“There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman (1860-1935) was the leading public intellectual of the women’s movement in the early 20th century. Born into the prestigious Beecher family, she struggled through a lonely childhood and disastrous marriage, which caused a nervous breakdown. Her mental health returned once she separated from her husband; she later gave him custody of their young daughter, and he had a happy second marriage to one of her close friends. She moved to California, and threw herself into the heady reform climate of the 1890s. To support herself, she wrote poetry and short stories and lectured extensively. A second marriage in 1900, to her first cousin Houghton Gilman, gave her the personal stability she had been unable to find in her first.

Her first volume of satiric verse, In This Our World, appeared in 1893, a year after the publication of her harrowing short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which drew on her own experience with mental illness and an enforced “rest cure” prescribed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. Her most widely read book was Women and Economics: The Economic Factor Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), which argued for female economic independence and controversially compared marriage to prostitution. She continued to develop her iconoclastic views in later books and articles, including fiction, much of it serialized. For example, her feminist utopian novel Herland appeared in The Forerunner, a monthly magazine she edited from 1909-1916. Her final book, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), which ended with her decision to take her own life, was published posthumously. “I have preferred chloroform to cancer,” she wrote unflinchingly.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman did not consider herself a feminist, preferring to call herself a humanist or sociologist because her vision was not for women alone. In Gilman’s formulation, the interdependence of men and women was the most important result of human evolution. She was, therefore, highly critical of private institutions, such as families and marriage, that isolated women and prevented their participation in broader social developments. Not only did this stunt women’s growth, but it also acted, in her understanding of hereditarian evolution, to retard the development of the human race as a whole. Her vision of women and men emancipated from outmoded conventions and her strong focus on the human necessity of creative work still make compelling contributions to feminist thought.

Susan Ware