Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook

By Denise D. Knight | Go to book overview

CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
(1860-1935)

Catherine J. Golden


BIOGRAPHY

Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman, now considered a revolutionary in feminist circles, was fittingly born on the eve of America's Independence Day in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut. "If only I'd been a little slower," Gilman confides in her autobiography, "and made it the glorious Fourth!" ( Living8). The only daughter of Frederick Beecher Perkins and Mary Fitch Westcott, Gilman was the third of four children (two died in infancy); her parents married in 1857 and divorced in 1873. Both came from prominent families, but Gilman was most proud of her father's distinguished relatives: reformer/authors Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (her great-aunts) and evangelist Lyman Beecher (her great-grandfather).

Her talented but undisciplined father had difficulty sustaining his endeavors-- career and family. Gilman never experienced the security of the home, which she later criticized in her theoretical works. Frederick Perkins left when Gilman was a child, stigmatizing the family by his desertion. Though he visited the family periodically, Gilman states in her autobiography "that my childhood had no father" ( Living5). She experienced chronic poverty and frequently sparred with her emotionally undemonstrative mother. Mary Perkins moved her family nineteen times in eighteen years.

Precocious, Gilman taught herself to read before age five; by age eight, she wrote imaginative tales, which, she admits in her autobiography, respond to the loneliness of her early life. Her formal education was limited, but she was an avid reader, stirred by Emerson's essays, Dickens's and Eliot's novels, James Freeman Clarke's Ten Great Religions, and John Stuart Mill The Subjection of Women. In 1880, she completed a two-year course of study at the Rhode

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