Literature has existed for centuries, teaching, admonishing, and highlighting social issues. Every piece of literature is unique, from the source to the intended message to the audience. In every case, authors are motivated to compose their works by several circumstances and life experiences. Although some authors may not directly write about themselves, analyzing the tone, style, structure, and audience of their works reveals an element of personal life influences. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a renowned author, economist, and editor recognized for her advocacy of women’s suffrage and the transformation of cultural values (Gilman, 1991). In view of her life experiences, Gilman’s writings were mainly influenced by her upbringing, social connections, marriage, and career.
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Early Life Experiences
Gilman’s upbringing exposed her to the failure of family structure that motivated her writing and advocacy for women’s economic development. Born in a family of three children, Gilman’s childhood was characterized by parental separation, financial challenges, and social inadequacies. She was born in 1860 to Mary Perkins and Frederic Beecher Perkins (Gilman, 1991). Although her father was a famous magazine editor and librarian, Gilman’s family did not enjoy financial freedom.
In the 19th century, family financial needs were mostly delegated to men with the expectation of supporting wives and children in every way. In Hughes’ (2020) account of Gilman’s upbringing, he notes that Gilman’s father was an irresponsible man who later abandoned his family without any plan for financial support. As would be expected, the lack of a father’s support and the painful abandonment changed Gilman’s view of society. She no longer accepted society’s consideration of men as the superior partners in the family, especially now that she had witnessed their dereliction of duty. This became one of her motivations for supporting women’s suffrage and contributed to her feminism.
Gilman observed how her mother struggled to raise the family and developed a desire to support women’s financial freedom. Children suffer the most whenever separation occurs in a family, as was the case in Gilman’s family. When Gilman’s father abandoned the family, her mother had to shoulder the burden of raising two children all by herself. At the moment, she had no job as a result of the culture, which mainly subjected her to dependence on her husband. This resulted in constant movements in various cities to look for work, which was usually lowly paid, to support the children (Spawls, 2015). In her difficult upbringing, Gilman developed an interest in women’s empowerment which motivated most of her writings.
Most of the time, Gilman and her siblings were left with aunts, missing parental support and guidance. If Gilman’s mother had a job, financial freedom would have reduced the challenges endured by the family. From this experience, Gilman became a strong fighter for women’s economic freedom and sustenance, hoping to save other women, which is reflected in her work The Yellow Wallpaper. In the story, Gilman argues that when she expresses her worries over the house’s low cost and long period of vacancy, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage” (Gilman, 2019, p. 647). This shows how women’s opinions were disregarded because they were financially incapable of buying houses and similar assets.
Gilman’s marriage and the associated challenges influenced her writing on women’s medical and social challenges. The Yellow Wallpaper is one of Gilman’s most famous writings in which she uses medicine to highlight women’s sufferings and how society reacts to them. According to Spawls (2015), Gilman’s commented that by writing The Yellow Wallpaper, she aimed to speak for other women on the verge of losing sanity due to various family and medical issues. Gilman married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884 and delivered a daughter a year later, after which she suffered severe post-partum depression (Hughes, 2020). Her condition was not taken seriously as her husband thought it was a small issue that would end by itself soon. She suffered physically, emotionally, and psychologically at the hands of her husband. In her words, Gilman felt that she was close to losing her mind, and the only solution was to divorce her husband. This motivated her to speak about women in families, who mostly remain silent albeit suffering immensely.
Like many women of her time, Gilman’s health condition was largely ignored. She records the ordeal in her story, noting that she had no power to override her husband’s rule. She says, “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 – what is one to do?” (Gilman, 2019, p. 648). The matter of women’s health is shown to be culturally constructed because Gilman comments that even her brother supported her husband’s view in regard to depression (Gilman, 2019, p. 648). In essence, there was no one to stand for her rights, a condition that encouraged her to write The Yellow Wallpaper, a highlight of the hidden pain of married women.
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Gilman was greatly influenced by renowned personalities who formed her social circle. She was born into the Beecher family, which has several prominent authors, advocates, and reformers such as Harriet Beecher, Lyman Beecher, and Henry Ward (Spawls, 2015). A close association with Lyman and Henry, who were abolitionists, encouraged her to fight for women’s rights and the abolition of manipulative cultural practices. Gilman reveals that after her parents divorced, she traveled to different places, which exposed her to different problems and women’s roles in society (Hughes, 2020). In addition to her family’s background, Gilman had a personal experience through observation of women’s problems before her marriage. These exposures were instrumental in shaping her role as an advocate for women’s suffrage, which forms the theme of most of her works. Most of her aunts were reformists who fostered her friendship with other females interested in social reforms (Hughes, 2020). Her close friendship with Grace Channing and her love for Louisa May’s works also influenced her work.
Gilman’s career as a lecturer and an intellectual gave her the experience and knowledge she needed in her works of literature. As a lecturer, she interacted with learners from different social and cultural settings, which enlarged her knowledge of a woman’s position in society (Spawls, 2015). In her line of work, she may have counseled students on various issues and negotiated with colleagues on ways of handling conflicts involving social challenges. Exposure to different influences and theorists during her work as a lecturer also gave her diverse perspectives of life and women in particular.
Although Gilman’s education was significantly affected by her frequent travels after her parents separated, she developed a significant interest in advocacy later in her career. Through her work, she learned about social reforms turning into an influential theorist, which is translated into her work Women and Economics (Gilman, 1991). After divorcing her husband, she wanted to fully demonstrate her views of women’s freedom and social reforms. She was actively involved with the Nationalist Club, which mainly focused on Edward Bellamy’s views recorded in his Utopian novel. The club was formed by reformists, further motivating Gilman’s works. She was also active in the Lecture Unit, where she promoted socialization in the home unit (Hughes, 2020). Gilman’s involvement in social reforms in her career significantly motivated her to write her various works to reach a larger audience.
In conclusion, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a renowned author, reformist, and powerful advocate for women’s suffrage. She grew up in a family of three children who suffered the harmful consequences of divorce at an early age. Her birth was advantageous in that her aunts were mostly reformists whose work encouraged her to engage in activities for championing women’s rights. Her marriage exposed her to the pain of an unconcerned partner and society, which brought her close to insanity. Her post-partum depression, treatment, and recovery journey motivated her to write The Yellow Wallpaper to speak for women who lacked an avenue to discuss their challenges. Her education suffered greatly because she was traveling most of the time. However, her career and social connections enabled her to rise to an influential author reaching many people. Her famous story The Yellow Wallpaper brought controversy during the time it was released, but, through it, Gilman expressed her views strongly based on her life experiences and future concerns.
Gilman, C. P. (1991). The living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An autobiography. University of Wisconsin Press.
Gilman, C. P. (2019). The yellow wallpaper and other writings. Gibbs Smith.
Hughes, K. (2020). House of horror: the poisonous power of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. The Guardian. Web.
Spawls, A. (2015). ‘Never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’—the madness of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Versobooks.com. Web.