Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Early Analysis of the Economics of Family Structure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'Women and Economics.'

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Early Analysis of the Economics of Family Structure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'Women and Economics.'

Article excerpt


Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was an influential American writer who concentrated on the need for social change through a restructuring of family sexuo-economic relationships. She received no formal training in economics and acknowledged reading only one work on economics, John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women, as preparation for her marriage. Nevertheless, Gilman promulgated valuable economic ideas to her contemporary audiences through her books and lectures. She firmly believed in change in the family environment, change which would enhance the freedom of women to expand their economic place in society.

Gilman's approach was from an individual perspective. In her main work on economics, Women and Economics (1898), she described the socio-economic system in which both women and men were forced to restrict their productivity in compliance with antiquated traditions. Gilman's microeconomic view of societal economic repression was an outcome of her lifelong feeling of personal economic oppression (Hill, 1980).

This paper will examine Gilman's ideas on the nineteenth century economic structure of the male-female relationship within the family and how this structure was an impediment to the progress of society. Next, the paper will present some of Gilman's proposed socio-economic changes. Finally, Gilman's proposals will be analyzed to show their relevance to modern conditions.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Women And Economics

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, wrote for and spoke to audiences throughout the United States during the late 1800s. She had been brought up with traditional expectations about married life but found herself trapped in an unhappy marriage. After considerable effort and personal humiliation, she was granted a divorce and sought shared custody of her daughter with her former husband. She was ostracized by her East Coast family and acquaintances for her scandalous actions and moved to California. Gilman had experienced first-hand the fact that a woman's value to society and to the economy rested solely on her marital status. Deviations from traditional concepts of marriage and family were looked upon with scorn by contemporary society throughout the period (Welter, 1966; Freeman and Klaus, 1984; Rogers and Thornton, 1985; Srole, 1986).

Many of Gilman's economic ideas are found in her popular 1898 book, Women and Economics. This book went through seven printings in over 25 years and was translated into at least six different languages (Hill, 1980, p. 267). Contemporary reviewers of the book regarded it as "the best" work on the subject of the economics of women "since John Smart Mill's 1869 essay, The Subjection of Women" (Hill, 1980, pp. 295, 331). Women and Economics describes the constraints on economic freedom in the lives of American women.

Gilman began her analysis by exploring supply and demand in the marriage "market," seeking the determinants of the value of a wife/woman in this market. Next, she considered the problem of the loss of individual and societal productivity through the restrictions on women's work. Finally, Gilman suggested changes to increase women's economic freedom, to use resources more efficiently and to raise productivity.

Demand and Supply: Marriage and the Family

Gilman believed that the social structure which made the family the premier economic unit in society caused marriage to take on the appearance of a market place. Consequently, sex relations were formed to fulfill the established economic roles. Gilman observed that the woman "gets her living by getting a husband" and the man "gets his wife by getting a living." She continued: "It is to her economic advantage to secure a mate. It is to his sex advantage to secure a mate. The sex functions to her have become economic functions. Economic functions to him have become sex functions" (Gilman, 1898, pp. 110).

In the marriage market, the demand from an individual male was enhanced by his wealth or income; the supply presented by an individual female "came through the power of sex-attraction. …

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