Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

Charlotte Perkins Gilman ( 1860-1935) is best known today for The Yellow Wallpaper ( 1892), the fictionalized account of her nervous breakdown, which was most acute in the two years following April 1886. At that time, she was married to Charles Walter Stetson, who colluded in a treatment plan that called for her to withdraw from all intellectual labors. Charlotte eventually worked her way out of the illness by resuming her intellectual life. After her first marriage ended more or less amicably, she moved to California, where she rebuilt a life with her daughter. In these years, she earned her livelihood in large part through public lectures. Her feminism was undoubtedly shaped by these early experiences. While living the life of a public intellectual, reformer, and feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote important scholarly works (including publications in academic journals such as the American Journal of Sociology). Her principal writings in social theory developed a sophisticated feminist interpretation of the effects and relations among economic life, the family, and gender roles. Women and Economics ( 1898) was widely read in its day. Other books, along with scholarly articles, brought her a degree of recognition from the literary and academic establishment; these include The Home ( 1903) and Human Work ( 1904). For seven years, beginning in 1909, she organized, edited, and wrote every word (including advertising copy) for Forerunner, a monthly magazine. By her own estimate, the total words involved equaled that of four major books each year. Her literary output--scholarly works, essays, lectures, fiction--was prodigious. After the Forerunner years, Gilman's influence lessened. Yet she continued to write and live with purpose and courage--after 1922, in Norwich, Connecticut. She took her own life in 1935, saying, "I have preferred chloroform to cancer."

The selection from The Yellow Wallpaper illustrates Gilman's ability to use fiction to rivet the reader's attention on what amounts to an implicit social theory of gender relations. Her utopian novel, Herland ( 1915), extends this method into a more complete feminist statement. The "Women and Economics" selection stands up well against more recent analyses of the family wage system and "second-shift" labor demands, whereby a society's economic interests are served at a cost to women.


The Yellow Wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gilman ( 1892)

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house and reach the height of romantic felicity--but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

____________________
Excerpt from Ann J. Lane, ed., The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader: "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Other Fiction ( New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), pp. 3-5.

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