9/12/2008

Woman of the week - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Name: Charlotte Anne Perkins
Born: July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut
Dead: August 17, 1935, Pasadena, California
Married to: 1. Charles W. Stetson (1884-1894)
2. George Houghton Gilman (1900-1934)
Children:
Katharine Beecher Stetson (born 1885)
Occupation: Writer and advocate of women rights.

Perkins grew up in a rather poor middle-class home with a mother who, at least according to Perkin's memoirs, had some strong ideas of the proper way to raise a daughter - which included not having the child read fiction (since it would do her no good living in a dreamworld) and not having close friends since the child must learn to survive without human affection. She spent much of her childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, and the father did not live with them. Perkins enrolled in a designer school and also earned money as a tutor - though she did not like it much. 24 years old she married the artist Charles W. Stetson (1858-1911). Their daughter, Katharine, was born the following year. But it was not a happy occasion for Perkins who had a total nervous collapse as a result after having suffered from melancholia for the whole time of the marriage - the usual division between the hardworking husband and the householdtending wife suited her very ill. The usual prescribed cure for this, rest and more rest, did not help her at all. A trip to a friend in California proved more helpful - but her depression returned as soon as she returned to her husband. She was adviced not to use her brains too much as it would only make things worse, an idea that did not nsuit her at all. In 1888 she left her husband for good moved to Pasadena with her daughter. She divorced her husband in 1894, in a very public affair (divorces were not common and the general public was far too interested in the topic). At the same time she had begun to work hard, both as a writer and as a suffragete.

This time also saw the writing of her perhaps most well-known work 'The yellow wall-paper', the short story of a woman's mental break-down, done worse by the well-meaning of the people around her - much in the same way as Perkins herself experienced. But it was privately a hard time for Perkins. Her husband finally accepted that the marriage was over - just to marry the very friend who had taken her to California to help her out and who actually financially and emotionally supported her during that time. She also had reoccurring problems with depression - but at the same time she also met women to fall in love with, for example a writer for a local paper - by today's terms Perkins would in all probability be labeled as bisexual. She also raised her daughter from time to time (the daughter also lived with her father and his new wife), ran a boarding-house and gave lectures.

The lectures would take up more and more of her time and she traveled around giving speeches on the rights of women turned into America's leading feminist intellectual. That also meant that for 14 years, 1895-1909, she did not publish any fiction - being to busy. This changed when she started, and almost singlehandedly, ran the monthly periodical the Forrunner. In her work she was much helped by her cousin Houghton Gilman, whom she was rather close to and in the end they married in 1900 - a marriage quite different from her previous which allowed her to continue her own carreer as a writer and lecturerer. He died in 1934.

She ran the magazine until 1916 and she was one of the co-founders of 'Women's peace party' - but she started to take a less active part in politics by now. Perkins and Gilman lived in New York until 1922 when they moved to Norwich, Connecticut. After her husband's death she moved to her daughter in Pasadena, California. She had been diagnosed with breast-cancer in 1932 and in 1935 she chose to take her own life.

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