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.