Sunday, May 5, 2013

May is Short Story Month - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"To swallow and follow, whether old doctrine or new propaganda, is a weakness still dominating the human mind." 

May is Short Story Month and today's author is Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, Gilman became a sociologist, reformer, lecturer and writer of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. She was a "Utopian feminist" in a time when a good deal of women's realities, biological, societal and otherwise, were considered by a rigidly-patriarchal society to be septic. Defined as "other," women in the nineteenth century were told that their status was dictated by biology and, furthermore, that that biology was diseased and any attempt to struggle against the ties that bind got you branded as hysterical (check out the etymology of "hysterical" and you'll see what I mean.)

What an ass
Gilman's father abandoned his family when she was a small child and subsequently spent most of her childhood in the company of aunts in Providence, Rhode Island, who happened to include suffragists and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many years later her absent father bankrolled her attendance at the Rhode Island School of Design. She married her first husband in 1884 and gave birth to a daughter the next year. It was at this point that Gilman was temporarily felled by a period of postpartum depression so severe that it caused psychosis and required hospitalization. She emerged from the "rest cure" only to suffer a nervous breakdown. The only thing that relieved her and restored her health was separation and subsequent divorce. Imagine that. Gilman picked up and moved all the way across the continent to California and became active in organizing for social reform and would remain so throughout the remainder of her life, through a happy second marriage, until her death by suicide in 1935, at the age of 75. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and decided she'd take the chloroform, thank you very much. And please don't think the suicide was the tragedy or a product of return of mental illness; she was a believer in euthanasia for the terminally ill. The cancer was the tragedy. Please don't walk away from this story feeling sorry for Ms. Gilman. She overcame and went out on her terms. Like Dumbledore.

Ms. Gilman made a good living as an author and lecturer. She believed whole-heartedly in suffrage, feminism, peace, the labor movement and fighting injustice in all forms, wherever she found it. She published several short stories, poems, essays and a novella, beginning in 1888. Her first book was Art Gems for the Home and Fireside, but it was a collection of satirical poems, In This Our World, that brought her considerable attention. Women in Economics was published in 1898 and garnered international acclaim and led to Gilman touring Europe and lecturing. Her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published posthumously. For a complete list of her works go here.

Today's story is "The Yellow Wallpaper," published in 1892 after a severe episode of postpartum depressive psychosis. It has acquired archetypal status in scholarship regarding the evolution of women's rights and status in the United States, and its attendant art. The overarching theme here is this, and it's very simple: autonomy is essential for women's mental, emotional and physical health. Gilman sent a copy of this story to the doctor that assigned her the aforementioned rest cure. You go girl...

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