The era of progressivism has given birth to several innovative ideas and offered support and leverage for many more. Feminism can be categorized as the latter, as it gained substance and refined many of its ideas during this historical period. Women and Economics by Charlotte Perkins Gilman are often considered a definitive work that inherited several characteristic features of the era and shaped the movement for the years to come. However, it should be mentioned that despite demonstrating a clear influence of the historical period, Gilman’s book presents an economics-based view on women’s freedom and focuses on efficiency and rationality rather than a philosophy behind the concept.
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Economic independence of women in the workplace
First, it should be mentioned that the themes present in Gilman’s paper can be traced to paradigm shifts occurring in a social and scholarly environment. For instance, Gilman’s book constantly appeals to personality and individual expression as a core argument for attaining independence (Foner 698). Such an approach is consistent with the progress made in the fields of psychiatry and leading to the popularization of personal freedom and expression in society (Foner 703). Sexual expression, which became gradually more difficult to suppress, served as one of the trends that facilitated the success of her work. The integration of the concept was such that it could be traced on the cultural level, with a younger female generation being critical of their parents reluctant to support the unprecedented socializing by characterizing them as “not sufficiently American” (Foner 691). Next, roughly at the time of publication the term “feminism” became prominent on the social stage. It should be noted, however, that the general direction pursued by the members of the movement often focused on sexual behavior while Gilman’s book focused on the economic aspect of independence (Foner 702).
The core idea of Women and Economics is the attainment of complete independence through economic sustainability. She appeals to the existing trend of working women and the creation of separate bank accounts as the first steps towards a more efficient society (Foner 698). Interestingly, the author does not place it above other duties that are considered a burden by more radical feminist movements, such as motherhood. On the contrary, Gilman makes it clear that the only element of the traditional family that needs to be withdrawn is financial dependence.
In this regard, her position can be viewed as utilitarian, where she considers the inefficiency of women in their current social state a crippling issue of society. In a sense, such an approach makes her view more humane and less discriminating than some of the later iterations of the movement. By extension, such approach allowed her to frame the emancipation as a mutually beneficial endeavor rather than a sentiment-driven ideology since a working woman could contribute both to the well-being of her family and the country. Such a focus on the workplace as a means of liberation and the manifestation of social stance can be at least partially attributed to the rising presence of socialism as a political and ideological force (Foner 695). The improvements of the laborer’s conditions facilitated by socialists further strengthened Gilman’s position and opened up additional opportunities for her inspired proponents to pursue their freedom.
In conclusion, Women and Economics used some of the popular concepts of the era, such as freedom of expression and sexuality, as secondary themes and focuses on efficiency and rationality-backed equality to promote the ideas of women’s economic independence through the workplace, likely inspired by the socialist presence and a shift in social paradigm.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! Volume 2. 4th ed., W.W.Norton & Company, 2013.