Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Gilman, Charlotte Perkins Stetson (1860—1935)

The Connecticut-born Gilman was a poet, author, editor, and theorist. She also was one of the most celebrated feminists of her day.

Her father, who virtually abandoned the family, was the grandson of evangelist Lyman Beecher. Charlotte educated herself, embracing daily exercises and eschewing corsets. She married artist Charles Walter Stetson when she was 23.

In her 1890 classic feminist horror story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," she recorded a paralyzing depression brought on after giving birth in 1885 to her daughter Katherine.

Her life blossomed after separating from her husband, for she launched her career as lecturer, journalist, and author. She went on a 5-year speaking tour at age 35, the first stop being Hull House. Her collection of poems, In This Our World (1893), includes a poem "To the Preacher," which jeers: "Preach about yesterday, Preacher! . . Preach about the other man, Preacher!/Not about me!" Another of her poems:

Once we thought the earth was flat -
What of that?
It was just as globos then
Under believing men
As our later folks have found it,
By success in running round it;
What we think may guide our acts,
But it does not alter facts.

When she attended her first National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1896, a sister feminist wrote that Charlotte had "originality flashing from her at every turn like light from a diamond." Charlotte defended Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Woman's Bible when the delegation passed a resolution against it. Woman and Economics (1898) made her an international figure.

Other of her nonfiction included: Concerning Children (1901) and Human Work (1904), The Man-Made World; or, Our androcentric Culture (1911).

In His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (1923), she repudiated "death-based religion" and the fact that "One religion after another has accepted and perpetuated man's original mistake in making a private servant of the mother of the race." She asked: "what glory [is there] in an omnipotent being torturing forever a puny little creature who could in no way defend himself? Would it be to the glory of a man to fry ants?" It was one of the first books on feminist theology, and her work was admired by H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Dreiser, and Zona Gale. In 1924, Rebecca West called her "the greatest woman in the world today.”

She had a 35-year marriage to George Houghton Gilman and in 1935 wrote her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. That year Charlotte, a firm believer in euthanasia, took her own life, using chloroform, when pain from inoperable breast cancer became unbearable.

Although she appeared to be a loose Deist, Anne Nicol Gaylor has written, making reference to a “God” as a “naturally possessed power,” Gilman rejected the unprovable afterlife, faith, obedience, sin, belief, “past-worship,” rites, ceremonies, and holy books.”