Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)

Sex and domestic economics are hand in hand – for women to survive, they have to depend on their sexuality and body in order to please their husbands.

• Societal pressure – young girls are compelled to conform in society and prepare for motherhood by playing with toys and wearing clothes that are specifically designed for and marketed to them.

A US writer, lecturer and campaigner for social reform, Gilman was a prominent early socialist feminist. In Women and Economics (1898), she analysed gender relations within a social Darwinian framework. Charlotte Perkins Gilman expressed her version of early feminism in both fictional works and scholarly writings.

Writing at a time when Darwinism was highly popular and being adapted to suit several political philosophies, not least the defence of free market capitalism, Gilman set up an attack on those who suggested that Darwin’s theories could be used to justify male domination of society.

Arguing that women’s subjugation derives essentially from their economic dependence on men, seen as ‘sex slavery’, Gilman called for an expansion of women’s access to paid employment made possible by a sharing of housework between husbands and wives and the increasing use of centralised nurseries and community kitchens. She also anticipated aspects of radical feminism in drawing attention to the ways in which androcentric culture prepares girls and women for a life of domesticity and subordination, and in championing the idea of the mother-centric world. Gilman thus highlighted the pressures on young girls to conform to social expectations about their future role that stem from, for example, the toys they play with and the clothes they wear. However, like most feminists of her era, she also accepted the existence of inherited sex-linked behaviours.

Darwinist theory, mainly the ‘survival of the fittest’, suggested that it was biologically inevitable that men should be the dominant sex because they were more suited to compete in nature, being stronger and not tied down by the need to rear children. This was no longer the case, Gilman argued, largely because the nature of economic activity had changed so much. There were no reasons why women could not play an equal part alongside men in modern economies. So the biological differences between men and woman had become irrelevant. She asserted that women had equal brain power to men and this justified their equality in modern society.

The way in which women should be liberated from such male domination lay in equality of opportunity and therefore a full place in the world of employment. Gilman was ahead of her time in this respect as she understood that girls are socialised from an early age, at home and in school, to take on the role of motherhood and homemaking rather than thinking of a wider role and career in the economic world outside the home. In other words, their confinement to roles in the home is culturally, not biologically determined.

This notion of ‘socialisation’ into a male- dominated culture did not reach widespread consciousness until the 1960s. Gilman’s perspective on the position of women in the modern economy was expressed succinctly and bluntly when she wrote in her book Women and Economics (1897): ‘The labor of women in the house, certainly, enables men to produce more wealth than they otherwise could; and in this way women are economic factors in society. But so are horses.’

However, it is probably in the field of family reform that Gilman is best remembered today. Concerned as she was by her belief that child rearing and housework amounted to domestic slavery, she campaigned for the destruction of the traditional nuclear family and its replacement by forms of communal living whereby child rearing and housework would be shared both among women and between men and women, thus freeing women for a wider role in society.