Biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, American Novelist

Portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, circa 1896
Portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, circa 1896.

 Fotosearch / Getty Images

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860–August 17, 1935) was an American novelist and humanist. She was an outspoken lecturer, passionate about social reform, and notable for her views as a utopian feminist.

Fast Facts: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  • Also Known As: Charlotte Perkins Stetson
  • Known For: Novelist and activist for feminist reform
  • Born: July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut
  • Parents: Frederic Beecher Perkins and Mary Fitch Wescott
  • Died: August 17, 1935 in Pasadena, California
  • Spouses: Charles Walter Stetson (m. 1884–94), Houghton Gilman (m. 1900–1934)
  • Children: Katharine Beecher Stetson
  • Selected Works: "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), In This Our World (1893), Women and Economics (1898), The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903),
  • Notable Quote: “It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating, but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it.”

Early Life

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, as the first daughter and second child of Mary Perkins (nee Mary Fitch Westcott) and Frederic Beecher Perkins. She had one brother, Thomas Adie Perkins, who was just over a year older than her. Although families at the time tended to be much larger than two children, Mary Perkins was advised to not have any more children at risk of her health or even her life.

When Gilman was still a small child, her father abandoned his wife and children, leaving them essentially destitute. Mary Perkins did her best to support her family, but she was unable to provide on her own. As a result, they spent a great deal of time with her father’s aunts, who included education activist Catharine Beecher, suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, and, most notably, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Gilman was largely isolated during her childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, but she was highly self-motivated and read extensively.

Despite her natural and boundless curiosity—or, perhaps, especially because of it—Gilman was often a source of frustration to her teachers because she was a rather poor student. She was, however, particularly interested in the study of physics, even more so than history or literature. At the age of 18, in 1878, she enrolled herself at the Rhode Island School of Design, supported financially by her father, who had resumed contact enough to help out with finances, but not enough to truly be a presence in her life. With this education, Gilman was able to carve out a career for herself as an artist for trade cards, which were ornate precursors to the modern business card, advertising for businesses and directing clients to their stores. She also worked as a tutor and an artist.

Marriage and Emotional Turmoil

In 1884, Gilman, aged 24, married Charles Walter Stetson, a fellow artist. At first, she rejected his proposal, having had a deep-seated feeling that the marriage would not be a good choice for her. However, she did accept his proposal eventually. Their only child, a daughter named Katharine, was born in March 1885.

Profile portrait of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman circa 1890.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Becoming a mother had a profound impact on Gilman, but not in the way society expected. She was already prone to depression, and after giving birth, she suffered from severe postpartum depression. At the time, the medical profession was not equipped to deal with such complaints; indeed, in an era where women were considered “hysterical” beings by their very nature, their health problems were often dismissed as mere nerves or overexertion.

This is precisely what happened to Gilman, and it would become a formative influence on her writing and her activism. By 1887, Gilman wrote in her journals about such intense inner suffering that she was unable to even care for herself. Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell was summoned to help, and he prescribed a “rest cure,” which essentially required that she give up all creative pursuits, keep her daughter with her at all times, avoid any activities that required mental exertions, and live a totally sedentary lifestyle. Instead of curing her, these restrictions—prescribed by Miller and enforced by her husband—only made her depression worse, and she began to have suicidal thoughts. Ultimately, she and her husband decided that a separation was the best solution to allow Gilman to heal without causing more harm to herself, him, or their daughter. They separated in 1888—a rarity and a scandal for the era—and eventually finalized a divorce six years later, in 1894. Upon moving away in 1888, Gilman’s depression began to lift, and she embarked on a steady recovery. Gilman’s experience with depression and her first marriage influenced her writing heavily.

Short Stories and Feminist Exploration (1888-1902)

  • Art Gems for the Home and Fireside (1888)
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1899)
  • In This Our World (1893)
  • "The Elopement" (1893)
  • The Impress (1894-1895; home to several poems and short stories)
  • Women and Economics (1898)

After leaving her husband, Gilman made some major personal and professional changes. During that first year of separation, she met Adeline “Delle” Knapp, who became her close friend and companion. The relationship was, most likely, romantic, with Gilman believing that she could perhaps have a successful, lifelong relationship with a woman, rather than her failed marriage to a man. The relationship ended, and she moved, along with her daughter, to Pasadena, California, where she became active in several feminist and reformist organizations. After starting to support herself and Katharine as a door-to-door soap saleswoman, she eventually became an editor for the Bulletin, a journal put out by one of her organizations.

Gilman's first book was Art Gems for the Home and Fireside (1888), but her most famous story wouldn’t be written until two years later. In June 1890, she spent two days writing the short story that would become "The Yellow Wallpaper"; it wouldn’t be published until 1892, in the January issue of The New England Magazine. To this day, it remains the most popular and most acclaimed work of hers.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" depicts a woman’s struggle with mental illness and obsession with a room’s ugly wallpaper after she has been confined to her room for three months for her health, on her husband’s orders. The story is, quite obviously, inspired by Gilman’s own experiences with being prescribed a “rest cure,” which was exactly the opposite of what she—and her story’s protagonist—needed. Gilman sent a copy of the published story to Dr. Mitchell, who had prescribed that “cure” for her.

Flyer for a lecture by Gilman
Flyer for a lecture by Gilman, circa 1917.  Ken Florey Suffrage Collection / Getty Images

For 20 weeks in 1894 and 1895, Gilman served as the editor of The Impress, a literary magazine published weekly by the Pacific Coast Women's Press Association. Along with being the editor, she contributed poems, short stories, and articles. Her non-traditional lifestyle—as an unashamed single mother and a divorcee—turned off many readers, however, and the magazine soon shuttered.

Gilman embarked on a four-month lecture tour in early 1897, leading her to think more about the roles of sexuality and economics in American life. Based on this, she wrote Women and Economics, published in 1898. The book focused on the role of women, both in the private and public spheres. With recommendations on changing accepted practices of child-rearing, housekeeping, and other domestic tasks, Gilman advocated for ways to take some domestic pressure off women so that they could participate more fully in public life.

Editor of Her Own (1903-1916)

  • The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903)
  • The Forerunner (1909 - 1916; published dozens of stories and articles)
  • “What Diantha Did" (1910)
  • The Crux (1911)
  • Moving the Mountain (1911)
  • Herland (1915)

In 1903, Gilman wrote The Home: Its Work and Influence, which became one of her most critically acclaimed works. It was a sequel or expansion of sorts on Women and Economics, proposing outright that women needed the opportunity to expand their horizons. She recommended that women be permitted to expand their environments and experiences in order to maintain good mental health.

From 1909 to 1916, Gilman was the sole writer and editor of her own magazine, The Forerunner, in which she published countless stories and articles. With her publication, she specifically hoped to present an alternative to the highly sensationalized mainstream newspapers of the day. Instead, she wrote content that was intended to spark thought and hope. Over the course of seven years, she produced 86 issues and gained around 1,500 subscribers who were fans of the works appearing (often in serialized form) in the magazine, including “What Diantha Did" (1910), The Crux (1911), Moving the Mountain (1911), and Herland (1915).

Poster of Gilman advertising a lecture
Poster of Gilman advertising a lecture, 1917.  Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Getty Images

Many of the works she published during this time depicted the feminist improvements to society that she advocated, with women taking on leadership and depicting stereotypically female qualities as positives, not objects of scorn. These works also largely advocated for women working outside the home and for the sharing of domestic tasks equally between husbands and wives.

During this period, Gilman revived her own romantic life as well. In 1893, she had contacted her cousin Houghton Gilman, a Wall Street attorney, and they began a correspondence. In time, they fell in love, and they began spending time together whenever her schedule permitted it. They married in 1900, in what was a much more positive marital experience for Gilman than her first marriage, and they lived in New York City until 1922.

Lecturer for Social Activism (1916-1926)

After her run of The Forerunner ended, Gilman did not cease writing. Instead, she continually submitted articles to other publications, and her writing ran in several of them, including the Louisville HeraldThe Baltimore Sun, and the Buffalo Evening News. She also began work on her autobiography, titled The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in 1925; it was not published until after her death in 1935.

In the years after the shuttering of The Forerunner, Gilman continued to travel and lecture as well. She also published one more full-length book, Our Changing Morality, in 1930. In 1922, Gilman and her husband moved back to his homestead in Norwich, Connecticut, and they lived there for the next 12 years. Houghton died unexpectedly in 1934 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, and Gilman returned to Pasadena, where her daughter Katharine still lived.

Gilman addresses a crowd of women
Gilman addressing members of the Federation of Women's Club in 1916.  Bettmann / Getty Images

In the final years of her life, Gilman wrote significantly less than before. Aside from Our Changing Morality, she only published three articles after 1930, all of which dealt with social issues. Ironically, her final publication, which came in 1935, was titled “The Right to Die” and was an argument in favor of the right of the dying to choose when to die rather than suffer a drawn-out illness.

Literary Style and Themes

First and foremost, Gilman’s work deals with themes relevant to the lives and social condition of women. She believed that the patriarchal society, and the limitations of women to domestic life in particular, oppressed women and kept them from reaching their potential. In fact, she tied the need for women to no longer be oppressed to the very survival of society, arguing that society could not progress with half the population underdeveloped and oppressed. Her stories, therefore, depicted women who took on roles of leadership that would typically belong to men and did a good job.

Notably, Gilman was somewhat in conflict with other leading feminist voices of her era because she viewed stereotypically feminine traits in a positive light. She expressed frustration with the gendered socialization of children and the expectation that a woman be happy about being restricted to a domestic (and sexual) role, but did not devalue them the way that men and some feminist women did. Instead, she used her writings to show women using their traditionally devalued qualities to show strength and a positive future.

Yellow
One of Gilman's "Votes for Mothers" postcards, circa 1900.  Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/ Getty Images

Her writings, however, were not progressive in all senses. Gilman wrote of her conviction that black Americans were inherently inferior and had not progressed at the same rate as their white counterparts (although she did not contemplate the role those same white counterparts might have played in slowing said progress). Her solution was, essentially, a more polite form of enslavement: forced labor for black Americans, only to be paid wages once the costs of the labor program were covered. She also suggested that British-descended Americans were being bred out of existence by influxes of immigrants. For the most part, these views were not expressed in her fiction, but ran through her articles.

Death

In January 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her prognosis was terminal, but she lived for another three years. Even prior to her diagnosis, Gilman had advocated for the option of euthanasia for the terminally ill, which she put into action for her own end-of-life plans. She left a note behind, stating that she “chose chloroform over cancer,” and on August 17, 1935, she quietly ended her own life with an overdose of chloroform.

Legacy

For the most part, Gilman’s legacy has largely been focused on her views on gender roles in the home and in society. By far, her best known work is the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is popular in literature classes in high school and college. In some ways, she left behind a remarkably progressive legacy for her time: she advocated for women to be allowed full participation in society, pointed out the frustrating double standard women of her time were held to, and did so without criticizing or devaluing stereotypically feminine traits and actions. However, she also left behind a legacy of more controversial beliefs.

Gilman’s work has been continually published in the century since her death. Literary critics have largely focused on her short stories, poems, and nonfiction book-length works, with less interest in her published articles. Still, she left behind an impressive body of work and remains a cornerstone of many American literature studies.

Sources

  • Davis, Cynthia J. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography. Stanford University Press, 2010.
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935; NY: Arno Press, 1972; and Harper & Row, 1975.
  • Knight, Denise D., ed. The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.