifying the decision as having been made for the child’s own good, and to explaining how much the pain of separation hurt Gilman herself. Her bouts of depression may have been an unconscious self-punishment for the urgent needs that forced her to make the break.
Many of the contradictions in her ideas can be traced to her ‘uncuddled childhood’. Her father, a professional librarian and linguist, deserted the family when Charlotte was a baby, although he would later supply her with learned reading lists. ‘The word “Father”,’ she wrote, ‘means nothing to me, save indeed advice about books and the care of them.’ But her mother was equally denying of nurturance, and even more prohibitive of creativity. She deliberately withheld physical affection when Charlotte was a baby, so that ‘she should not be used to it or long for it.’ She forbade Charlotte to read novels or to have intimate friends. Like the husband in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, she demanded that Charlotte stop making up stories and daydreaming.
Of course, all these prohibitions against sexuality and writing backfired in every possible way. Throughout her life Gilman was involved in intense relationships with women, beginning at 17 with the symbolically-named Martha Luther. Later she would tell her second husband that ‘I have never had – save the one girl friend – a satisfied love.’ In the autobiography, Gilman carefully ruled out any implication of lesbianism in the friendship: ‘In our perfect concord there was no Freudian taint.’ She was franker, however, in her letters and diaries. When Martha married, Gilman wrote about her grief in losing ‘a perfect friendship’. When her ex-husband married Grace Channing, she wrote to Grace: ‘Do you know I think I suffer more in giving you up than in Walter ... It is awful to be a man inside and not able to marry the woman you love.’ An attempted ‘Boston marriage’ with another writer, Adeline Knapp, broke up over jealousy.
In the autobiography, Gilman defines an exemplary public self, cheerful and straightforward, professional and sexless, a model for young women to copy. The effort robs the book of any real appeal. Especially in the sections about her adult life, it is often little more than a transcription of dates and places where Gilman lectured. Ceplair calls it ‘desultory and superficial’, a ‘dreary travelogue’ which becomes compelling only when Gilman ‘describes her nervous breakdown’. Not only does Gilman give perfunctory accounts of her romantic involvements with women, but she also reduces her happy second marriage of 32 years to a few sentences.
In her introduction, Ann Lane, who has also written a biography of Gilman, gives very little background information or gloss of details, but instead concentrates on feminist theories concerning women’s autobiographies and their bearing on Gilman’s brisk, schematic text. Since ‘women have been carefully educated over time to deny in themselves the kind of authority that merits an autobiography’, she argues, even someone as forceful as Gilman found it difficult to tell her own story with the candour and confidence it deserved. Without annotation or explanation, however, readers unfamiliar with Gilman will not have much sense of what has been left out.
Not always accessible in its fragments, Gilman’s life seems ever more courageous and moving as new scholarship reveals more about the reality behind her façade. Like Olive Schreiner, whom she enormously admired, Gilman saw herself as a ‘transition woman’, a member of a tragic generation of feminists who would have to sacrifice personal happiness for professional activism, so that future generations would not have to make the choice. As she exhorted herself, ‘Work first – Love next.’ These books can tell us a good deal about Gilman’s work: but for her equally intense efforts to solve the problems of love, we will have to wait for the editions of her letters and diaries now being undertaken.
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