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by Bamber Gascoigne

Charlotte (Anna) Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) - Original name Charlotte Anna Perkins, earlier married name Stetson


American writer, economist, and lecturer, an early theorist of the feminist movement, who wrote over two hundred short stories and some ten novels. Charlotte Perkins Gilman refused to call herself a "feminist" - her goal as a humanist was to campaign for the cause of women's suffrage. Gilman saw that the domestic environment has become an institution which oppresses women. Her famous story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (1892), depicted a depressed woman who slowly descends into madness in her room, while her well-meaning husband is often away due to his work at a hospital.

"Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what to do?
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal
having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
I sometime fancy that in my condition, if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus – but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad."
(from 'The Yellow Wallpaper')

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins, a librarian and writer, and Mary (Westcott) Perkins. Among her father's forebears was the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, his aunt. Perkins abandoned his wife after their infant died in 1866 - Mary Perkins lived with her children on the brink of poverty and was often forced to move from relative to relative or to other temporary lodgings.

Gilman was a voracious reader and largely self-educated. He interests covered a wide range of subjects, including reform Darwinism. She studied two years at Rhode Island School of Design (1878-80) and then earned her living designing greetings cards. Gilman's closest friend in Providence was Martha Luther, to whom she wrote passionate letters: "O my litle love! I'd like to wind all round and round you and let you feel my heart." (Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography by Cynthia J. Davis, 2010, p. 49)

Against her conviction that she was destined for "world service," Gilman married in 1884 Charles Walter Stetson, a self-taught aspiring artist. Gilman also modeled for him at the Fleur-de-Lys, his Providence studio. When she unbound her hair and let it fall over her shoulders, Stetson wrote in his diary "it fell . . . in rich dark waves and framed her rich complexion and intensified the soft ivory of her neck! I have never seen her so beautiful." ('Artistic Renderings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman' by Denise D. Knight, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman's Place in America, edited by Jill Annette Bergman, 2017, p. 51)

From her early adulthood, Gilman had suffered from periodic bouts of melancloly, and after the birth of her daughter Katharine, she was beset by depression. In 1887, she began in Philadelphia a rest cure, prepsychoanalytic treatment, with the neurologist and writer Silas Weir Mitchell. His recommendations were "live as domestic a life as possible" and "never to touch pen, brush or pencil again". Gilman later satirized this in her autobiography, and used the discussion with him in her most renowned short story, 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' which first appeared in New England Magazine in January 1892 and was reprinted as a chapbook in 1899.

As she wrote in her article 'Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'' (1913), she spent in bed "for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over. I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper . . . and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad." Noteworthy, Mitchell also treated Harriet Russell Strong, a Californian feminist, and Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, who later said that "I was very glad to have a physician's sanction for giving up clinics and dissecting rooms and to follow his prescription of spending the next two years in Europe." (The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism by Judith A. Allen, 2009, p. 23)

Loosely based on Gilman's own experiendes, the story tells of a young mother suffering from a temporary nervous depression. John, her husband, is a physician, who doesn't believe in supernatural things. He has ordered her to "rest" in the bedroom of their rented house. There narrator records her psychological torment in a secret diary. The patterns of the room's hideous yellow wallpaper start to haunt her. She sees a woman creeping around it, as if she wanted to get out. "Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling snakes it all over." Finally she locks her inside the room to creep around as she pleases. It has been argued, that the rest cure was the turning point in Gilman's life and eventually led to her decision to leave Stetson in 1888. Gilman's other short stories in the gothic tradition include 'The Giant Wistaria' (1891), 'The Rocking Chair' (1893), and 'The Unwatched Door' (1894).

After Mitchell's rest cure failed to help her, and separating from Stetson (the couple divorced officially in 1894), Gilman moved to California. "It is astonishing  how much she has changed for the better in every way," Stetson observed in a letter. "She never was so well or calm." The last time they slept together was in July 1889. (Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography by Cynthia Davis, 2010, p. 115) Stetson married Gilman's first cousin, the poet Grace Ellery Channing; they took custody of Katherine, which allowed Gilman to pursue her lecturing and writing career.

Despite everything, the wide press coverage of the love triangle and the public condemnation that followed, Gilman and Grace remained good friends. Two decades later Gilman wrote an article titled 'Are Love Affairs News?' (1915) - the answer was an unconditional "No". Stetson died in 1911 in Italy after complications from surgery. Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson, in which Stetson described his life as a young painter and relationship with Gilman, came out in 1985.

Gilman's second husband was her cousin George Houghton Gilman, a New York lawyer. He was seven years her junior, conservative and conventional, but he was devoted to her. Gilman once confessed, "I still get kind of mad at you sometimes because you are so unconscionably unlike anything I ever expected to love and marry - but there you are!" (A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900, edited by Mary A. Hill, 1995, p. 240) In 1894-95 Gilman served as editor of The Impress, a literary weekly published by the Pacific Coast Women's Press Association. She wrote an experimental series of stories, in which she imitated the style of such well-known authors as Louisa May Alcott, Hathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mark Twain. Throughout the years, Gilman herself was told she resembled a number of famous women such as the French writer George Sand, the English novelist George Eliot and even the biblical Rachel. ('Artistic Renderings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman' by Denise D. Knight, in Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman's Place in America, edited by Jill Annette Bergman, 2017, p. 68)

In This Our World (1893), Gilman's first book, was a collection of satiric poems with feminist themes. "Her civic satire is of a form which she has herself invented; it recalls the work of no one else," wrote the critic William Dean Howells in the North American Review in 1899. ('Introduction' by Denise D. Knight, in The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1996, p. 29) In Gilman's most famous piece, titled 'Similar Cases' (1890), a Neolithic Man says to his neighbours: "My friends, in course of time, / We shall be civilized! / We are going to live in cities! / We are going to fight in wars! / We are going to eat three times a day / Without the natural cause! / We are going to turn life upside down / About a thing called gold! / We are going to want the earth, and take / As much as we can hold!"

During the next two decades Gilman gained fame with her lectures on women's issues, ethics, labor, human right, and social reform. These themes were dealt also in her fiction. From 1909 to 1916 Gilman edited and wrote her own feminist paper, The Forerunner, in which most of her fiction appeared. The magazine, sold for ten cents an issue, or a dollar for an annual subscribtion, had nearly 1,500 subscribers at its peak.

Gilman was active in Nationalism, a reform movement which predicted the fall of capitalism and was inspired by Edward Bellamy's utopian socialist romance Looking Backward. This work also influenced her utopian novel Herland (Women's Press, 1979). In the story three young men discover a peaceful, lost civilization, populated entirely by women who reproduce parthenogenetically. There are no wars, no disease. motherhood is divine. "It would be so wonderful – would it not? To compare the history of two thousand years, to see what the differences are – between us, who are only mothers, and you, who are mothers and fathers, too. Of course we see, with our birds, that the father is as useful as the mother, almost. But among insects we find him of less importance, sometimes very little. Is it not so with you?" (from Herland) Originally Herland appeared in Gilman's monthly journal, The Forerunner, like her other novels, What Diantha Did (1909-1910), The Crux (1911), and Moving the Mountain (1911), all published by Charlton. Benigna Machiavelli was reissued by Bandanna Books in 1994.

Gilman's best-known contribution to feminist theory is Women and Economics (1898), in which she attacked the old division of social roles. However, she refused the title "feminist," arguing that "feminism" should be retitle "humanism." The study was translated into seven languages and sold stedily. According to Gilman, male aggressiveness and maternal roles of women are artificial and not necessary for survival any more. "There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver." (from Woman and Economics, 1898) Only economic independence could bring true freedom for women and make them equal partners to their husbands. In Concerning Children (1900) Gilman advocated professional child-care.

Annoyed with life in a metropolis, she moved in 1922 with her husband from New York to Norwich, Connecticut, and wrote there His Religion and Hers, in which she planned a faith freed from the dictates of oppressive patriarchal instincts. In 1932 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After her husband died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1934, she returned to California to live near her daughter. Gilman died on August 17, 1935, in Pasadena, California - an advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, she ended her own life by taking an overdose of chloroform. In her typewritten suicide note, titled 'A Last Duty,' she said that "when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one." Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), came out posthumously; the suicide note was included in the final chapter of the book.

Gilman's mystery novel, Unpunished, did not appear during her lifetime, but was published in 1997 by The Feminist Press. Gilman and her work were mostly forgotten for two decades until the feminist movement of the 1960s revived interest in her. The historian Carl N. Dengler contrasted Gilman with Simone Beauvoir, and introduced her as "a sociologist and a social critic," who had proposed strategies for women's emancipation  decades before Beauvoir.

For further reading: 'Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the mothers' utopia,' in The Utopian Dilemma in the Western Political Imagination by John Farrell (2023); 'Refusing Nostalgia, Denying Desire: Didactic Activism in the Autobiographies of Margaret Deland and Charlotte Perkins Gilman,' in Templates for Authorship: American Women's Literary Autobiography of the 1930s by Windy Counsell Petrie (2021); Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a Woman's Place in America, edited by Jill Bergman (2017); Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Patricia Lengermann, Gillian Niebrugge (2013); Charlotte Perkins Gilman: New Texts, New Contexts, edited by Jennifer S. Tuttle & Carol Farley Kessler (2011); Hysteria and Melancholy as Literary Style in the Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Djuna Barnes by Zeljka Svrljuga; with a foreword by Patrizia Lombardo (2011); Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography by Cynthia J. Davis (2010); The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism by Judith A. Allen (2009); Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Study of the Short Fiction by Denise D. Knight (1997); Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. by J. Kaprinski (1992); To Herland and Beyond by Ann J. Lane (1990); Building Domestic Liberty by P. Allen (1988); Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Woman and Her Work, ed. by S. Meyering (1988); Charlotte Perkins Gilman by G. Scharnhorst (1985); The New Feminist Criticism, ed. by E. Showalter (1985); Charlotte Perkins Gilman by M. Hill (1980) - See also: Virginia Woolf, who stated in her classical essay A Room of One's Own (1929), that a woman must have money and room of her own if she is to write, and intellectual freedom requires financial freedom.

Selected works:

  • A Clarion Call to Redeem the Race!: The Burden of Mothers, 1890
  • 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' 1892 (short story; first published in The New England Magazine)
    - 'Keltainen seinäpaperi' (teoksessa Haudantakaisia, toim. Markku Sadelehto, 1994; teoksessa Keltainen seinäpaperi ja muita kirjoituksia, suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2010)
  • In This Our Word, 1893 (2nd ed., 1896)
  • Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, 1898
  • The Yellow Wallpaper, 1899
    - Keltainen seinäpaperi ja muita kirjoituksia (suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2010)
  • Concerning Children, 1900
  • The Home: Its Work and Influence, 1903
  • Human Work, 1904
  • The Punishment That Educates, 1907
  • What Diantha Did, 1909-1910 (Forerunner)
  • The Crux, 1911 (Forerunner)
  • Moving the Mountain, 1911 (Forerunner)
  • Suffrage Songs and Verses, 1911
  • Mag-Marjorie, 1912 (Forerunner)
  • Our Brains and What Ails Them, 1912
  • The Man-Made World; or, Our Androcentric Culture, 1911
    - Miesten luoma maailma (suomentanut A. K., 1917)
  • 'Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'', 1913 (October issue of The Forerunner)
  • Benigna Machiavelli, 1914 (Forerunner)
  • Social Ethics, 1914 (Forerunner)
  • With Her in Ourland, 1916 (Forerunner)
  • His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers, 1923
  • The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography, 1935
  • Forerunner Vols. 1-7: Nov. 1909-Dec.1916, 1968
  • Herland, 1973
    - Herland (suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2009); Naisten maa: kuunnelma (suom. Marja Rankkala, 1983)
  • The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, 1980 (edited by Ann J. Lane)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader, 1991 (edited by Larry Ceplair)
  • Herland and Selected Stories, 1992
  • The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Volume 1: 1879-1887 and Volume 2 1890-1935, 1994 (edited by Denise D. Knight)
  • The Yellow Wall-Paper" and Selected Stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1991 (edited by Denise D. Knight)
  • A Journey from Within: The Love Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1897-1900, 1995 (edited by Mary A. Hill)
  • The Later Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1996
  • Unpunished: a Mystery, 1997 (edited and with an afterword by Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight)
  • With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland, 1997 (edited by Mary Jo Deegan and Michael R. Hill; with an introduction by Mary Jo Deegan)
  • The Abridged Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1998 (edited by Denise D. Knight) 
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopian Novels, 1999 (edited and with an introduction by Minna Doskow)
  • The Crux: a Novel, 2002 (edited and with an introduction by Jennifer S. Tuttle)   
  • The Dress of Women: a Critical Introduction to the Symbolism and Sociology of Clothing, 2002 (edited, with an introduction by Michael R. Hill and Mary Jo Deegan)
  • The Yellow Wall-paper and Other Stories, 2009 (edited with an introduction by Robert Shulman)
  • The Selected Letters of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 2009 (edited and with an introduction by Denise D. Knight and Jennifer S. Tuttle)
  • Families, Marriages, and Children, 2011 (edited by Michael R. Hill)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman's In This Our World and Uncollected Poems, 2012 (edited by Gary Scharnhorst and Denise D. Knight)
  • Herland and Related Writings, 2013 (edited by Beth Sutton-Ramspeck)
  • The Complete Poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1884-1935: Together with Commentary and Notes, 2014 (edited with an introduction by Jacquelyn K. Markham; with a foreword by Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt)
  • Herland and Selected Stories, 2014 (edited and with an introduction by Barbara H. Solomon and a new afterword by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz)
  • The Yellow wall-paper, Herland, and Selected Writings, 2018 (introduction by Kate Bolick)
  • The Yellow Wall-paper and Other Writings, 2021 (introduction by Halle Butler)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Novels, Stories, & Poems, 2022 (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alfred Bendixen)

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