Preferring the title of “humanist” versus “feminist” Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an innovated writer of novels, shorts stories, and non-fiction in addition to a lecturer and social reformer. Her unique view of equality of the sexes is depicted in her numerous works.
Charlotte Anna Perkins, was born July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut to Mary Perkins and Frederick Beecher Perkins. Frederick was not often around and Charlotte was left in the company of her progressive aunts Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker, all of whom were active in the fight for women’s equality and had a profound effect on young Charlotte.
Gilman was self educated and took every opportunity to read that she could. After attending Rhode Island School of Design for two years she supported herself designing greeting cards.
In 1884, she married Charles Walter Stetson. During their rocky marriage, their daughter Katharine was born. Having suffered from depression growing up, Gilman suffered a severe bought of depression after her daughter’s birth. In 1886, she began psychiatric treatment with Dr. Mitchel who instructed her to live “as domestic a life as possible.” Her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was a satirical look at the poor care she was given. This short story was paramount in addressing women’s health care and through her unique story telling made people look at mental illness in a new light. After their six year separation and divorce, Catherine married her cousin George Houghton Gilman.
Serving as editor of The Impress from 1894-1895, Gilman wrote a number of short stories and poems with feminist themes.
Gilman was an active lecturer. Many of her themes revolved around human rights, women’s issues and social reform. Gaining notoriety, she published her own magazine, The Forerunner, from 1909-1916. It had almost 1500 subscribers.
Gilman became active in Nationalism, which greatly influenced her work in the novel “Herland.” In this novel she explored the idea of a society of only women.
In 1896, Gilman attended the Annual Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington D.C. and joined the feminist campaign.
Gilman viciously attacked the traditional roles of women and men in the book “Women and Economics” in 1989. In this novel she explored the idea that a hierarchy was unnecessary in society today and that both sexes should have equal footing. It stated that a woman with children shouldn’t be restricted to the home and called for professional childcare. She wrote “The first duty of a human being is to assume the right functional relationship to society – more briefly, to find your real job, and do it.”
In 1922, Gilman wrote “His Religion and Hers” where she attempted to dismantle the patriarchal hierarchy in religion and plan a new religion based on equality of the sexes.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having watch her mother die of cancer, Gilman, a supporter of the right to die took her own life on August 17, 1935 by inhaling chloroform.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was certainly a woman surrounded by controversy. She scoffed at modern medicine and psychology, she questioned the domestic role of woman and reconstructed society’s view of religion. Years after her death, she is remembered for shaking up the social norm and questioning our purpose.