March 13, 2010

"Sometimes, I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one….

In college I was a Sociology major. 77% of Sociology majors are women, and 99% of the classical theorists that a Sociology major will study….are male. Except for one. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She was a breath of fresh air on a hot, windy, Weber-filled day. Not that I didn’t love Weber, and I had a brief, slightly disturbing love affair with Marx, but as a woman hearing the voices of women in history is invaluable, so hard to find, and wholly validating. So, here is Gilman…a 19th century woman working and thinking amongst all…those…men.

Gilman was a Utopian feminist, sociologist, poet, novelist, editor, activist, she created and published her own magazine “The Forerunner,” and was incredibly politically and socially active. Though a great deal of Gilman’s works are difficult to find now, Gilman’s most famous work  “The Yellow Wallpaper”  (1892) is still widely read in Women’s Studies, Literature and Sociology classrooms. It is partially autobiographical as it chronicles Gilman’s own experience with severe post-partum depression. She struggled to convince her doctors of what she knew was the problem, and truthbe told, some women still struggle with the same social and psychological ignorance (a la Tom Cruise vs. Brooke Shields).

Gilman was prescribed “the rest cure.” During which time she was restricted from leaving her room, ate very high fat foods, was only allowed an hour of “intellectual activity” per day and was instructed “never to touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” These “treatments” only further tormented her already fragile state. Her experiences turned her into a lifelong advocate for women suffering from post-partum depression, and she admonished the medical community for its avid use of the rest “cure.” Gilman mailed a copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the physician that prescribed the rest cure for her! In the story, she has delusions of women behind the wallpaper in her bedroom.

Here an obvious and stirring analogy for the social state of not only the women suffering from these issues, but all women in the 19th century:

“The front pattern DOES move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!” “Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.”

Again ahead of her time, Gilmanwas an advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932, and in 1935 she committed suicide. Gilman wrote in her suicide note that she “chose chloroform over cancer.” She passed away on August 17, 1935. She died a sheroe (to borrow Melanie’s new favorite word!), and a icon for women struggling to live what they believe.

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