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Donostia Book Club

My name is Slawka Grabowska. I organize Donostia Book Club. We meet every month to discuss previously chosen books or short stories. Check out our FB page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Donostia-Book-Club/105225566276875?ref=hl


Charlotte Perkins Gilman - a Precursor of a Modern Woman?

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ann J. Lane

Our September book was ¨Herland¨by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A book probably too revolutionary for its times, as some of the subjects still seem to be quite bold today. But we couldn't expect less from a woman so progressive as Charlotte was. So let me first introduce this amazing woman to you and then we'll focus on the analysis of her work.



An American author, lecturer, feminist, and social reformer, 

She wrote and lectured extensively on reforming marriage and the family, attracted as much attention with her writing as with her own marriages and family life. She made headlines not only with her ideas, but with her life

She was born in the New England town of Hartford, Connecticut. on July 3, 1860. She was a descendant of the prominent and influential Beecher family, the great niece of Henry Ward Beecher (clergyman and social reformer) and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). At the age of 15 her ancestry fascinated her a lot and she even claimed that´s why she was talented. But despite that, she was born into poverty. Her father Fredrick Beecher Perkins, a librarian, a writer, and a book editor who was said to have learned nine languages before his marriage, abandoned the family when she was a child.

Upon Gilman's birth, the doctors told her mother Mary Fitch Westcott that another pregnancy would kill her. Immediately after this announcement, Fredrick left the home. Some try to justify him saying he was afraid he would kill his wife by having another baby with her. It was reported that Mary later gave birth to a fourth child, but that child, same as one before Mary, died. Only two children survived: Charlotte and Thomas Adie,

Mary raised them in the brink of poverty after 1866 when her father abandoned them. At an early age Charlotte vowed never to marry, hoping instead to devote her life to public service, probably because of what she had seen as child at home.

Her mother, a talented musician, sold her piano when Gilman was three in order to pay the butcher. She never owned another one. The broken family was forced to move “nineteen times in eighteen years to fourteen difference cities.” Gilman’s father, who made infrequent visits, encouraged her education in the areas of reading, in the sciences and history. Gilman was also an avid reader, and she credits her father saying that if ever she needed reading advice, he was the man to call for suggestions. She moved so often as a child that her formal schooling totaled just to four years. Gilman managed to educate herself through reading and even sent herself to the Rhode Island School of Design for 2 years. She claimed that she had trouble in school because its ways and her ways didn’t fit together. She once took a test in grammar in which she claims that she came her closest ever to getting a 100 percent, but her teacher removed half the points because she placed three curly lines under her name. Calisthenics (rhythmical exercise) was one of her most favored subjects and she later writes that she encouraged her former teacher to open a gym for girls. She attended this gym twice a week for three years taking dancing classes, playing the “racquet,” and running.

To help support her family she had to work. She designed greeting cards, taught art, and was a governess. In 1882 at the age of twenty-one, she was introduced to Charles Walter Stetson (1858), a Providence, Rhode Island aspiring artist, and the two were married in 1884. She initially refused his proposal, because of the gut feeling it was not right for her. In her early marriage, she developed a depression. A year later she gave birth to their only child, Katharine Beecher (1885). Following the birth Gilman fell deeper into her depression. Her mother took charge of Katharine’s care.

Gilman first attempted to recover from the depression by taking a long trip to California. She saw immediate results and was so hopeful that she anxiously returned home to her husband and baby where the depression also returned. Afterward, in 1887, she voluntarily sought help from Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s famous “rest cure” being cared for in his institute in Philadelphia. Following her unsuccessful stay in the institute Dr. Mitchell sent her home and prescribed that she refrain from writing and limit her reading time. She subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown. Gilman later wrote about his advice saying that he told her to, “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”

Her time with Dr. Mitchell later inspired her to write “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a story about a woman who, following the prescription, actually suffers from delusions. Her original attempt at publishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” failed as Horace Scudder, the editor of The Atlantic wrote, “that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed.” It was eventually published in New England Magazine and later reprinted by William Dean Howells in Great Modern American Stories at the request of author and admirer William Dean Howells. This story brought her many good responses from women who had suffered from depression. She writes that she sent a copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Dr. Mitchell and while she never heard a reply from him, she did later hear that he modified his “rest cure.”

In 1888 Gilman fled to California, later bringing Katherine to live with her. She supported Katherine, herself, and later her mother by running a boarding house. Her time in California was spent gaining status as a writer, social critic, and lecturer. She writes that, “With Pasadena begins my professional ‘living.’” In what she calls her first “year of freedom,” she wrote thirty-three short articles, twenty-three poems, and ten child verses. She lectured to women’s clubs, men’s clubs, labor unions, suffrage groups, church congregations, and Nationalist clubs. She writes that all these lectures were written down and that as of the time of her autobiography, she still had them. Gilman also became a Nationalist during this time.

Meanwhile, her marriage to Stetson had dissolved and they mutually agreed to a divorce in 1894. Stetson later married Gilman’s closest friend, Grace Ellery Channing. The three agreed that Katharine would be best raised with her father and Grace. This decision caused much negative talk amongst society about Gilman as she was accused of “abandoning” her child and being an “unnatural mother.” To cope, she left California in 1895 and from that time through 1900 Gilman lived a somewhat nomadic life as a voracious lecturer and writer. She also spent this time writing her first book In This Our World a collection of poems with feminist themes.

In 1896 Gilman was living in Chicago, Illinois where she continued to write and associate with numerous other pioneering women of social reform including Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, founders of the settlement house `Hull House’. Gilman’s Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Relations (1898) became a best seller which was translated into several different languages and highly lauded internationally, making her one of the few commercially successful women writers of the time. It was about the “socioeconomic factors which force women into domestic slavery.” In the book she makes clear that until women learn to be economically independent, true autonomy and equality could not be found. She continued to write, producing six nonfiction works, eight novels, nearly 200 short stories, hundreds of poems, plays and literally thousands of essays Other social essays written over the next twenty years include Concerning Children, The Home, Human Work, and The Man-Made World.

In Concerning Children (1900) and other works (among them Herland), Gilman propounded ideas about communal child rearing and education to free mothers from domestic servitude. "When we do honestly admit that a child is being educated in every waking hour by the conditions in which he is placed and the persons who are with them, we shall be readier to see the need of a higher class of educators than servant-girls, and a more carefully planned environment than the accommodations of the average home."

From 1909 to 1916 she single-handedly wrote and edited a monthly feminist magazine called The Forerunner in which she serialized her novels What Diantha Did, The Crux, Moving the Mountain, and Herland. At the end of her life, she wrote The Living of Charlotte Perkins.

In 1900, she married her first cousin, George Houghton Gilman, a lawyer in New York City. Unlike the marriage of her parents and her own first marriage, this one was a happy and fulfilling relationship. The two lived in New York until 1922 when they moved to Norwich, Connecticut where she wrote His Religion and Hers. George died in May 1934, two years earlier Gilman was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Following her husband’s death, she returned to Pasadena, California to be near her daughter. They were also joined by Grace Channing Stetson, now a widow. In 1935 Gilman finished her final piece, her autobiography, and on August 17, 1935 at the age of 75 she committed suicide by overdosing chloroform that she had been accumulating for some time.

Gilman’s work and popularity lay silent for thirty years after her death, but in 1960, with the feminist movement, came a revival of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and her short stories such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” were revisited by feminist such as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar for its symbolism and association with feminist issues. In 1993, Gilman was named the sixth most influential woman of the twentieth century in a poll commissioned by the Siena Research Institute. In 1994, she was inducted into the National Womenís Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.


Regardless of the admiration of her ideas, it seems that there was notice of poor ability in some aspects of her work. Ann J. Lane wrote, “Many Gilman enthusiasts do not much like her fiction. They consider it too ideological, too didactic. Gilman mischievously used the commonly shared forms and structures of her day—farces, domestic novels, mysteries, adventure stories—and infused them with her own brand of feminism and socialism.” She also notes that, “Gilman gave little attention to her writing as literature, and neither will the reader. She wrote quickly, carelessly, to make a point.” Her socialist writings, however, seemed to be praised in all respects.


Time to talk about HERLAND (1915) ;)

It is the feminist Utopian novel. A tale of three male explorers who discover an all-female society, free of war, poverty, and oppressive domination. creating around this homo-social (or one-sex) society a culture, political system, and familial arrangement that grew out of the society of women, rather than simply the absence of men It was followed by With Her in Ourland (1916) and His Religion and Hers in 1923.

She introduced her readers to a country of women who worked cooperatively. Her characters were drawn in accord with the ideas Gilman presented in her nonfiction work The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903) and her serialized article "The Dress of Women" (1915).

In both of these works, Gilman railed against the condition of women who were relegated to a life of confining costume and care for child and home. She envisioned a world (imagined earlier by Melusina Fay Peirce, also) in which women were free from the drudgery of cooking and cleaning and could engage in intellectual pursuits—a world in which women threw off their corsets and breathed freely.

Gilman strove to understand the basis for the societal strictures that defined "woman" so narrowly. She was inspired by sociologist Lester Ward to investigate and trace the developments in human history that had led to such inequitable gendered divisions of labor

While other American Utopian novels, such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, were prominently read for years after their publication, Herland was largely forgotten until it was republished in the 1970s. Gilman's readers in the 1970s found in Herland a fresh and funny satire, full of insights that still speak to the condition of American women even after eighty years.

Gilman questioned why childbearing was done only by women. She felt that Walter Stetson had as much right to raise their child as she did. Gilman fictionalized many of her ideas about family and home in Herland.

But when we began to talk about each couple having ‘homes’ of our own, they could not understand it . . . A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it.’
‘Staying in it? All the time? . . . Not imprisoned surely!’
‘Of course not! Living there—naturally,’ he answered.
‘What does she do there—all the time?’ Alima demanded. ‘What is her work?’”


We had expected them to be given over to what we called ‘feminine vanity’—‘frills and furbelows,’ and we found they had evolved a costume more perfect than the Chinese dress, richly beautiful when so desired, always useful, of unfailing dignity and good taste.”


The interesting thing is that the first 3-4 chapters are quite typical for all the Utopian novels of these times: the men start their journey and in an adventurous style describe everything they see, the ¨new world¨. However, the following chapters are suddenly different. There are at least two reasons for that:

1. The novel was published in chapters in the magazine. So each month there was another chapter, which simply means the fluency and continuity were not as clear as in normal novels.

2. Gilman focuses so much on a description of Herland's society and social structures, that her novel turns into an over-sized essay on women's condition in her times. It's not as much fiction anymore as a criticism of her own society. 


Having all that in mind, I would like to finish with some questions to think about:
1) What was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's incentive to write this story? What goals did she hope it would accomplish? She surely couldn't believe that would change anything?


2) What does Gilman see as the lot of women in her own society? How does that compare to the place of women in Herland? Would Herland´s rules translate easily into her own society? WOuld an Utopia like that ever function? (obviously leaving apart the impossible biological part of it!)


3) According to Gilman, how did men outside of Herland gain control over women economically, socially, culturally, sexually? How did the women of Herland avoid that fate? Do you agree with Gilman's assessment of the origins of gender restrictions?


4) Gilman traces out the history of the development of relations between the sexes in Western culture and in Herland. What are these histories? How and why do they differ?


5) What were the counterbalancing positive traits women's culture provided for  "nationalism" and "patriotism" according to Gilman?


6) Is a narrative about race visible in Herland? What race are the women who live in Herland? Is there any racial difference? To what might you attribute Gilman's treatment of race?


7) In what ways is the "feminist utopia" of Herland feminist?



Quite obviously all these ideas were not just mysteriously planted in my mind. This blog is in fact a patchwork of some articles and blogs that I've read preparing our September meeting. It is almost impossible at this point to mark each fragment and its accurate source, but below you have the list of all the sources I've used: