Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Writer and Activist (for Women’s History Month)

It’s important to remember that women haven’t always been encouraged to write. Or read. Or leave the house. As evidenced by this patronizing pencil ad. This kind of copy could only be authored by A.B. Dick.

March is Women’s History Month, and it’s a good time to remember this very important point. Use it or lose it, ladies. In this case “it” would be your creative potential, as well as your right to determine how it is used (dare I say, reproductive rights?!)

For Women’s History Month, I wanted to honor at least one literary lady. I therefore chose one of my favorites. As a niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the famed author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), Charlotte was well aware that the written word could be a catalyst for social change. Her own mother didn’t believe in such frivolities. As a hard working single mom, she forbade her kids to write fiction. But Charlotte struck out on her own.

A noted writer and women’s rights activist from the period around the 1900s, Gilman is best known for her women’s studies classic short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, which fictionalizes her experience of post partum depression. But her interest in justice was multi-faceted.

To me, this story is basically a suspenseful horror tale. It is a slow simmer and a very enjoyable read. But as my knowledge of Gilman’s work deepened over time, I started to admire her mostly as an activist. She was an independent publisher as well as a writer. She was a controversial yet respected lecturer on women’s rights.

It is a little known fact that, like many feminists of her time, she was concerned with the rights of non-human females as well. Perhaps this is because women in this country were still much closer to the times when they were legally and socially considered chattel, and more like non-humans in status than human men, in many ways.

 

The feminists of the time who were also vegetarian tended to focus on three or four major arguments:

  1. Slaughtering animals and messing with their bits was a violent pursuit, and increased violent tendencies in individuals as well as societies.
  2. Processing animal carcasses and cooking them took women much more time in the kitchen, which they argued could otherwise be spent on their activism.
  3. Plant foods are more affordable and more sustainable, which was actually an economics and environmental based argument for vegetarianism that went back to Plato, and beyond.
  4. Perhaps the least common argument, but one that did exist, was that elevating the condition of all animal life is connected to the elevation of all human life (ethics).

As with many other prominent thinkers from history, Charlotte’s animal rights work has been largely scrubbed from history by our conflicted, defensive culture. But her feminism remains.

Her Suffrage newspaper, the Forerunner, published all sorts of fiction and non-fiction in support of social reforms. She first ran Herland as a serial in that paper. The story gave humorous catharsis to both sexism and speciesism as she told the tale of bumbling white male explorers who found themselves in the realm of a tribe of females who reproduced through parthenogenesis. The women had to evolve in this way after all the men of their community went off to war and disappeared.

A Utopian and satirical work, Gilman’s land of women kept no animals for agriculture because agricultural animals took up land that was needed for plant crops. When asked what they did for milk, one of the women basically said, “we have plenty of milk…our own.”

Gilman was an activist at a time when many feminists recognized the overlapping oppression that also faces animals of other species. In 1903 the American Suffrage women had a conference where animal rights were a special topic of discussion. Yet again, this heritage has been “disappeared” from mainstream feminist consciousness. To read about vegetarianism (also called “food reform”) amongst early feminists, check out the article, “The Awakened Instinct,” by Leah Leneman. This is a British article, but plenty of American women were also food reformers, including Alice Paul.

In the modern era we have the luxury to contemplate our choices in behavior toward other animals, and the impact these have on our own ecosystem as well as personal health. Hopefully we can resurrect some of this history (or should we say, herstory).

Though they were actively denigrated by both men and other women for doing so, we have written records because of brave women writers like Charlotte, from a time when civil rights were very far from a foregone conclusion. Vigilance is always required for these rights to be maintained. That’s what Women’s History Month is all about.

Here is one of many poems that Charlotte wrote about her observations on human treatment of other animals. I also recommend Herland and this brilliant ancestor’s other works.

I should mention that I have an essay going into more depth about Charlotte’s vegetarian writing coming up in the Ashland Creek Press title, “Writing for Animals: a Nonfiction Anthology.” My piece is called, Between the Worlds: Writing Strategies that Bridge the Gap between Self and Other. Keep an eye on this site and my social media for release dates.

Keep on reading and writing, ladies and ghouls!

THE CATTLE TRAIN

Below my window goes the cattle train,
And stands for hours along the river park,
Fear, Cold, Exhaustion, Hunger, Thirst and
Pain;
Dumb brutes we call them – Hark!
The bleat of frightened mother -calling young,
Deep-throated agony, shrill frantic cries,
Hoarse murmur of the thirst-distended tongue
Up to my window rise.
Bleak lies the shore to northern wind and sleet,
In open-slatted cars they stand and freeeze
Beside the broad blue river in the heat
All waterless go these.
Hot, fevered, frightened, trampled, bruised
and torn;
Frozen to death before the ax descends;
We kill these weary creatures; sore and worn,
And eat them– with our friends.

-Charlotte Perkins Gilman-

 

Author: Leslie Linder

Leslie J Linder earned her Master of Divinity degree at Vanderbilt University. She currently lives and works in Downeast Maine. She is an Ordained Priestess at the Temple of the Feminine Divine in Bangor, Maine.

Leslie’s poetry has appeared in journals and online, including at the following sites: IMMIX, Wicked Banshee, Forage Poetry, and Rat’s Ass Review.