Charlotte Perkins Gilman is perhaps most famous for her 1892 short story, "The Yellow Wall-Paper," about a woman who's confined to her bed for a "nervous condition" after she fails to experience what her husband and doctor insist is the universal bliss of motherhood. During her bed rest imprisonment, she begins to see a woman trapped behind the wallpaper in her room. The story is famous for good reason: It can be interpreted as a critique of the male-dominated medical world of the time, an early exploration of postpartum depression, a feminist allegory that makes the case for women's freedom, or all of the above. But Gilman's body of work stretches far beyond this story, and her life as an early radical feminist is worth reading about! (By the way, apparently plenty of people agree with me: if your interest is piqued by this Feministory, there's no shortage of Gilman biographies to explore. I'll list the ones I used at the end of the post.)
The narrative of Gilman's childhood reads a lot like that of a heroine of Victorian literature. Her father, a descendent of the famous Beecher family (his aunts and uncles included Henry Ward Beecher, Isabella Beecher Hooker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe), left when she was a baby, so she was raised by her mother, Mary Westcott Perkins. Because of their financial instability, the Perkinses moved often, sometimes staying with relatives. This affected Charlotte's education in more than one way. It meant that she grew up around her Beecher aunts, who were bold, independent women with strong opinions. But it also meant that she lacked a formal education and spent a lot of time feeling isolated and reading alone.
By the time she reached her early 20s, she had developed strong feminist sensibilities, and longed to live an independent life writing and working for the causes she believed in (namely, economic and social freedom for women). But here comes her biographers' favorite conundrum: she was also in love and wanted to get married. Understandably, since she was, after all, a woman in the late 19th century, independence and marriage seemed irreconcilable. She did end up getting married to Walter Stetson in 1884, and had a baby soon after. During this first marriage, she famously struggled with depression and alienation from her new family life, and was prescribed a "rest cure." (Does this story sound familiar? "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is often seen as semi-autobiographical.)
Charlotte and Stetson decided to get a divorce, which allowed her to return to her intellectual work. She wrote and lectured until her death in 1935, books like Women and Economics (which has been referred to as the "bible" for suffragists and feminists of the early 20th century), and The Home: Its Work and Influence. She held beliefs that were radical for the time and that would continue to be discussed by feminists throughout the 20th century and even today: that the domestic environment promoted by marriage oppressed women; that sex and economics were related in marriage, since women were expected to be sexual in return for their husbands' financial support; and that gendered toys were teaching girls to be subservient wives from a very young age. Unfortunately, she also held some beliefs about race that were common among white middle class social reformers of the time: for example, that immigration should be curtailed because interracial reproduction was weakening the evolutionary purity of Americans.
Margaret Sanger-esque ignorance aside, what I think is most interesting about Charlotte Perkins Gilman's life is her constant struggle to reconcile her emotions (which she saw as inherently feminine) with her drive to do feminist work. Although I haven't read her autobiography, the biographies I have read say that she worked hard to make sure her public image was devoid of any statements or actions that might imply she was driven by emotion or passion or anything but her intellect. At the same time, she wrote boxes and boxes of diaries and letters that revealed her to be an emotional person who felt that strong conflicting forces were at work inside her. I think this struggle is probably familiar to many women today: When sexist assumptions about the irrationality of women are still prevalent, how can we make sure our emotions and our intellectual work are taken seriously?
In writing this post, I looked at Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860-1896 by Mary A. Hill, which will be available at the Bitch Community Lending Library as soon as I return it! I also browsed through a brand-new biography called Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. Gilman's autobiography is called The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her selected letters are published by the University of Alabama Press, and Mary A. Hill also edited a selection of her love letters.