The Rebel Charlotte

I overheard a young woman, a Columbia University student,  seated next to me at a restaurant on the Upper West Side, chatting with her dad about school, say “I don’t understand why we need a course is women’s studies.  What’s the point?”

The point?  The point is that there was a time when you couldn’t vote or own property or hold a job outside of the home, when you had to subjugate your hopes, dreams, and desires to those of your husband and motherhood.   If you yearned for something different, perhaps to write, paint, or lecture, and you fell into a depression because you couldn’t do those things, then you were considered diseased or crazy.  You were put on bed rest, where you were to suppress any thoughts or stimulation about a career.  Visits, especially from your intellectual friends and relatives, were limited so as not to ignite that side of you. Thinking too much was your problem.   You may have been given a mixture of cocaine and alcohol to lift your spirits and get your head “right.”    You were labeled an unnatural woman.  You were told if you would just accept your role as wife and mother, your God-given role, your higher self, then your depression would disappear and all would be right in the world.   Problem is:  one role doesn’t fit all. 

This is what happened to writer, artist, social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, a short story about a woman going mad while on bed rest. You don’t have to know CPG or “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to have empathy for what a woman went through in 1880 because she wanted to write.   Read Wild Unrest, the story of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz.  It is not only about CPG, but about the human spirit, the soul, depression, creativity, transformation, change, and hope.  

After years of increased suffering, CPG finally bucked the advice of her doctors and the will of her husband.  Without financial means, she moved to California and divorced, saying:

“I have given up trying to assimilate. I have determined to be myself as far as I can in spite of circumstances. It is astonishing how my whole nature responds.”

Unimaginable in the 1880’s!  “The Yellow Wall-Paper” became a success and CPG began lecturing around the country for women’s economic and social freedom.  Her second marriage was to a man who delighted in her independent spirit.  As her creativity increased, her depressions, while still visiting, decreased in intensity and frequency.

I have friends on anti-depressants.   Some need them, of course.  Others, I wonder if it’s because they’ve lost the core of themselves so completely.

One hasn’t painted since her third daughter was born.  Another stopped the running she loved after the demands of motherhood consumed her.  Another can’t leave her house or drive her car because the more she stays home the more frightening the outside world becomes.    None of this is meant to disparage marriage or motherhood.  It’s homage to the soul of a woman in or out of marriage.  It’s a realization that the core of who we are lives or dies by what we do (or don’t do).  

To read of CPG’s journey is to read the history of women.  It’s to know what they suffered, the price they paid so that we can speak our minds, make our money, write our stories, live our lives – according to our own inner dictates.    That’s the point, oh young Columbia student.


10 replies
  1. buz whelan
    buz whelan says:

    I love when you write political. Makes me hot. BTW, have you ever read Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie?” You might enjoy it. A 19th century woman defiant of contemporary mores. Way ahead of her time.

  2. Diane Dimond
    Diane Dimond says:

    Put that young female Columbia student in a burka – put her in Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan.
    Then, after a year or a decade ask her if she still wonders “WHAT THE POINT IS?”

  3. Julio CAGE Martinez
    Julio CAGE Martinez says:

    AMEN–I’m a feminist through & through–I was raised w/ strong & inspiring women–my unending respect for the stronger sex is amazing—men may be physically stronger-at times- but women pull strength from places we cannot.
    In my family the women nursed the men back to health while compromising their own…
    2 examples come to mind:
    I get the flu & I automatically place myself on bed rest–boo-hoo
    my sister was cleaning out her garage w/ walking pneumonia saying, “I feel fine”–what?
    My friend was holding one kid in each arm as they threw up from being sick while throwing up herself , then she cleaned up & went to work afterward as a nurse–what?
    thanks for the “yellow wallpaper” reference–gonna look into that…
    If more women lead the world all these testosterone induced wars would not exist…
    Guys, I’m not male bashing( daytime talk shows take care of that)–I love
    being a man, but I’m a better man because of the women in my life…

  4. buz whelan
    buz whelan says:

    Bravo, Julio. Truly ‘manly men’ aren’t afraid to be feminist as well. I marched on the Mall (D.C.) in ’78 for the ERA extension. Sexism is just racism in drag.

  5. Kate Nee
    Kate Nee says:

    Hi Mo, I am a Mom just starting to do stand up in Boston. Was checking out the comics coming to Mohegun Sun and came across your date…. then your web page…and then this blog. CPG is one of my favorite authors ever. The Yellow Wallpaper is clearly a favorite as well. But I had given all of the books I had away to women who seemed lost – and realize now that I need a dose myself!

    I hope to catch you when you’re out there. Thanks for this piece.

    • Maureen Langan
      Maureen Langan says:

      Hi Kate,
      Good luck to you in your newest endeavor. I wish you much success. If some women realized how hard-earned independence was, they wouldn’t give it up so readily. All the best.


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