Psy Essay, Research Paper
Within the last decade or so, Charlotte Perkins Gilman has been experiencing something of a renaissance. While this prominent turn-of-the-century intellectual leader languished in obscurity until Carl Degler resurrected her in the mid-1950’s, today there are two biographies, two collections of her writings, numerous literary criticisms; and “The Yellow Wallpaper’ proclaims her “feminist manifesto,” not only in print but as adapted for Masterpiece Theater, the opera, and the ballet.l Why all the renewed interest in Gilman? According to Mary Hill and Ann Lane, the answers lie in the life experiences of a rather extraordinary woman who waged a lifelong battle against the restrictive patriarchal social codes for women in late nineteenth-century America. From this battle, Gilman developed a controversial conception of womanhood.
Born in 1860, Gilman, a self-educated intellectual, dedicated her life to serving humanity. When her lover unexpectedly proposed, she was suddenly torn between work and marriage. After years of debating whether to marry or not to marry, she consented and to the best of her abilities assumed the traditional roles of wife and mother, only to suffer a debilitating nervous breakdown. When her treatment of total rest drove her close to insanity, she was cured by removing herself physically from her home, husband, and finally her child, and by engaging in and writing about the social movements of the day.
Using her extraordinary life experiences as a female within a patriarchal system, Gilman redefined womanhood, declaring women the equal of men in all spheres of life. This “new woman” was to be an intelligent, well-informed, and well-educated free thinker, the creator and expresser of her own ideas. She was to be economically self-sufficient, socially independent, and politically active. She would share the opportunities, duties, and responsibilities of the workplace with men, and together they would share the solitude of the hearth. Finally, the new woman was to be as informed, assertive, confident, and influential as she was compassionate, nurturing, loving, sensitive–a woman of the world as well as of the home. Gilman’s vision of an autonomous female challenged not only the traditional “cult of true womanhood” but the concepts and values of family, home, religion, community, capitalism, and democracy.2
Moreover, Gilman’s writings about these tensions and struggles between marriage and career, social expectations, and personal goals continue to impact women’s decisions to day, while illuminating her arguments for abating them has greatly heightened our understanding of the power of social norms on the individual. More importantly, Gilman’s life and works provided us a role model.
content and philosophy as well as in its methods and pedagogy. Building upon the earlier efforts of Francis Wright and Catharine Beecher towards establishing alternative philosophies of instruction, Gilman maintained that the predominant educational philosophy was still too narrow since masculine traits were defined as human traits and female traits were defined as other.17 Thus, women’s emergence into primary, secondary, and higher education was but further immersion into institutions marked by the male characteristics of competition, self- interest, and self-expression. In both The Man-Made World and His Religion and Hers, she argued that this imbalance in the nature of women’s education resonated in the types of knowledge extended to women: the knowledge considered of most worth to women was the knowledge determined, accumulated, and organized by men; it was masculine knowledge presented within a masculine culture in a masculine way. l8
In Herland, her all female utopian novel, Gilman suggested how society and education might be different if motherhood rather than manliness became the cultural ideal. In a land where neither the private home nor the nuclear family existed, the characteristics of love, service, ingenuity, and efficiency became the dominant social norms and motherhood became a social rather than a biological category. “Here we have Human Motherhood–in full working use,” explained a Herlander to a male intruder in her country. “The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them–on the race. You see, we are Mothers.”l9 Therefore, education became the “highest art, allowed only to our highest artists” and childrearing emerged as “a culture so profoundly studied, practiced with such subtlety and skill, that the more we love our children the less we are willing to trust that process to unskilled hands–even our own.”20 As Jane Roland Martin so aptly noted, in Herland “the interests of women, children, and the state become one, so that an education for citizenship is an education for motherhood, just as an education for motherhood is an education for citizenship.”21
In comparing education for citizenship with education for motherhood, Gilman stressed social responsibility as central to education. Moreover, she illuminated the imbalanced nature of the androcentric society and its disregard for the qualities of womanhood evident in citizenship. Accordingly, the existing male-dominated culture needed to be feminized; it needed to reevaluate social values and attitudes towards women and women’s role within the economy and society at large. Education, for Gilman, was the most effective way to transform society, so the most effective way to feminize society was to feminize education.
To feminize education would be to make it motherly. The mother does not rear her children by a system of prizes to be longed for and pursued; nor does she set them to compete with one another, giving to the conquering child what he needs, and to the vanquished, blame and deprivation…. Motherhood does all it knows to give each child what is most needed, to affectionately and efficiently develop the whole of them.22
The emphasis on social responsibility, specialized knowledge, and common characteristics in education created a system in which women could develop to their full potentials. In teaching women to dedicate their lives to the common good rather than the familial good, education liberated women from the “chamber and scullery work” of the home and helped them to recognize their connection, commitment, and contribution to the larger world. The emphasis on social responsibility enabled women to participate in “human work” and to become active members of the economy. In devising an educational system that de-emphasized masculine and feminine character traits, Gilman enabled women to enter and to act as full and equal members of society. Trained in similar manners, exposed to the same types of knowledge, encouraged towards parallel goals, women, in Gilman’s educational philosophy, would be empowered to assume a myriad of new roles and to enter into various types of relationships with men. Through a gender-balanced education, women and men would develop into socially active, intellectually stimulating, financially self-reliant, civically responsible, personally courageous human beings.
Based on her knowledge of the kindergarten movement, the experimental education she observed at Hull House, and her belief that child care must be available if women are to enter the work force, Gilman adapted the educational ideas of Froebel to meet the needs of the very young. “Civilized society,” Gilman wrote in Concerning Children, “is responsible for civilized childhood, and should meet its responsibilities” by attending to the needs of all its young.23 As depicted in Herland, infant education became a social responsibility, not the responsibility of the biological parents. In arguing for the extension of responsibility to all children through a collectivist approach to early childhood education, Gilman noted the frustration of many women with the inability to properly care for their children. It was absurd to assume that each mother, educated for neither marriage, social service, nor motherhood, was a natural-born teacher of children. “You cannot expect every mother to be a good school educator or a good college educator. Why,” she asked, “should you expect every mother to be a good nursery educator?”24
Infant education, in Gilman’s view, “should be, as far as possible, unconscious.” Such an education would commence in babyhood and involve a “beautiful and delicately adjusted environment…in which line and color and sound and touch are all made avenues of easy unconscious learning [so that] there is no sharp break between ‘home’ and ’school.’”25 Babygardens and the method of unconscious education would provide major intellectual and social benefits, for they supplied “the world with young citizens of unimpaired mental vigor, original powers and tastes, and strong special interest” who learned from infancy “to say ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’”26 Finally, Gilman firmly believed that infant education should be as scientific and specialized as all other levels of education and that the instructors should be as well trained and professional as all other teachers.
Perceiving the roots of education as maternal, Gilman thought women were best fitted for child care. Herein lay a fundamental paradox between her recognition of the symbiotic relations between women and children–that any changes in the status of women affected children–and her struggle to open the parameters of professional opportunities to women. By arguing that feminizing education would make it “motherly” and that the nature of education was “maternal,” Gilman offered a theory that failed to break with the Victorian emphasis on the unique qualities of womanhood. Ironically, her call for infant education was, in many ways, a call for the professionalization of motherhood that channeled women into areas, albeit professionalized, traditionally within women ’s sphere of influence. Further, in addressing her comments and concerns mostly to problems of the middling and upper classes, Gilman excluded large numbers of women and men of various economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds from her social vision, never suggesting their role in this new, gender-balanced society.
Throughout her long and distinguished career as a feminist writer and lecturer, Gilman was never comfortable with labels. “I was not a reformer but a philosopher,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I worked for various reforms, as Socrates went to war when Athens needed his services, but we do not remember him as a soldier. My business was to find out what ailed society, and how most easily and naturally to improve it.”27 The way she found “most easily and naturally” to improve society was through education. “I am a teacher,” she declared in a statement rarely noted by scholars.28 Gilman used her lectures and publications deliberately to teach present and future generations about the possibilities that lay open to them. Her educational efforts were twofold: she wrote about education, and she wrote to educate. All of her works focused on women; some of them commented on schooling, but almost all included her critique of the informal education women received within the home and the community. Though written a century ago, Gilman’s critique of womanhood and education remains potent as society continues to struggle with issues of gender and women continue to struggle for equality, independence, and autonomy.
Carl Degler, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism,” American Quarterly 7 1(1956): 21 -39; Mary Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist,1860-1898 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980); Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990); Ann J. Lane, ed, The Charlotte Perkins Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings By Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Bantam Books, 1989).
Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820- 1860,”American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151 – 174.
Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of The Educated Woman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Holt. 1910): 1.
Allen Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 96-97; Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relations Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1966; 1st pub., (1898), 5.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. “Child Labor and the Schools,” Independent 64 (21 May 1908): 1137.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Our Brains and What Ails Them,” Forerunner 3 (December 1912): 329.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland (New York: Pantheon Books, (1979), 66.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children (Boston: Small Maynard, 1900), 51-52.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children, 39.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World: Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Charlton, 1911), 19.
ibid, 151. It was not that Gilman saw these traits–desire and combat–as completely distasteful qualities, divorced from the development of individuality and intellect on the contrary, Gilman saw these traits as valuable and constructive when balanced with the “female” traits of nurture and cooperation. See page 20.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Man-Made World, 146.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, 17; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (New York: The Century Co., 1923), 57-78.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland, 66.
ibid, 82 and 83.
Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation, 151.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World, 152.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children, 294-295.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics, 284.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children, 144.
ibid, 153 and 132.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row. 1975: 1st pub. 1935). 182.