WILLA v4 - Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Feminization of Education

Volume 4
Fall 1995

Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Feminization of Education

by Deborah M. De Simone

Within the last decade or so, Charlotte Perkins Gilman has been experiencing something of a renaissance. While this prominent turn-of-the-century intellectual leader languished in obscurity until Carl Degler resurrected her in the mid-1950's, today there are two biographies, two collections of her writings, numerous literary criticisms; and "The Yellow Wallpaper' proclaims her "feminist manifesto," not only in print but as adapted for Masterpiece Theater, the opera, and the ballet. l Why all the renewed interest in Gilman? According to Mary Hill and Ann Lane, the answers lie in the life experiences of a rather extraordinary woman who waged a lifelong battle against the restrictive patriarchal social codes for women in late nineteenth-century America. From this battle, Gilman developed a controversial conception of womanhood.

Born in 1860, Gilman, a self-educated intellectual, dedicated her life to serving humanity. When her lover unexpectedly proposed, she was suddenly torn between work and marriage. After years of debating whether to marry or not to marry, she consented and to the best of her abilities assumed the traditional roles of wife and mother, only to suffer a debilitating nervous breakdown. When her treatment of total rest drove her close to insanity, she was cured by removing herself physically from her home, husband, and finally her child, and by engaging in and writing about the social movements of the day.

Using her extraordinary life experiences as a female within a patriarchal system, Gilman redefined womanhood, declaring women the equal of men in all spheres of life. This "new woman" was to be an intelligent, well-informed, and well-educated free thinker, the creator and expresser of her own ideas. She was to be economically self-sufficient, socially independent, and politically active. She would share the opportunities, duties, and responsibilities of the workplace with men, and together they would share the solitude of the hearth. Finally, the new woman was to be as informed, assertive, confident, and influential as she was compassionate, nurturing, loving, sensitive--a woman of the world as well as of the home. Gilman's vision of an autonomous female challenged not only the traditional "cult of true womanhood" but the concepts and values of family, home, religion, community, capitalism, and democracy. 2

Moreover, Gilman's writings about these tensions and struggles between marriage and career, social expectations, and personal goals continue to impact women's decisions to day, while illuminating her arguments for abating them has greatly heightened our understanding of the power of social norms on the individual. More importantly, Gilman's life and works provided us a role model.

Unfortunately, this focus on Gilman's life experiences has lead scholars to view Gilman first and foremost as a feminist and her place within women's history. However, Gilman's feminist ideas clearly have a place within educational history and the long tradition of female authors who wrote in order to transform society by educating other women. Like her great aunt Catharine Beecher, Gilman illustrated the need to systematize instruction in the domestic realm and to develop institutions for teacher education. Like M. Carey Thomas, she emphasized the need to offer an intellectually challenging higher education for women that was on par with the collegiate liberal arts education, one that would train women in critical and analytical thought. Like Jane Addams, she viewed education as integral to democracy, and she wanted children's schooling to promote unity by teaching them to direct and adjust their own actions to those of others.

Only Jane Roland Martin in Reclaiming a Conversation has explored Gilman's ideas on education. 3 Yet Martin placed Gilman within the historical and philosophical discussion regarding the ideal of an educated woman. Neither Gilman's critique of the educational system at the turn of the century nor her ideas on early childhood education were considered fully. Further, her ideas on citizenship education were explored only within the context of motherhood and a female utopia. Thus, Gilman has not been viewed within the context of progressive education, early childhood education, or citizenship education. Moreover, the centrality of education within Gilman's feminist philosophy has been lessened. Like John Dewey, Gilman sought through education to create a more democratic society. Yet Gilman's conception of education and vision of democracy were more radical than his. In reaction to the patriarchal nature of society, Gilman envisioned a feminized educational system and a feminized society. By feminizing the values, attitudes, and sensibilities of education, as well as the content, methodology, and

philosophy, Gilman hoped to end gender discrepancies within society by creating a fundamentally new woman.

Gilman shared many basic educational ideas with the generation of thinkers who matured during the period of "intellectual chaos" caused by Darwin's Origin of the Species . 4 Marked by the belief that individuals can direct human and social evolution, many progressives came to view education as the panacea for advancing social progress and for solving such problems as urbanization, poverty, or immigration. The feminized educational system that Gilman devised was based on this belief in the powers of education and her knowledge of the educational experiments undertaken at Hull House in the 1890's. She spent three months at Hull House during the period when John Dewey was active there, and Dewey's influence on Jane Addams and hers on him, are well documented. 5 No clear evidence indicates that Gilman read or corresponded with John Dewey, although she often recast others' ideas, blending them with her own, without acknowledging the originator. Whether the result of observation, reading, or conversation, the similarities between these three educational theorists are marked. All emphasized the importance of environment in education, all sought to connect learning to the experience of the child and to the needs of society, all recognized the direct relationship between education and de mocracy, and all advocated learning by doing. Yet only Gilman discussed education in terms of gender discrepancy and the impact of education (or the lack of education) on women.

Gilman had begun to explore the issue of gender discrepancy within society in the mid-1880's when she first began her career as a writer. Her first published essays focused on the inequity found within marriage and child-rearing. Her collection of poetry, In This Our World , furthered her reputation as a writer about women's condition as her poems criticized suffocating love and the association of women with sin. Gilman emerged as an acknowledged force on the literary scene with her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." Her gripping tale of a new mother's descent into madness brought to light the inequity between men and women within the family and the overwhelming nature of Victorian social norms for womanhood. Not until the publication of Women and Economics, however, did Gilman systematically analyze issues of gender discrepancy or the relationship between education and women. Arguing from the vantage-point of evolutionary science, Gilman illustrated how humans "are the only animal species in which the female depends upon the male for food, the only animal in which the sex-relation is also an economic relation." 6 Women's economic dependence resulted in their being "denied the enlarged activities which have developed intelligence in man, denied the education of the will which only comes by freedom and power." 7 The liberation of women thus required education and the opportunity to use the fruits of their studies to establish social as well as economic independence.

After the success of Women and Economics , the issue of female education became a familiar theme in Gilman's works. A prolific writer, she published one collection of poetry; seven theoretical treatises, countless essays for popular and scholarly journals, and her own journal called the Forerunner , which she alone wrote for seven years and in which she serialized four full-length novels. Gilman's work constantly explored the role of women in society, questions of what knowledge was of most worth to women, ways women might use that knowledge to improve society. Though she had a mixed audience in both Europe and the United States, Gilman directed her message to those women whom she felt were not engaged in the larger movements of the time and therefore needed to expand their sphere outside the home.

While much of her work dealt with education implicitly, a great deal of the discussions were explicit. In an article she wrote for the Independent titled "Child Labor and the Schools," Gilman painted a broad view of education, defining its "real interest" as "the free exercise of natural faculties, the pursuit of knowledge for the love of it, the reverence for the truth, the delight in feats of mental skill, and in all daily wonders of an unfolding world of fact and law." 8 In the Forerunner she said the goal of education was to teach individuals to "see clearly, to understand, to properly relate one idea to another, to refuse superstition and mere repetition of other people's opinion." 9

Throughout all her works on women and education, Gilman's ultimate goal was to develop autonomous individuals, for rational behavior was possible only if self-governing men and women could connect knowledge with action and could judge others' opinions in relation to their own. Autonomy depended on the development of two powers, "a clear, far-reaching judgment, and a strong, well used will." 10 Judgment and will were the crucial ingredients of citizenship in fostering respect for others, in developing critical thinking skills, and in guarding against "the habit of acting without understanding, and also of understanding without acting." ll For Gilman, criticism was based in experience and imagination; for how could we criticize something without some knowledge of it or without some vision of what it might be? Therefore, education must emphasize imagination as well as truth and reason, self-discipline as well as self-restraint. Moreover, education must combine all these skills to develop the faculties of reason so essential to rational and judicious-acting individuals and so crucial to avoid "that fatal facility in following other people's judgment and other people's will which tends to make us a helpless mob, mere sheep, instead of wise free, strong individuals." 12

Gilman's most explicit discussions of education and its impact on women were presented in The Man-Made World , Herland, and Concerning Children. In The Man-Made World , Gilman analyzed the androcentric nature of society and strove to "point out what are masculine traits as distinct from human ones, and what has been the effect on our human life of the unbridled dominance of one sex." 13 While the book explored gender discrepancy within such areas as literature, law, history, sports, and religion, a great deal of attention was paid to the realm of education. Believing that the "origin of education is maternal," Gilman criticized the degree of competition in the schools which perpetuated the patriarchal culture, one based on the "male characteristics" of desire and combat. l4 "Desire, the base of the reward system, the incentive of self-interest" led to an unwillingness to learn when pleasure was not guaranteed, while "Combat, the competitive system" emphasized winning rather than the pleasure of learning or the exercising of the mind. 15 The real problem, for Gilman, was that self-interest and competition did not develop the "human qualities" within men and women that enable society to "learn from wide and long experience to anticipate and provide for the steps of the unfolding mind, and train it through carefully prearranged experiences, to a power of judgment, of self-control, or social perception." l6

In recognizing that the educational philosophy at the turn of the century was both determined by the androcentric nature of society and affected by the cult of domesticity, Gilman argued that female instruction was masculine in its content and philosophy as well as in its methods and pedagogy. Building upon the earlier efforts of Francis Wright and Catharine Beecher towards establishing alternative philosophies of instruction, Gilman maintained that the predominant educational philosophy was still too narrow since masculine traits were defined as human traits and female traits were defined as other. 17 Thus, women's emergence into primary, secondary, and higher education was but further immersion into institutions marked by the male characteristics of competition, self- interest, and self-expression. In both The Man-Made World and His Religion and Hers, she argued that this imbalance in the nature of women's education resonated in the types of knowledge extended to women: the knowledge considered of most worth to women was the knowledge determined, accumulated, and organized by men; it was masculine knowledge presented within a masculine culture in a masculine way. l8

In Herland , her all female utopian novel, Gilman suggested how society and education might be different if motherhood rather than manliness became the cultural ideal. In a land where neither the private home nor the nuclear family existed, the characteristics of love, service, ingenuity, and efficiency became the dominant social norms and motherhood became a social rather than a biological category. "Here we have Human Motherhood--in full working use," explained a Herlander to a male intruder in her country. "The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them--on the race. You see, we are Mothers." l9 Therefore, education became the "highest art, allowed only to our highest artists" and childrearing emerged as "a culture so profoundly studied, practiced with such subtlety and skill, that the more we love our children the less we are willing to trust that process to unskilled hands--even our own." 20 As Jane Roland Martin so aptly noted, in Herland "the interests of women, children, and the state become one, so that an education for citizenship is an education for motherhood, just as an education for motherhood is an education for citizenship." 21

In comparing education for citizenship with education for motherhood, Gilman stressed social responsibility as central to education. Moreover, she illuminated the imbalanced nature of the androcentric society and its disregard for the qualities of womanhood evident in citizenship. Accordingly, the existing male-dominated culture needed to be feminized; it needed to reevaluate social values and attitudes towards women and women's role within the economy and society at large. Education, for Gilman, was the most effective way to transform society, so the most effective way to feminize society was to feminize education.

To feminize education would be to make it motherly. The mother does not rear her children by a system of prizes to be longed for and pursued; nor does she set them to compete with one another, giving to the conquering child what he needs, and to the vanquished, blame and deprivation.... Motherhood does all it knows to give each child what is most needed, to affectionately and efficiently develop the whole of them. 22

The emphasis on social responsibility, specialized knowledge, and common characteristics in education created a system in which women could develop to their full potentials. In teaching women to dedicate their lives to the common good rather than the familial good, education liberated women from the "chamber and scullery work" of the home and helped them to recognize their connection, commitment, and contribution to the larger world. The emphasis on social responsibility enabled women to participate in "human work" and to become active members of the economy. In devising an educational system that de-emphasized masculine and feminine character traits, Gilman enabled women to enter and to act as full and equal members of society. Trained in similar manners, exposed to the same types of knowledge, encouraged towards parallel goals, women, in Gilman's educational philosophy, would be empowered to assume a myriad of new roles and to enter into various types of relationships with men. Through a gender-balanced education, women and men would develop into socially active, intellectually stimulating, financially self-reliant, civically responsible, personally courageous human beings.

Based on her knowledge of the kindergarten movement, the experimental education she observed at Hull House, and her belief that child care must be available if women are to enter the work force, Gilman adapted the educational ideas of Froebel to meet the needs of the very young. "Civilized society," Gilman wrote in Concerning Children , "is responsible for civilized childhood, and should meet its responsibilities" by attending to the needs of all its young. 23 As depicted in Herland , infant education became a social responsibility, not the responsibility of the biological parents. In arguing for the extension of responsibility to all children through a collectivist approach to early childhood education, Gilman noted the frustration of many women with the inability to properly care for their children. It was absurd to assume that each mother, educated for neither marriage, social service, nor motherhood, was a natural-born teacher of children. "You cannot expect every mother to be a good school educator or a good college educator. Why," she asked, "should you expect every mother to be a good nursery educator?" 24

Infant education, in Gilman's view, "should be, as far as possible, unconscious." Such an education would commence in babyhood and involve a "beautiful and delicately adjusted environment...in which line and color and sound and touch are all made avenues of easy unconscious learning [so that] there is no sharp break between 'home' and 'school.'" 25 Babygardens and the method of unconscious education would provide major intellectual and social benefits, for they supplied "the world with young citizens of unimpaired mental vigor, original powers and tastes, and strong special interest" who learned from infancy "to say 'we' instead of 'I.'" 26 Finally, Gilman firmly believed that infant education should be as scientific and specialized as all other levels of education and that the instructors should be as well trained and professional as all other teachers.

Perceiving the roots of education as maternal, Gilman thought women were best fitted for child care. Herein lay a fundamental paradox between her recognition of the symbiotic relations between women and children--that any changes in the status of women affected children--and her struggle to open the parameters of professional opportunities to women. By arguing that feminizing education would make it "motherly" and that the nature of education was "maternal," Gilman offered a theory that failed to break with the Victorian emphasis on the unique qualities of womanhood. Ironically, her call for infant education was, in many ways, a call for the professionalization of motherhood that channeled women into areas, albeit professionalized, traditionally within women 's sphere of influence. Further, in addressing her comments and concerns mostly to problems of the middling and upper classes, Gilman excluded large numbers of women and men of various economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds from her social vision, never suggesting their role in this new, gender-balanced society.

Throughout her long and distinguished career as a feminist writer and lecturer, Gilman was never comfortable with labels. "I was not a reformer but a philosopher," she wrote in her autobiography. "I worked for various reforms, as Socrates went to war when Athens needed his services, but we do not remember him as a soldier. My business was to find out what ailed society, and how most easily and naturally to improve it." 27 The way she found "most easily and naturally" to improve society was through education. "I am a teacher," she declared in a statement rarely noted by scholars. 28 Gilman used her lectures and publications deliberately to teach present and future generations about the possibilities that lay open to them. Her educational efforts were twofold: she wrote about education, and she wrote to educate. All of her works focused on women; some of them commented on schooling, but almost all included her critique of the informal education women received within the home and the community. Though written a century ago, Gilman's critique of womanhood and education remains potent as society continues to struggle with issues of gender and women continue to struggle for equality, independence, and autonomy.

Works Cited

  1. Carl Degler, "Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism," American Quarterly 7 1(1956): 21 -39; Mary Hill, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist ,1860-1898 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980); Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990); Ann J. Lane, ed, The Charlotte Perkins Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings By Charlotte Perkins Gilman (New York: Bantam Books, 1989).
  2. Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820- 1860," American Quarterly 18 (Summer 1966): 151 - 174.
  3. Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of The Educated Woman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
  4. John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Holt. 1910): 1.
  5. Allen Davis, American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 96-97; Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).
  6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relations Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1966; 1st pub., (1898), 5.
  7. ibid, 195.
  8. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. "Child Labor and the Schools," Independent 64 (21 May 1908): 1137.
  9. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Our Brains and What Ails Them," Forerunner 3 (December 1912): 329.
  10. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland (New York: Pantheon Books, (1979), 66.
  11. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children (Boston: Small Maynard, 1900), 51-52.
  12. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children , 39.
  13. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World: Our Androcentric Culture (New York: Charlton, 1911), 19.
  14. ibid, 143.
  15. ibid, 151. It was not that Gilman saw these traits--desire and combat--as completely distasteful qualities, divorced from the development of individuality and intellect on the contrary, Gilman saw these traits as valuable and constructive when balanced with the "female" traits of nurture and cooperation. See page 20.
  16. ibid, 162.
  17. Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Man-Made World , 146.
  18. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World , 17; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (New York: The Century Co., 1923), 57-78.
  19. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland , 66.
  20. ibid, 82 and 83.
  21. Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation , 151.
  22. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Man-Made World , 152.
  23. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children , 294-295.
  24. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics , 284.
  25. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children , 144.
  26. ibid, 153 and 132.
  27. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row. 1975: 1st pub. 1935). 182.
  28. ibid, 311.

DEBORAH. DE SIMONE is an Assistant Professor of Education and serves on the Executive Committee of the Women's Studies Program at the College of Staten Island.

Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: De Simone, Deborah M. (1995). Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the feminization of Education. WILLA , Volume IV, 13-17.