Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A GENUINE FORERUNNER
No doubt more authors, scientists, and leaders of all kinds are introduced in at best misleading, at worst wildly inappropriate ways in first year university courses all over the world. More often than not the misleading introduction is well-meaning, it's supposed to get the students started with something "easier" from the subject's life and work. Other times the person in question has a high reputation in one area that has outstripped where they apparently spent most of their actual attention and working life. For instance, Leonardo Da Vinci, who seems to have actually spent far more time and effort on his engineering work and designs than on what are the now more famous and certainly more valued artworks that have survived time and his experiments with new bases for pigments. For good or ill, it is probably the former category of work that consistently paid the bills. In the case of women in these roles, we can almost guarantee that the woman in question is being actively misrepresented on the way to denying the majority of her work or her importance. This is far too consistent and common to be an accident, unfortunately. One example is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose work includes far more than just one novel, Frankenstein, which all evidence does indeed point to her having actually written. Another far more recent example is Marija Gimbutas, whose extraordinary body of work is often either caricatured or ignored by people who have rarely taken the time to at least read what she actually wrote. But for this essay, the exemplar woman is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who all too often is first introduced to students via a short story she wrote early in her career and represents a tiny and actually unrepresentative part of her work, which was wide ranging, sophisticated, and groundbreaking. It would be difficult to suspect this at all even from the potted biography introducing that early story in one execrable short story reader or another most students will encounter it in.
Snippet of one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's diary entries from the new Schlesinger Digital Collection
of her papers. Series VIII: Notebooks and Diaries, Volume 31. Diary, 1892. Accessed 28 june 2021.
The story in question is, as most students subjected to the required first year english course at university, or sometimes the advanced high school english in their final year, The Yellow Wallpaper. That it is a deceptive introduction to Gilman's work is not to say the story was not important to Gilman herself, or that it did not mark an important moment in her career and life. Certainly it did, as it was part of the way in which she exorcised the hideous impact of the infamous and since properly discredited "rest cure" on the women subjected to it in the nineteenth century, including speaking up against it in the most effective way she could. Gilman did learn that this short story had a positive impact in the way she hoped, and she had every reason to expect it to. She was the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who won enduring fame for her newspaper serial and eventual novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is not likely that Gilman's great aunt literally started the united states' civil war, but it is quite clear that the impact of her serial on public opinion about slavery in the united states was formidable. That example alone among many others showed Gilman the power of well-chosen written words.
At the moment the most recent full-scale biography of Gilman that uses a feminist and intellectual lens is Judith Allen's 2009 The Feminisms of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She describes Gilman as a "reform Darwinist Progressive Era public intellectual" with a significant influence on the debates of her time. Her books include what became the standard economics textbook of the era, and she lived a life of activism and regular speaking tours. She did this after her near-escape from social pressure to give up her intellectual ambitions all together, fleeing her first marriage via a then scandalous divorce and giving up her daughter into the custody of her ex-husband. Today the treatments for post-partum depression are far better, but it is not a given that people will be anymore understanding of a woman who felt pressured into marrying and having a child against her deeper inclinations. Understandably this led to a difficult relationship with her daughter, but they evidently reconciled later. According to cataloguer Jenny Gotwals, who worked on the scanning, ordering, and posting of Gilman's papers at the schlesinger library at harvard, "If you just read her published work, you don't get the idea that she was a great artist, she drew caricatures, she played Victorian word games. And at the end of her life, when she wasn't as well known, she had fun being retired—gardening and playing with her grandchildren." Most of Gilman's publications are readily available between the new archive, project gutenberg and the internet archive, and an unofficial Charlotte Perkins Gilman site that is clearly a labour of love for its owner.
At the moment, once they have gotten through discussing Gilman's disastrous first marriage and complaining that she apparently disliked at least heterosexual sex, most scholars seem specially impressed by her being "the first sociologist" and a significant early radical feminist. The obvious connection between many scholars' discomfort of her radical feminism and the more direct critique of penis in vagina sex Gilman couldn't make because she was striving to make a living as a writer and public intellectual, not because of the assumption that she had "victorian morals" is one those many scholars don't want to make explicitly. I think this is a sad reflection not of a failure on their part as scholars or analysts, but of how very little things have changed that they cannot make that connection explicit even to more bluntly challenge it for fear of being ejected from present-day scholarly and media circles. Having acknowledged this parallel, it adds all the more poignancy to the recognition of Gilman as a sociologist, a person undertaking "the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society; the study of social problems." Such a study at its best does what radical feminism strives to do, to identify the root of problems and act on that root to solve them. It may not sound like it, but tough as such a study and its accompanying activism are, they are also incredibly optimistic. After all, if social problems are indeed social, not just the outcome of individual human failure, that means it is possible to change, both as individuals and as societies. We aren't doomed to "live with it" as our supposed "just deserts." This is not to deny that Gilman expressed discomfort with the label "feminist," related to the connotations of the word at the time and perhaps to a perception that it was not radical enough. She is not the first nor the last feminist theoretician to get fed up with the term and try to use another implying something more sex-neutral, only to get fed up with how that term got co-opted.
As is so typical nowadays, the text I looked at to get a better sense of Gilman the sociologist and social theorist beyond her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" and her utopian novel Herland, had a difficult time with acknowledging where she was not so different from her peers. She left behind honest enough speech and writing to reveal that like any of us, she was better at opposing blatant racist policies than catching and rooting out specific racist beliefs she had never questioned because she had no experience that led her to. It is important to acknowledge these points, but when tucked into almost the end of an article or potted biography, they do come across as an afterthought or a hurried downgrading of a person up to that point praised for their pioneering and prolific work. Maybe there is just no space in articles of the type I was examining and that is all there is to it, and after all, the primary audience of this book is presumed to be united states citizens familiar with the history of that settler colonial state. There is no definition of the "progressive era" given for example, nor a quick note to clarify that Gilman's professional and intellectual circles were all but wholly "anglo-saxon," contributing to her startling antipathy to most immigrants. Before diving into a my own idiosyncratic and inevitably over-simplified engagement with Gilman's writing because this is an essay not a book, the lack of a "progressive era" definition can't be allowed to stand.
Checking mainstream sources online, so avoiding the tragically more and more untrustworthy wikipedia and sites inclined to make a highly politicized argument in lieu of a definition, it turns out that of course the "progressive era" has a somewhat unclear end, although its beginning seems broadly agreed on. The starting dates cluster within the 1890s, long enough for the generation born during or just before the united states civil war to have come of age and begun independent adult lives. Understandably, that generation was particularly interested in social change and social reform, and many legal changes were set in motion and completed through this period, which again broad agreement deems to be the 1920s. But the 1920s are also the beginning of the so-called "gilded age" when the various robber barons and stock market excesses contributed to a period of wild conspicuous consumption just before a major stock market crash and the infamous great depression. Whatever our political views, I think we can all agree that figuring out how to improve society and keep it improved is a difficult challenge, and the wild gyrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provide many examples of how and why.
The majority of Gilman's writing and public speaking work falls unambiguously within the "progressive era" and she was indeed a part of that generation born during or just before the united states civil war. Her theoretical work was not just theoretical, she also made practical proposals for change, such as professionalizing housework so that it could not be used as a means to keep women locked in the home. Yet she also wrote at least one well known utopian novel, which from a present-day perspective seems quite contradictory. "Utopian thinking" has taken a firm drubbing and lost much of its respectability because of its association in propaganda, if not necessarily in reality, with people striving towards violent revolutions, be they from "right" or "left" political perspectives. If not associated with them, "utopian thinking" often carries connotations of "impossible, unrealistic, not applicable in the real world, so useless." Karl Marx's frustrations with "utopian thinking" as a form of escapism is not as well known as it should be, perhaps because he was hardly the only one, and his frustrated fellows included many who wanted nothing to do with his ideas. This gives a hint of what "utopian thinking" was to begin with though, and it arguably did not start out as such a disreputable thing in and of itself.
There is no yes or no answer as to whether "utopia" originally comes from an ancient greek word for "no place or nowhere" or "good place." It is definitely conflated with "good place" from at least Thomas More's original 1516 book, and later contrasted with a "dystopia," "bad place" or even "difficult place." On further examination, I wonder if an element of the "nowhere" association isn't courtesy of Samuel Butler's satirical novel Erewhon. In any case, the attraction of the "nowhere" option is that it makes more overt the sense that "utopian thinking" was originally a way to critique the real world by imagining a different world and considering the implications of its alternative social rules. The result can facilitate constructive critique of the present, including attempts to envision practical alternatives. Gilman, like many other thinkers over time have resorted to such thought experiments in an effort to break out of the ruts created by the familiar. Sometimes our "that's ridiculous" or "that's unrealistic" response is not to a proposal that actually has those qualities, but to the implications and unfamiliarity of it. This is certainly a different appreciation of the term "thought experiment," which is still so strongly associated with physics due to Albert Einstein's skilled use of them during his most prolific period of research. Coincidentally, that most prolific period falls within the same period as Gilman's era of greatest public activity.
A bit more reading and study led me to Mary Jo Deegan's essay in the 2018 collection titled simply Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It turns out that Herland had a sequel, or as Deegan argues, a second half that should be read together with it to get the full sense of Gilman's analysis and argument. That other half is the lesser known With Her in Ourland, which still features wit and ego-puncturing analyses, but is set during the world war, using the same "stranger in a strange land" technique in reverse, as Deegan rightly emphasizes. So here in a manner of speaking, is the other side of the medal: yes, Gilman wrote a utopian novel, and yes, it is tougher to figure out how to act in the real world on a radical analysis. Less known is that the second half the utopian novel grapples directly with how to go about doing the tougher part, and that seems to have tainted the reception of it. I suspect this is the larger reason than Gilman's own moments of ethnocentrism or racism. It is a bit more face saving to emphasize aspects that are indeed questionable, rather than own up to being annoyed that Gilman did not write the overall book as a bit of escapist fiction. After all, such annoyance reflects misconceptions about her project, and that is an embarrassing spot to be in, but luckily embarrassment is temporary. I have certainly gone back and reread books after learning that my preconceptions about them were hilariously awry, including Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel Frankenstein, which like many an older adolescent reader I picked up expecting something more like the black and white movies, and not at all the moody, highly allusive novel it actually is. In the case of Gilman's Herland-Ourland novel, I certainly was unaware that she was a sociologist. Deegan makes a convincing case that a reader will get much more out of the novel if equipped with an understanding of Gilman's sociological thought. But that gave me pause, because I read Deegan's essay via my ability to access the interlibrary loan system of my local public library. But what could a person read to acquire this understanding that isn't too long and is reasonably accessible without necessarily diving into the wider reaching aspects of the local library system, I wondered. Well, Gilman has obliged us via her book Women and Economics, which sets out the elements of her sociological approach in the first few chapters. Originally published in 1898, it is possible to read a well-laid out web page version without added commentary at the Celebration of Women Writers Project, or a pdf scan from tufts university of the 1890 edition on the internet archive.
Still, one of Gilman's most intriguing creative projects at least from the perspective of us who build and maintain primarily text-based websites, is her monthly journal The Forerunner, which she self-published from 1909-1916. Bringing together her skills in commercial art and page design, writing across multiple forms and genres, and research and analytical skills besides, she produced substantial issues averaging a minimum of thirty pages. Gilman wrote poetry, short stories, serialized her own novels and non-fiction books, and added commentary and opinion essays. Furthermore, we are lucky today to be able to read all the issues in a well-done scan via the hathi trust. Being a firm leftist and producing the journal herself because she could not get published elsewhere, Gilman was well aware of how important it is for women to do what they can to publish and preserve their own work, she was not able to gain enough subscribers just to break even. Obviously that didn't stop her. In her discussion of the journal's purpose, Gilman states in response to the query "Is it a Socialist Magazine?" that "It is a magazine for humanity, and humanity is social. It holds that Socialism, the economic theory, is part of our gradual socialization, and that the duty of conscious humanity is to promote socialization." Reading through the issues gives a sense of Gilman's delight in putting the issues together, overseeing their production, and finding ways to pay for it all. It was an important creative outlet, and it does seem to me that Gilman appreciated that she was fortunate to be in a position to produce The Forerunner in the first place. Her advertising policy amounted to something of a heresy even then:
AS TO ADVERTISING:
We have long heard that "A pleased customer is the best advertiser." The Forerunner offers to its advertisers and readers the benefit of this authority. In its advertising department, under the above heading, will be described articles personally known and used. So far as individual experience and approval carry weight, and clear truthful description command attention, the advertising pages of The Forerunner will be useful to both dealer and buyer. If advertisers prefer to use their own statements, The Forerunner will publish them if it believes them to be true.
Further to this, Gilman even tried to run something of a marketing survey, to see if this type of advertisement could actually pay back the cost to an advertiser to purchase it. From today's perspective where we are swamped with unwanted propaganda in general and its advertising genre especially, it is widely though not necessarily overtly acknowledged that most advertising dollars are funding scammer's bubbles of various types. Technically nobody knows whether it is hard to measure if any propaganda is effective, especially advertising, because too many people don't want the scam uncovered. But in the early twentieth century, propaganda had not developed to the same extent, and mass media did not have many forms that could be abused to foist advertising on people. In her writing, Gilman insisted on taking the position that all people were fundamentally honest, so she did not start from a cynical perspective on these issues.
All told, this is really just a hint of the range and interest of Gilman's writing and analysis. For those prone to throwing out all of her work because she was not spotlessly clean of all racism, classicism, and other "isms" of concern in this age of renewed puritanism, it is well to pause and think carefully about intellectual consistency. If you are inclined to give Mark Twain or Edward Bellamy a pass, or far more recent authors like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King a pass because they are prolific and can't be expected to be perfect, it should be no stretch at all to give Gilman the same courtesy. The Forerunner is great fun to dip into, from the books to her commentaries, which include such gems as her definition of literature: "Literature, in the esoteric sense of lofty criticism, is a form of writing, like the higher mathematics, must be free from any taint of utility. Pure literature must perforce be a form of expression, but must not condescend to express anything." Gilman does not hesitate to poke fun at types of writing she produces herself, and bubbles over with commentary on the current authors of the day in a type of constructive commentary still all too rare even now. Today we underestimate how much can be learned from using what are today out of copyright works just for the purpose of learning how to argue coherently and well, all for the cost of a little quality time spent perhaps with a library computer rather than a doubtfully "smart" phone or tablet for better ease of reading. Contrary to some of the recent biographical claims I have seen about Gilman by scholars blogging in various places, I don't agree at all that she was a tragic figure whose life was blighted by mental illness. Certainly she had to manage depression all of her life, and she did, providing a clear example of what women are capable of when their fortune is good and their personal determination sufficient to get them through adversity. While today we might be unsatisfied with her class analysis in a rather ahistorical way, we can step back and consider more carefully Gilman's own example as an effort to provide evidence for her own argument that with opportunity, women can excel and overcome adversity.
Rather than risk caricaturing her as a tragic, half-crazed woman after all, we should face up to the powerful critique her example actually provides. As a society, the potential of women, and of men and even children is deliberately wasted in order to enforce sex role stereotypes and maximize profits for a few. Those are not inevitabilities or natural, but choices, which Gilman demonstrated again and again via her research, personal example, and logical argument. Gilman insisted on facing these things not out of despair, but of an understanding that where there is choice, there is possibility for constructive change.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman Website: "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper'," transcribed from The Forerunner, October 1913.
- Judith Allen: Indiana University Department of History - Description of her book on Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe Center: Uncle Tom's Cabin. This site provides excellent background and critical discussion of Beecher Stowe's novel and other works.
- Allen, Judith. The Feminisms of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
- Judith Allen: Indiana University Department of History.
- Schlesinger Library Charlotte Perkins Gilman Digital Collection, includes all of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's papers in the archive dated 1846-1975.
- Harrison, Pat. Harvard Radcliffe Institute News and Ideas: The Evolution of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1 february 2011.
- To ge started, see Our Androcentric Culture, Or the Man Made World at project gutenberg, with The Home, Its Work and Influence and His Religion and Hers at the internet archive.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the webmaster describes the site's goal as "...bringing all of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's public domain works together on one site."
- Stevenson, Angus and Lindberg, Christine A. (Editors) New Oxford American Dictionary, third edition, 2010: sociology.
- The sources for this definition are dailyhistory.org and timetoast.com, both aimed at middle school students living in the united states.
- Deegan, Mary Jo. "Introduction: Gilman's Sociological Journey From Herland to Ourland." 65-97 in Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Parricia Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge. London: Routledge, 2018.
- There are other scans done under the aegis of google, but their quality is very hit or miss.
- In this case google staff did the scanning, but the hathi trust has done a great job on quality control and assurance.
- From the back pages of the first issue of The ForeRunner, november 1909, via the hathi trust.
- See number 3 in the first volume of The Forerunner for the survey, pages 123-124 of the pdf at the hathi trust.