Much like what happens in real life, time moves forward in the realm of studying history. This post, I lamentably must begin, is my last post that will happen partially in the 19th century. I would like to say farewell to the century that was least represented in my high school education and highly emphasized now in my college one. And I’d like to do this farewell by chatting about Jane Addams and depressingly racist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Jane Addams is special because we actually talked about her in my high school US History class (the class that began with the civil war and ended in the beginning of Vietnam, where we talked about approximately three women and did not cover the 19th amendment). Born in 1860, Addams graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881 and spent the next eight years avoiding marriage and missing academia. She began studying medicine, but her own health declined to the point where she couldn’t keep up the course work. When she was 27, she went on a tour of Europe with her friend (and possible lover?) Ellen Starr. As a part of this tour, they visited Tonybee Hall in London — a groundbreaking new settlement house. In 1889, the pair leased a building in Chicago, and Hull House was born. Hull House provided low-income people with access to community programs like child care, a public kitchen and boarding rooms for young women. Addams, ideologically a feminist, publicly opposed entrance into the first World War and was expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution. Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life and career as a social worker. She died in 1935. For more info about Jane Addams, click here.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, on so many levels, was one of the most brilliant feminist thinkers of her day. Most often remembered in literature classes as the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman wrote a prolific amount of fiction and feminist theory. Gilman, like Addams, was born in 1860 and died in 1935. However, Gilman’s upbringing, due to an absentee father, was much more spuradic than Addams’, leading Gilman to question the ideology of separate spheres. She would go on to critique it harshly. Gilman (who was related to Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe through her deadbeat dad) bounced from home to home of different relatives and realized that if her mother had been able to secure financial and political autonomy, then her life would not be so chaotic. She thus saw separate spheres and the duty of women as childbearers as an issue to be corrected. Gilman temporarily lost her mind in relation to the rest cure and Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, and for the rest of her life, she considered herself to be feeble-minded and a pinch hysterical. After she became well again, she left her husband and began a career speaking against the dangers of social differences based on sex.
Gilman’s work as a feminist thinker and women’s rights activist was built off of the idea that civilizations are evolving (the civilization discourse) and that some civilizations are more advanced than others. “Some” meaning Anglo-Saxon society, and “others” meaning racial minorities. By relegating half of the race (the women) to work that was not good for advancing civilization, the white race was stunting itself. As the most advanced race, the white community needed to be utilizing its female half towards racial advancement. Charlotte Perkins Gilman built her feminism on the foundation of sanctioned racism (racism, by the way, is not cool). Gilman even believed that African American people ought to be required to serve in military labor camps until they reached a higher level of social evolution. We tend to sweep Gilman’s racism under the rug so that her work as a feminist can be glorified, but we really ought to take a look at her racist theories too. For more information about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, click here.