Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins on July 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. The youngest child and only daughter of Frederick Perkins and Mary Ann Fitch Westcott, Gilman was also the great-niece of 19th-century writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). After two of Gilman's siblings died, her mother was told not to have any other children, and Gilman’s father abandoned them shortly afterward. Without the support of their father, Gilman and her family were left in a state of extreme poverty and were forced to move from relative to relative in Rhode Island in order to survive. After her father’s departure, Gilman’s mother grew increasingly cold and detached, striving to protect her children from suffering by denying them affection. Without the desire for affection from others, she believed, Gilman and her siblings would be self-reliant and emotionally independent.
Lacking a father’s presence or mother’s affection, Gilman often retreated to the public library to overcome her loneliness. She spent much of her time studying ancient civilizations and reading texts about philosophy and historical development. She also became friends with the families of Eli Whitney Blake, Jeremiah Lewis Diman, William F. Channing, Rowland Hazard, and Edward Everett Hale, each of whom had intellectual significance in the area. She only received limited formal education in public schools and mostly educated herself with her extensive reading.
In 1878, Gilman enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, supporting herself as a tutor and an artist of trade cards. In 1883, Gilman published her first works, sending articles and poems to the “Providence Journal,” the “Woman’s Journal,” “The Century,” and the “Christian Register.” In 1884, Gilman consented to marry Charles Walter Stetson, a handsome aspiring artist who had courted her intensely the previous year. Three months after their marriage, Gilman learned that she was pregnant and began to suffer from some symptoms of depression.
After the birth of her daughter, Katharine, in 1885, Gilman became overwhelmed with depression and began treatment with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a prominent physician who favored the “rest cure” for the treatment of nervous disorders. Although Gilman attempted to adhere to Mitchell’s prescriptions, she was unable to tolerate the treatment for more than a few months. Gilman later satirized the treatment in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which she published in 1892.
In 1888 Gilman separated from Stetson and moved to California. The couple divorced in 1894, and Gilman ultimately sent her daughter to be raised by Stetson and his new wife. During her time in California, Gilman became extremely active in social reform, particularly the suffrage movement. She also began to write prolifically, publishing fifteen essays, numerous poems, and a novella in 1890. Gilman’s first volume of poems, “In This World,” published in 1893, first brought her public recognition from a literary perspective. Her book, “Women and Economics” (1898) won her international recognition.
After the death of her mother, Gilman returned to the East Coast and married Houghton Gilman, her first cousin, in 1900. Her second marriage was much more successful than her first, and Gilman continued to write numerous works, including: “The Home: Its Work and Influence” (1903), “What Diantha Did” (1910), “The Crux” (1911), “Moving the Mountain” (1911), and the utopian text “Herland” (1915). Gilman also began to write her autobiography, “The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman” in 1925.
In 1932, Gilman was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. After her husband died suddenly in 1934, Gilman moved back to California to live near her daughter. In 1935, she committed suicide with an overdose of chloroform, writing in her suicide note that she “chose chloroform over cancer.” Her autobiography was published posthumously.
After her death until the middle of the 1950s, Gilman largely disappeared from the world of literary scholarship. If anything, historians merely highlighted Gilman as a figure of the suffrage movement, and failed to recognize her literary achievements on a serious level. Gilman finally began to receive recognition for her work with the women’s movement and development of feminist scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s. In the past two decades, Gilman has become particularly well-known for “Herland” and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” both of which have achieved prominent positions in the canon of contemporary literature. Gilman’s legacy is still being uncovered today, as much of her previously neglected work is currently being republished.