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Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography

The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography - Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ann J. Lane, Anne J. Lane, Zona Gale


If you are a woman, you want children.
If you are a woman, your love for your children is immediate and absolute.
If you are a woman, your maternal instinct pops into gear upon the birth of your first child, providing you with a complete set of mothering skills.
If you are a woman, you would never leave your child(ren).

Many women, married and without children, have commented on the invasive questions they receive. The assumption is that they’re unable to have children. Upon learning that the choice was deliberate, people react with incomprehension or even suspicion. Why wouldn’t you want to have children? Won’t you be lonely? Can’t you adopt? Was this your husband’s idea? And, consider the words used to describe women who’ve made this choice: childless, barren, infertile, unfruitful, unproductive, and so forth. The words are derogatory, implying both a lack and a failure. And, for that matter, single women without children often get similar comments: Don’t you want children? The clock’s ticking—you’re not getting any younger!

A woman failing to fulfill any of the other norms listed above receives the same condemnation. In the early twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman spent much of her life questioning these assumptions. Her autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman brims with energy. Gilman’s love of life is insatiable: she works systematically to improve her mind and, in an age where women didn’t worry much about physical fitness, she sets up a regimen of exercise at a gymnasium. Reputedly, she was so strong she could carry a man across a room. Her daily schedule would exhaust most of us.

Then, she has her first child, and her world comes crashing down around her. Rather than an instant outpouring of love and maternal devotion, Gilman sinks into a depression so absolute, it reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s words:
And then a plank in reason, broke,
And I dropped down and down--
And hit a world at every plunge,
And finished knowing--then--

Following a popular rest cure recommended for “hysterical women,” Gilman nearly dies. Although she cannot bear to be with her baby daughter, the cure requires keeping the baby close and having Gilman drink copious amounts of milk and resting most of the day. Most damning was the injunction that she avoid all intellectual stimulation.

Gilman first presents this situation, what Freud would deem her “core issue,” as a fictional story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which brilliantly depicts a woman’s descent into madness following the birth of her first child. Gilman’s portrait of what we now define as post-partum depression was greeted with shock and horror.

Gilman next attacks the problem with a series of nonfiction texts, the most famous being Women and Economics, in which Gilman posits the idea of communal living, where women share tasks—including childrearing—rather than coping in isolation. In her utopian novels, and especially Herland, Gilman lays out a completely female society, where selected women reproduce parthenogenetically (without mating), and only a few women, those gifted and learned in childrearing, take on this precious role. By limiting who bears children and who rears them, Gilman posits that having children and being able to care for them is not innate. In Herland, women may excel at any number of specialized tasks, but there is no shame if childbearing or mothering is not among them.

Despite the progressive ideas Gilman posits in her texts and in the society envisioned in her utopian novels, she’s unable to acquit herself. In her autobiography—Gilman’s last book—written after Gilman learns she has breast cancer, she describes the birth of her baby and its aftermath, head on. Gilman’s pain is palpable. Though she tries to care for her baby daughter, her depression overwhelms her. Finally, Gilman takes a short trip, unaccompanied by her daughter. Immediately, the depression subsides, and her energy returns. When Gilman comes back, she is again overcome with depression. The realization stuns her. She must leave her child. Ultimately, an unusual arrangement provides Gilman with the freedom she needs. Her best friend marries her husband and takes on the care of Katherine, her daughter.

But it doesn’t matter. Despite Gilman’s prodigious output of publications and speeches, she cannot overcome her guilt, and the rest of her autobiography limps along. She provides a pale litany of her work, but the memoir is devoid of the energy and joy that characterizes the first half.

…I don’t have any answers. It’s not abnormal to want children, to love them, and to have some childrearing skills. However, the opposite is not abnormal, either, and it doesn’t seem as though our society understands this even yet. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a fascinating thinker, far ahead of her time and possibly ours.