Tag Archive | Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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.

GilmanSlider

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.

Suffrage CentennialsimagesFollow us—Suffrage Centennials—on FacebookTwitter, email subscription, and the Quarterly Newsletter. Sign up for email on this web page. Stay up to date with postings, audio podcasts, and videos. Plan for your suffrage centennial event. And don’t forget to pass on women’s suffrage storytelling to the next generation. Suffrage Centennial videos on Vimeo.

Visit Woodstock, New York & find out about Charlotte Perkins Gilman!

Woodstock, New York has women’s suffrage ties! on Vimeo.

Find out the real story about Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her role in the founding of the Woodstock art colony at the turn of the 20th century.

Article by Marguerite Kearns: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: a Woodstock founding mother” on HudsonValleyOne.

Suffrage CentennialsimagesFollow SuffrageCentennials.com on our Facebook page, Twitter, email subscription, and the Quarterly Newsletter. Sign up for email on this web page. Keep up to date with postings, audio podcasts, and videos. Plan for your suffrage centennial event in 2020. Remember Inez Milholland, the U.S. suffrage martyr from now through 2020 (InezMilholland.wordpress.com). And support the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial.

PART II: Charlotte Perkins Gilman & “The Yellow Wallpaper” still read today!

Editors’ Note: This is the second part of the two-part article about Charlotte Perkins Gilman by Wendy Bird, an advocate for social justice and equality of opportunity and a strategic consultant for non-profits, government, and philanthropy.

GilmanSliderby Wendy Bird

Part II 

What is One to Do?:

Like the haunting “nevermore” of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “what is one to do” in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes a chilling rallying cry against the injustices of the “rest cure.” Disenfranchised and isolated, the unnamed woman feels she cannot be heard over the voices of her husband and brother, both doctors. In her words, “Personally I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?” The woman senses that her husband’s profession may actually be impeding, rather than aiding, her recovery and wellbeing, saying, “John is a physician, and PERHAPS–(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)–PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster. You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?” For the woman, her husband’s belief that she is not sick and, therefore, not in need of quality medical care, as opposed to just “rest,” cannot be overcome: “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do?” As the protagonist becomes increasingly upset (“I am getting angry enough to do something desperate”) and ultimately goes insane (“I’ve got out at last”), the reader is left to wonder if something might have been done to prevent the tragedy after all.

Girl Power Matters:

Gilman adds complexity to the story by introducing Jennie, John’s sister. Rather than serve as an ally to the ailing woman, Jennie inadvertently contributes to the woman’s demise by upholding the unwanted isolation and inactivity of the “rest cure” and, by extension, the “men know best” stereotype. Before long, “Jennie sees to everything.” Like John, Jennie tries to escalate control over the woman: “Jennie wanted to sleep with me–the sly thing! but I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone.” Just as she begins to fear her husband, the woman begins to fear her sister-in-law, saying, “even Jennie has an inexplicable look.” Without anyone to support her ideas and suggestions, the woman’s isolation extends beyond the physical into the mental and emotional.

Innovative Storytelling:

Gilman uses several strategic literary devices to advance her point of view. First, Gilman presents the protagonist as a woman without a name. By the end of the story, we know the names John, Jennie, Mary, Henry, and Julia, but not the name of the ailing woman, underscoring the woman’s sub-status treatment. Second, Gilman uses the wallpaper as a metaphor for the stifling treatment of John and Jennie, enabling the woman to criticize her family without drawing the ire of conservative readers. For example, echoing John and Jennie’s relentless oversight, the woman says, “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere.” Finally, Gilman uses familiar language to draw readers in and win their trust, making her ultimate denouncement of the “rest cure” more compelling. Initially, for example, John and Jennie are described as “loving,” “dear,” “sweet,” and “careful,” as to be expected from family members. The woman would never prioritize her own needs over those of her husband: “of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim.” The woman even expresses gratitude for her husband’s treatment, saying, “it is lucky that John kept me here.” Like the woman, the reader is drawn in by the false promises of the “rest cure” and, in turn, also shocked and dismayed by its tragic consequences.

Impact:

With its masterful storytelling, Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” raised serious questions about the “science” behind the “rest cure” and amplified a voice still hear too little in women’s health care: a woman’s. Other writers such as Virginia Woolf also criticized the treatment, laying the foundation for improved understanding of women’s health needs and effective treatments moving forward.

Epitaph:

In 1935, suffering from incurable breast cancer, Gilman chose to use chloroform to end her life on her own terms. In a note she left behind, Gilman described her choice as a human right: “When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one” (Radcliffe Magazine). While still controversial in health care today (as recently evidenced, for example, by Brittany Maynard in “My Right to Death with Dignity at 29”), in death, as in life, Gilman exercised autonomy and the power of choice

The original collection of the “Papers of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1846-1975” is located at the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. For more information and the online collection, please visit the “Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection.”

RESOURCES:

Part I of the article series on Charlotte Perkins Gilman by Wendy Bird.

FREE AUDIO of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The Woodstock (NY) town board in August passed a resolution honoring Woodstock women in history, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and affirming the NYS suffrage centennial celebration in 2017. This is the first time a local community has taken such a step, and it’s likely that other towns and cities will do the same.

Suffrage CentennialsimagesFollow SuffrageCentennials.com on Facebook page, Twitter, email subscription, and the Quarterly Newsletter. Sign up for email on this web page. Stay up to date with postings, audio podcasts, and videos. Plan for your suffrage centennial event. And don’t forget to pass on women’s suffrage storytelling to the next generation. Suffrage Centennial videos on Vimeo.

Part I: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of Woodstock’s wild women who wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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.

GilmanSlider

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. A one-woman show of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is perfect for suffrage events and celebrations. Check out the Woodstock town board resolution honoring suffrage centennials and women in local history.

Suffrage CentennialsimagesFollow SuffrageCentennials.com on Facebook page, Twitter, email subscription, and the Quarterly Newsletter. Sign up for email on this web page. Stay up to date with postings, audio podcasts, and videos. Plan for your suffrage centennial event. And don’t forget to pass on women’s suffrage storytelling to the next generation. Suffrage Centennial videos on Vimeo.