Spring is in full bloom and summer is right around the corner. Picnic time is with us. Imagine, if you will, a wide sweeping lawn, with maple and oak trees around the borders that give just enough shade so the sun is not oppressive. Imagine a table set for five. My wife and I, you and your sweetheart, and—and I think this week I would like to invite Charlotte Perkins Gilman to join us.
May I introduce her to you?
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 3, 1860, her mother raised her with the help of Charlotte’s three aunts: Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist; Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and Catharine Beecher, educationalist.
She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and for a time supported herself as an artist of trade cards (precursors to business cards, with illustrations and information about merchants and their business). She also worked for a time as a painter, a tutor, encouraging others to expand their artistic creativity. During this moment in her life, Charlotte met Martha Luther. Charlotte described their relationship as being: “closely together, increasingly happy together, for four of those long years of girlhood. She was nearer and dearer than any one up to that time. This was love, but not sex … With Martha, I knew perfect happiness …” In these early years of her adult life, Charlotte was happy. Never take happiness for granted.
Charlotte had two husbands and one daughter. Profound postpartum depression followed the birth of her daughter in 1885. Charlotte left much of the raising of their daughter to her first husband, but she maintained an ongoing relationship with her daughter. Charlotte lived life on her own terms, but those terms and that life were not always easy. At one point, Charlotte supported herself by selling soap door to door.
In 1888, she moved to Pasadena, California, with her friend Grace Channing. In Pasadena, her depression began to life. She worked with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the International Socialist and Labor Congress, and Nationalist Clubs movement (which worked to “end capitalism’s greed and distinctions between classes while promoting a peaceful, ethical, and truly progressive human race”).
In 1890, the Nationalist magazine published her poem “Similar Cases” (a satirical review of people who resisted social change), and that launched her writing career. 1890 was a watershed year for Charlotte. She wrote fifteen essays, poems, a novella, and a short story.
Between June 6 and 7, 1890, in her home in Pasadena, Charlotte wrote the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. The New England Magazine printed it a year and a half later in the January 1892. That short story is now the all-time best-selling book of the Feminist Press. In the story, a man rents a cottage for the summer. His wife is trying to deal with her depression, so he locks her in a bedroom, and she, well, she sort of goes crazy. Maybe. Or maybe she finds an alternate reality. If you have not read The Yellow Wall Paper, just stop what you are doing, go to your local book store (or the Feminist Press web page), buy a copy, sit down and read it. It will creep you out. It will make you angry. And it will inspire you to action! (do be careful, reading can do that!).
The short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, is why I want to invite Charlotte Perkins Gilman to our picnic. I really want to know what motivated her to write this story. What was she thinking? How autobiographical was it?
Please do read it—but not when you are alone. Maybe read it on a sunny summer day, on the beach together with some like-minded friends, so you can talk about it with those friends over some hot dogs and s’mores.
Just to finish Charlotte’s life, she published her first volume of poetry, In This Our World, in 1893 and gained public recognition. She eventually became a successful lecturer and her speeches to activists and feminists became a primary source of income.
In 1932, Charlotte learned she had inoperable breast cancer.
In both her autobiography and a suicide note, she wrote that she “chose chloroform over cancer” and she died quickly and quietly on August 17, 1935. Reflecting on death she said, “Death? Why all this fuss about death? Use your imagination, try to visualize a world without death! Death is the essential condition to life, not an evil.”