Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1860-1935

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A socialist and deist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an independent thinker, author, and lecturer who was an intellectual leader of the woman’s movement from the later 1890s through the mid-1920s.

Charlotte Anna Perkins was born July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut, to Mary Fitch Westcott and Frederic Beecher Perkins. She had a slightly older brother, Thomas Adie Perkins. In 1882 Charlotte Perkins met a young artist, Charles Walter Stetson; they were married May 4, 1884. Their daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson, was born March 23, 1885. The Stetsons divorced in April 1894. Charles Walter Stetson then married Grace Ellery Channing, a close friend of Charlotte, and the couple raised Katharine in California.

Charlotte Perkins Stetson married her cousin, George Houghton Gilman, on June 11, 1900. Katharine Stetson married artist F. Tolles Chamberlin in 1918; the couple had two children, Dorothy (b.1918) and Walter (b.1920), and moved to Pasadena, California, in 1919. After many years of living in New York City, the Gilmans moved to Norwich, Connecticut, in 1922. Following Houghton Gilman's unexpected death in 1934, Charlotte Perkins Gilman moved to Pasadena to live nearer to her daughter. She took her own life on August 17, 1935.

For more information, see Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers, 1846-1961 ( 177 ), and Notable American Women (1971).

From the guide to the Papers of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1846-ca.1975 (inclusive), 1880-1940 (bulk), (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, independent thinker, prolific writer, and gifted speaker, was the intellectual leader of the women's movement from the late 1890s through the mid-1920s. Influenced by Lester F. Ward's gynaecocentric theory and Edward Bellamy's Nationalism, she was a socialist but not a Marxist; a Deist with no concern for an afterlife, considering God an impersonal working power; an advocate of economic independence for women, with the ballot of secondary importance. She believed that sex differences were overemphasized at the expense of a humanness common to men and women, and that mankind had become debased by sexual over-indulgence. She considered ethics not a religious matter but a social science, and the group, not the individual, the basic unit in both ethics and economics. In place of the dictum, "He who does not work shall not eat," she suggested that "He who does not eat cannot work": that if people's needs were satisfied they would work because they wanted to. Though she rejected cooperative living and strongly supported the private home, she believed it should be a place to rest--not a place to work; that cooking, cleaning and child-rearing should be done by professionals; and that children should be treated as rational human beings, allowed a good deal of freedom, and dressed to allow for movement and activity. Sensible dress and shoes for women was among her earliest interests, as was physical fitness: at 21 she arranged for the first women's gym in Providence; at 65 she was still an impressive swimmer. Her lecturing was always in essence preaching, her writing--even poems, plays, novels, and stories--always didactic. Her interests and views remained fairly constant throughout her life, as did her decidedly rational and optimistic outlook. In later years, however, there were some new interests, notably Freud, birth control, and immigrants. Freud she attacked for his "sexolatry," which seemed to her to promote the views of sex she had argued against all her life. She approved of birth control as a means to greater freedom for women and to improvement of the race, but disapproved of it as promoting sex for pleasure rather than procreation. She deplored the increased influx of immigrants, whom she felt to be unassimilable and a threat to true "Americans."

Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother, Mary Fitch Westcott, had married a second cousin, the well-known librarian and bibliophile, Frederic Beecher Perkins, grandson of Lyman Beecher, nephew of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gilman herself and others attributed her lifelong talent for speaking--and especially preaching--with ease and power to her Beecher heritage. Her brother, Thomas Adie, was 14 months older; there were two siblings who died in infancy.

Charlotte's childhood was characterized by poverty, almost continual moving from place to place (her mother's list of "movings" in folder 1 includes places in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island), and the absence of her father, the last being the cause of the other two conditions. He apparently left when she was an infant, taking posts as head first of the new Boston Public Library and later of the San Francisco Public Library, paying only rare visits to his family and sending very little money. When Charlotte was 13 the family of three settled in Providence, Rhode Island, and remained there, at various addresses, until she herself moved away. Her formal schooling was sporadic, a total of four years between the ages of 7 and 15, two years at the Rhode Island School of Design and, in her early twenties, a course with the Society for the Encouragement of Studies at Home (see folders 160 for school essays, 315-321, volumes 9-11 and oversize folders 4o and 4af+ for her drawings). Meanwhile she read widely on her own, largely in the fields of history and evolution, with some guidance from her father (see folder 26 for a reading list in his handwriting), and strove diligently and systematically to improve her character, with the aim, conceived in childhood, of helping and improving the human race. Some of this process is recorded in volumes 15 to 19.

In 1882 she met a young artist, Charles Walter Stetson. Though she loved him and felt him to be a kindred spirit she struggled for months with the question, not of whether she wanted to marry him, but of whether she should, for she felt she had serious work to do (though not yet sure what it was) and that to choose personal happiness was wrong. She did choose it, however, and married Walter Stetson on May 4, 1884. Their daughter, Katharine Beecher Stetson (later married to F. Tolles Chamberlin), was born March 23, 1885. Even during the first months of marriage, Mrs. Stetson suffered from frequent periods of depression and enforced idleness, which increased after the birth of the child. On the doctor's advice, she took a trip west from October 1885 to March 1886. She visited her brother in Ogden, Utah, and her father in San Francisco, and spent the winter with her friends the Channings (including her life-long friend, Grace Ellery Channing) in Pasadena, California. Her condition improved as soon as she left home, but, the depression returning full force upon her return to Providence, the Stetsons decided in the fall of 1887 that separation was inevitable. After a long visit from Grace Channing in the summer of 1888, during which they wrote the first of several plays together and planned future work (see folders 214-216), Charlotte took Katharine and returned to Pasadena with Grace in October of that year. Walter followed them in December and stayed for over a year, till both realized it was useless. Attempts at divorce, complicated by the fact that there were no obvious grounds, finally succeeded in April 1894. Walter Stetson thereupon married Grace Channing, the Stetsons and Charlotte remaining friends and sharing Katharine's upbringing.

Charlotte Perkins' first published work was the poem, "One Girl of Many," which appeared in The Alpha, probably in 1880; The Woman's Journal also published some of her verse in the 1880s (see oversize volume 7o). In Pasadena, recovering from the mental turmoil of her married life and thrown on her own resources, she began to write and speak professionally, earning enough to keep herself and Katharine. In 1890 alone she wrote 33 articles and 23 poems, and she spoke to women's clubs, Nationalist groups, and others. Soon after attending a meeting of the Pacific Coast Women's Press Association (PCWPA) in San Francisco, she moved to Oakland, in the summer of 1891; during the next four years its monthly paper, The Bulletin, and editing it--with Helen Campbell--under the title The Impress from 1893 to 1895 (see folder 238, volumes 1o and 2o). Her mother came to live with her but died in March 1893 of cancer.

During these years she continued to lecture, give classes (see folders 163-172), and write prose and verse, some of it published (in the Union Signal, Christian Register, Kate Field's Washington, etc.), some of it not (see volume 23). In 1892 her story of insanity, "The Yellow Wallpaper," was published in New England Magazine, winning her attention both positive and negative, the former notably from William Dean Howells. Her poems meanwhile were collected into a small volume, In This Our World, published in Oakland in 1893 (folder 269). In 1894 she moved to San Francisco, sending Katharine to the Stetsons; Frederic Perkins, who was then leaving San Francisco, accompanied the child on the train to Providence.

In 1895 The Impress ceased publication and Charlotte Perkins Stetson, rather discouraged by her lonely life, the years of poverty, and the sometimes vicious press reaction to her divorce and the supposed abandonment of her child, accepted a long-standing invitation from Jane Addams to visit Hull House. She spent the rest of the 1890s traveling and lecturing: attending a suffrage convention in Washington, D.C., in January 1896 (when she first met Lester F. Ward); going to England in July 1896 to the International Socialist and Labor Congress (and meeting Alfred Russel Wallace, George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Jaures, William Morris and other leading socialists: see folder 5); and again to the International Women's Congress in London in 1899 (folder 6). All through these years, she continued to write prose and verse--becoming contributing editor of The American Fabian (Volume 3o) in December 1896--and also to suffer periodically from bouts of weakness and depression.

In March 1897 she called on her cousin George Houghton Gilman at his law office in New York, for advice on getting a royalty payment from a dishonest agent. Houghton's mother, Katharine Beecher Perkins Gilman, was the sister of Charlotte's father, and the two cousins, she seven years his senior, had visited and corresponded years earlier (see folders 33 and 38). Their new friendship soon blossomed into romance; fortunately, Houghton saved the hundreds of letters (folders 40-86) Charlotte wrote him during the next three years (though she did not keep his); they make a valuable record of her professional activities, the development of her thought, and the often stormy oscillations of her feelings; in fact, they reveal a side of her nature--as a woman of passion, less than one-hundred percent independent--which otherwise, even in her autobiography, she kept carefully hidden. Again she struggled with her doubts as to her right to be happy, but Houghton held firm, they were married in Detroit on June 11, 1900, an in her subsequent life she apparently managed successfully to reconcile her work for women and humanity at large with her own private happiness.

Meantime, in the summer and fall of 1897, she had written the book that brought her fame, Women and Economics . It was published the next year, together with an enlarged edition of In This Our World . Though Gilman herself considered Human Work, written during the winter of 1898-1899, her most important contribution, Women and Economics, with its argument that women need economic independence--and not just the ballot--to be truly free and equal, and that society as a whole would be better for their full participation, had the greater impact.

The Gilmans settled in New York, where they lived, moving further uptown every few years, until 1922. During the summer of 1900 Gilman wrote Concerning Children ; it was published later that year, while Human Work, much rewritten, was published in 1904 and The Home in 1903. Katharine lived with the Gilmans during much of this time, and alternately with the Stetsons. For several months, Gilman was treated for her mental ailment by Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, with some positive results.

Besides extensive lecture trips in the United States, she attended the International Congress of Women in Berlin in 1904 (folder 7) and the International Woman Suffrage Congress in Budapest in 1913 (folder 8), and made a lecture tour of England, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Hungary in 1905 (see newsclippings in folders 288-292). After 1894 she spoke extemporaneously, so that we have no further written speeches (except a few in print in oversize folder 2af+ and two late ones in folder 173), but there is an abundance of articles from this period (folders 175-177, 180, 250, and oversize folders 1o and 1af+) in addition to the three books mentioned above.

Dissatisfied with the reactions of editors to her contributions, she launched her own monthly magazine, The Forerunner, in November 1909. She wrote, edited, and published it virtually single-handed until she gave it up in 1916, partly because she was "written out" and partly because she felt that, as there was an insufficient market for it (it never paid for itself), it was wrong to continue publishing it. It included several full-length books in serial form and numerous stories, articles, reviews, and poems, always emphasizing her ideas in the fields of economics, ethics, women's rights, and child-rearing (see folders 239-242, 331). Of the serialized books, The Crux, The Man-Made World, Moving the Mountain, and What Diantha Did were published separately by the Charlton Co. (Charlotte plus Houghton), which published The Forerunner .

During 1919 she wrote a series of articles for the New York Tribune syndicate (folders 129, 252) and many articles were published in the 1920s, but demand for her lectures, and later her articles too, began to decline after the passage of the 19th amendment. She published one more book, His Religion and Hers, in 1923, wrote and rewrote her Social Ethics (there are four versions, folders 227-230), and made plans, which never materialized, for a new edition of all her works (folder 20). Her friend Amy Wellington compiled a new volume of poems, also never published (folders 35, 125, 185-96). Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published posthumously in October 1935.

In 1922 the Gilmans moved to the Gilman house in Norwich Town, Connecticut; Charlotte at least was relieved to leave New York, with its majority of "non-Americans." Houghton died suddenly on May 4, 1934; in September Charlotte moved to Pasadena to be near her daughter, who lived there with her husband and two children (Dorothy and Walter). She gave some lectures and classes that winter but her health was failing. In 1932 she had learned that she had breast cancer; on August 17, 1935, realizing that she could no longer be well or useful, she ended her life with chloroform (see folder 226 for her writings on euthanasia and suicide).

From the guide to the Papers, 1846-1961, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1846-ca.1975 (inclusive), 1880-1940 (bulk) Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
creatorOf Papers, 1846-1961 Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
The American Fabian
Occupation
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Person

Birth 1860

Death 1935

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