The Changing Role of Women
1 Women Between 1860 and
2 The New Woman at the Turn of the Century The Flapper in the 1920s
Women in Gilman's Theoretical Writings
1 'Herstory' and Feminine Characteristics
2 Critique on Contemporary Women The Ideal Future Woman
1 Definition of Utopia
2 Definition of Pragmatopia Gilman's Literary Aim
Women in Gilman's Short Stories
1 "and therefore they are leaving it" (W 140)
1.1 "Making a Change" (1911)
"A Garden of Babies" (1909)
2 "Every human being needs a home" (W 298)
2.1 "Martha's Mother" (1910)
"Forsythe & Forsythe" (1913)
3 "the whole country is budding into women's clubs" (W 166)
3.1 "Three Thanksgivings" (1909)
"Mrs. Hines' Money" (1913)
4 "women [...] come to their share of this fluent social intercourse" (W 295)
4.1 "Aunt Mary's Pie Plant" (1908)
4.2 "Bee Wise" (1913)
Women in Gilman's Novels
1.1 The Crux (1911)
What Diantha Did (1910)
2.1 Moving the Mountain (1911)
Women in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Theoretical and Utopian Writings
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) "stood out among all the feminists and the futurists of her time as the charismatic person who synthesized the thinking of suffragists, home economists, and utopian novelists on the question of the home, and produced a program for collective domesticity which made her a leading figure in feminist circles in the United States and Europe" (183), as Dolores Hayden ascertains. Nevertheless she was forgotten for decades after her death until her non-fiction and literary works were rediscovered in the 1960s during the rise of the new feminist movement (see Meyering 1). Since then, the reprinting of her writings and the interest in them have not seized so that various copies of Gilman's work are again available now.
The contradictions and inconsistencies reflected in her writings are still a challenge for scholars. On the one hand, Gilman was often more forward-looking than her contemporaries and, as Catherine J. Golden and Joanna Schneider Zangrando rightly say, "proposed solutions for enhancing the autonomy and self-definition of women, all of which depended upon radical changes in the nature of domestic spaces, tasks, and relationships that confined and defined women historically" (13). On the other hand, her racism, ethnocentrism, classism, and her ideas of white-American superiority (see e.g. Ganobcsik-Williams, Allen, Lane) show that she was as well a child of her times and shaped by the ideology of her nation.
Despite these problematic issues, I agree with Ann J. Lane who, instead of only criticizing Gilman for her nowadays offensive views, finds it important to remember and to repeat her valuable ideas (see xxx) as well as to look at the progressive concepts she described as lecturer, journalist, poet, sociologist, and author of various theoretical works, magazine articles, fables, short stories, romances, a detective novel, and utopias. This versatility still makes Charlotte Perkins Gilman an interesting object for studies. For example, as Hayden writes,
[s]he might discourse on economics, illustrating her points with anecdotes based on her days as a boarding house keeper in Oakland, California, or her struggles as a settlement house worker in Chicago. Or she might picture [...] an imaginary society, with an ideal set of economic relationships, a place first created in her utopian fiction, such as the California town, Orchardina, where women d[o] no private housework, or the Amazonian country, Herland, where women had governed for centuries [...] and socialized domestic work [is] the rule (183).
Whereas many proposals in her realistic short fiction may seem unspectacular and not out-of-the-way at all, the feminist reforms Gilman envisions in her theoretical works and utopian literature may appear to readers nowadays as ideal but impracticable because they proved to be realizable (or were realized) only in fragments or with alterations for the worse. To understand their significance, her non-fiction and the utopianism of her literary publications have to be seen in the historical context. So America saw many radical changes during Gilman's life-time and, more than ever, seemed to be a country of limitless possibilities. New ideas of living and of organizing the state circulated and were put into practice in alternative communities. Pioneering inventions and scientific discoveries were made. The feminist movement was finally strong enough to start to have real influence on politics and to improve the position of women in and outside their homes.
Because the years between 1865 and 1920 were a time of great social and political changes, utopian fiction constituted a great part of literature, as Charles J. Rooney states in his study (see 5/6). He explains that "[i]t was only with the advent of industrialism and the vast migration to the cities that the traditional values of democracy, individualism, and progress came to be extensively challenged" (6). Most Americans experienced the last decades of the nineteenth century "as a time throbbing with possibilities. They believed in progress, the uneven, but sustained upward movement of human life, and in their capability to influence and change their external conditions in order to realize their pursuit of happiness" (Schneider/Schneider qtd. in Köhler 34).
Gilman wrote in this spirit of her time. She was interested in socialism and the new evolutionary concepts, active as a feminist and critical towards the old ways of ways of life. Finally, in the 1920s, she saw some of her demands met - not always in the way she had imagined. Being shaped by then outdated ideas, Gilman could not keep up with the times and appreciate the freedom young women enjoyed without being worried about the decline of the feminist movement, as Catherine J. Golden and Denise D. Knight say (see 216). The new generation turned away from her. She was not able to get her fiction published anymore. Nevertheless more articles and two other non-fiction works, His Religion and Hers (1923) and Our Changing Morality (1930), at least appeared in these years (see Wells).
Therefore, when I will give a short overview of women's role in Gilman's contemporary society and the shift in ideals in the first chapter, I will not go into the historical background of this later period in much detail. However I decided to include the time between 1860 and 1890 because the then prevalent views shaped her understanding of women's nature and also explain some of ideas of thinkers whose models had an influence on her work. Here and later on, I will hardly mention the situation of lower-class, immigrant, Native or African-American women and will confine myself to the topics that the writer also focuses on: theories about female characteristics and behavior, the ideal as well as the role of white, mainly well-off women in the public and the private sphere because, as Aleta Feinsod Cane rightly states, "in general, Gilman wrote for an audience of women very much like herself: middle-class women whose options were more plentiful than those of working-class women" (108).
In the second chapter, I will take a closer look at how she depicts women in her theory, mainly in her first and most influential nonfiction book, Women and Economics (1898) because it constitutes, as Amy Aronson and Michael Kimmel rightly observe,
the touchstone text for virtually all her ideas. [...] Here she touches on all the themes that dominated her work, including male-female relationships, child care, housework, domestic relationships and male domination of the economy, politics, religion, and social life. Those topics that she did not discuss first in Women and Economics were left untreated in her nonfiction (xxviii).
Gilman not only "offered, and still offers, readers new ways of thinking about their society which deconstruct conservative views about femininity and masculinity, and about the nature of work practices which defined Western socioeconomics in the early twentieth century" (161), as Anne Cranny-Francis writes, but also devises possibilities to change society and to resolve problems of women. In her theoretical works, the author looks far back into women's past, criticizes their contemporary situation and describes an ideal future. I will follow her ideas and emphasize the historical model she imagines. In order to make her view clear, I will also refer to some other major writings in which Gilman made additional remarks on some points.
This survey will give me some ground to examine the female characters in her utopian fiction. But before moving on to this, in the third part, I will give the definitions of the literary terms that I am going to work with later on. This will be necessary because the meaning of the term 'utopia' changed over the years and was given diverse connotations by different scholars. In contrast, 'pragmatopia' is very new and still seldom used. Therefore it will also need some clarification. In addition, Gilman's literary aim will be of interest since, as Minna Doskow rightly finds, "in Herland, The Man-Made World, and essays in the Forerunner [...] [, the writer] thought about the goals, structure, and effects of literature, she clearly used her fiction as a vehicle of her social and political ideas" (14).
So finally, in the fourth and fifth chapters, I will bring out the types of female figures that appear in Gilman's utopian literature and compare them to the description of women in her other writings. Her works are closely connected, as Gloria A. Biamonte states:
[c]omplementing the excessive reliance on reasons in her theoretical works, [her] fiction presents a panorama of female heroes – heroes whose visionary quests not only alter their reality but enable them to achieve a new power within it. These female characters bring life to Gilman's theories, suggesting metaphorically the radical restructuring of society she advocated (33).
Starting with the realistic short fiction, I will show Gilman's main ideas to resolve typical problems of women with the example of some selected stories. I resolved to treat them not in chronological order but to delineate the structural changes in the different levels of social organization that are to be discerned. Moreover I decided to use two narratives in each subdivision because choosing only one would not do justice to the scope of Gilman's imagination and would reduce the findings to be made. So, for example, in both writings of each partition, changes take place in varying degrees and are initiated by different types of characters. The first stories, "Making a Change" and "A Garden of Babies," illustrate the imagined transformation of middle-class women and the betterment of their situation by gainful employment. In addition, "Martha's Mother" and "Forsythe & Forsythe" promote changed living conditions as well. Whereas the next two stories, "Three Thanksgivings" and "Mrs. Hines' Money," describe possibilities of human intercourse and the influence of reform clubs on society, the last pair, "Aunt Mary's Pie Plant" and "Bee Wise," take women's united power to a more utopian extreme and most fully fictionalize the author's theories as short stories.
Similarly, in the fifth chapter, there will be an intensification of Gilman's utopian thinking that is curiously more analogous to the year of publication. The selected pragmatopian novels, The Crux and What Diantha Did, are followed up by the two utopian works, Moving the Mountain and Herland. The sequel of the latter and her last published novel, With Her in Ourland (1916), however, is a dystopia and therefore left out here. In this negative utopia, Gilman mainly criticizes the contemporary situation. It seems to reflect that, as Golden and Knight state, "she lamented the turn of events for women, who, in her opinion, had made little progress toward gaining equality, particularly compared to the widespread transformation she had envisioned for her society and advanced through her theoretical works" (216).
1. The Changing Role of Women
1.1. Women Between 1860 and 1890
"By 1860 sex had cut a bold gash across all of society and culture, bluntly dividing American life and character into two inviolate spheres labeled male and female" (Ryan 139). As Elizabeth Lee explains, this separation was now the basis for theories of evolution that traced back feminine characteristics to the biological differences and also saw them reflected in the lowest forms of life. Accordingly, she adds, women were said to be "sedentary, storing and conserving energy" but their "heavy role in pregnancy, menstruation (considered a time of illness, debilitation, and temporary insanity), and child-rearing left very little energy left for other pursuits." Social Darwinists identified "the female [...] by nature [as] the more social sex, formed to nurture and serve the race" (226), Mary P. Ryan notes. Public opinion glorified them for virtues of "warmth, cheer, solace, and purity" (145). The majority of physiologists at the time claimed that the normal woman would not feel passion (see 159), she states. However, as Lee says, this idea was changing and soon "women had to be held accountable, while the men, slaves to their catabolic purposes and sexual appetites, could not really be blamed. Therefore, women were portrayed either frigid or else insatiable. A young lady was only worth as much as her chastity and appearance of complete innocence."
Ryan emphasizes that these models of "womanhood [were] not only a pervasive cultural value, but also an entrenched system of distributing social functions to the sexes" (175). It was only natural that women stayed at home and were busy with child-rearing and house-keeping (see 173), the author says. As S. J. Kleinberg clarifies, the middle-class established the cult of domesticity because the industrial revolution had made the combination of economic productivity with household duties difficult for women (see 11). Furthermore their economic inactivity became a sign for their husbands' success, she interprets (see 37). The feeling of imprisonment in this "modern woman's domestic cage" (173), as Ryan calls their situation, was to be moderated by giving them important responsibilities. So women were to keep up the national morality and civilizing mankind (see 144). They were simply put "on a pedestal labeled 'mother of civilization'" (145), she sums up.
According to Ryan, "[b]y 1860 the women's movement was [still] too weak to disturb the common woman in her isolated home and too eviscerated to contradict the ladies' magazines and domestic novels she read" (185). Thus mothers brought up their daughters with the help of manuals giving them advise on useful toys and the appropriate way to play for a girl. She ascertains that "[t]he young girl's acculturation not only dictated marriage and motherhood but also inculcated the specific virtues that these roles entailed" (148). It is not surprising that, as Ryan mentions, dolls and 'playing house' originated in this period or that games and amusements were devised especially for girls (see 148/149). So "[she] might play with a hoop or swing gently [...]. Competitive play, even with members of her own sex, were also anathema [...] [and in board games, a] girl's playful enactment of her course in life moved via a circular ever-inward path to the 'mansion of happiness,' a pastel tableau of mother and child" (Elizabeth Beardsley Butler qtd. in Ryan 149). At home or even at an academy, young women would ideally learn more about housekeeping, child rearing and the importance of serving others since their most crucial concern was marrying, Ryan continues (see 149/150). They would read books advising them to avoid "drunkards, gigolos, and the overly ambitious" (150) and to attract the right kind of man by being "warm, self-controlled, and chaste" (150), she further states. Not only novels promoted romantic love and had the message that women should "marry not for money, status, or parental approval" (150).
However, all these ideals and recommendations could not stand up against reality. As Ryan stresses, "[i]t would be a gross fallacy as well as an insult to female intelligence to conclude that [...] women led lives perfectly congruent with all these dictates [...]. Real women were hardly that gullible" (171) and, of course, considered "the status, wealth, and reliability of [their] suitor[s]" (171) before marriage. Their complex roles as perfect housekeepers and gentle mothers were simply too much for many women who, as she says, "employed the time-honored child-rearing method, the rod, without qualms" (171). This dual load and the demand for labor-saving devices was not recognized. The time-consuming and hard housework had been neither lightened nor lessened in the course of industrialization, Gail Collins observes (see 250). Most "[w]omen continued to cultivate and process large portions of the family food supply[.] [...] Yet this food production, and the abundant physical labor still required of homemakers, [...] was peripheral to the family's economic status and thus often taken for granted" (Ryan 156). In fact, as Kleinberg suggests, cooking was even becoming more complex with the advance of gas stoves: "meals with many dishes replaced the simple stews and one-pot dishes [...] [and their] preparation symbolized women's care for their families" (40). But, she adds, it also has to be acknowledged that "[b]y the mid-nineteenth century, between 15 and 30 percent of American urban households had servants" (18).
Having glimpsed on the life of the real women as well as having demonstrated their ideal character and behavior, the question also arises as to what the model woman looks like. As one might guess that she is to appear very feminine and, as Ryan remarks, corsets were a must emphasizing an important female feature: the "ample bosom [that] was the glory of womanhood in the nineteenth century" (158). In accordance with the publicity directed to the female customer, she says, the authors of the marriage manuals and gynecologists understood "a large-busted woman as the best candidate for marriage and the healthiest of her sex. At the same time a woman was advised [...] to regard it as the receptacle for conjugal affection and her infant's nourishment, never reducing it to an object of sexual attraction [...] [because her] duty was to subdue male passions, not kindle them" (158). Furthermore, as Collins states, large women were preferred in the decades after the Civil War (see 238). She interprets that this "rejection of the small, thin, and retiring female image came at a time when women were, in every way, becoming more visible. Wives completely took over the family shopping [...] [and] were beginning to go out by themselves for amusement" (240).
They increasingly took part in public life. Already in the 1830s, middle- and upper class-women had started to transcend their ascribed roles founding their own societies where they could freely vote and thus experience autonomy in the public sphere (see Köhler 39). As Collins says, "housewives organized themselves into groups to study current affairs, world history, or English literature. [...] The idea of doing something unrelated to their families was an enormous breakthrough for many members" (247). Of course, they were met with opposition at the beginning because men were worried that they would neglect their household duties, she continues. Nevertheless these critics were taught otherwise and women's reading clubs soon became a respected institution in the communities and townships (see 248).
Although the "regimen of motherhood tended to cripple women for [...] economic, social, and political action and [...] seemed to sanction the sterile masculinization of these activities" (Ryan 170), even middle-class women slowly made their way into another public field: gainful employment. After the Civil War, when the economy was booming and thus the federal bureaucracy was increasing, the demand for cheap literate workers grew, Collins states. Since women had not to be paid as much as men, they were increasingly hired now (see 243/244). Their advancement into clerical work was explained with their special physical suitability because "with their smaller hands and nimble fingers, [women] were particularly well suited to use [the typewriter]" (244). In addition, she writes, "[they] were making rapid inroads into library work" (243) as well as into teaching which was understood "as a natural extension of the female role" (Kleinberg 64). Other professions that required college studies still remained harder to conquer thus "[i]n 1870, the country had only 5 female lawyers [...] [and, similarly, o]ut of 63,000 physicians, only 525 were women" (Collins 242). Taking into account that tertiary education was only slowly opened for women in the 1860s (see Kleinberg 67), these numbers are quite considerable.
However working women were far from being a matter of course in the white middle-class and most of them were single (see Collins 245). Writing and editing were the only acceptable jobs for wives because, in contrast to teaching, they could be combined with domesticity, as Kleinberg writes (see 39). All in all, a trend towards an increased and longer employment of women and their entry in white-collar jobs could be observed and continued in the following decades, she sums up (see 105). As Collins recognizes,
for the many women who had fallen through the cracks of the old Victorian theories about their proper role in life - abandoned wives, widowed mothers, single women on their own, or women whose husbands were unable to support their families - the change in opportunity was enormous. The old triumvirate of employment options - factories, teaching, and domestic work - had been cracked open [in the three decades after the standstill in 1860] (245/246).
1.2. The New Woman at the Turn of the Century
As Ryan states, "[n]either middle-class mothers nor immigrant workers rested complacently in their assigned places for long after 1890. By 1920, eight million American women were engaged in gainful employment outside the home" (196) constituting a rise from 19 to 24 percent according to S. J. Kleinberg (see 105). To have a job, she says, "became the norm for single women [...] [and also] a growing proportion either worked throughout their marriage or returned to the labor market at some point, prompted by financial necessity or a desire to use their education and training" (108). Angelika Köhler stresses however that "women's entrance in the world of paid employment was not only a female response to economic pressure. Some middle-class women, in particular, saw this situation as a chance to realize their dreams of more female independence" (49). They were especially attracted to the opportunities in the professional and white-collar fields but the prevalent stereotypes still kept their payment low (see Kleinberg 105/106). On the other hand, women were inexperienced in public employment as well and therefore naively accepted these wages (see Köhler 49).
Nevertheless the smaller salaries paid to female professionals were also a point in their favor as the trend to take them on continued. By 1920, they constituted 47 percent of the employees, as Kleinberg ascertains. They mainly had positions that were compatible with the caring nature ascribed to women. Thus, she writes, the majority were teachers, some worked as trained nurses and about five percent had semi-professional occupations (see 113) as "keepers of charitable institutions and religious, charity and welfare workers [...]. There were no more than a handful of female lawyers, architects, engineers, ministers, dentists, or veterinarians" (113/114). Three quarters of the professional women were single, Ryan says explaining that "[a]s long as the veneration of female purity and the suppression of woman's sexual needs endured, the stigma of being unmarried was less likely to detour women from single-minded devotion to their careers" (236). However, she states, there were hardly any women "storming the citadel of financial and industrial power. As of 1920 the term businesswoman did not refer to executives and tycoons but to professional secretaries, clerks, and telephone operators" (234). This imbalance can be put down to the fact that these fields of work, like the upper ranks of almost all other professions, were declared male territory and were defended accordingly, Kleinberg finds (see 158-162). Thus, she adds, "[l]egislatures and the courts made it difficult or impossible for women to practice certain occupations, regardless of their level of education" (159).
This separation of spheres was to be found at universities as well. Although more and more colleges admitted women, as Kleinberg says, they "discriminated against [them] on the basis of their looks or marital status" (157) and "demanded higher entry qualifications [...] to keep the numbers down [...]. Numerous state universities diverted women to teacher training or home economics and worried that too many women students would undermine an institution's appeal to men" (156). So "[b]y 1914, [...] girls were able to take chemistry and biology and geography under the theory it would help them to become better homemakers" (Collins 296). Not surprisingly, women were one step ahead in the one gender-appropriate professional field: home economics, Kleinberg remarks (see 162). She nevertheless emphasizes the positive development that "their proportion of masters' or secondary professional degrees rose from 19 percent (in 1900) to 30 percent in 1920, and female doctorates increased from 6 to 15 percent" (157) and adds that "their place in education was assured [...]. Yet, [it] also channeled [them] into a narrow range of acceptable roles. Women became deans of women, not deans of faculties" (174).
As a consequence of their advancement in home economics, a new scientific approach towards housework disseminated from the universities, Collins observes. Now "cleaning was no longer about neatness, but a way to vanquish contagion. [...] Nutritionists broke food down into its component parts, and recipes were valued for their efficiency, wholesomeness, and the way the made the plate look tidy" (297). Not even child care could escape the fashionable attitude and regimentation, she adds. Thus "[t]he experts demanded that mothers follow a strict schedule and not give in to their wailing infants' demands" (298). According to her, another result was however that the question was raised "whether keeping house and raising children should become career specialties rather than the vocation of every married woman" (299).
Seeing that more and more women were occupied outside the house, the industry realized their value as consumers and the possibility for a new market. "An increasing number of manufacturers of food products and home appliances presented themselves as the housewife's liberators" (Ryan 242). Thus the character of the home underwent a radical change at the turn of the century as well. Starting to favor domestic privacy, middle-class households consisted of less relatives, took less boarders and had fewer domestic workers, Kleinberg writes (see 144). Housewives, she explains, "used new forms of household technology to replace the work previously done by servants, while relying upon an occasional cleaning lady to do the more arduous jobs. / Well-to-do married women no longer wanted or needed to look after boarders to augment family income" (144/145).
"Domesticity remained central to married women's roles, but their expectations of marriage changed" (150), Kleinberg states. The availability of work and financial independence made women demanding and more critical towards their husbands. They "wanted kind, considerate partners who provided well and grew more willing to divorce men who did not fulfill their expectations. [...] [Thus] the number of divorces accelerated in the 1870s and 1880s and continued to climb through 1920, giving the United States the highest divorce rate in the world" (141) of 8 divorces for every 1000 marriages (see 141), she says. Divorce became "a necessary evil that need not leave a woman floating in social limbo ever afterward" (Collins 283). Its frequency finally moved the public sector "to acknowledge the centrality of women's role in the family, including custody and testamentary rights and mothers' pensions" (Kleinberg 150).
According to Kleinberg, another consequence of women's gainful employment was that they suddenly had leisure time that they not only spent doing housework but experiencing the new forms of entertainment (see 172). "Women attended the legitimate theater, music halls, and vaudeville in large numbers [...] [or] enjoyed amusement parks, nickelodeons, and, increasingly, the cinema" (173). Furthermore she mentions that "[p]hysical activity became a fashionable diversion as women cycled, played tennis and golf, and skated, wearing loose-fitting clothing appropriate for active life. College women played baseball, basket ball, and other team sports" (172). Ryan says that even women's magazines started to propagate activities that would not have been appropriate "to the passive, fragile mother of the nineteenth century. [...] The fashion pages sketched apparel for the active woman: divided skirts, sports frocks, looser corsets, and lightweight girdles. By the turn of the century the cracks in the old idol of womanhood had penetrated [...] into the center of popular culture (240).
As Köhler notes, the term 'New Woman' was increasingly used in public debate to describe the phenomenon of women who started "to practice independence from men; [...] increasingly perceived themselves as individuals and asserted their right to define their position in the cultural order" (1/2). Representing modern life and being "young, dynamic, flexible, and adaptable to the changing social and cultural conditions" (275), she writes, the Gibson Girl manifested the ideal. "[She] had a full bust and hips, but her body was thinner, firmer, elongated. She was tall, often dressed for sport, and she appeared to be wearing comfortable clothes, although her waist was so tiny, there had to be a corset somewhere" (283/284), Collins suspects. Köhler stresses however that the model of the New Woman represents a female image that was created discursively, taken up and spread by popular journals. It was not realized socially or demographically but rather marked the change in women's attitude (see 5).
Thus this concept is also compatible with the prevailing idea of social motherhood that Kleinberg makes out (see 150). While fecundity declined and women increasingly regulated their fertility despite laws against birth control and abortion (see 139/140), she says, mothers "looked after [their children] more intensively, and expanded their maternal horizons to embrace a wide range of social and political issues" (150). Using the ideal of motherhood to justify their activities, as Ryan explains (see 225), they "mobilized into a great army of clubwomen, reformers, and, of course, suffragists" (196). "By the turn of the century [...] [they] were not only investigating social conditions but conducting social reforms - forming corporations to build sanity housing in the slums, reconstructing the judicial system for juvenile offenders, and endorsing factory inspection and child labor legislation" (230). Nevertheless she rightly criticizes that
the vanguard of middle-class women was ill-prepared to penetrate the complications of womanhood among the working class; the reformers were too enamored of the role of ameliorating conflict between the rich and the poor, and professional women were too absorbed with career advancement to transcend class barriers and [...] grapple with the social and economic structure that underplays sex roles (243).
However it must be acknowledged that women did not have an official right of participation in political decision making until they finally got the vote in 1920. Many of their campaigns therefore concentrated on this issue that would give them a basis to claim equality. Seeing this, their success is remarkable.
1.3. The Flapper in the 1920s
Ryan states that when
the last blatant constitutional obstacles to the equality of the sexes [...] [were removed in] 1920[,] the practical inferiority of women could be attributed to her own failures of nerve, stamina, and capability, rather than legal fetters. [They] entered politics at a very real and often obscured disadvantage, weighed down by the burdens of culture, the family, and history. So encumbered, but judged by the standards of male performance, women were prey to a new model of inequality (248).
This situation was quite disillusioning for the reformers. Not only did the proportion of female employees sink and women were often overqualified for the jobs they could obtain, as Collins says (see 348), but also the powerful public opinion and the ideals changed not in their favor. "The idea that women would not get married had gone out of style. [...] Only about 10 percent of women kept their jobs after marriage, and most were working-class wives who could not afford to quit" (349), she adds. William Gleason explains this move with the growing dissatisfaction with the work routine that was part of industrialization as "many Americans questioned the once-sacred assumption that work was the primary locus for meaningful human action. In work's place, educators and social theorists proposed play as the one activity that could develop the physical, intellectual, and moral qualities necessary to achieve [...] 'the promise of American life'" (40).
Accordingly, by 1920, "a new female image - the flapper - [...] replaced the efforts of the turn-of-the-century New Woman to participate in public life by performing useful work outside the privacy of the home by a public demonstration of 'a new freedom in sensual expression' and by displaying this 'sensuality [...] through constant, vibrant movement'" (Banner qtd. in Köhler 7). Collins describes her as "energetic, daring, and self-absorbed. She defined herself by her unrestrained clothing. She did not wear a corset, and she bared her arms. Her skirts went up to her knees [...] Her dresses hung straight down from the shoulders" (329).
"Everything that had anything to do with consumption was in style. That included drinking, smoking, and sex - for women as well as men. [...] It was a disturbing time for the older generation who had grown up believing that they had a duty to make the world better" (327/328), she adds. The radical changes they achieved did not turn out the way they had imagined. So, as she says, "instead of forcing men to follow the same rules of chastity as women, society [had] lowered the bar for girls. The new national pastimes were necking and petting" (332). "[A]s Rosalind Rosenberg writes, [...] the sexual revolution of the first decades of the century 'gave women something that was essential to their eventual liberation: a broader conception of their own physical needs and a greater confidence in their ability to control their physical destiny'" (qtd. in Aronson & Kimmel lv).
2. Women in Gilman's Theoretical Writings
As I have shown in the previous chapter, gender was discussed from anthropological, biological, political and sociological viewpoints and female ideals changed drastically as women were breaking out of their assigned roles at the turn of the century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman not only experienced this transformation herself on a purely personal level but synthesized the circulating ideas to bring forth her own message in her first nonfiction book and breakthrough work Women and Economics (1898). Therefore standard of knowledge at the time must be taken into consideration in order to understand the basis of her theory. As Polly Wynn Allen says,
[the] knowledge of the influence of sex hormones was negligible and scattered. The prevailing understanding of the biology of human inheritance was distinctly premodern; the notion of 'use inheritance,' the generic transmission of acquired traits [...] was a standard scholarly assumption. Many traits later recognized to be profoundly affected by environmental factors were widely assumed to be simple products of heredity (133).
Furthermore Gilman was influenced, as Amy Aronson and Michael Kimmel summarize, by different contemporary theorists, most significantly by the Social Darwinists whose concept of human progress underlies all her writings (see xx/xxi). With Marxist thinkers, they rightly add, she shares the interpretation of the sphere of production as the main domain of human life, of the workplace as a location of suppression as well as liberation, and of the upbringing - rather than biological variations - as the shaping factor of differences among human beings (see xx). Furthermore, as they observe, "[f]rom Thorstein Veblen she took the blistering critique of woman as an ornament, as medium of exchange between men [...] [a]nd from the sociologist Lester Ward [...] the idea that women, not men, were the originators of evolution, the origin of the species" (xxi) and thus the race type. Gilman applies all these theories pursuing her own feminist aim and does not shy away from founding her whole 1911 work The Man-Made World, or Our Androcentric Culture on Ward's at that time sensational gynaecocentric model.
2.1. 'Herstory' and Feminine Characteristics
Gilman's demand for women's economic independence and the therefore necessary radical changes is based on her quite debatable concept of an innate feminine nature. However, as Mary A. Hill plausibly explains, "while claims to female nurturant superiority were ultimately dysfunctional, they were nonetheless, historically, a viable response to women's need for expanded decision-making power. A vital struggle for political autonomy lay beneath the mother-worshipping proclamations" (45). "Whether tactically or ideologically, [Gilman] seems to have understood that women might necessarily, if temporarily, expand their power by celebrating differences" (46), she adds.
What these differences are and what both sexes have in common, Gilman clarifies in Women and Economics and especially in the later following The Man-Made World. She starts from the presupposition that life consists of activities for either self- or race-preservation. The former are understood as the processes concerning the maintenance of the individual existence and common to both sexes because both have the same organs, purposes and courses of action. The latter contribute to procreation and thus are marked as distinctively female or male (see W 51/52). She differentiates in turn between primary and secondary features of sex-distinction. The primary characteristics include the sexual organs and the functions of reproduction (see W 40). The secondary distinctions "consist in all those differences in organ and function, in look and action, in habit, manner, method, occupation, behavior, which distinguish men from women" (W 40/41), she says. To them Gilman puts down the corresponding complementary natures and functions she ascribes to the two genders.
She maintains that, in the original state, women hardly differ from men because they belong to the same species and therefore have the same basic characteristics. The traits she allocates to the sexes do not correspond to the view of the majority of her contemporaries at all. So Gilman argues that both, men and women, are naturally brave, active (see W 46), free, swift, graceful (see TM 50), tall, strong, beautiful and able to use their bodies for a variety of tasks (see W 44). Their common functions are morality, religiousness (see TM 141), the creation of art (see TM 77), the social power of working in teams (see TM 112) and education (see W 283). Both have a great need and ability for large association (see TH 201). They have a play instinct (see TM 107), enjoy the human games of chance (see TM 113) and require amusement, entertainment as well as recreation (see TM 124). Their common natural work as members of their sex is parenthood (see TM 25) but as human beings they have other purposes as well (see W 59), she stresses and thus contradicts the contemporary middle-class model that reduces women's functions and duties to motherhood.
While her theoretical substructure is plausible and the human characteristics she ascribes to women are progressive, Gilman's idea of women's nature is very much shaped by her own upbringing and reflects the status quo of the contemporary society. As Hill rightly remarks, "Gilman presents us with a paradox. Having developed a multi-dimensional feminist theory based on the idea of the natural equality of the sexes, having challenged the patriarchal norms dividing males and females into their respective public-private spheres, she also [...] glorified female 'instincts' of love and service" (45). Thus, without questioning the impact of a different socialization, Gilman says that, in general, the secondary sex-distinction shows in the conduct and the psyche of men and women. According to her theory, innate female qualities are the ability to coordinate, the energy for production and preservation (see W 129) as well as inexhaustible industriousness (see TH 89). Typical feminine attributes are modesty, timidness (see W 41), selflessness (see TM 131), patience and submissiveness (see TH 89). Unintentionally mirroring the prevailing manuals' advice on games for girls, she claims that the woman is neither adapted nor inclined to physical combat and enjoys sportive activity only if it does not mean throwing, batting or kicking things (see TM 153). Furthermore the choice of a valuable father is a typical female function (see TM 49) improving the species (see TM 30) and fulfilling woman's first duty as a mother (see W 187), she states. The woman's instincts "spend[...] themselves most fully in the lasting love, the ceaseless service, the ingenuity and courage of efficient motherhood" (TM 152). The maternal energy, Gilman adds, is a conserving force that manifests itself in love and industry and is therefore the origin of all productive activity (see W 126).
Although this characterization appears to be rather conventional, in contrast to the "[d]ominant gender ideology [...] [that] insulted women as physical, intellectual, and moral beings" (Allen 136), Gilman judges woman's nature positively. As Hill rightly observes, "she alternately emphasized not female powerlessness, but women's natural passivity; not artificially-imposed dependence, but an innate desire to love and serve; not cowardice, but peacefulness and cooperation; not the oppressive restrictions of motherhood roles, but the glories of mother love" (45). While Gilman highly regards maternity saying that it "is not a remote contingency, but the common duty and the glory of womanhood" (W 246) as well as the chief purpose of females as such, she never tires of stressing that women also have other human functions to fulfill (see TM 168). Contrasting with the contemporary concept, she does not go so far as to say that all maternal action is guided by instinct or that mothering is an innate function of all females (see W 184). Instead Gilman emphasizes that only the biological process of bearing children is a natural function (see W 283). Unlike animals, the human mothers follow reason in the service to their children (see W 184), she says. Though "[t]he origin of education is maternal" (TM 143), it has ceased to be a function of women alone with the development of language (see W 284) and can not entirely be entrusted to their instincts (see W 195/196).
Though Gilman's view appears to be rather progressive at this point, her tendency to fall back upon conservative ideas about women often shines through. Hill explains it plausibly stating that
[h]er life and writings were always inextricably related. Where she had achieved certain of her feminist goals – economic independence, physical fitness, and considerable psychological strength as well, she believed in woman's capacity for excellence. But because she could not interpret the conflicting loyalties which seemed to occur [...] [in] love relationships with men [...], [she] perhaps understandably concluded that certain stereotypes of 'femininity' must somehow be innate (41).
Gilman, however, uses these archetypal ideas cleverly to combine her explanation for the past and the contemporary situation with her aim of enhancing women's status. She describes that in the natural state men and women lived more or less parallel to each other (see W 130). Both followed their nature, i.e. he hunted and fought while she was gathering, constructing and working (see W 126); he competed with other males and she selected the strongest as a suitable partner (see TM 49). The woman had been humanly superior to him who had lacked the ability to union, to production and to care for others (see W 129) until he turned the tables. Instead of fighting against a rival, he now conquered a female and enslaved her (see W 60), she states. Following the line of least resistance, the man chose the less human, i.e. cowardly, weak, small and slow women (see TM 30).
The resulting new kind of relationship crippled the female in many ways. As Gilman presupposes in the first chapter of Women and Economics, individuals are not only affected by outer influences like their environment but also by their own activities and the social conditions under which they earn their livelihood. The organs and facilities that are not or seldom applied in this process become stunted while the most used ones come to the fore (see W 2-5). Thus, doing only stationary work, the woman lost her naturally strong bones and hard muscles (see TH 28). In addition, not having been a fine specimen of her species in the first place and not being allowed to provide for herself and her children on her own, she became passive and entirely dependent on him, Gilman says. Compelled to parasitism, the female changed according to his wishes, developed the ability to absorb and became tenacious. The human qualities of courage, speed or strength became less desirable to the woman because sex-distinction had to be stressed in order to maintain her appeal to him (see W 61/62). Nevertheless the part as man's servant suited her in many respects and made only little modification necessary, Gilman seems to admit. Thus the woman simply had to extend her innate selflessness, industriousness and the devotion to her child to her master. She had the patience and energy to work ceaselessly in the unvarying primitive industries of domestic labor (see W 132). Even being bound to the house seems to be quite natural to her because she has the tendency to retire, as Gilman states (see W 89).
While she became excessively female and less human using her body for a limited variety of physical exertion and not fulfilling social functions, the man became more human, Gilman says (see W 132). His "naturally destructive tendencies [...] had been gradually subverted to the conservative tendencies of the female" (W 128) because he had to feed and defend her as well as the children (see W 61). Thus, according to her concept, the man transformed from a reproductive agent into a highly-developed racial equal to the woman who used to be almost entirely responsible for race-preservation. This combination of his energy and her constructive labor was essential for human development and changed work by introducing specialization and inventions. Without the bond of the sexes, the woman would still be superior and humanity would have remained stationary (see W 131/132). However this situation meant a unfavorable division of spheres, Gilman acknowledges. Whereas he was growing in his human functions and developing further, she was confined to purely female activities and isolated from human exchange and progress.
This unnatural condition and man's misalliance with a poor specimen of his species had also serious effects on their descendants, she adds. Since children inherit the contrasting traits of both their parents, they become mixed (see W 330), "a race of psychic hybrids" (W 331), as Gilman writes. Neither boys are immune against inheriting their mother's sex-tendency nor are girls unlikely to inherit their father's human development, she stresses. The latter are painfully 're-womanized' by traditional socialization forbidding them activity and making them dependent on men (see W 70). Thus, she sums up, the excessive attraction and the indulgence involved in the exaggerated sex-distinction "seriously [...] interfere with the processes of self-preservation on the one hand; and [...] react unfavorably upon the very processes of race-preservation which they are meant to serve" (W 33).
Nevertheless, having been humanly superior and naturally able to wisely select a mate, the female let it come to that, she says. The woman suffered for the common good and for the progress of humankind. She civilized the man and made him conquer the world (see W 134). Allocating her this role of the 'mother of civilization' in a way, Gilman again turns out to be quite conventional at this point. But she does neither put women on a pedestal nor depicts them "purely as victims – incompetents within the world of men. Instead, she urge[s] women to develop self-respect on their own terms, not those exclusively defined by men" (45), as Hill rightly remarks. In her theoretic writings, Gilman stresses the strength and endurance women proved to have and describes their subjection as a voluntary sacrifice and a nearly conscious decision following a plan (see W 135). Having fulfilled their mission and being aware of their powers, it was now time for women to be free and to join men in their social functions again (see W 135/136), she states.
2.2. Critique on Contemporary Women
Critics, for example Amy Aronson and Michael Kimmel, say that "Gilman invariably describes women made weak, helpless, and feeble by economic dependence" (l) in her theoretic writings. This impression of her stocktaking of contemporary women may well arise at first glance. But by simply reflecting the prevailing belittling depiction of them and inspiring self-pity she could hardly create a new way women see themselves. Taking a good look at her work, it soon becomes clear for example that, as mentioned before, she does so by casting a positive light on the characteristics ascribed to females and by re-evaluating their role in the past as superior, powerful and essential for mankind. Her critique of their condition at the time is repeatedly combined with remarks about their already achieved progress in many fields as well as about already visible changes and usually ends with descriptions of the improved women in better circumstances to come. Thus her criticism rather serves as an incentive to change.
Her entanglement in the world of the middle-class becomes most evident when she analyzes contemporary womanhood. Gilman surely does not have the quite different and still more labor-intensive existence of the housewife in the country (see Kleinberg 149/150) or in the common working-woman's home much in mind. Her critique is especially aimed at the class of society that is not only most familiar to her but also was solely able to translate the propagated ideal of the 'mother of civilization' into action and could afford to hesitate to abolish the cult of domesticity. So, whereas she gives insight into the situation of the affluent urban housewife and, to a degree, of their servants, Gilman only briefly mentions the reality of a large part of American women. On the one hand, the increasing number of female factory workers is made out to be an exemplary development (see e.g. W 152/153) though the author was certainly aware of their low status, the bad working conditions and the fact that the unequal wages hit especially them hard. Otherwise it would have to be expected that she had recommended industrial labor to her better-off readers as a form of highly specialized work. On the other hand, farmer's wives only appear in Women and Economics as an example of natural physical health in the stereotype of the hard-working peasant woman (see e.g. W 46) but also as the majority of women driven mad in the solitude of the West and the isolation of farms in general (see W 267). In The Home, Gilman however externalizes the negative example of the countrywoman to Germany and contrasts it to the - very rare - American physician who is shown as superior as mother providing for her children (see TH 102).
Following her evolutionary theory, Gilman explains that humankind has departed so much from the nature that it has equated the sex-relation with the economic relation and made their females completely dependent on the males (see W 5). As Jean Pfaelzer rightly notes, "[she] observed that in nature, aggregates or groups that work harmoniously survive while unorganized units perish – an analysis that challenged individualistic readings of Darwin. Thus, Gilman found, because women of her time did not participate in the organized public world, they were 'primitive' and they actually retarded social growth" (152). They show physical, psychical and social effects of the excessive sex-distinction (see W 43) and pass them on to their progeny (see W 70), Gilman says.
Firstly, the female body is modified to such a degree that even the parts that serve self-preservation and are originally similar in all humans are distinguishable as feminine. While women should be similar to men in size and strength (see TM 65), they are completely sexualized: small, weak (see W 45) and clumsy (see TM 65). She shows this physical disproportion in many of her books with the example of a figure composed after thousands of gymnasium measurements in 1893 that she describes as follows: "small hands and feet, rather nice arms, though weak; but the legs are too thick and short; the chest and shoulders poor; and the trunk is quite pitiful in its weakness" (TM 56). She is "too long-waisted, [...] the lines of connection are weak and wavering, and in especial does she lack any power and grace in the main area, the body itself, the torso" (TH 211). Having been hindered from free movement down the ages, women are now less able to perform basic activities and have developed more adipose tissue (see W 46). Gilman explains that "confinement to the house alone, cutting women off from sunshine and air, is by itself an injury; and the range of occupation allowed to them is not such as to develop a high standard of either health or beauty" (TM 51) because they are daily exposed to the bacteria that cause the so-called 'house-diseases' of throat and lungs (see TM 64). Only among the country folk where the spheres are not as strictly separated, women are less degenerated. But because of the ongoing emigration to the cities, their better level of physical fitness is sinking as well (see W 73).
Secondly, since they are not allowed any other purpose in life, their psyche is concentrated entirely on love. Their devotion is so overly intensified that they loose their sense of reason and readily bear misery, neglect, and abuse (see W 48), she observes. Women developed a morbidly large moral sense and are extremely self-conscious, self-interested and sensitive (see W 335-337). They have "a thwarted will, used to surrender, cunning evasion, or futile rebellion; a childish, wavering short-range judgement, handicapped by emotions [...] and a maternal passion swollen with the full strength of the great social heart, but denied social expression" (W 337), she adds. Being isolated and confined to the house made women narrow-minded, eccentric and tending towards obsession (see TH 216-218).
The excessive sex-distinction goes so far that, thirdly, their social status is so low that women are not accepted as persons and only reduced to their sex (see W 49). According to the public view that a Mr. Grant Allen voices, she says, "[the woman] is very much less the race than man; [...] she is, indeed, not even half the race at present, but rather [...] the sex sacrificed to reproductive necessities" (qtd. in W 172). Gilman criticizes that contemporary women can only participate passively in human progress, e.g. take but not give medicine. They hardly may get an education or even take part in the democracy (see TH 214). Gilman contradicts herself on this point because she also claims that her nation has not only the freest women in the world but, as a result of this, is becoming healthier and more beautiful as well (see TM 57). She either does not link their liberty to their actual rights or her national pride is stronger here than her love of truth when she calls America "free, active, intelligent" (TH 260). Even at the time when she was writing this, women already had the freedom of political participation in throughout three other countries: New Zealand, Australia and Finland (see Inter-Parliamentary Union), not just in a few states as in her native land (see Weatherford).
Nevertheless the fact is not to be forgotten that, as Joyce W. Warren says, the writer's "crucial concern was not women's political freedom [since] [s]he began her book-length essay with the assertion that human beings are affected more by 'economic conditions' than by any other force. In language reminiscent of Marx, she pointed out that women's labor is 'the property of another'" (158/159). However Gilman does not ascribe a definite economic value to this 'property' (see W 14) and states that its owners are not dependent on this form of production (see W 8). She observes, for instance, that "[the woman] moves with the camp [...] and follows her primitive industries in its vicinity" (W 65) in the so-called primitive societies. But she only describes her as being supported by her hunting husband but not that her work in turn frees him for other activities like war.
Despite her critical view of the traditional role allocation and its consequences for women and humankind, Gilman does not question the model of monogamous marriage and states that it nevertheless proved best for individual improvement and the progress of humankind (see W 26). She criticizes however that young women are under great pressure to marry because of their economic dependence and that their single possibility to satisfy their ambitions to make a fortune, to have influence, a high status or fame is to obtain a husband (see W 71). Therefore she defends the practical, mercenary marriage as an inevitable result of the sexuo-economic relation (see W 93). Furthermore Gilman denounces that, though women get orientated towards entering into matrimony since childhood without seeing an alternative in the arts and life, they are not allowed to make an effort in order to get married. They are to be passive (see W 86-88), i.e. exhibit a trait they acquired since the loss of their freedom, and have to pretend that they are not trying to make "the bargain for life" (W 64). Even when this matter is settled, real human contact between men and women is impossible (see W 312), she observes.
Moreover Gilman says that marriage is a matter of luck because girls are not informed by their mothers about the sexually transmitted diseases or even maternity itself. They have to be kept innocent and ignorant in order to be marriageable, she criticizes. Daughters are simply the supply for a market, no matter what harm may be done to them and their children (see W 85/86). On the other hand, Gilman notes, they are a cost factor because, if they fail in their endeavor, young women rely on their male relatives. Since they are only valued for their reproductive abilities, a single woman constitutes a human failure. Yet, she optimistically remarks, the aspiring new role of the bachelor maid is a positive development in society (see W 90). Furthermore, condemning the falsity of the practice to idealize motherhood but not to train girls for it, Gilman argues that maternity is of low quality (see W 181), that women are "irresponsible, indifferent [and] ignorant" (W 193) and become overtaxed, nervous mothers. First of all, they are too feminine, i.e. not human enough, to bear healthy babies (see W 182/183) and thus to fulfill their first maternal duty of making better people (see W 187). Instead, they often raise them to be inferior or even criminal adults (see W 185). Living in a complex world, women however have to rely on instinct to raise their children (see W 194/195). Thus the fact "[t]hat the care and education of children have developed at all is due to the intelligent efforts of doctors, nurses, teachers, and such few parents as chose to exercise their human brains instead of their brute instincts" (TH 60), she emphasizes.
Under the present circumstances, mothers can not teach the necessary virtues of modern life: to be just and unbiased or to work together for a common interest because they are hindered from acquiring these themselves, Gilman adds. Though she is certainly right when she says that children rather learn these qualities at school (see W 277), she does not even mention the prevailing harsh methods of teaching that may have led to comradeship among the pupils despite the competition for good grades. In addition, it is rather doubtful whether her kind of heroic loyalty to the work and social good (see W 277) were the reason why the ordinary worker toiled in the factory or the banker did his job. Although Gilman and her contemporary readership lived in industrial, capitalist states where ruthlessness and the ability to assert oneself were probably better for the individual, she voices the then circulating socialist view and sees the need for collectivism and collaboration in the dog-eat-dog-society where the individualization loosens the family ties (see W 154). She appears to have felt like many middle-class Americans who realized that "modernization had made them less dependent on nature, but much more dependent on each other. They became part of an enormous complex and dense network of technological systems which they were neither able to control nor escape from" (Cowan qtd. in Köhler 36).
- Quote paper
- Linda Schug (Author), 2005, Women in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Theoretical and Utopian Writings, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/47526