Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Gary Scharnhorst

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a.k.a. Charlotte Anna Perkins and Charlotte Perkins Stetson (b. 1860–d. 1935), was the leading intellectual in the American women’s movement at the turn of the 20th century. The grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gilman briefly studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, though she was largely self-educated. Unhappily married to the artist Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, she underwent S. Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” for neurasthenia in 1887. The experience inspired her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892). Divorced from Stetson in 1894, she launched her public career in California as a poet and lecturer on behalf of Edward Bellamy’s socialism in 1890. Her first important book was a collection of poetry titled In This Our World (1893); and her sociological treatise Women and Economics (1898), which was eventually translated into seven languages, cemented her reputation as a feminist theorist—though she deprecated the term “feminist” on the grounds that it was too narrow to encompass the range of her social critique. She preferred the term “humanist.” A prolific and versatile poet, essayist, and fiction writer, Gilman defies simple categorization. Her work has attracted the attention of literary critics, social scientists, and intellectual historians alike. She popularized the reform Darwinism of Lester Ward in such books as The Home (1903), Human Work (1904), The Man-Made World (1911), and His Religion and Hers (1923). During the period from 1909 to 1916, she wrote, edited, and published the monthly magazine the Forerunner. By her own estimate, she produced the equivalent of twenty-eight books during these seven years, including the utopian romance Herland (1915). During her career she published over 2,100 separate works, including three utopian romances; five novels; barrels of articles, poems, and tales; four editions of her volume of verse; and six books of essays. She was unapologetically didactic in all of her publications. “In my opinion,” she once declared, “it is a pretty poor thing to write, to talk, without a purpose.” She was well known during her life as an advocate of so-called baby-gardens, i.e., kindergartens or professionalized childcare; kitchen-less houses and professionalized food services; and professionalized (not cooperative) housekeeping. Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1932, she ended her life in August 1935, explaining that she preferred chloroform. Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, appeared the next month. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Article.  11231 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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