Unabashedly A Feminist
Among the reasons I write strong women today is because of the inspiration I’ve gained from others who have done such. Over the last forty years, I’ve filled my library, and my mind, with writings by women who offered what I needed. These women have inspired me to find my voice, to identify and claim who I am, what I stand for, and what I refuse to stand for. Their writing also helped me change those things that I didn’t like about myself. I find it amazing how women touch our lives so many years after they have passed from this world—women who lived and died, often years before we were born. Yet still they teach us much about ourselves.
I first met her in a Women in Literature class at the University of Texas at El Paso in the early 1980s. I was forty-three years old and a sophomore. (Non-traditional students rock! It is never too late for a woman to go to college.)
My professor chose Charlotte’s feminist utopian novel, Herland, first published in 1915, for our class to read and discuss. (That cherished book is still an important part of my library, thirty years later.) I must admit, I was inspired—mesmerized—blown away—that a woman could pen such a novel at that time—that she had the wherewithal, the foresight, the wisdom, the forward-thinking—to do such.
Abandoned by her husband, Frederick Beecher, a relative of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte’s mother was forced to rear her children alone, which meant Gilman moved around a lot, and her education suffered as a result.
Despite her opposition to marriage, Charlotte did marry an artist named Charles Stetson in 1884, and in their 10-year marriage, they had a daughter named Katherine. During this time, Charlotte became a social activist. She also suffered a severe depression and underwent a series of unusualtreatments for it. This experience is likely to have inspired her best-known short story The Yellow Wall-Paper, penned in 1892. (If you don’t think being in an unhappy marriage is depressing–this story will convince you.)
While best known for writing fiction, she was also a well-known lecturer and intellectual. One of her greatest nonfiction publications is Women and Economics, published in 1898. Today, many women struggle with being called a feminist—not Charlotte. In this work, she took a bold stand and encouraged women to gain economic independence, cementing her standing as a social theorist.
Other significant works of nonfiction followed, such as The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903) and Does a Man Support His Wife? (1915). Charlotte also established The Forerunner, a magazine where she expressed her own ideas on social reform and women’s issues.
In 1900, Charlotte married again, this time to her cousin George Gilman, and the two remained happily married until he died in 1934. A year later, at the age of 75, Charlotte learned that she had inoperable breast cancer and ended her life, leaving behind a note that said she “chose chloroform over cancer.”
Today, much of her work is beginning to be recognized as important and is being re-published. She had an incredible influence on women of her day, and offers much to us today. Let’s give her the recognition she deserves. Read her books. Let her inspire you. Tell others about her. Don’t be ashamed to call yourself a feminist.