Presentation - "Off the Wall": The Life and Works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A solo-performer piece by Ann Timmons

On March 24, playwright and author Ann Timmons and the Division of United States Studies presented a solo theater piece about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the reformer, author and activist described by Carrie Chapman Catt as "the most original and challenging mind" ever produced by the nineteenth-century women's movement. The performance, part of the Center's celebration of Women's History Month, was cosponsored by the Sewall-Belmont House (home of the historic National Women's Party) and the National Women's History Museum.

The play portrayed Gilman in a moment of private reflection, describing to the audience both her personal life and her theories about women's equality and social justice. Gilman was the product of a number of influences, among them the Calvinism of her great-grandfather Lyman Beecher, the activist traditions of family members Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, and socialism. She was a noted lecturer and a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Much of Gilman's work challenged the restrictive constructions of womanhood prevalent in American society in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a remarkable anticipation of future waves of the women's rights movement, Gilman argued not only that women should be educated, economically independent, and socially and politically active, but that women and men should share the responsibilities of both the workforce and the household. She advocated communal dining arrangements and professional child care. Timmons' play quoted Gilman's famous treatise, Women and Economics (1898): "The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of the female liver." Rather than use the word feminist, however, Gilman preferred to describe herself as a humanist in a "masculinist" world.

Gilman persevered with her reform activities in spite of a tumultuous personal life. Abandoned by her father, Gilman struggled with her relationships with her first husband, whom she divorced, and their daughter Katharine. Gilman also suffered from severe bouts of depression. After Katharine's birth, Gilman was debilitated by the nervous breakdown described in her famous short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892). Timmons' play demonstrated how the strength of Gilman's vision enabled her to overcome these obstacles and persevere in her work.

Following the hour-long production, audience members engaged Timmons in a question-and-answer session about Gilman's theories, her life, and her relevance to today's social problems.

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129