Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Part I of an article by Wendy Bird about this women’s suffrage leader

Editors’ Note:

Wendy Bird, M.P.P., is an advocate for social justice and equality of opportunity and a strategic consultant for non-profits, government, and philanthropy. This is the first part of Wendy’s two-part article about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a well-known suffrage movement writer and literary figure who had roots in Woodstock, NY. She spent two summers in retreat writing at Byrdcliffe. In August 2015, the Woodstock town board passed a resolution honoring its women in history and expressing support for the state’s 2017 upcoming women’s suffrage centennial celebration.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Raising Eyebrows & Revolutionizing Women’s Health Care in the 1800s

Part I by Wendy Bird

Celebrated suffragist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) raised eyebrows and helped revolutionize women’s health care with her provocative and innovative short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” published in 1892 in The New England Magazine. The story chronicles the injustices and inadequacies of the 19th century “rest cure” for women, which isolated patients from family and friends and confined them to bed rest for extended periods of time. Gilman also used to the story to courageously challenge the popular notion at the time that, as doctors and husbands, men know best about women’s health and wellbeing.

In the story, an unnamed woman moves into a summer home with her husband John, a doctor, to help address her “nervous troubles” through the “rest cure.” Having recently given birth, the woman’s condition is today interpreted as a form of postpartum depression. At the time, however, there was little understanding of the condition or effective treatments. Alone and rendered completely inactive, the woman begins to see visions in the yellow wallpaper of her room and ultimately goes insane.

Gilman based “The Yellow Wallpaper” on her own negative experiences with neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, who treated Gilman (then Charlotte Stetson) with the “rest cure” in 1887, following the birth of Gilman’s daughter Katharine (Thraikill, 2002). While a work of fiction, the real-life Weir is a looming threat in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” As the unnamed woman in the story describes, “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to go there at all.”

A PHYSICIAN ADVISED GILMAN TO GIVE UP WRITING AND TEND TO HER FAMILY

After “treating” Gilman, Mitchell advised her to give up writing, her passion, and concentrate exclusively on being a wife and mother as a way to maintain good health (Science Museum). Instead, Gilman went on to write “The Yellow Wallpaper” to dramatically illustrate the deficiencies of the “rest cure, as well as the influential non-fiction book Women and Economics (1898), which advocated for women’s economic independence and was translated into seven languages.

Dismantling the “Rest Cure”: In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman outlines how the “rest cure” systematically disenfranchises, isolates, and controls an unnamed woman in need of quality health care, resulting in her ultimate insanity.

  • Disenfranchisement: Throughout the story, the woman asserts her ideas that writing and companionship would greatly improve her health, but is dismissed. In one example, she says, “I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.” However, her husband advises her to “check the tendency.” When the woman asks for the room downstairs that “opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window,” her husband refuses, choosing the nursery with barred windows upstairs instead. When the woman complains of the ripped up wallpaper in the room, her husband refuses to fix it, saying he doesn’t want to “give way” to her “fancies” or spend money renovating a rental. When the woman says the “treatment” isn’t helping and asks to leave, her husband again refuses, citing the lease agreement: “I told him that I really was not gaining here, and that I wished he would take me away. ‘Why darling!’ said he, ‘our lease will be up in three weeks, and I can’t see how to leave before.'”

FIREWORKS IN HER PILLOWCASE

  • Isolation: Despite allegedly good intentions, John’s actions increasingly isolate the woman in the story. Twice, he prevents her from having the company of sought-after cousins Henry and Julia. The first time, the woman says, John “would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now.” The second time, the woman says, “I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there.” Meanwhile, John is away a good deal of the time on medical cases (“John is away all day, and even some nights”), a clear juxtaposition — and contributing factor — to the woman’s increasing isolation.
  • Control: Finally, as the summer goes by, John’s behavior becomes increasingly controlling, and the woman begins to question his true intentions. According to the woman, he “hardly lets me stir without special direction.” The woman is forced to lie down alone for increasing periods of time. As she describes, “I lie down ever so much now. John says it is good for me, and to sleep all I can. Indeed he started the habit by making me lie down for an hour after each meal. It is a very bad habit I am convinced.” As her condition worsens, the woman says, “I believe John is beginning to notice. I don’t like the look in his eyes.” As the summer draws to a close, the woman believes John is only “pretending” to be loving and kind. Eventually, these questions turn to cold fear: “The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.”

COMING SOON: PART II OF ARTICLE BY WENDY BIRD. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is available online to read or to listen to an audio reading.

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