In the wake of the Olympics euphoria, and the downer it left us on when it ended, I guessed it would be difficult to find my Page 1 Woman of the Week. Not because she didn’t exist, but because London 2012 produced stellar performances from a load of women athletes, which left me with a sense of ‘follow that?!’ But isn’t it time to refocus our thoughts on women who are memorable for reasons other than sports? So this week’s Page 1 Woman is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, American sociologist, author, intellectual and social activist, who died 77 years ago today. As a utopian feminist, she believed not only in gender equality but also in gynocracy, a future world dominated by women. As a role model for generations of feminists, her achievements were remarkable for a woman of the late 19th and early 20th century and her lifestyle pretty unusual.
Born in 1860 in Connecticut, Charlotte Perkins Gilman experienced a difficult childhood. Her father abandoned the family in poverty, when she was still an infant, leaving her mother to raise 2 children alone. The family moved around a lot as a result and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s education suffered because of it. She was quirky even as a teenager, attending the gym regularly and running a mile every day – the kind of pursuits that modern day women don’t have to think twice about performing. She might also have been seen as the original bra burner as she hated wearing corsets.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman developed her artistic skills by studying at art school and although she left with no formal qualifications those skills enabled her to design greeting cards, tutor in art and earn a living for herself.
In 1884, Charlotte Perkins Gilman married artist Charles Stetson. After giving birth to her daughter she experienced a severe bout of post-natal depression. A specialist in women’s disorders took charge of her treatment and put her through a series of gruesome remedies – solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Her best-known semi-autobiographical best-seller of the Feminist Press, “The Yellow Wall-Paper“ (1892), describes it as therapeutic, patriarchal sadism.
As a feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman promoted economic independence for women and wrote ‘Women and Economics’ in 1898 which strengthened her status internationally as a social theorist. Her other notable feminist non-fiction works included ‘The Home: Its Work and Influence’ (1903), which emphasised women’s oppression in the home (“A house does not need a wife any more than it needs a husband”) and ‘Does a Man Support His Wife?’ (1915).
From 1909 to 1916, Charlotte Perkins Gilman single-handedly wrote and edited ‘Forerunner’, a magazine that provided a platform for her thoughts on women’s issues and social reform. Her aim to “stimulate thought” and “express ideas which need a special medium”, was a world away from the excessive sensationalism of conventional magazines of the time.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman remarried in 1900, to her cousin George Gilman. The marriage lasted until his death in 1934. Having been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer a year later, she committed suicide on August 17. In her suicide note she said “When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an 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.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was indeed a woman ahead of her time, a thought leader, courageous enough to speak the unspeakable and live the unconventional. Her quote, “Here she comes, running out of prison and off the pedestal; chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman”, sums up the spirit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
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