By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Charlotte Perkins Gilman considered herself a humanist rather than a feminist, but history has placed her pretty squarely in the feminist tradition in which she participated throughout her writing and lecturing. Her novel Herland is one of the earliest examples of what would be later known as feminist separatist utopian fiction. But how does the idea of Utopia link to Feminism?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Quick Biography
Charlotte Perkins was born in Providence, Rhode Island to an old American family that included such famous members as Lyman Beecher—a well-known preacher—and several celebrated writers including Henry Ward Beecher, Catherine Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame.
Perkins was a very intelligent white woman with a lot of privilege, the kind of privilege you pretty much needed to have—with a very few exceptions—to become a major feminist voice in the first wave of American feminism, which began in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
As a young woman, Perkins was determined not to marry, but she met an artist and fell in love. She married him, had a child, and began to suffer from depression. She left her husband. He soon remarried and their daughter lived with her father and stepmother. Charlotte was criticized very publicly for abandoning her daughter, an important backdrop to her work and in her non-fiction.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with incurable cancer in her seventies, and she chose to take her own life, on her own terms, at age 75.
This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Charlotte Perkins eventually remarried too, this time to a man much more supportive of her writing and activism, and she became very well known as a writer, a lecturer, and an editor, always with a focus on women’s rights.
She wrote several books of non-fiction, and the best known, from 1898, was: Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution.
Her most famous novel today is Herland. This utopian novel was published serially in 1915 in a magazine, The Forerunner, which Gilman managed and wrote—in its entirety—every single month. It was a novel about a utopian society made up of only women.
Herland and Its Precursors
It wasn’t until 1979 that Herland was published in book form, and then it enjoyed a great resurgence, especially among feminist scholars. It isn’t the first such novel, but it’s one of only a few at that time.
For precursors, we can go all the way back to 1762 with Sarah Scott’s novel A Description of Millenium Hall[sic], which describes a warm and supportive community of women who live pious and celibate lives as they pursue their deep commitment to female education. It’s interesting as a proto-feminist text, but not exactly a page-turner. Or, closer to Gilman’s time, in 1880, we might look to Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora: A Prophecy, which is a hollow Earth novel.
Learn more about Utopia: The Perfect Nowhere.
No Utopia Without Women
We generally think of utopia as a kind of double genre, always containing a certain amount of earnest longing and a certain degree of satire. After all, the very fact of finding a perfect or better society naturally asks us to rethink our own. In the hands of someone with a very specific political and cultural agenda, like a feminist, can we conceptualize a utopia that would have the utopian imagining without the satire?
Charles Fourier, the great socialist utopian of the early 19th century, believed that a utopian community would include equality among all members, and a big obstacle to organizing such a community was certainly the systemic social bias against women. Even Thomas More, in 1516, realized that a utopian society would treat women as more than second-class citizens.
It’s important to note the deep intersections between feminism and utopian thought. It’s also important to recognize that feminism isn’t just one unified idea: men and women should be equal. Feminism is a really complex set of ideas with a really complex history.
The Three Waves of Feminism
Feminist history is often separated into three waves, each of which includes both theory and practice—philosophy and activism. Now, first-wave feminism, which started at the end of the 19th century, was focused in America on gaining legal rights for women, especially the rights to hold property and to vote.
Second-wave feminism, which began in the 1950s and ’60s, dealt with more systemic types of gender discrimination, the kinds that can’t always be addressed through legal solutions, like issues of work-life balance.
Second- and third-wave feminism coexist in time, with third-wave feminism emerging in the 1980s and ’90s as a sort of backlash against the exclusivity of the first two waves, which were peopled almost entirely by white, middle- or upper-class women, usually straight, usually educated, and usually thinking mostly about the interests of their own group.
Third-wave feminism is much more inclusive, practically and philosophically, which means it’s open to more people—including men—but also that it opens up terms like gender and sexuality as far more fluid concepts.
Learn more about Woolf—fantastic feminism & periods of art.
The Fourth Wave?
Today, we’re at the brink of what we might call fourth-wave feminism, although there’s some debate in the scholarship. We might even dispense with the wave metaphor altogether, since it gives this impression of historical progression—first there was this idea, then this one, now this one—and that really simplifies women’s movements.
Even from this sketch we can see that utopian thinking could co-exist within any of these waves. So, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was writing at a time when the First Wave of Feminism was only beginning. She was one of the women who campaigned for equal voting rights. In this context, her literary works have contributed immensely to the movement.
Common Questions about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Utopia and Feminism
Charlotte Perkins’ best known non-fiction work, published in 1898, was Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution.
First-wave feminism, which started at the end of the 19th century, was focused in America on gaining legal rights for women, especially the rights to hold property and to vote. Second-wave feminism, which began in the 1950s and ’60s, dealt with more systemic types of gender discrimination, the kinds that can’t always be addressed through legal solutions, like issues of work-life balance.
Third-wave feminism is much more inclusive, practically and philosophically, than the previous two waves of feminism. This means it’s open to more people—including men—but also that it opens up terms like gender and sexuality as far more fluid concepts.