Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935):

Her life and work as a social scientist and feminist. by Mary Beekman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writer, lecturer, social critic and feminist, lived at a time of tremendous upheaval in this country's history. From the Civil War to Reconstruction and Industrial Revolution, and from the Women's Movement to the development of the major schools of the social sciences, Gilman witnessed events that had a profound effect on the development of the American society as we live and understand it today. Unwilling to watch these events go by without scrutiny, she became a commentator on the evolving social order, especially of its effects on the status of women. "She used her energies and her gifts in an effort to understand the world and her place in it and to extend that knowledge and those insights to others" (Lane, 1990, p. 229). Furthermore, "she saw the submergence of women as a critical handicap retarding the best development of society" (Lane, 1990, p. 232). Thus, although she was never trained in the methods of social science research and critique, Gilman should be recognized for her contribution to our knowledge in this area in addition to her recognition as an utopian author and a feminist.

In order to understand Charlotte Perkins Gilman as writer and intellectual, we must first know something of her personal life. For, although Gilman tried to keep the two personae separate in her own lifetime, we inevitably see conflict in the reality of her experience. For example, in creating her autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gilman painted a public image she felt women should emulate while the diaries she left behind reveal the frailties of common human existence (Hill, 1980, p. 6-7).

(Biographical information compiled from: Kessler, Carol Farley (1995). Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her progress toward Utopia with selected writings. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. pages 14-40). Charlotte Perkins was born on July 3, 1860 to Frederick Beecher Perkins and Mary A. Fitch. It is with her parents that these dueling personae began to take shape as each was from a prominent Rhode Island family with conflicting worldviews. Frederick sprung from the Beecher family, one well known for its radicals including Isabella Beecher Hooker, a famous suffragist and Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and the renowned author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Fitches, on the other hand, were a founding family of Rhode Island and well known for their conservatism. Thus,

from the paternal Beecher-Perkins side of her lineage, she received a relentlessly demanding legacy: to take pride in her womanhood, to courageously assert her own viewpoint to be fearless in the face of censure, and to achieve through serving society at large. In contrast, her mother brought a heritage more traditionally feminine, though comparably independent-minded (Kessler, 1995, p. 15).

These contrasting views on womanhood are not lost on Charlotte will follow her into adulthood.

Frederick Perkins left the family in 1859, despite his public espousal of the sacredness of the family, and provided only sporadic support for his estranged family. This forced Mary to be Charlotte's sole support emotionally and physically, but would prove to be only moderately successful in both regards. To provide money and shelter, she took on jobs when possible and relied on the kindness of relatives who offered housing during visits of various lengths. Because her own experience taught her of the dangers a soft constitution pose to a woman, Mary withheld affection and emotional displays from Charlotte and wanted the girl under her strict control.

In spite of the adversity she faced in girlhood and the inadequacies of her early education of which she described as, "four years among seven different institution, ending when I was fifteen," Charlotte managed to attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1878 through 1883 (Kessler, 1995, p. 18). To finance her education, Charlotte gave drawing lessons, sold watercolors and painted advertisements for soap companies and continued to do so to support herself after the completion of her studies.

During this time, Charlotte's friends were predominantly young women, a theme that would continue throughout her life. She shared an especially intimate relationship with Martha Luther. Gilman describes their relationship in her autobiography:

We were closely together, increasingly happy together, for four of those long years of girlhood. She was nearer and dearer than any one up to that time. This was love, but not sex...With Martha I knew perfect happiness...We were not only extremely fond of each other, but we had fun together, deliciously (Gilman, 1935, p. 78).

Though they were friends for life, the intimacy decreased as each began to fulfill their expected roles. Charlotte found a more traditional love with Walter Stetson. However, she was torn between her desire to fulfill the Beecher family's "call to larger world service" in the "reform of women's condition in society" and the traditional pull towards marriage (Kessler, 1995, p. 21). Charlotte followed tradition and married Stetson on May 2, 1884, though still fearful that her marriage would put an end to her hopes of having a career. On March 23, 1885, Charlotte gave birth to Katharine Beecher Stetson. Motherhood consumed her time, subsuming her ambition. This caused her to sink into a depression that was at first treated by a popular form of rehabilitation called the rest cure, a regimen consisting of continuous rest and suppression of all thoughts of or actions toward a career. When this and other methods proved futile, Charlotte began to understand her roles of wife and mother as the root causes of her depression. Subsequently, she separated from Charles and eventually divorced him after moving to California to live with a friend in Oakland.

This time after her separation and divorce proved fruitful. Charlotte published "The Yellow Wallpaper," a fictional short story based on her experience with the rest cure, in 1892. In addition her first book, In This Our World, was published in 1893 and she finished writing Women and Economics during this period as well. Furthermore, she became a journalistic advocate of the radical Nationalist Party as well as world-renowned lecturer. At the same time, Charlotte remained close to her ex-husband who had married her best friend, a fact that gained her the disdain of the press, who also criticized her for giving up the care of her daughter to the couple. The press were not the sole critics, though. Katharine Beecher Stetson, as she grew older, came to resent her mother for what she saw as her abandonment. Likewise, Charlotte was critical of herself for this decision as well, as part of her wanted to fulfill the motherly role successfully, to give Katharine all the love she had never received from her own mother. However, her aspirations as a writer and lecturer superseded any goal of traditional womanhood.

Before long, though, Charlotte was not able to evade the call of marriage. In George Houghton Gilman, she found the best of both worlds. Here was a man supportive of her career goals and willing to accept them. The two were married on June 11, 1900. Continuance of her lecture tours and evidence of her prolific writing from this time indicate that Charlotte found in Houghton "the support and collaboration of a caring companion" which gave her the freedom she needed to work (Kessler, 1995, p. 33). Consequently, during her second marriage, Charlotte remained quite productive as she began a magazine in 1909, The Forerunner, for which she was the sole writer. In 1925, she finished her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was to be published after her death. In addition, she continued to lecture, advocating the release of women from the economic imprisonment that comes from the roles of unpaid wife and mother.

In 1934, Charles Houghton Gilman died and Charlotte was living with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Thus, in 1935, Gilman ended her life covered her face with a rag soaked in chloroform on August 17, 1935. In her suicide note Gilman wrote, "I have preferred chloroform to cancer" (Kessler, 1995, p. 40).

Fortunately, we did not lose Gilman's work when she died. Her writings, both fictional and non-fictional, still offer a critique of society that still ring true in today's "kinder, gentler" structure. In her work, Gilman dedicated herself to raising the standard of life for women of her time by deconstructing institutions such as the home and the economy through her non-fiction and by creating new worlds for women in her fiction. Lane describes Gilman's goal as this, "to draw upon anthropology, biology, history, sociology, ethics and philosophy to comprehend the contours of human evolution and human society in order to create a humane social order" (Lane, 1990, p. 230). Her true understanding of the underlying structures of society comes out bitingly in her work making it valuable to the social sciences despite her lack of formal training in the area.

In her book The Grounding of Modern Feminism, Nancy Cott describes the efficacy of Gilman's work,

Since the 1890s, from California to the East Coast, as a soul-stirring speaker and a prolific writer, Gilman had been conveying her critique of the 'sexuo-economic' relationship that she saw binding women to men, molding women to exaggerate sex-specific characteristics and to rely on men as economic providers. Gilman elevated into a theory of social evolution the changes that perspicacious women saw happening around them; she urged women to move to the direction already pointed out by leaving their ancient, unspecialized, home occupation, following the path marked by modern industry and professions, and exercising their full human capacities in useful work of all sorts (Cott, 1987, p. 41).

In short, Gilman was advocating a revolution of sorts similar to that urged earlier by Marx to workers, but Gilman's focus was on women. She recognized the inequalities inherent in the structure of the working world which excluded women from most jobs, relegating them to the world of the home where they worked from sunrise to sunset, their only compensation being the roof over their heads. They had no income over which they had complete control, a situation she wanted them to remedy and as such, made a primary endeavor. Lane says of this,

She took the restructuring of relations between men and women as a central focus of her new vision...Gilman asserted that attention needed to be paid initially to the ways in which people's lives had to be altered in their homes, in their families, in their intimate relations, and that no changes in social relationships could be expected to come automatically (Lane, 1990, p. 231).

Gilman describes this predicament in great depth in works such as: Women and Economics (1898), Concerning Children (1900), and The Home: Its Work and Influence (1904). Gilman was a fierce advocate of getting housewives economic compensation as is evident by a quote of hers from the Forerunner, "until 'mothers' earn their livings, 'women' will not" (Cott, 1987, p. 181). However, she knew that this result would only come if women were willing to change the system themselves.

Through her Utopian fiction, Gilman described the kind of world she envisioned for women. In "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892), although not Utopian, she depicts the escape of a women from the pressures of seemingly a seemingly unwanted marriage and consequent marriage into a new self housed in the wallpaper of her bedroom. Gilman's disdain for the state of forced marriage facing women of the time comes across vividly in this harrowing story. The Utopian stories such as Herland (1915) and With Her in Ourland (1916) create a new world based on the principles of equity she promoted in her non-fiction and lectures.

Thus through popular fiction as well as intellectual writing and speaking, Gilman attempted to reach a wide variety of people with her social commentaries, especially women, in an attempt to awaken them to her revolutionary ideas. These concepts continue to intrigue feminists in the social sciences as can be attested by her inclusion in many books on early feminism and her inclusion in women's studies courses. Although she was well known in her time, her radical ideas failed to truly take root. With the "third-wave" of feminism now working for many of the same social changes Gilman advocated, her life and work are an inspiration to feminists young and old.


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