Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an American novelist, humanist, lecturer and advocate for social reform. She was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut to Mary (Fitch Westcott) and Frederic Beecher Perkins, a writer and librarian. She spent most of her young life in poverty after her father abandoned the family due to his wife’s inability to safely birth more children. Her mother was unable to support Charlotte and her brother Thomas on her own, and so much of their time was spent with her father’s aunts, including suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and educationalist Catharine Beecher. These strong, feminist influences clearly affected Charlotte’s interests in later life.
Her chaotic upbringing meant that Charlotte spent only a cumulative four years in school, ending at the age of 15, however she was bright and spent much of her time in the library, often studying ancient civilizations. Her mother was distant and did not show affection, and she had minimal contact with her father. Most of Charlotte’s friends were boys, and she was known to happily refer to herself as a “Tomboy”.
At 18 she enrolled in design classes in Rhode Island with the financial support of her estranged father and subsequently supported herself as an artist of trade cards. During this time she met Martha Luther, one of the most important relationships of her young life.
An extensive collection of correspondence between Charlotte and Martha exists, demonstrating the uniquely close relationship the two women had. Charlotte herself admits to loving Martha in her autobiography, although she claims there was not a sexual aspect to the relationship. Whether or not there was, it was clearly romantic, and continued for about 4 years, until Martha called things off and married a man, devastating Gilman.
In 1884 she married artist Charles Walter Stetson, and their only child Katharine Beecher Stetson was born the following year. Charlotte suffered a very serious case of postpartum depression after the birth, something that would later influence her writing of The Yellow Wallpaper. To help aid this, she moved to California with her daughter and lived with friend Grace Ellery Channing – in 1888, Charlotte and Charles separated, and, in something highly unusual for the time, divorced in 1894. Shortly afterwards Charles married Grace – despite this unusual relationship, the three stayed close friends, and all three were involved in raising young Katharine.
After the split from her husband, Charlotte met journalist and social advocate, Adeline Knapp, and the two developed a serious relationship. It was later written by Cynthia J. Davis that, “with a woman as life mate (Charlotte) might more easily uphold that combination than she would in a conventional heterosexual marriage.”Eventually the relationship ended.
After the death of her mother in 1893, Charlotte moved back east and re-connected with her first cousin, Houghton Gilman, whom she had not seen in nearly 15 years. The Wall Street attorney quickly became interested in Charlotte, and the two almost immediately struck up a romantic relationship. Unlike her first marriage, Charlotte seems to have been passionately in love with and attracted to Houghton, and they were married in 1900.
Charlotte was a devout feminist who frequently wrote and lectured on the subject. In 1896 she was a delegate for California at both the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C., and the International Socialist and Labor Congress in London. Charlotte published a series of satirical poems about feminism and social change that were well received, but it was her 1898 work, Women and Economics that truly propelled her to fame. She had begun to consider more deeply sexual relationships and economics in American life, and this book discussed the role of women at home, arguing for the opportunity to expand their work to the public sphere.
In 1903, she expanded on this work with The Home: Its Work and Influence, proposing that women are oppressed in their home and need their environment changed for their mental health: that same year she addressed International Congress of Women in Berlin.
Today, her 1892 fictional work The Yellow Wallpaper is what she is best remembered for, a sort of feminist horror story about postpartum depression, the rest cure, and woman’s role in the home.
Controversial Beliefs: Euthanasia and Eugenics
In many ways Charlotte was a progressive, liberal leader of her time, however her beliefs that the presence of a large Black American minority was a “sociological problem” was undeniably racist and problematic. For her part, she acknowledged that the unfortunate situations (poverty, segregation) Black Americans found themselves in was the fault of White Americans, and recognized the role slavery had in systemic racism. Her Wikipedia article states:
Gilman was unequivocal about the ills of slavery and the wrongs which many White Americans had done to Black Americans, stating that irrespective of any crimes committed by Black Americans, “[Whites] were the original offender, and have a list of injuries to [Black Americans], greatly outnumbering the counter list.
However, it was her proposed solutions to this that were disturbing. She suggested that Black citizens who were not “self-supporting”, or who were “actual criminals” be enlisted into a quasi-military force and made to work in agriculture or infrastructure until they gained skills that were deemed good enough to allow them to “graduate with honours”.
While she did speak out against literacy voting tests in an effort to gain the vote for all women, she is quoted as having said once “I am an Anglo-Saxon before everything”, and was known to espouse eugenicist beliefs when discussing immigrants and their supposed “diluting” of the nation’s “racial purity”.
In 1932, Charlotte was diagnosed with terminal cancer. An advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, she committed suicide on August 17, 1935, by taking an overdose of chloroform: in both her autobiography and suicide note, she wrote that she “chose chloroform over cancer”.