Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from a Feminist Perspective. A Woman’s Place in a Patriarchal World

Seminar Paper, 2015

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background
2.1 A man’s world: Gender rights in the 19th Century America
2.2 Feminist Activism and the “New Woman”
2.3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Life and work

3. “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it’s feminist criticism
3.1 Victorian Ideals and Patriarchal structures
3.2 The Protagonist’s writing and her reading of the Wallpaper: The rising of the “New Woman”?

4. Conclusion


“Long have we lived apart, Women alone;

Each with an empty heart, Women alone;

Now we begin to see How to live brave and free, No more on earth shall be

Women alone.”

(Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

1. Introduction

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”1

At least legally men and women nowadays hold the same rights in the United States. Nevertheless, this constitutional equalization of gender required a long time of political fights and the emergence of the women’s movement in the 20th century. Without social reformers who started to challenge the traditional gender roles and discrimination of women, still there would be a great inequality and lack of feminism.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s can be seen as one of these social reformers as she be- longed to the first women who blazed the way for the struggle against gender inequality. Through stories like “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892)2 she expressed her opinion on the traditional gender roles of the 19th century. By including common ideals of the so called Victorian Age on the one hand, but also challenging these traditional rules on the other hand, Gilman reflects the rising struggle against social disadvantages of women - and therefor she created a “feminist classic and a key text in the American literary canon” (cited in Golden 2004, preface).

“The Yellow Wallpaper” gives ample scope for interpretation, and therefor, a great amount of (sometimes conflicting) readings emerged since its publication. As this term paper attempts to reveal the way Gilman criticizes the suppression of women in her days, the discussion will mainly include the analytical work of feminist critics.

For the inquiry, the following questions will be central:

1. How does Gilman use language to criticize the patriarchal structures presented in the story?
2. In which way can the heroine’s behavior and progress be interpreted as a reflec- tion of the rising feminist activism?
3. To what extend does the image of the woman in the wallpaper convey meaning? This examination requires a rough overview of women’s position in the 19th Century America. Hence, the following chapter reflects on gender inequalities in those days as well as the emergence of feminist activism. Furthermore, a brief depiction of Charlotte Perkins Gilman life and work will be given.

A final conclusion will sum up the discussion’s main arguments, and subsequently answer the central questions.

2. Historical Background

2.1 A man’s world: Gender rights in the 19th Century America

Gender is not inborn. Being considered a feminine or masculine individual is rather based on definitions that are socially constructed:

“These cultural discourses, ‘unities of theme and shared conventions of knowledge’, about gender ad sexuality, shape and structure us as subjects within the social order. The privileging of certain discourses over others, as always, will determine which group holds greater authority within the culture at that moment.” (Campbell/Neil 2012: 218)

In the 19th Century America, women legally belonged to either there father or husband. Especially after marriage, the woman experienced a “civil death”, which means that she legally ceased to exist independently. The rights to own property or sign contracts were reserved to men. Indeed there was a slight chance of being granted a divorce; it was much harder for women to free themselves from a miserable marriage (cf. Mauk/Oakland 2009: 79).

In general, the woman was primarily expected to do the housework and be a loving and gentle housewife. Even though the majority of American women have worked since the colonial times, the ideal image of the woman was the so-called “Angel in the House”:

“The doctrine of ‘separate spheres’ which had been worked out at the beginning of the 19th century, that men and women were designed by God and nature to operate in quite different areas - men in the public world of exploit, war, intellect, and politics; women in the world of nurturance and the affections centered on the home - had offered an appealing solution for ordering the relation of the sexes in a modern liberal democracy.” (Matthews 2003: 5)

Whenever the economic situation of a family was in a good state due to a sufficient income of the man or wealthy initial situation, women were expected to solely do the housework, raise the children and eager about their husband’s well-being (cf. Tax 1980: 31). As a consequence thereof, a strong intellectual development of girls and young women was undesired. They were normally taught at home and the education focused mainly on the conveyance of temporary literature and subjects considered appropriate for the “weaker sex and her limited sphere” (Smith-Rosenberg 1972: 656).

In addition to mastering of the household and childcare, women of the 19th century America were meant to be a “guardian of religion and spokeswoman for morality” and therewith to compensate the existence of atheism and unbounded sexuality in a patriarchal world (ibid: 655).

2.2 Feminist Activism and the “New Woman”

In the later 19th Century, the United States experienced an enormous industrial growth which “transformed the entire country in unparalleled ways most visible in the expansion of urban centers” (Köhler 2004: 38). These changes increased a feeling of uncertainty and challenged the previous structures and conventions in the world of employment as well as the private sphere.

One of the greatest conflicts that emerged under these circumstances was the contra- diction between the rise of the demand for female labor and men’s adherence to “domestic gender relations around the inflexible Victorian pattern of rigidly differentiated roles as- signed to husbands and wives” (ibid.). Among others, this double burden that women were confronted with lead to a rapid development of women’s organizations: “Where once the mere idea of women organizing outside the home had seemed laughable or alarming, now there were literally thousands of women’s organizations” (Matthews 2003: 5).

Beyond that, a new female type emerged among educated women of the middle- and upper-class. The so called “New Woman” was “young, well educated, probably a college graduate, independent of spirit, highly competent […]” and strived for gender equality especially in respect of education and suffrage (ibid.: 13).

“The phrase ‘woman’s era was on everyone’s lips. By the turn of the century far less of the world was off limits to women than it had been fifty years earlier. Middle and upper-class American women at least moved into the twentieth century with a strong sense of possibility, self-confidence and high self-esteem.” (ibid.: 35)

Nevertheless, the feminist activism still had a long way to go. One of the main prob- lems women fighting for gender equality were confronted with remained in the wide- spread belief, that the biological differences between men and women include substantial variation of the brains, that prevent women from thinking in the same logical way as men do. This belief was especially strengthened in the second half of the 19th century, as the currency of Darwinism took place, providing new arguments for the subordination of women (ibid.: 67). Consequently, many feminists were first of all occupied with the chal- lenge of discounting these theories which provided the basis for discrimination against women.

In this context, important works of feminist history, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopia “Herland” or “The Yellow Wallpaper” arose. In contrast to the predominating theories that justified a patriarchal system, she declared that “women had originally been the dominant sex, which needed men only (…) for purposes of fertilization”, and thereby concurred with well-known feminists of her age who believed in the erstwhile existence of a matriarchal system (Allen 2010: 248).

2.3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Life and work

Born in Hartford, Connecticut on July 3, 1860, Charlotte Anna Perkins was the daughter of Frederic Beecher Perkins and Mary Fitch Westscott. Even though her parents both came from prominent families, Gilman’s childhood was shaped by chronic poverty and constant moving after her father had abandoned the family. Despite or precisely because of the weak conditions under which Gilman had to grow up, she developed a great sense of purpose and in 1880 she successfully finished a two-year degree course in drawing and painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.


1 Equal Rights Amendment, quoted in Keetley 2005: 284

2 Henceforth abbreviated as W (Gilman 1892, printed in: Trodd 2008) 1

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from a Feminist Perspective. A Woman’s Place in a Patriarchal World
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Institut für Anglophone Studien)
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charlotte, perkins, gilman’s, yellow, wall-paper”, feminist, perspective, woman’s, place, patriarchal, world
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Marie Schröder (Author), 2015, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” from a Feminist Perspective. A Woman’s Place in a Patriarchal World, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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