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Study notes

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a trailblazer within the women’s movement, a prominent figure within the first-wave of feminism and is perhaps best-known for her story entitled ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’

It is a tale of a woman who suffers from mental illness after being closeted in a room by her husband. As the title suggests, the trapped woman becomes obsessed with the colour of the wallpaper. Her work serves to highlight the lack of autonomy within women’s lives and how it undermines their mental and emotional well-being.

As befits a figure from the first-wave, Gilman begins with the assumption that young girls are forced to conform to their predestined role as mothers. To prevent harmful social conditioning of girls, Gilman believed there should be no difference in the clothes that little children wear or the toys they play with. It was an early form of the politics of sameness, a key theme within the ideology of feminism. In a similar vein, she argued for an equal contribution to the domestic division of labour because the domestic environment is an instrument of patriarchy. Indeed, Gilman noted that women were financially reliant upon their husbands. This uneven power structure meant that wives had to trade sexual favours for the protection offered by their menfolk.

Gilman also claimed that female contributions towards civilisation had been halted due to an androcentric culture. Women were the underdeveloped half of humanity and only when the economic dynamics of a relationship were altered could women properly escape the confines of patriarchy. This would enable a release from their domestic duties towards a more economically rewarding life outside of the home. As such, the key towards female emancipation was one of economic independence.

Although she was clearly a feminist, Gilman called herself a humanist and is associated with a wide number of causes. For instance, she was a proponent of reform Darwinism (which is based upon the belief that Darwin’s view of evolution was biased towards men as it overlooked the origins of the female brain in society that rationally chooses the best suited mate). In Gilman words “there is no female mind” – a view also expressed in slightly different language by fellow first-wave theorist Mary Wollstonecraft.

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