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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Considered the leading intellectual in the woman's movement from the 1890s to 1920, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was widely known both in the United States and abroad for her incisive studies of woman's role and status in society. By the time of her death in 1935, all of her books were out of print, and in the intervening decades her ideas were largely forgotten. Since the 1970s her writings have been rediscovered—both the sociological analyses that made her popular in her own time, and her less widely known fiction, especially her short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper," regarded today as a classic of nineteenth-century literature.

Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1860 to Mary Westcott and Frederick Beecher Perkins; her childhood was a difficult one. Her father (through whom she was related to the famous Beecher clan, including Harriet Beecher Stowe) abandoned his family shortly after Charlotte's birth, and she, her mother, and brother moved constantly, often barely skirting poverty. Determined to be self-supporting, Gilman studied art and earned her living by teaching and by designing greeting cards. In 1884, after much hesitation—some of it due to her apprehension about the difficulties a woman faced in attempting to combine marriage and motherhood with professional work—she married a fellow artist, Charles Stetson. When the birth of a daughter a year after her marriage was followed by a severe depression, Gilman consulted the prominent nerve specialist Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and underwent his famous "rest cure"—a regimen of total bed rest, confinement, and isolation. Once at home, she attempted to follow Mitchell's advice: to devote herself to domestic work and her child and "never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live." It drove her, she said, to the brink of "utter mental ruin." A trial separation from her husband and a trip to California restored her health, and eventually she and Stetson were amicably divorced. Gilman's second marriage, to a first cousin, George Houghton Gilman, in 1900, was deeply satisfying and endured until his death in 1934, a year before her own.

Establishing herself in California, Gilman began to write and lecture on suffrage and woman's rights, and on the social reforms advocated by the Nationalist clubs inspired by Edward Bellamy's Utopian novel Looking Backward (1888). In 1892 she published "The Yellow Wall-Paper." Based on her experience with Dr. Mitchell, it is an indictment of nineteenth-century medical attitudes toward women as well as a subtle analysis of the power politics of marriage. Rejected by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, whose editor found it too personally distressing to publish, it appeared instead in the less widely circulated New England Magazine.

It was for her sociological studies, however, that Gilman became best known in her own lifetime. In 1898 she published Women and Economics, her comprehensive analysis of women's past and present subordination in society. An ambitious blend of history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, it was Gilman's important contribution to the newly developing social sciences. Gilman's major thesis was that women's economic dependence inside marriage, their unpaid and therefore undervalued work in the home, determines their subordinate status. Her solution was to remove "women's work," and women themselves, from the home and to professionalize and socialize domestic work. Abolishing the sexual division of labor would free women to pursue work in the public world and become more productive members of society.

Women and Economics brought Gilman immediate fame. In the decades that followed she enjoyed an international reputation, lecturing extensively in the United States and abroad. She continued to develop her social analyses in a series of books, including The Home (1904), Human Work (1904), and The Man-Made World (1911), and in a magazine, The Forerunner, that she published from 1910 to 1916 and for which she wrote all the copy—articles, editorials, poems, short stories, and serialized novels—the equivalent, she estimated, of twenty-eight books in seven years. The total included three Utopian novels that presented ideal societies based on her reform principles. In one of these, Herland (1915), a Utopia of women without men, she wittily exposed American society's arbitrary assignment of "masculine" and "feminine" sex roles and behavioral traits. Herland is a society governed by principles of nurturing, in which children, raised collectively by trained specialists, are the most valuable resource.

In addition to "The Yellow Wall-Paper" Gilman wrote over two hundred short stories, most of them for The Forerunner. "Turned" is an example of this fiction, written to dramatize and offer solutions for the inequities in women's lives that Gilman's nonfiction works analyzed. "Turned" forthrightly treats marital infidelity, and its "solution" is as provocative as it is unexpected.

Elaine Hedges
late of Towson State University

In the Heath Anthology
The Yellow Wall-Paper (1892)
Turned (1911)

Other Works
Women and Economics (1898)
Forerunner, vols 1-7 (1901 - 1916)
The Man-Made World (1911)

Cultural Objects
Text fileDr. Weir Mitchell's Rest Cure

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

Responses to Marriage in Late Nineteenth Century Women's Writing (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)

Would you like to add another assignment or pedagogical approach?


The Yellow Wall-paper Site
Text with links to student projects at various universities.

American Authors
Images and many links to works and criticism available online.

Scribbling Women: Yellow Wallpaper Site
An audio drama version of the story, biographical information, a short critical essay, and other materials.

Works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Extensive bibliography of works provided by the Celebration of Women Writers site.

Secondary Sources

John Bates Dock, compiler and ed., Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook, 1998

Catherine Golden, ed., The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on "The Yellow Wallpaper," 1992

Val Gough and Jill Rudd, eds., Cahrlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer, 1998

Elaine R. Hedges, "Afterword," The Yellow Wallpaper, 1973

Mary A. Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist 1860-1896, 1980

Joanne B. Karpinski, ed., Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1992

Carol Farley Kessler, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Her Progress Toward Utopia with Selected Writings, 1994

Ann J. Lane, "Introduction," The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, 1980

Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1990

Gary Scharnhorst, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1986

Jill Rudd and Val Gough, eds., A Very Different Story: Studies in the Fiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1998