Love and Economics: Charlotte Perkins Gilman on "The Woman Question"

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In 1898, Charlotte Perkins Gilman boldly pronounced economic independence to be the answer to the Woman Question. (1) Readers of her internationally-acclaimed Women and Economics were prepared to take her solution seriously. As one reviewer wrote, "Each of us was mulling away on her own little corner of the problem, with no idea that it [woman] was a Question, until Mrs. Stetson [as she was then known] dared get it into print" (Perry 892). Another concluded, "No woman, whatever her position or the conditions surrounding her, can read the book and not feel that the whole argument applies to herself and her concerns almost like a personal appeal" ("Charlotte Perkins Stetson" 115).

Gilman's "whole argument" in Women and Economics is fairly straightforward: as a result of middle-class women's economic dependence on men, they had become more feminine and less human, thwarting what Gilman took to be evolution's plan. The process would only reverse itself once these women learned to stand on their own two feet. And once they did, both they and the men, also stunted by current inequities, would finally fulfill their human potential, to the world's great benefit. Though others had made similar arguments, few had stated the case so succinctly or persuasively. Suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt deemed Women and Economics an "immortal book on the status of women, ... utterly revolutionizing the attitude of mind in the entire country, indeed of other countries, as to woman's place" (qtd. in "Charlotte Gilman" 3). In her day, Gilman was considered the brains of the woman's movement and Women and Economics "the outstanding book on Feminism" (Schwimmer). Her thoughts on women's rights and wrongs were seen as visionary, providing the necessary answers to the day's burning questions, chief among them questions of gender.

Among the many reviews and commentaries devoted to Women and Economics was a dialogue published in the Critic, featuring a "Tea with a Subject" held to discuss Gilman's influential views on the Woman Question. The attendees' opinions of the book vary, but they concur when one of their number faults Gilman for failing to mention "the power of love" as the reason women marry and stay married (Perry 892). This seems an odd indictment, for two reasons: first, the author was falling in love with her first cousin George Houghton Gilman while writing Women and Economics and so would herself have been preoccupied with "the power of love" at the time; and second, Women and Economics does indeed discuss love, on several occasions, albeit in idealized terms. That is, it focuses on love's ideals--"what love looks forward to," as Gilman phrases it--rather than the practicalities (219). This tendency to optimistic abstraction could explain why the tea-goers concluded that the topic of love gets short shrift in the book; so, too, could Gilman's heavier emphasis on the "sexuo-economic" basis of modern marriage, on its status as an institution premised less on love than on the exchange of domestic service for food and shelter (86).

Admittedly, Gilman's treatment of love in Women and Economics is both light and slight. Do her pronouncements (and silences) concerning "love's power" teach us anything about her ongoing love affair, and vice-versa? Reading Women and Economics vis-a-vis this burgeoning relationship--and as the product of prior disastrous ones--clarifies its polemics as well as the author's own difficulties with the book's central issues. If, as the title of one article read, "America's Leading Feminist ... Says That the 'Woman Question' Is Not One of Sex but of Economics," the leading feminist herself was never so decisive, never so certain in her own life which of the two should take precedence (Gilman, "America's"). Before, during, and after both of her marriages, Gilman struggled to reconcile the demands of love and work, so much so that even while writing Women and Economics, she had yet satisfactorily to test out her theory that their reconciliation was not only possible but would, as she put it in her treatise, enable men and women at long last to form a "higher, truer union" (219). …