The following is the second chapter of my thesis that has a title : A REFLECTION OF PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA: A CASE STUDY OF CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN’S “THE YELLOW WALLPAPER”. I just want to illustrate about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s background in a nutshell. If you are really interested in knowing more, you can do the research more thoroughly yourself.
THE BIOGRAPHY AND INTELLECTUAL BACKGROUND OF
CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
2.1 The Biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford Connecticut. She was the youngest child and only daughter of the marriage of Mary Ann Fitch Wescott (1829-1893) and Frederick Beecher Perkins (1828-1899). They got married in 1857, had three children in three years: the first child, Thomas, died within one month; another son, named Thomas too, 1859-1938; and Gilman was born on July 3, 1860. Gilman’s mother conceived another girl, who lived only eight months in 1866. Frederick deserted the family in 1869, but visited them occasionally. They got divorced in 1873. (Ceplair, ed. 1991:9).
The wrecked marriage of her parents made Gilman and her brother and mother move nineteen times in eighteen years, from one relative’s house to another, from one city to another. Her mother’s financial dependency forced them to do that. Her mother didn’t have any skills that enabled her to support her children. Besides, as a woman coming from middle-class society, Mary believed that she was not supposed to work. It made Gilman think since she was very young that if a woman were dependent on a man (her husband), she would live in suffering when her husband deserted her. It evoked Charlotte’s strict character that a woman needed to be economically independent. It could be seen in her later years through her writings and lectures.
Gilman remembered her father as a frustrated man. He left his wife after knowing that his wife would not be able to have another baby. He attended Yale College but never graduated, and studied law but never practiced. He was a genteel reformer, believing in the restoration of the pre-industrial family. He believed women should have interests outside the home before they married but when married should “find perfect gratification in their own homes, in their families.” He spent the rest of his life as an editor, librarian, and a writer, but did not earn a sufficient income to support his family. (Ceplair, 1991:10)
Gilman described her mother as the most domestic type of a housewife. After her idolized youth, she was left neglected. After her flood of lovers, she became a deserted wife. Since she was not financially independent, she had to live under her relatives’ pity. Gilman, her brother Thomas, and the mother lived with Gilman’s grandparents from Frederick, with her grandparents from Mary, with Frederick’s aunts, and other relatives again.
In such a situation, Mary surely could not express tenderness toward her children, Thomas and Gilman. Gilman remembered her mother as someone who denied the children all expression of affection as far as possible, so that the children should not be used to it or long for it. (Ceplair, ed. 1991:11).
In that kind of unhappy childhood Gilman grew up. A bad image of Frederick as her father gave her a bad image of a man to be a husband. Therefore in her teenaged years, Gilman didn’t have any idea to be close to men. In fact, when she was 19 years old, she experienced her first intense emotional connection with a female friend, Martha Luther. Gilman illustrated her relationship with Martha as “a compact of mutual understanding” and her “first deep personal happiness”. Therefore, Martha’s engagement with Charles A. Lane in 1882 made Gilman broken-hearted. To reflect the beautiful moments she spent together with Martha, Gilman wrote in her autobiography,
With Martha I knew perfect happiness. … Four years of satisfying happiness with Martha, then she married and moved away. … And I had no one else.” (via Ceplair, 1991: 14)
Apparently Gilman was disappointed by her expectation to live together with Martha. She was also traumatic because of the failure of her parents’ marriage. These two things made her decide not to get involved with a love relationship. She buried her pain in work.
However, not long after that, Gilman met Charles Walter Stetson, her first husband. Charles—a talented artist—who fell in love with her asked her to marry him. Gilman’s bitter past made her decline Charles’ proposal though she felt a strong physical attraction to him. The question of marriage threatened the divide she had established between work and love. She wrote in her autobiography:
On the one hand I knew it was normal and right in general, and held that a woman should be able to have marriage and motherhood, and do her work in the world also. On the other, I felt strongly that for me it was not right, that the nature of the life before me forbade it, that I ought to forego the more intimate personal happiness for complete devotion to my work. (via Ceplair, 1991:15)
Though doubtful about marriage life, Gilman married Charles on May 2, 1884, two years after they met. Gilman’s doubt turned out to be right because not long after delivering her daughter, Katharine, in April 1885, Gilman underwent nervous exhaustion. Her husband’s conventional opinion about a wife’s role made her condition worse. Though in the beginning of their relationship Charles seemed to admire her independence and nonconformity of spirit, Gilman’s worldly ambition hurt his ego as a man. He wrote in his diary:
She had one of those spasms of wanting to make a name for herself in the world by doing good work: wanting to have people know her as Charlotte Perkins, not as the wife of me. … It may be … from ill-digested reading of philosophical works mixed with her imagination and the tradition of what she ought to inherit from her parents. (via Ceplair, 1991:16)
Her nervous breakdown made Gilman go to Philadelphia to be treated by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the greatest nerve specialist at that time. Apparently Gilman was suffering from post-natal depression. In the nineteenth century, motherhood was believed to be one cause that led women to mental breakdown. In that era, women’s madness was labeled hysteria (Goodman, 1996:117). Identifying Gilman’s disease as hysteria, Mitchell prescribed “rest cure” while she was in Philadelphia, and a life of enforced passivity when she returned home. Gilman wrote in her autobiography that Mitchell advised her to
Live as domestic life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live. (via Ceplair, 1991:20)
Hysteria was considered a “fashionable” disease for women in the nineteenth century America (Golden, 1999:110). Women who were judged to suffer from hysteria were women who were “unfeminine—in other words, sexually aggressive, intellectually ambitious, and defective in proper womanly submission and selflessness.” (Golden, 1992:111). In Gilman’s case, she was detected to undergo that disease because of her intellectual ambition, especially, and later also her defectiveness in her role as a wife and mother.
To live passively was absolutely a problematic situation for a woman who was as intelligent, imaginative, and ambitious as Gilman. Therefore, Gilman thought that Mitchell’s prescribed cure and advice just led her to the edge of insanity. After three months, she found out that the cure didn’t work well on her, it even made her nervous breakdown worse, Gilman decided to get back to her “normal” life—working. She was cured by removing herself physically from her home, husband, and finally her child, and by engaging in and writing about the social movements of the day. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournal/ old-WILLA/fall95/De Simone.html
She resumed writing and lecturing to all over America. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was the result of her experience under Mitchell’s medication. She wrote that short story, especially, to criticize Mitchell’s rest cure that in fact didn’t really cure people suffering from nervous breakdown. Such a cure even proved to be on the way around, to lead people to insanity. “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked”, Gilman wrote in “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (via Bauer, 1998:349).
Realizing that her marriage life spurred her to suffer from nervous breakdown, Gilman, with Charles’s knowing, filed divorce in 1892 and it was granted in April 1894. In June that same year, Charles married Grace Ellery Channing, and Gilman sent her daughter, Katharine, to live together with them.
In June 1900, Charlotte married her cousin, George Houghton Gilman in Detroit. Katharine came to live with them at the end of July. Different from Charles whose ideals about women’s roles in a marriage were conventional, George was supportive of her intense involvement in social reform. http://www.gale.com/free_resources/whm/bio/ gilman_c.htm This second marriage lasted until George died in May 1934. Before that, in 1932, doctors found an inoperable cancer growing in her breast. She had always believed that human beings should not have to suffer from chronic pain, torment, and misery. Therefore, she committed suicide on August 17, 1935. In her suicide note, she wrote,
Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains.
But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. (via Ceplair, 1991:275)
Several days before her suicide, Charlotte Perkins Gilman—a “Deist with no concern for an afterlife” (http://oasis.harvard.edu/html/ sch00019.html)—wrote that people not only had right to live, they had right to die as well.
2.2 Intellectual Background of Charlotte Perkins Gilman
L.A. Lowe said that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was sociology’s first radical feminist theorist whose critical social theory and thematic methodology continue to reverberate in the musings and writings of today’s critical social and feminist theorists. http://employment. education.uiowa.edu/lalowe/034_201_ePortfolio/ GILMAN_PAPER.htm Despite her nervous breakdown that she suffered during her lifetime, Gilman was a prolific writer. She wrote a lot of articles, short stories, poems, books, plays, and novels with various topics. For her, writing is more than a form of work, it is also a means of expressing identity. (Goodman, 2001:110) Besides writing, she also lectured throughout the United States and Europe. She believed that in communicating, both in writing and lecturing, people must do that with a real purpose in their mind. (Bauer, 1998:351). In her case, especially, her purpose in writing and lecturing was to educate women and give them the means to change their role in a male-dominated society; she stressed equality both socially and economically.
Her writings were spread in many kinds of magazines, newspapers, and journals. Her highest success in her writing career was acknowledged when she published her own journal, the Forerunner from 1909 until 1916. In this monthly journal, she wrote and edited all the articles there herself, which she claimed could fill 28 long books. The Forerunner was regarded as Gilman’s “vehicle for advancing social awareness.” http://www.gale.com/free_resources/whm/bio/gilman_c. htm In fact, the central theme of this journal was that social and human development were hampered by sexual dysfunctions that could only be removed when women were perceived and treated as human beings and human beings were recognized as integral parts of the social organism. (Ceplair, 1991:189)
Among her hundreds short stories published in various magazines, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the most anthologized one nowadays. In this novella, she wrote her own experience when she suffered from postpartum depression. She criticized the male doctor who prescribed the sick narrator rest cure that apparently by the end of the story led the narrator to the edge of insanity. In another short story entitled “Dr. Clair’s Place”, Gilman expressed her idea about the similar situation in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, only in “Dr. Clair’s Place” it had a female doctor who believed that people who suffered from nervous breakdown would recover soon by making them busy, doing things they liked, such as listening to music, working, etc. This is to attack the male doctor’s bed-rest medication for people who suffer from nervous breakdown.
Forty-three of Gilman’s 186 short stories have been compiled in at least two major collections, "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Other Stories, edited by Robert Shulman and The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, edited by Ann J. Lane. These short stories originally appeared in such varied popular magazines as Saturday Evening Post and Harpers' Bazaar. http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess/CPGguide. html.
Besides short stories, Gilman wrote approximately 490 poems, some of which were collected in In This Our World in 1893 and in Suffrage Songs and Verses in 1911. http://www.womenwriters.net/ domesticgoddess/CPG guide.html.
Some novels Gilman wrote had utopian theme, such as Moving the Mountain (1911), Herland (1915), and With Her in Ourland (1916). In those three utopian novels, Gilman described societies in which attitudes toward women and their abilities have radically changed. Critics said that in Herland, Gilman used satire very well. The novel challenged accepted images of women by describing the reactions of three American males who entered Herland, an all-female society that reproduced through parthenogenesis, reproduction by the development of an unfertilized ovum, as in certain insects and algae. All inhabitants in Herland were described capable in doing anything, not dependent on men at all. http://www.gale.com/free_resources/ whm/bio/gilman_c.htm
Besides writing short stories, poems, and novels, Gilman also wrote a thousand works of non-fiction. These appeared in such magazines as Woman's Journal, Housekeeper's Weekly, Impress, Cosmopolitan, New Nation, The New York Times, and The Saturday Evening Post, to name only a fraction, and their topics reflect Charlotte’s interest in everything from chewing gum in public to socialism. Some of her non-fiction work has been collected in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Non-Fiction Reader (1991) and Her Progress Towards Utopia: With Selected Writings (1994). http://www.Womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess/CPGguide.html. Since her main concern was to make a change in women’s lives, many of her articles urged women to break out of the restrictions society enforces upon them in order to advance social evolution as a mechanism for change. She demanded that women work in "crafts, trades, arts and sciences," fields from which they had historically been barred, and not in the home, their traditional "separate sphere." Indeed, the home is resoundingly absent from her list of occupations, for it, too, needs restructuring in evolutionary advancement.
In “Parasitism and Civilized Vice” Gilman employs her anti-Freudian diatribe against sex-expression and all forms of egocentric excess in the cause of advancing her social philosophy of race development. This essay—published in a collection of other socialist pieces entitled Woman’s Coming of Age (1931)—details Gilman’s argument against women’s growing dependence on men in capitalist America. Gilman argued that like harem women, who were fed and protected for sex service, American women were becoming “sex parasites”. Sex has become a process of economic exchange instead of race betterment, leading to greater temptation for men (Bauer, 1998:25). In another article entitled “Think Husbands Aren’t Mainstays” appearing in New York Times in 1909, Gilman declared that wives were “unpaid servants, merely a comfort and a luxury agreeable to have if a man can afford it” (Bauer, 1998:23).
Gilman also wrote some non-fiction books. In Women and Economics (1898)—her most well-known book which has been translated into several language since its first publication—Gilman argued that the home, considered as both a social and an economic entity, represented the single greatest obstacle to a realization of humanity’s collective interests, since it fosters an elaborate devotion to individuals and their personal needs. Following John Stuart Mill’s and Harriet Taylor’s line in The Subjection of Women (1869) and Friedrich Engels’s analogy between slavery and marriage in The Origin of the Family, Gilman drew the comparison between marriage and prostitution. In an era when purity campaigns and female reform societies were at the height of their influence, Gilman characterized prostitution as, at least in one sense, a lesser evil than marriage. In both cases, “the female gets her food from the male by virtue of her sex-relationship”, but in marriage the “evil” is compounded by a “perfect acceptance of the situation”. (Bauer, 1998:23)
In The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Gilman argued that the exclusion which characterized the domestic sphere had rendered women inferior. The Home began with the premise that “whosoever, man or woman, lived always in a small dark place, was always guarded, protected, directed, and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it”. Gilman argued that it was not that the values of the home need to reach into industry but that principles of industry need to be applied to the home, thereby professionalizing women’s work. Adamantly rejecting the claims certain of her contemporaries known as “female feminists” made for the innately different but superior contributions represented by women’s influence in the home, Gilman concluded that exclusion was always and only oppressive (Bauer, 1998:23-24).
In The Man-Made World or, Our Androcentric Culture (1911), Gilman criticized “androcentric culture”, cataloging the ills that have accumulated as a result of what she sees as an unhealthy move from earlier matriarchal communities to patriarchal society. First, beauty and health have been retarded and both men and women have become weak, inefficient, and ill, not to mention victims of fashion. What is considered beautiful in women is only sex ornament. Second, the sexual double standard has weakened the race by resulting in the transmission of sexual diseases. Third, women’s “civilized art sense” has been aborted since they have not learned “applied art”—in creativity—but only fashion and fad; finally literature “has not only given any true picture of woman’s life, very little of human life, and a disproportioned section of man’s life” (Bauer, 1998:24)
In Concerning Children (1900) Gilman advocated professional child-care. She delivered her most extensive critique of traditional forms of raising children, by discipline and obedience, and called for the creation of process and environment that encouraged them to think. Gilman argued that race improvement must be made between the years fifteen and twenty-five—“the most important decade of a lifetime,” since those were the years when a person could acquire “a keen new consciousness of personal responsibility” and then transmit that characteristic to his or her children. (Ceplair, 1991:91)
Despite the fact that she wrote a lot of articles to educate women about their equal position to men in the patriarchal society, Gilman did not label herself as a feminist, not because she lacked sympathy for feminism but because she found ‘its objectives too limited for her own more radical views on the need for social change’ (Goodman, 2001:140). In her era, the sole goal of women’s movement was to get right to vote in general election to show that they were equal to men. For Gilman, to be politically equal was not as important as economically independent. Work was the most important aspect for women to be equal. When a woman was economically independent, she could do anything in her life, to make herself in the same rank as a man. As a writer and an activist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman offered a great many ideas to the public of her time. She allowed women to dream of a life of equality, and men of a world where women helped out in the workforce. Through her writing and speaking engagements she helped push women's roles in society further than they had ever been. A visionary of her time, she showed people that a world where women were prevalent in the working class was possible with some effort. Through thoughts of economic, political and social independence, she put a picture to equality. http:// bizntech.rutgers.edu/worknlit/gilman2_bib.html
Furthermore, in her Afterword of “The Yellow Wallpaper” Feminist Press Edition (1973), Elaine Hedges stated that Gilman’s basic tenet in her writings and lectures was that work must be respected. Women must be admitted into the human work world on equal terms with men. The domestic work they do must be respected, and they must be free to do other kinds of work as well. Gilman believed in continuing human progress (she wrote a utopian novel, Moving the Mountain, in which women had achieved true equality with men), and she saw the situation of women in the nineteenth century as thwarting this progress as well as thwarting their own development. For some human beings to be classified as horses, or cows, or sexual objects, was to impoverish not only themselves but human society as a whole. (via Golden, 1992:134)
In her lecturing career, Gilman gave lectures to middle— to upper-middle class women’s clubs, labor unions, women’s suffrage groups, church congregations, and Nationalist clubs http://employment.education.uiowa.edu/lalowe/034_201_e Portfolio/ GILMAN_PAPER.htm She spent the rest of 1890s traveling and lecturing: attending a suffrage convention in Washington in 1896; going to England in July 1896 to the Internationalist Socialist and Labor Congress; and again to the International Women’s Congress in London in 1899. She attended the International Congress of Women in Berlin in 1904 and the International Woman Suffrage Congress in Budapest in 1913, and made a lecture tour of England, Holland, Germany, Australia, and Hungary in 1905. http://oasis.harvard.edu/html/ sch00019.html Gilman did all those travels and lectures to express her idea in order to evoke about gender (in)equality and encourage women to struggle for a better and equal life in patriarchal society.
I assume that before we condemn someone to do things you consider heartless—especially in this case a woman who seems not to follow feminine roles CONSTRUCTED BY MEN IN PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY: a loving mother, a loyal and submissive wife, a caring friend, a feminine creature, make sure that you find out the background of her to be like that. If you dont want to bother yourself to do such a ‘research’, just shut your mouth up.
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