Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
"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."
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Induction Category:
Writers & Journalists

Born: 1860

Died: 1935

Inducted: 1994

Towns: Hartford and Norwich

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a member of Connecticut’s prominent Beecher family, was a committed reformer, intellectual and feminist whose contributions to 20th-century thought resulted in her designation in 1993 by the Siena Research Institute as the sixth most influential woman of her time. A prolific writer, Gilman left behind a body of work that included books, essays, short stories and magazine articles that challenged the prevailing attitudes of her day by asserting women’s equality and the need for their economic independence.

When Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a child growing up in Hartford, her father, Frederick Beecher Perkins, often left his family for extended periods of time; he ultimately left the family for good and divorced his wife, Mary Fitch Perkins, in 1869. During his absences, young Charlotte would often spend time in the company of her well-known great aunts: Catharine Beecher, the education reformer; Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and Isabella Beecher Hooker, a committed suffragist. Like her great-aunts, Perkins grew up to be a fiercely independent woman, committed to social reform and progress. Extreme poverty, however, forced the family to move to Providence, R.I., in 1873. Perkins was largely self-taught, although she did attend the Rhode Island School of Design for several years, working a variety of jobs to support herself.

In 1884, she married the artist Charles Walter Stetson; their daughter Katherine Beecher was born the following year. After her daughter’s birth, Perkins suffered severe depression and was prescribed Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s famous Victorian “rest cure” of bed rest and restricted intellectual activity. Subsequently, Perkins divorced her husband and moved to California. Her experience with post-partum depression and the “rest cure” became the basis for her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a young woman’s descent into madness after being confined by her husband to an upstairs bedroom. After publishing the short story in the New England Magazine, she received many positive responses from women who had had similar experiences with depression. Perkins Gilman sent a copy of the story to Dr. Mitchell and, though she never had a response from him, she later heard that he modified his “cure” as a result of reading her story.

Throughout her life, Perkins continued to write and lecture on a wide variety of women’s topics, most prominently the belief that women should be economically independent, work outside the home, and fully use their natural abilities and intelligence to benefit both themselves and society. Her most well-known non-fiction work, Women and Economics, published in 1898, argued that women’s lower status in society was not the result of biological inferiority, but rather a social construct built to maintain a male power structure. Gilman’s works of fiction, including Herland (1915), frequently showed women in utopian settings, fully self-sufficient and devoid of patriarchal control.

In 1900, Perkins married her cousin, George Houghton Gilman, who was supportive of her ideas and career. She founded The Forerunner in 1909, a social reform journal, and continued to publish it until 1916. In 1922, Perkins Gilman returned to Connecticut, living and writing in Norwich until her husband’s sudden death in 1934. In failing health herself, she returned to California, where she took her own life in 1935 after learning she had inoperable breast cancer.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform