Rosie Pearce

On Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I wonder how many of you have heard of Charlotte Perkins
Gilman? I certainly hadn’t before studying her short story ‘The
Yellow Wallpaper’ in my first year of university. Having reached
the end of my degree and having decided to write my last ever essay
on Gilman’s work, I remain nonplussed as to why history has largely
forgotten this inspirational figure. Gilman was born in the US in
1860. In her lifetime she saw the impact of the Industrial
Revolution, the First World War, the abolition of slavery and the
birth of the women’s movement. Amongst such political and social
turmoil, Gilman felt the need to make her voice heard, which she
duly did: she published a vast array of both fiction and
non-fiction works in her lifetime, as well as singlehandedly
writing and publishing her own magazine for a period of seven
years. In addition to this she became a prominent public figure,
travelling across America to give lectures on social issues. With
such an impressive output, it seems strange to me that the single
work of hers that still receives real attention today is a story of
barely twenty pages. ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a fantastic story,
don’t get me wrong – it’s a blistering attack on the brutal 19th
Century rest cure, designed to cure women of ‘hysteria’, which I
would encourage anyone to read. But in moving from her fiction to
her non-fiction, particularly her extended essay Women and
Economics, I’m struck by just how much her voice still resonates,
over 100 years on. Gilman was radical for her time and her attacks
on the institution of the home shocked many – she believed that the
future lay in communities which would share duties such as cooking
and laundry, freeing up women to pursue their own particular
interests. So far, so rational – while I can’t say I necessarily
agree with her desire for communal dining halls instead of family
home cooking, I can see the logic. Admittedly her ideas weren’t all
as progressive – she saw sex as a means of procreation only,
disparaging the young people of her era for their ‘excessive
sex-indulgence’, and she showed herself to be considerably less
enlightened on the question of ethnic minorities. charlotte-perkins-gilman But these points aside,
for me her most incisive comments are those concerning the
essential relationship between men and women. Expressed in an
earnest, somewhat technical way (lots of phrases such as
‘sex-distinction’ and ‘sexuo-economic’ which aren’t as kinky as
they sound), she asks why it is that we are the only species which
has chosen to make the female dependent on the male, and why we
have exaggerated the differences between men and women to make this
seem the sensible choice. I admit when I first read this I saw it
as a product of its time – it’s normal for a woman to choose work
over the home today, so this doesn’t really apply anymore, right?
And yet, when you think about it, aren’t we still obsessed by our
sexual differences? Don’t we still hear comments and even comment
ourselves that a short haircut on a woman makes her look less
‘feminine’? Don’t we still see adverts where the little girl
wears pink and plays with her dolls while the little boy charges
around breaking things? (I’m looking at you Weetabix!) Aren’t we
still obsessed with makeover programmes like ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’,
where the ultimate accolade is to be told that someone would be
proud to marry you, to take you home and show you off? I feel like
we’re at a fascinating time, feminism-wise. On the one hand we’ve
got a gutsy, vocal new wave of writers and speakers like Caitlin
Moran and Laurie Penny, who are honest and refreshingly personal in
their approach. But then on the other hand we’ve got a generation
of girls who think that feminism is a dirty word and who would
rather be seen dead than without makeup or shaved legs. To me
this seems more of a schism than ever. I wonder what Charlotte
would think.

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