1860 – 1935
In addition to her social work, Gilman was a writer, reformer, commercial artist, and ardent feminist. Her father left the family during Gilman’s infancy, and, due to poverty, her mother often left her in the care of her aunts (including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Her mother, traumatized by abandonment, forbade her children from indulging in fiction or making strong friendships. Gilman wrote in her memoirs that her mother only showed affection when she thought her children were asleep.
Gilman grew up in Providence, RI, a self-declared tomboy, and she married artist Charles Walter Stetson in 1884. Following the birth of their child, Katharine Beecher Stetson, Gilman was subjected to a “rest cure” treatment for severe post-partum depression (the treatment consisted of confinement and isolation). The experience would incite her to write her most famous work, a short story.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1890) explores a descent into madness, and a growing obsession with the wretched wallpaper in the room from which she cannot leave. The wallpaper, her only stimuli, is carefully studied and described until she finds that it begins to mutate, and the narrator draws horrifying conclusions in studying the changing patterns around her.
Gilman sent a copy of the story to Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, the doctor responsible for prescribing her rest-cure (after whom the rattlesnake ‘crotalus mitchellii’ was named). His treatment (which was later expanded to include abundant feeding, massage, and electricutive therapy) was also used on Virginia Woolf, whose novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) features a traumatized war-veteran who commits suicide rather than be prescribed a rest-cure to calm himself.