Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Reassessing Her Significance for Feminism and Social Economics

Article excerpt

Margaret G. O'Donnell's article on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics is a timely reminder of Gilman's importance as an early social economist (O'Donnell 1994). Indeed, throughout her life, Gilman was concerned with the conditions that constrained and diverted the important productive energies of women. Her numerous writings are characterized by a sociological perspective that shed light upon the problematic aspects of society in her day; she also attempted to provide the theoretical foundations for the structural reorganization of society.(1)

Women and Economics is among the better known of Gilman's theoretical works, yet it appears fraught with contradiction. O'Donnell's interpretation of this text suggests that Gilman's primary aim was to explore the avenues through which women could expand their economic opportunities in a market society, thereby becoming liberated from their customary familial subjection. "A basic tenet of Gilman's work was that an individual becomes a person when he or she fills an economic relation to society" (O'Donnell 1994: 91). However, this aspect of Gilman's work can not substantiate O'Donnell's conclusion that "Charlotte Perkins Gilman looked at the problem of economic freedom from an individual perspective in Women and Economics" (O'Donnell 1994: 94).

Our reading of Women and Economics would suggest that Gilman was arguing toward a substantially different end. This goal would emphasize a primary societal responsibility for women: "Motherhood is not a remote contingency, but the common duty and the common glory of womanhood" (Gilman 1898: 246). This statement indicates more than merely an offhand comment, as can be seen in the following line of her text: "If women did choose professions unsuitable to maternity, Nature would quietly extinguish them by her unvarying process." The necessary connection between women's economic liberation and motherhood is evident in the following statement, ". . . to serve each other more and more widely; to live only by such service; to develope [sic] special functions, so that we depend for our living on society's return for services that can be of no direct use to ourselves, - this is civilization, our human glory and race-distinction" (Gilman 1898: 74). In fact, the compatibility of women's economic independence with motherhood is repeatedly emphasized throughout Women and Economics (Gilman 1898: 91, 245). By linking their economic freedom to the 'purely feminine protective instinct' (Gilman 1898: 56), which is, in Gilman's view, the condition of motherhood, she prioritizes the social necessity of women's labor over their economic opportunities. These statements seem fundamentally at odds with O'Donnell's understanding of Gilman. How are these diverse views to be resolved in terms of Gilman's thought? Was Gilman inconsistent in her aims, or can a reconciliation be extracted?


An accurate assessment of Women and Economics would situate this work within the context of her other writings. For example, in 1915, Gilman produced another of her most popular books, Herland, which was adapted to the popular literary genre of the utopian novel. Herland is widely recognized, even today, not merely as an enjoyable piece of fiction, but also as encompassing a theoretical subtext with extensive implications for both the direction in which her thought was taking her and for the radical ideas espoused therein. Herland is the story of three American male explorers who come across a secluded land inhabited entirely by women. In Gilman's view, the women embody characteristics of the most ideal type, for they are neither "feminine" nor "masculine" in almost any sense that her early twentieth century readers would ever have recognized. The sole exception to their human, but "unfeminine" personalities, is that every resident of Herland is a mother.(2) While not every woman in Herland was a biological mother, they were mothers in the most important sense: the fundamental underpinning of their society was the collective care, education, and growth of every child in the community (Martin 1985: ch. …


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