Acclaimed writer, feminist, and social activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 3rd July, 1860. She was born into a prominent family with several strong female role models of great renown. Her great-aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an abolitionist work so impactful that President Lincoln is said to have credited her, albeit patronisingly, as “the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” Her other great aunts, Catherine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker were both prominent advocates for women’s rights, with Catherine focusing on higher education and Isabella focusing on suffrage.
Despite her family’s prominence, Charlotte grew up largely in poverty, something which was no doubt an outcome of her father’s decision to abandon the family when she was very young. Her formal education was limited, but she did complete two years at the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 1884, Charlotte married Charles Walter Stetson. She had misgivings about the marriage even before the wedding, and she almost immediately began experiencing depression. A year later, she gave birth to their daughter, Katherine Beecher Stetson, and began suffering from what we now know to be postpartum depression.
As a result of her depression, Charlotte was prescribed the rest cure, a type of treatment popular in the 1800s which required women to lay in bed for extended periods of time and refrain from all mental and physical activity. The results were disastrous for Charlotte, nearly driving her completely mad. However, she eventually recovered and used this experience as the basis for her most famous piece of fiction writing, The Yellow Wallpaper.
This exceptional short story presents a remarkably accurate, first person account of a woman’s descent into madness. A searing indictment of “the rest cure”, Charlotte sent the story to Dr. Silas Weir, the man who prescribed it for her. Though he never responded to her directly, upon reading it, he is said to have vowed never to prescribe the treatment again.
In 1888, Charlotte and Charles separated, a move that was virtually unheard of during that time period. They divorced in 1894, at which point Charlotte, finding that life as a single parent left her too little time to do the writing and advocacy work she craved, sent their daughter, Katherine, to live with Charles and his new wife. This move was even more unheard of during the time period, and it became quite the scandal. Charlotte, however, had very progressive views on childrearing and firmly believed that her husband had every bit as much of a right to be in his daughter’s life as she did.
Following the divorce, Charlotte began writing extensively. She published numerous works of both fiction and nonfiction, including Women in Economics, an immensely popular feminist treatise that was translated into 7 different languages.
In 1900, just six years after divorcing her first husband, Charlotte remarried, and unlike her first marriage, Charlotte found this one to be satisfying and fulfilling. She continued to write extensively, authoring and publishing more than a dozen books in the quarter-century that followed. She also began publishing her own magazine, The Forerunner.
In 1934, her husband passed away, and Charlotte moved to California to be closer to her daughter. A year later, after suffering for several years with breast cancer, Charlotte, an early advocate for euthanasia, took her own life.
Like many women whose ideas and ideals were so far ahead of their time, Charlotte’s work was not fully appreciated until after her death. When the women’s movement began picking up steam in the United States during the 1960s, her writings experienced a resurgence, and she has only grown in popularity since then. By the time we reached the 1990s, a full century after the publication of her seminal The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman was ranked as one of the 10 most influential women of the twentieth century.
She was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.