Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, apostle of women’s liberation

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote much about the state of women in society, publishing the still widely acclaimed short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). She also wrote other essays, somewhat colored by her own life experiences. Her father had left his family when she and her brother were still small children, her mother brought her up in an atmosphere of emotional deprivation, and her first marriage ended up in a divorce followed by recurrent episodes of depression. Perhaps inevitably, her writings are peppered with much ambivalence about men.

This ambivalence is best brought out in the stories about women wronged by men but eventually emerging triumphant. In Turned an unfaithful husband gets the young Scandinavian servant pregnant, but the story ends with the wife and the servant living together to raise the baby and refusing to have anything to do with the sinful man. In The Widow’s Might, a woman, instead of giving the deceased husband’s money to her children, decides she has always lived for others and now will live for herself and travel all over the world. In An Honest Woman, a young woman marries a suspect character, formerly a phrenologist in Cincinnati, palmist in St. Louis, “some kind of opathithist” in Topeka, a healer of brains and bones and author of a book on sex in San Francisco. He predictably abandons his wife, who goes on to establish a successful business and years later also refuses to take him back.

Some women in Gilman’s essays are so perceptive and competent that they are able to turn around difficult situations. In Mr. Peebles Heart a young woman doctor realizes that her sister and husband are unhappy, slaves to their way of life – he unhappy running a business, she vapidly living her own life and taking him for granted. She saves the situation by suggesting the husband take a trip to Europe, from which he returns younger, stronger, refreshed, and stimulated, a state that eventually also rubs off on the formerly unhappy wife. In Making a Change, a young couple’s marriage is about to crumble because the baby cries every night and keeps everybody awake. The situation is saved by a resolute mother-in-law who straightens out the couple’s finances, lets out rooms to a boarder, and sends the young bride to give piano lessons, proof that married couples can achieve happiness if the women are allowed to work.

In The Cottagette, Gilman develops her point of view that a woman’s place is not in the kitchen. The scene is set in an idyllic, picturesque Walden-like setting where a young woman artist falls in love with a visiting newspaperman. Told by her friend that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, she sets up a kitchen and begins to cook. Life now takes a downward turn. The little cottage becomes noisy and smelly, overcrowded with help hired to clean and wash; there is no more time for drawing and art; gone are the romantic walks in the forest – and by the time the two decide to marry they agree there will be no cooking done in their future ménage.

In If I were a Man Molly is a successful socialite who almost always gets her way with her husband but is upset because he made a fuss about a bill; and suddenly, behold, she becomes Gerald, a man. Now her feet are bigger, her clothes have pockets for a cigar case, keys, pens, and a billfold with money to spend as she wishes. On the train to work she meets other men and learns about their prejudices, their coarseness, their view that women are different. It ends with Gerald commenting that if women dress like fools and wear plumage, or if they make mercenary marriages because they are not allowed to work, it is the men who are to blame.

In Herland, all men have been killed in battle, leaving only women, who replicate themselves by parthenogenesis. They have created an ideal state where all women are sisters and friends, have nothing to fear, need no protection, the country is “as neat as a Dutch kitchen,” there is no competition, and there are no wars. This is in contrast to The Man-made World, where history was made and written by men and for men, or in On Women and Economics, in which Gilman describes women as economically dependent on men, their work in the home unrecognized and unappreciated, their activities elsewhere restricted, their sexual attraction emphasized over other talents, and all decisions made by men.

All this is poignantly brought to the fore in The Yellow Wallpaper. Here the main protagonist is a young woman whose husband and brother are doctors, and think they know best. To the husband she is a darling, a pet, a little goose. The wife has a depressive illness with anxiety, and in the doctors’ opinion there is nothing the matter but a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.” She is expected to get better by following the rest cure recommended by the popular neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, for which reason her doctor husband has taken a house in the country where she is a virtual prisoner, allowed to do nothing other than rest. If she wants to write, she has to do it secretly. She respects her husband’s opinion but sometimes wonders if she would not get better without him. She lies in bed and cries, takes “phosphates or phosphates or whatever,” has a scheduled prescription for every hour of the day, must avoid all stimulating talk, and spends most of her time gazing at the detestable wallpaper that even smells yellow. She sees horrible patterns in it, faces that move and jeer and threaten. At last she begins to strip off yards of the paper off the wall at the places where horrid women are trying to break into the room. She has a complete psychotic breakdown and tries to jump out of the window. When her husband enters the room, he is shocked and faints, and she has to creep over him several times in order to continue stripping off the wallpaper.

Gilman lived until 1935, when, on learning she had breast cancer, she determined to end her life. While her essays may seem dated in some respects, her writing about the role of women over a century ago may still be read to advantage today.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Winter 2019



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