Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Photo of a young Gilman

Best known for her short story "The Yellow Wall-Paper," Gilman was a woman who wrote thousands of works, from short journalism to book length discussions of the social realities of women's lives to poetry. Her book, Women and Economics was hailed as a major accomplishment and re-published in several languages; Vassar college even used it as a textbook for a short time. Gilman's major concern during her lifetime was feminism-- women's suffrage as well as women's economic independence. She also self-published a magazine titled, The Forerunner, for seven years; the magazine is an incredible collection of thought and ideas and an example of how driven she was.

She was born Charlotte Anna Perkins, on July 3, 1860, in Hartford. Her mother was Mary Fitch Westcott, and her father was Frederic Beecher Perkins. This made Gilman the great granddaughter of Lyman Beecher, and the great-niece of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. She had a brother, Thomas Adie, who was 14 months older; there were two siblings who died in infancy. Gilman's mother was told that she should have no other children-- soon after this, her father left the family alone. Critics have speculated that the reason for his abandonment was fear of killing his wife in childbirth (see the biography by Ann Lane). The family was sent to live with relatives; they were the "poor relations" who moved around constantly during Gilman's childhood. Perhaps this is one reason that Gilman herself developed ambivalent feelings about marriage and vowed to not marry. Of course, that vow was broken when she married Charles Walter Stetson. Their marriage was a rocky one-- eventually ending in a controversial divorce. They had one daughter, Katherine Beecher Stetson who was born March 23, 1885. Many years later (in 1900), Gilman was re-married to her cousin George Houghton Gilman; they remained happily married until his sudden death May 4, 1934. After his death, Gilman moved to California to be with her daughter and her family.

Gilman learned in 1932 that she had incurable breast cancer. As an advocate for the right-to-die, Gilman committed suicide on August 17, 1935 by taking an overdose of chloroform. She "chose chloroform over cancer" as her autobiography and suicide note stated.

During her life, Gilman published a huge volume of work-- much of which is unavailable to the modern reader. However, much of her work is beginning to be recognized as important and re-published. (See the guide to research for more information on this). She was an incredibly influential and ahead-of-her-time woman, and deserves more recognition.

Photo of Gilman found on the Internet. You can see a number of great shots of her in the biography by Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, UPress of Virginia, 1990.

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