By the first decade of the 20th century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the American poet, writer and lecturer for social reform, was regarded as the most significant Western feminist theorist of her day. Her 1898 book, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, became an instant classic and was followed by hundreds of other publications. Yet, surprisingly, to date there has been no book-length systematic analysis of her distinctive contribution to early 20th-century feminism, nor of the dialogue she initiated with Progressive Era reform culture. It is this gap that Judith Allen admirably fills in an engaging intellectual biography of a feminist who has become a problematic figure in recent years.
Born in Connecticut in 1860, Gilman was descended from reformers: the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker were her great-aunts. Her father deserted the family while Gilman was a small child, leaving his wife and children in an impoverished state. Intelligent and an avid reader, Gilman attended Rhode Island School of Design when she was 18 years old. Her marriage in 1884 to Charles Walter Stetson, an impecunious artist, saw her aspirations for a life of "world service" founder as a result of her husband's opposition, especially when she embraced what was then known as the "Woman Question". Further, his insistence on the fulfilment of his erotic sexual needs caused considerable discord. The breaking point came in 1887 when, suffering from deep depression after the birth of her daughter, Gilman was advised by a doctor to adopt a domestic life, and never to touch pen, brush or pencil again. Such a claustrophobic existence, which brought her close to mental ruin, prompted her to write a fictionalised account of her breakdown, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). It is this story for which Gilman is best known today, although this was not the case during her lifetime. Nor did she see herself as a novelist, poet or feminist, but as a social scientist and humanist.
Gilman asked Stetson for a divorce, and between their separation in 1888 and a reconnection nine years later with her first cousin Houghton Gilman, she lived a life of poverty. Eking out a living from her writing and art classes, she made the painful decision to send her daughter, nine-year-old Kate, to live with her father and his soon-to-be new wife (and Gilman's friend) Grace Channing.
It was only with her second marriage in 1900, to her cousin, that Gilman found happiness. Houghton Gilman, an attorney, helped her to draft Women and Economics and was generally supportive, freeing his talented wife to come and go as she pleased. Allen argues convincingly that Gilman's life experiences set the stage for this classic work, although the reform Darwinist approach advocated by Lester Frank Ward, a founding father of sociology in America, was also influential. In Women and Economics, Gilman maintained that heterosexuality had become the means by which men held women in subjection, through an economic dependency that was naturalised as the outcome of women's sexual functions. Wives, she argued, were kept in a state of "sex slavery" by their unpaid forced erotic and menial labour. She believed that a reformed heterosexuality, along with economic independence for women, centralised nurseries and co-operative kitchens, was the solution to the problem. Passionate about women's rights, she made several trips to Britain, speaking on suffragette and socialist platforms.
During the Progressive Era, Gilman became a powerful feminist voice against regulated prostitution, but shortly after the outbreak of the First World War her influence declined. She attacked the Germans and condemned the lack of patriotism among "our foreign residents". In the late 1920s, she became a reluctant birth controller, not on any libertarian grounds but as a tool of "race progress". Such views have led many commentators to call her racist, elitist and even anti-feminist.
Allen skilfully weaves a path through these complex issues in this richly textured book, pointing out that while Gilman will inevitably disappoint some, we must not forget the contribution she made to theorising about women's subjection, and the way she tried to integrate these views into the reform movements of her day as she worked to eliminate the inequalities of what we now call gender.
The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism
By Judith A. Allen
University of Chicago Press
488pp, £58.50 and £24.00
ISBN 9780226014623 and 14630
Published 18 September 2009