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

When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.

Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”

The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.

In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.

Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.

An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.