My first encounter with Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an elective writing class I signed up for in 12th grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Brandenburg, passed out copies of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” for us to read. I’d never heard of her, but that didn’t matter since I was the weird kid who would read pretty much anything put in front of me. This story, however, was different. It affected me so much that I have strong sensory memories of the copy she gave us. The title was printed in a big, curvy 1970’s era font. It had been photocopied, then mimeographed, so the papers had that peculiar vinegary smell and the blurry violet text that was a regular part of school life at the time.
To say that I wasn’t prepared for the story is a bit of an understatement. I was 17 and living in the South. My notions about feminism and women’s place in society were unexamined at best, and completely ignorant at worst. I was raised by a divorced mom who hadn’t really expected to be the sole breadwinner for herself and her only child. She wasn’t the first woman in her family to work outside of the home, yet all I knew about the working lives of women was what I’d seen of my teachers’ lives and what I’d heard Mom talk about at the end of the day with her parents. Her work as a civilian classifying jobs at a military base was incomprehensible to me and probably more than a little unsatisfying to her. She struggled with male bosses who ran the gamut from kind to clueless to openly sexist, and as time went on, she was expected to do the work of a college graduate with her secretarial school training. Her section took on the duties of more and more shuttered departments at other facilities until she labored under a backlog of work that was estimated to be 2.5 years long.
Anyway, Mrs. Brandenburg handed us the story and I loved it to tiny bits. It was so clear to me that the woman in the story was being made ever sicker by her husband and doctor that I almost couldn’t understand why these characters couldn’t see it, too. I held onto the copy for years (in fact, it’s probably still in my files somewhere), but it never occurred to me to look for other stories that she wrote.
Enter the SF podcast community, where Alisa, Alex, and Tansy on Galactic Suburbia brought Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing to my attention. One of the rules Russ outlines, “She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it,” has been used to exclude other works by some women from the literary canon. I think the example Russ uses is that while academics read and praise Jane Eyre, no one reads the other novels by Charlotte Brontë. Russ or GS may have mentioned Gilman by name, but if not, I made the connection between this rule and Charlotte Perkins Gilman when I was shopping in my local used book store and saw not one, not two, but three separate books of Gilman’s work.
After checking that the the Oxford and the Reader collect a slightly different mix of stories, and neither of them contain the complete text of Herland, I cleaned out Mr. K’s of their Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
I started with the Oxford, edited by Robert Schulman, because it was the newest of the two story collections. Sometimes I skip the introductions to books like these because I like to come to a work without someone else telling me what to think (and because spoilers, sweetie). But I knew absolutely nothing about Gilman, so took the time to read this one. She was born in New England and was related to the noted abolitionist and feminist family, the Beechers. Her father abandoned their family when she was young, so her mother had to raise her with the financial help of the her relatives. She married and had a daughter, then suffered from postpartum depression made worse by the rest cures commonly prescribed for women at the time. After recovering despite the poor medical advice, she went on to write “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and many other stories that expose the damage that women suffer in an unequal society and offer alternatives that she believed would improve life for women everywhere. She divorced her husband, sent her daughter to live with him and his new wife (her best friend!), ran her own feminist newspaper, got remarried, and lived life on her own terms all at a time when women hadn’t even achieved suffrage yet.
I found her work as collected in this book to be fresh and interesting. While women have secured the right to vote and to earn our own money doing work of our choosing, we still struggle with many of the issues she wrote about. She was particularly interested in what we’d now call empty nest syndrome. Gilman encouraged women to see themselves as more than wives and mothers, and to take the opportunity once the children are out of the home to do work for ourselves. She also wrote stories where the female protagonists are fulfilled and successful spinsters, women who fall in love with men who want an egalitarian relationship and who support their chosen work, and women who help men see how their own lives are made easier when they choose a modern, egalitarian relationship over the old “man is the only breadwinner” model.
Gilman’s best known work, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” is an example of her horror fiction. Two other horror tales, “The Giant Wistaria” and “The Rocking-Chair,” are included here and are also satisfying. She even writes one SFnal story, “If I Were a Man,” where the female protagonist finds her consciousness riding along and controlling her husband’s body after they have a fight. No scientific explanation is given for how this happens, but the story doesn’t need it to be an effective work of spec-fic. By far, though, she writes what I can only call domesticpunk, a powerful reimagination of the typical nineteenth century’s women’s story. Unlike the typical domestic fiction novel, Gilman’s stories don’t usually spend half of the narrative demonstrating that the protagonist can’t rely on the world to take care of her. Her protagonists assume that this is the case from the start and rely on themselves (or on each other) from the beginning in order to become a success.
Story after story, Gilman builds up her feminist world view for the reader. Women should be able to determine their own fate, earn their own money, work alongside of, after, or instead of raising children. Women should have the right to vote. Happy women are more than just wives and mothers; unmarried women, widows, and women over 40 are just as real and can lead lives just as fulfilling as women who are married and are actively raising children. Men can be either allies who support the goals and aspirations of their wives, mothers, nieces, daughters, students, and parishioners, or are “the wrong sort” who don’t care about what the women around them want out of life.
Gilman can be angry. She loves a good come-uppance that puts the narrow-minded or the misogynist in their place. She is a Utopian, believing that a society created by women based on feminist ideals is bound to be happier and healthier than one based on chauvinism. But she can also be blind to racism and the need for equality for all people of color. Her depiction of two African-American servants in “In Two Houses” is insensitive at best, and it ruined the whole story for me. True, the servants conspire to bring the protagonists together and in that way are smarter than their white employers, but that reveal is played for laughs and makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Overall, I was surprised by how readable these stories remain so many years after they were written. Gilman has a lot to say that we should pay attention to. Even her mistakes are valuable lessons for readers to ponder.
So to counter the argument that “She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it,” here is the list of stories in this collection that I’d offer as a Suggested Reading List:
- The Yellow Wall-Paper*
- The Giant Wistaria
- An Extinct Angel*
- The Cottagette
- The Widow’s Might
- In Two Houses
- Mrs. Elder’s Idea
- Their House
- Her Beauty
- Mrs. Hines Money
- Bee Wise
- A Council of War
- If I Were a Man*
- Mr. Peebles’s Heart
- Mrs. Merrill’s Duties*
- Joan’s Defender
(* Gilman writes extremely short short stories, but if you only have time for five, read these.)