Mainstream literature written for women in the nineteenth century reflected expectations about how women should think. Dime novels with titles like All for Love of a Fair Face, The Story of a Wedding Ring and The Unseen Bridegroom littered the shelves of bookshops. Male editors assumed women could not possibly want to read serious non-fiction, particularly if it challenged the patriarchal world in which they lived. Charlotte Perkins Gilman authored exactly this sort of prose, on topics including If I Were a Man and Our Androcentric Culture, or, The Man-Made World. As a writer and, later, a publisher herself, her goal was to counter what publishers expected from female readers and authors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mainstream publications did not want to run such pieces, and Gilman detested the journalistic and publishing worlds for confining and censoring her writing.
In response, she created her own magazine, The Forerunner. It contained all of her views that were considered uncouth or offensive to proper society. Published from 1909 to 1916, its pages were filled with articles spanning from socialist satire to cultural criticisms based around gender. There were also serial novels, including some about the positive power of eugenics that contain a deep hatred for immigrants. One read: “in New York City, everyone is an exile, none more so than the Americans.” Every article, poem, story, and novel was written by Gilman, who paid for the entire operation out of pocket.
Making Her Way in a Male World: Early Life
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1860 to Mary Westcott Perkins and Frederick Beecher Perkins, a nephew of education reformer Catharine Beecher and abolitionists Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gilman thought she was rather “violently well brought up,” since her mother ceaselessly criticized her for all of her childhood. This is when Gilman began to cultivate her imagination, believing that “the stern restriction, drab routine, unbending discipline that hemmed me in, became of no consequence. I could make a world to suit me.” She “freed” herself from her mother when she married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, seeing marriage as her only way of escape. Only five months after their marriage, she sank into deep depressive episodes where she was unable to leave her bed or do any housework. In 1885, she gave birth to her daughter Katharine. In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (published posthumously in 1935) she described the experience of motherhood in succinct, dramatic prose:
Brief ecstasy. Long pain.
Then years of joy again.
She was plunged immediately back into depression, incapable of taking care of her daughter without the help of her mother and grandmother. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of the most famous American examples of postpartum depression, a mood disorder characterized by chronic anxiety and despair immediately following childbirth. Her doctor prescribed the “rest cure.” Gilman was confined to her bed and forbidden to read, write, or take up any intellectual pursuits, which only exacerbated her condition. Silas Weir Mitchell, the inventor of the rest cure and Gilman’s personal doctor, thought that complete bed rest would increase physical well being by boosting weight and blood supply, as well as moral well being by removing patients (almost always women) from a ‘toxic’ atmosphere. This treatment was also meant to subdue outspoken or independent women (Virginia Woolf endured a similar prescription of rest) by forcing them into the same reliance on others as infants. Gilman wrote her most famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in 1890 about a woman who is prescribed the same cure for hysteria, which helped inform woman and doctors of the negative effects she had experienced.
Charting Her Own Path
Gilman and her husband separated in 1890, realizing that their marriage only made Gilman’s mental condition worse. She moved to Pasadena with her daughter, published her work for the first time since her marriage, and began to offer lectures on a wide array of topics from socialism to homemaking. Her first novel of poetry, titled In This Our World, was published in 1893, of which the New-York Historical Society has a first edition copy. She began to become more involved with women’s suffrage, attending conventions and joining women’s feminist and reformist societies including the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association. In 1898, Gilman published Women and Economics, which is considered to be one of her best works. It became a popular discussion of the positive implications of women having financial independence from their husbands and gave Gilman more opportunities to lecture and even give sermons.
Gilman’s involvement with feminist and socialist communities grew, but she didn’t adopt a Marxist philosophy, focusing instead on the rights of women and care for young children. Gilman prioritized economic independence for women over suffrage, which meant that she was much more popular in the intellectual feminist communities than the activist ones. She also received quite a bit of negative press concerning her divorce, and Hearst’s The Examiner wrote a full page article about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s divorce titled “Should Literary Women Marry.” Hearst claimed female authors would be horrible wives and even worse mothers, using Gilman as a prime example. This was one of Gilman’s first negative experiences with the press, and it sparked some of her scathing critiques of yellow journalism.
Yellow journalism is a term used to describe sensationalist newspaper stories without quality research or evidence, typically accompanied by bright pictures and exaggerated titles, intended to increase profits. The original newspaper to exemplify this was The New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer. He aimed to make a colorful and entertaining newspaper which was also incredibly cheap. William Randolph Hearst, who wrote about Gilman in The San Francisco Examiner, aimed to make his newspaper just as entertaining as Pulitzer’s. This eventually lead to a feud between the two men and their papers; Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s recently acquired New York Journal grappled to have the most subscribers in New York City. Gilman denounced yellow journalism in many articles and poems, including the unpublished 1906 poem titled “The Yellow Reporter”:
Yet they today of the Yellow Press / Grow rich in hardened wantoness / By the “nose for news” and the “enterprise” / Of insolent shameless hireling spies — Spies!
On sin and sorrow the ferret thrives / They finger their fellows’ private lives / And noisily publish far and wide / What things their fellows most fair would hide — Telltales!
Founding The Forerunner
In 1900, she married Houghton Gilman, her first cousin, and moved to New York City to live with him. She continued to publish her work in magazines and newspapers, but became increasingly frustrated with censorship from publishers, whom she thought posed a threat to literary fiction. Newspapers only published short literary pieces, mostly wanting to focus on sensational, fast-paced stories. Gilman wasn’t able to publish politically charged pieces about her radical socialist views and had very little artistic autonomy with her work. In response, she and her husband created their own publishing company in 1909, named the Charlton Company, a mix of both of their first names. Gilman used Charlton to publish her own magazine, The Forerunner.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote every article, story, serial novel, and poem within The Forerunner. She estimated that the writing for each year added up to around four novels in length: a Herculean feat, especially considering that she continued to have frequent depressive episodes. The Forerunner was estimated to have cost $3,000 a year to make, and since subscribership was fairly low, Gilman paid for much of the publication entirely out of pocket. To supplement the couple’s meager funds, Gilman took on extra lectures and wrote even more so that they could keep the magazine in print. The Forerunner was meant to be Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s magnum opus, combining nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and advice columns. It was a heavily left-wing periodical that tended to drive away any centrist or right wing readers. Gilman made a point of keeping The Forerunner free of illustrations and loud colors, even criticizing the ability of illustrators to represent their newspapers properly in the “Comment and Review” section of the first issue. In the inside cover of the first issue, she states her explicit intentions of criticizing yellow journalism with her poem “Then This.”
She even warned her readers that she might be too forward thinking and too abrupt with her point of view, striving to be so forward thinking “that he who reads may run.” She drew a direct comparison to newspapers like the World and the Journal with the first stanza, then suggested that yellow journalism was deceitful while her journalism was too honest. She warned her audience that The Forerunner might scare them away with its abrupt candor.
As a socialist, Gilman was afraid of the power that sensational journalism and women’s magazines had to glorify consumer culture and homemaking. She began her publication as a response to yellow journalism, but went beyond journalism to try to unite a female reading community through her newspaper and curb women’s susceptibility to media representations of ideal womanhood.
In addition to The Forerunner, Gilman wrote several serialized nonfiction pieces about gender roles, especially male dominance in intellectual and literary fields.
We have not, it’s true, confined men to a narrowly construed ‘masculine sphere,’ and composed a special literature suited to it. Their effect on literature has been far wider than that, monopolizing this form of art with special favor. (The Forerunner, Vol. 1 No. 5, pg 18)
The above excerpt is from her serial work Our Androcentric Culture; or, the Man-made World. It appears in a chapter dealing with the concept of ‘women’s novels’ as a subcategory of all novels. Our Androcentric Culture was the first radically feminist nonfiction text in The Forerunner.
The magazine had a far wider readership than its numbers reflected, to Gilman’s distress. In her autobiography, she recalled dozens of letters from readers that disclosed that they bought one subscription for their neighborhood group of women and passed each magazine between themselves before discussing the writings within it. In the “Comment and Review” section of Volume 1, Issue 5, Gilman further discusses her contempt towards women’s magazines, a recurring theme for the entire run of the magazine. In this article, she compares sensationalist journalism and magazines targeted towards women, saying that both treat the reader as feeble-minded and easily coerced.
Life and Death after The Forerunner
The Forerunner went on to feature many revolutionary novels and nonfiction works in serial form, including The Crux, What Diantha Did, Our Brains and What Ails Them, and The Dress of Women. None were as reflective of Gilman’s own feminist perspective as Herland (1915), which imagined a society of only women built on the foundations of motherhood. She expressed her belief in universal childcare, shared housework, and a purely socialist society. The novel was shocking and radical for the time, and even argued that women were superior to men. However, it also promoted eugenics, white supremacy, gender essentialism and anti-abortion rhetoric, themes that preoccupied Gilman in her later years.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in her autobiography that she had decided to end the seven year run of The Forerunner in 1916 when she “said all I had to say.” However, the last two chapters of her autobiography are notoriously inaccurate, aimed at influencing the reader to become “a mover of others” rather than accurately depicting her life. The Forerunner’s end of circulation was more likely because of a rapid decline in Gilman’s mental health and a severe case of burnout after such a long period of laborious work. Gilman and her husband soon moved out of New York City. Despite her socialist views, Gilman was an extreme nationalist and, in her autobiography, said that her city had become “swollen” with immigrants and was no longer neighborly and friendly. Her nativism and racism were not unusual for the period; some of her fellow suffragists argued that giving the vote to educated, native-born white women would counteract the “immigrant vote.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman continued to write, publishing “Progress in Birth Control” and “Sex and Race Progress” in 1927 and 1929 in continued reaction to the presence of immigrants. However, by 1930, all of Gilman’s work was out of print, and in 1932 she learned that she had inoperable breast cancer. After her husband Houghton died in 1934, Gilman decided that her work was finished and committed suicide. Her suicide resembled one she described in The Forerunner in 1912, saying it was of “good taste” and “no trouble to anyone.” In her autobiography, she left a note stating “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”
Her legacy is a complicated one: filled with an unconquerable struggle to correct the balance between men and women in the world within her lifetime, yet deeply influenced by racist beliefs, particularly in her later years. She stands as an example of a woman devastated by mental illness and doctors’ inability to treat it, as well as someone who created an immense body of powerful work despite it. She gave uncountable lectures and sermons about feminism and socialism and is considered one of the most important female American authors of the 20th century. However, many of her ideas about evolution and social motherhood stemmed from her xenophobia and racism, which were prevalent in her private writings and became more obvious as she aged. Gilman’s ideas and stories, while integral to the narrative of American literature, need to be understood in the context of her ethnocentrism, acknowledging the negative foundations of her writing and moving beyond them.
Through literature we know the past, govern the present, and influence the future.
— Lauren Schaffer, Center for Women’s History Intern, January 2019
Top image credit: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1900. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (detail).