Women’s History Month Wednesday: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” On Wednesdays during March, I’ll highlight one woman from the past who wrote about women along with one contemporary woman who wrote about her. Women writing about women who wrote about women.

I’ll begin with Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), a writer, social activist, suffragist, and feminist who was a member of the socially and culturally influential Beecher family that included the minister Lyman Beecher and the writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher. Note: Gilman didn’t always like the feminist label and her views on race were hardly laudatory.

(Photo: Francis Benjamin Johnston via Library of Congress)

While separated from her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson, Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892, a semi-autobiographical account of a young wife’s struggle with post-partum depression and the doctor-recommended “rest cure.” The story received mixed reviews at the time, but has since gone on to become a classic piece of feminist literature.

Feminism and social reform intrigued Gilman, leading her to reject the tradition gender conventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was especially critical of the lack of financial independence for women. In 1898, Gilman published Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. The book’s success turned her into an international figure in the women’s movement. Two years later, she remarried, this time more happily to her cousin, Houghton Gilman.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman has attracted the attention of scholars and biographers since at least the 1980s. In 2010, historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz published Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of my favorites. Horowitz showed how Gilman’s experiences as a patient and then later as a writer documenting her treatment reflected the way nineteenth-century Americans understood mental health and illness. It’s one of the most interesting explorations of Gilman and her work.

Horowitz received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University in 1969, when “second-wave” feminism was at high tide in the United States. She went on to teach, ending her academic career at Smith College as the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History. Many of Horowitz’s books, including Wild Unrest, focused on women’s history. Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America, published in 2002, was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

Until next Wednesday…..