Charlotte Perkins Gilman – literary legend and feminist icon
Over the course of the women’s rights movement, the world has experienced its fair share of feminist icons. These ladies inspired, radicalised, and changed the largely male dominated world around them, making way for the fairer (yet by no means completely equal) society in which we now live in. Many documented their struggles through their writing – fiction and otherwise – leaving an array of fascinating literature that we can today continue to admire. One of these captivating authors and speakers is writer of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Outside the literature sphere, Charlotte Perkins Gilman remains a largely unknown name, as do her many fiction and non-fiction works. The most famous of these is the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, a tragic tale of a woman’s descent into madness after she is shut up inside a nursery-like room, forced to remain idle and supress any creative tendencies. Charlotte herself admitted the female narrator (who is never named) is largely modelled on herself, her own struggles with mental illness, and her battle with the then popular ‘rest cure’ – an extreme method for treating melancholy in the late 19th/early 20th century which rendered most women back into a childlike state of existence.
After condemning the then popular treatments for mental illness, and the largely male doctors who practiced them, Charlotte continued along a life of feminine empowerment. She travelled the US speaking on a variety of women’s topics, including struggles in the workplace and especially the home. She was adamantly against the traditional idea of the home and motherhood, in which the woman was encouraged to stay at home, raise the children, and then focus on maintaining this environment throughout her life. In her iconic autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she recognises how it was in fact this entrapment in the home that drove her to depression and other forms of mental illness, prompting her to controversially abandon her daughter and pursue a career of writing and lecturing.
Aside from her non-fiction pieces, which focus their discussion on women and their relationship to economics, the home, and her own troubled life, Charlotte also took the time to write a selection of unique short stories. In them, male narrators make the journey into a female-dominated – and in one setting, an entirely female – utopian society. Through reading them, it is clear that Charlotte is trying to encourage just what women could be capable of.
Despite her literary and academic success, mental illness plagued Charlotte for the rest of her life. Through her autobiography, you get the sense she was never fully satisfied with herself or the lifestyle around her – hardly surprising given the suppression and backlash towards the women’s rights movement, and the general consensus towards mental health. In 1932, she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer, and decided to choose a quick, painless death over a longer suffering; in 1935, she committed suicide through a chloroform overdose.
So what exactly has Charlotte Perkins Gilman achieved for women and mental health sufferers, since her death 82 years ago? Whilst her books may not have been massively popular during her lifetime, Women and Economics later became part of the reading list for many women’s studies and economics courses, and is still highly regarded today. The ‘rediscovery’ of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper has allowed literary theorists and historians alike to re-examine the impact of the ‘rest cure’, and has led to further interest in her other imaginative short works. In a modern world, in which many women are now pursuing careers instead of motherhood and home-making, speaking out against the traditional may not seem like a huge deal to us now. However, Charlotte captured the voice of many frustrated mothers and housewives, assuring them that they were not alone in their thoughts, and ultimately, that their suppression was not right.