Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Action
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a lecturer, suffragist, and prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her groundbreaking work, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), brought her international acclaim. Today, she is best known for a short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." During her lifetime, Gilman worked to promote woman suffrage, the professionalization of domestic work, and the social purity movement (which sought to abolish prostitution and establish a common "age of consent".

Biographical Highlights

In her autobiography, Charlotte Perkins Gilman recalled, "From sixteen I had not wavered from that desire to help humanity which underlay all my studies. Here was the world, visibly unhappy and as visibly unnecessarily so; surely it called for the best efforts of all who could in the least understand what was the matter, and had any rational improvement to propose" (Gilman [1935] 1990, 70). Called an "optimist reformer" by one of her contemporaries, Gilman was pleased with the praise but distinguished her work differently. She noted, "Mr. Howells told me I was the only optimist reformer he ever met. Perhaps because I was not a reformer, but a philosopher. I worked for various reforms, as Socrates went to war when Athens needed his services, but we do not remember him as a soldier. My business was to find out what ailed society, and how most easily and naturally to improve it" (Ibid., 182). Gilman worked to promote woman suffrage, the professionalization of domestic work, and the social purity movement (which sought to reform American society's morals, including the abolishment of prostitution). Gilman also campaigned for reforms related to labor issues and the medical community's treatment of psychological illnesses.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's revolutionary views of women's abilities and her demands for political, economic, and social reform of gender inequities shook the foundations of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She expressed her views through her writings, both fiction and non-fiction, and also lectured throughout the United States and in Western Europe. Although in recent times she is primarily recognized for her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," during her lifetime Gilman was best known for her groundbreaking work Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution , which was published in 1898 and received international acclaim.

Historic Roots

Charlotte Anna Perkins was born on 3 July 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, to Frederick Beecher Perkins and Mary Westcott Perkins. One of two children to survive, she was mostly self-taught; Gilman wrote that her "total schooling covered four years, among seven different schools, ending when I was fifteen" ([1935] 1990, 18). Encouraged by her intellectual librarian father, she was an avid reader. Charlotte was proud of her intellectual activist lineage; her great-aunts included Catharine Beecher (the prominent women's education advocate), Harriet Beecher Stowe (abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom's Cabin ), and Isabella Beecher Hooker (women's rights activist and founder of the New England Woman Suffrage Association). Unfortunately, Perkins' poverty-ridden, itinerant childhood and her parents' difficult marriage were underlying motivations for her adult reform work; she sought to address these issues in her philosophy.

After failed attempts to relieve her severe depression and remedy her troubled marriage to Charles Walter Stetson, Charlotte moved to California with her daughter Katharine in 1888. She turned to writing as a source of income and as a means to analyze the problems of living and raising a child as an independent and self-sufficient woman. In addition, she began lecturing to local women's and labor-oriented groups. In 1893, she received moderate acclaim for her collection of poetry In This Our World and began working as contributor and editor of the progressive magazine, The Impress . When the magazine closed a few months later, Charlotte left California for Chicago, where she spent several months at Hull House at the invitation of Jane Addams. Her lecturing career became increasingly successful and she attended the International Socialist and Labor Congress in London in 1896.

Upon returning to the United States, Charlotte continued her writing and lecturing throughout the East Coast and the Midwest and began a relationship with George Houghton Gilman, whom she later married. Houghton was very supportive of Charlotte's work and the years they spent together were highly productive times for Charlotte. In the fall of 1897, Charlotte wrote her pioneering work Women and Economics in only seventeen days (Gilman [1935] 1990, 237). She also, single-handedly, wrote and produced the monthly journal The Forerunner , from 1909-1916. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prolific intellectual; biographer Denise D. Knight noted that "over the course of her long career, she produced nearly two hundred short stories, approximately 500 poems, seven nonfiction books, eight novels and novellas, a handful of plays, hundreds of essays, an autobiography, dozens of diaries and journals, and close to a thousand lectures" (1994, 811).

In 1934, George Houghton Gilman died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Having been told that she had inoperable breast cancer and feeling that her usefulness to society had ended, Gilman began planning her suicide. She died on 17 August 1935 in her daughter's home in Pasadena, California, preferring "chloroform to cancer" (Gilman [1935] 1990, 334).


In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the economic disparity between the wealthy and working classes was vast. Furthermore, high unemployment rates, unsafe factory conditions, below-subsistence wages, and child labor were causing concern among middle-class as well as working-class individuals. Widespread protest and reform provided an environment conducive for Gilman's economic theories.

In addition, "all across the country, women's groups were forming. . . . Through such clubs, women began to talk together more, to feel greater confidence than they could in groups with men, to learn more organizational and debating skills, to become more politically engaged" (Hill 1980, 179). They took up causes such as abolition, temperance, and the social purity movement; however, few addressed the underlying reasons for women's subordination outside of suffrage efforts. Gilman's feminist philosophy confronted the ideology of separate spheres for men and women and the romanticization of domesticity. It proposed a radical reformation of ideas about women, their abilities and rights. Gilman's philosophy reverberated with some women in these activist organizations and were scandalous to others. However, even when they were not wholly accepted, her ideas encouraged others to challenge traditional norms, paving the way for women's future revolutions.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Gilman's motivation to reform and improve society fueled her writing and lecturing throughout her life. Although her philosophy was flawed in that it reinforced racial and ethnic stereotypes, Gilman envisioned an egalitarian world and-unlike many intellectuals-she spent considerable time living and working with women from different backgrounds in communal settlements. Upon achieving success, Gilman did not forget, nor separate herself, from settlement experiences. Instead, she made periodic visits in the midst of her travels and lecturing.

Most of the associations to which Gilman belonged were voluntary and relied on donations for their subsistence. In fact, Gilman was also the recipient of many philanthropic gifts. For her lectures, she often spoke for less than the cost of her total expenses. The publication of her journal, The Forerunner , had to be supplemented by other work due to its small market appeal. Throughout her life, Gilman struggled to meet her monetary needs and made many sacrifices to ensure the continuation of her efforts for the good of humanity.

Key Related Ideas

From the beginning of her activist career, Gilman knew that suffrage was not the singular remedy for the unequal and inferior treatment of women. She explained, "The political equality demanded by the suffragists [is] not enough to give real freedom. Women whose industrial position is that of a house-servant, or who do not work at all, who are fed, clothed, and given pocket-money by men, do not reach freedom and equality, by use of the ballot." (in Karpinski 1992, 1)

In order for women to live autonomously, they could not be dependent on men for financial support. Gilman advocated for the recognition and professionalization of domestic work and the acceptance and support for women working outside the home as the means to achieving economic equality for women .

As Gilman protested the economic disparities between men's and women's work, she also objected to the inequitable treatment of the social classes . Although Gilman herself was born into middle-class society, she absorbed the ideas of the labor-oriented newspaper People where she first worked in Providence. She observed the difficulties working-class women faced at settlement houses like Hull House in Chicago. She identified with like-minded English socialists called the Fabians who espoused peaceful pragmatic reform efforts, as opposed to violent political revolutions supported by Marxist-Socialists. In this way, Gilman's feminist ideologies contributed to the labor reform movements of the time.

Another of Gilman's areas of activism was the social purity movement . Like a large number of woman reformers, Gilman was concerned with the decaying morals of American society. The movement, which began in the 1870s, called for the abolishment of prostitution , rather than the regulation of prostitution, as was more popular. The movement also advocated eighteen as the standard legal "age-of-consent" for girls agreeing to sexual relations with a man. During the time, most states' law stated that the age at which men could be convicted of statutory rape if having sex with a girl was younger than ten or twelve years of age. In Delaware, the age of consent was seven. The movement's reformers published their reflections in the journal, the Philanthropist , founded in 1885. Various women's groups, the most popular of which was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, supported the movement and the age-of-consent campaign . The campaign was eventually successful; by 1920, most states had changed their laws to reflect sixteen or eighteen as the age-of-consent (Doak et al. "How Did Gender").

Important People Related to the Topic

Jane Addams (1860-1935) founded the pioneering social experiment, the settlement house called Hull House in Chicago in 1869. Addams and her volunteers helped individuals and families deal with poor housing, low wages, child labor, and the transitions of immigrants to American society. Addams invited Gilman to come to Chicago in the summer of 1895. Although differing in their strengths and modes of activism, the women found that they shared a passion for social reform and continued to collaborate throughout their lifetimes (Deegan 1997, 29-30).

Catharine Esther Beecher (1800-1878): Gilman's great-aunt and one of the leading advocates of women's education of the nineteenth century. Beecher developed teacher and formal education for women and established a number of Midwestern schools. Not a suffragist, Beecher believed that domestic roles and positions as teachers were the most powerful positions for women. She wrote the popular book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), which was "the first American work to deal with all facets of domestic life" (Brittanica Online, "Beecher").

Isabella Beecher Hooker (1822-1907): Gilman's great-aunt and women's rights activist. Hooker founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896): Gilman's great aunt and Catharine's younger sister, Stowe was an author, abolitionist and teacher. She is most well-known for her novel about the realities of slave life, Uncle Tom's Cabin (or Life Among the Lowly ), published in 1852. The book became both one of the most despised and most loved books of its time. Stowe was a prolific writer and wrote thirty books and numerous articles and other literary pieces throughout her life (HBSC "Harriet's Life").

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society was founded in 1990 by Elaine R. Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The purpose of the society is "to encourage interest in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the issues that she explored" (CPGS "About the ").

Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU): Founded in 1874, WCTU is the oldest nondenominational women's organization in the world. WCTU's original goal was to rid America of the problem of alcohol abuse. WCTU shared a number of the same goals with the women's rights movement, therefore it was a natural and easy transition for WCTU members to become engaged in woman suffrage (Smiltneek "The Suffrage Movement"). WCTU was also supportive of the social purity movement and active in trying to establish reasonable "age-of-consent" laws, protecting girls from sexual predation.

Bibliography and Internet Sources‚Äč

  • The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Society. "About the Gilman Society." State University of New York College at Cortland. .
  • Deegan, Mary Jo. "Introduction: Gilman's Sociological Journey from Herland to Ourland . In With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman , edited by Mary Jo Deegan and Michael R. Hill, 1-50. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. ISBN: 0275960773.
  • Doak, Melissa, Rebecca Park and Eunice Lee. "How Did Gender and Class Shape the Age of Consent Campaign within the Social Purity Movement, 1886-1914?" State University of New York at Binghamton. .
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography . 1935. Reprint, with an introduction by Ann J. Lane, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. ISBN: 0299127400.
  • ------. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution . 1898. Reprint, edited with introduction by Carl N. Degler, New York: Harper & Row, 1966. ISBN: 0061330736.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. "Harriet's Life and Times. Harriet Beecher Stowe House. .
  • Hill, Mary A. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist 1860-1896 . Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1980. ISBN: 087722160X.
  • Karpinski, Joanne B., ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman . New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. ASIN: 0816173115X.
  • Knight, Denise D., ed. The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman . Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1994. ISBN: 0813915244.
  • Lane, Ann J. To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990. ISBN: 0813917425.
  • Smiltneek, Elizabeth. "The Suffrage Movement." Learning to Give, Council of Michigan Foundations. /papers.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Indiana University at Bloomington. It is offered by Learning to Give and Indiana University at Bloomington.