Last Updated 13 Jul 2020

Self-Proclaimed Philosopher Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a self-proclaimed philosopher, writer, educator and an intellectual activist of the women's movement from the late 1890's through the mid-1920's. She demanded equal treatment for women as the best means to advance society's progress. She was an extraordinary woman who waged a lifelong battle against the restrictive social codes for women in late nineteenth-century America. Mrs. Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins on July 3, 1860, in Providence, Rhode Island. She was the grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

She attributed her lifelong talent for speaking and her writing ability to her Beecher heritage. Most of what Charlotte learned was self-taught, since her formal schooling was only about six or seven years. Gilman believed early on that she was destined to dedicate 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 carried on the traditional roles of wife and mother, only to suffer a 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 daughter, and by taking part in and writing about the social movements of the day. Later in life she married her first cousin, George Gilman, and again suffered from depression though not as severely as she had suffered throughout her first marriage. Using her life experiences as a female within a male dominated society, Gilman wanted to redefine womanhood. She declared that women were equal to men in all aspects of life.

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This new woman she described was to be an intelligent, well-informed and well-educated thinker. She would also be the creator and the 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 take care of their home. Finally, this new woman was to be informed, assertive, confident, and influential, as well as compassionate, loving, and sensitive, at work and at home.

This vision of the future female went against the traditional role of womanhood, not to mention the concepts and values of family, home, religion, community, and democracy. These views have labeled Gilman as a feminist, but theses ideas clearly have a place within educational history. Gilman showed the need to develop higher learning institutions for teacher education and to offer women a place that would train them to think more critically. She viewed the education of women as an essential part of a democratic society.

She felt by educating women and thus feminizing society that gender discrepancies within society would end. Gilman began to explore the issue of gender discrepancy within society in the mid-1880's when she first began her career as a writer. Her first published essays focused on the inequality found within marriage and child-rearing. Her well received short story The Yellow Wallpaper told the story of a new mother who was nearly driven insane by the overwhelming traditional duties piled upon her as a wife and mother. The story mirrored that of her own experiences after the birth of her only child.

In her highly successful publication of Women and Economics, she studied the issues of gender discrepancy and the relationship between education and women. Gilman stated that humans "are the only animal species in which the female depends upon the male for food, the only animal in which the sex-relation is also an economic relation. " She said that women's economic dependence resulted in their being "denied the enlarged activities, which have developed intelligence in man, denied the education of the will, which only comes, by freedom and power.

To Gilman, the liberation of women required education and the opportunity to use what they learned to establish social as well as economic independence. In Gilman's journal called the Forerunner, she said the goal of education was to teach men, women and children to think for themselves instead of excepting other people's opinions as their own. She felt that learning centers at the turn of the century were teaching females with masculine content and philosophy.

Gilman maintained that the educational philosophy needed to be changed because it was still too narrow in thinking since masculine traits were defined as human while female traits were defined as something other. She felt that these women were being educated to think like men. Once education was feminized, she believed that women could place an emphasis on social responsibility and specialized knowledge, which would develop them to their full potential.

Gilman said that by teaching women to dedicate their lives to the common good that it would free them from the daily household routines and help them to recognize their connection and contribution to the world around them and become active members of the economy. In her work entitled Concerning Children she stated that a civilized society is responsible for raising civilized children and that it was the responsibility of everyone in the community to accomplish this by attending to the needs of its young. In Herland, another of her works, she said that children should start their education in infancy.

Well-trained professionals should teach this education since motherhood was not a guarantee of teaching abilities. Throughout her long 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... my business was to find out what ailed society, and how most easily and naturally to improve it. This method was through education. She used her lectures and publications to teach present and future generations about the possibilities that lay open to them.

Gilman's writings about the tensions and struggles between marriage and career, social expectations, and personal goals continue to impact women's decisions. Her arguments have greatly heightened our understanding of the power of social norms on individuals, making Gilman's life and literary works a role model for many. Even though these works were written a century ago, Gilman's view of womanhood and education remains important as society continues to struggle with issues of gender and women continue to struggle for equality and independence.

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Self-Proclaimed Philosopher Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (2018, Jun 16). Retrieved from

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