Charlotte Perkins Gilman is the Mother of Madness

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Written By: Gillianne Ross

Illustrations by: Grace Monahan

“There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver.” – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Way back, a little more than one hundred years ago, before women had the vote, female power was the “ultimate threat” to society. However, men chose to ignore this fact for endless decades, and by the time the late 1800’s and early 1900’s rolled around, women had to be stealthy in their feminism.

One thing that was readily given to us females was a diagnosis of madness. No, there was not much clarification. If you were lucky, maybe you just had what was casually referred to as “tender lady syndrome”, ie; you have opinions, but mainly you were fatigued from lack of air due to your corset.

Only the real radicals, those girls who said “No, I don’t want to wear my gloves today,” were shipped off to the asylums, often those that “specialized” in female issues. You can’t just have bare hands out there in the world, they are too dangerous. While many women’s upbringings instilled ideas of domesticity and docility, it would be closed-minded to believe that women obeyed these rules with the stringency they are portrayed to in the movies. If they did, then why were there so many madhouses?

During this period works such as The Awakening were coming into print. Kate Chopin’s novella focused on the urges of a woman to break free of her societal confines. That was impossible though, so you might as well have just drowned yourself, which she did. The darker reality of what young women were facing is brought to us via Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

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In order to be a feminist, to stick it to the glove lovers, you had to do it in a way that they could gloss over. What do you give them? You give them insanity. Raise hell inside the head. The Yellow Wallpaper, one of Gilman’s more well-known pieces, revolves around the main character’s gradual descent into madness. True to the era, Gilman’s character is a young mother who has cracked under the confines of her position, and “fallen ill.” She soon sees a woman in the wall and is determined to free her in order to stop her from crying. The short story peeled away another layer of the guised portrayal of female life in the late 1800’s in regard to mental health and a woman’s duty. Gilman took this a step further in her anti-patriarchy novel Herland.

The concept of female mental health was largely unexplored in popular culture, and the trend of institutionalizing women and girls lasted well into the 1960’s. Where we now have first hand accounts of being hospitalized in the 21st century, the women Gilman gave voice to rarely escaped their situations; or much like her well known character, ground themselves down. In contrast, Herland narrows in of the power of females, and what can be achieved with that, such as a world that exists without the presence of war or domination. Her writing aside, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a powerful woman all to her own.

After having a child and going through the throws of postpartum depression, Gilman moved to California and divorced her husband—you go Charlotte, reclaim yourself! After this she remarried, because Charlotte was a strong woman who knew what she wanted, and when. The Yellow Wallpaper is a fictionalized version of her time in recovery from giving birth, during which her psychiatrist told her to never pick up a pen or pencil as long as she lived. Good thing Charlotte was a devout rebel.

Even though the era where women expressed their individualism in abandoned gloves, and symbolic stories of lost sanity is gone, we have what women such as Gilman and Chopin left behind in their pointed accounts of women’s experiences, trials, and triumphs. Plus, maybe you learned a new excuse for getting out of plans. “Yes, uh sorry, my tender lady syndrome is acting up. Mmmhmm, I need to take my Lydia Pinkham’s tablets.”