Women and Economics — History Guides Us, the Fierce, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“to free an entire half of humanity from an artificial position; to release vast natural forces from a strained and clumsy combination, and set them free to work smoothly and easily as they were intended to work; to introduce conditions that will change humanity from within, making for better motherhood and fatherhood, better babyhood and childhood, better food, better homes, better society, this is to work for human improvement along natural lines.”
— Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics — A Study of the Economic Relations Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution
“Well, what plays have you always wanted to do?”
“I’ve always wanted to write adaptations of the Aristophanes play Lysistrataand a short feminist novella that I read in college.”
“Well, why don’t you and I’ll put it in the season.”
“Yes, pick one, you have eight months, and you can direct it.”
“Ok then, The Yellow Wallpaper it is.”
In March of 2003, we opened The Yellow Wallpaper an adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella written and directed by me, at Theatre Schemeater in Seattle, WA — a theater that I both acted and directed in for what some call the heyday of Seattle Fringe Theatre in the early 2000’s. My adaptation was one of the first that wasn’t a one-woman show but a full-blown play with characters.
That conversation above was with the very insightful Rob West, Artistic Director at the time, who said, “I believe in you” and lit a spark for me to put pen to paper for something I’d always wanted to do. Thank you for that Rob.
I put my head down and started to research Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose life and story ended up becoming the lead character of “Charlotte” in my adaptation of her play. This happened as I read about her life and started to read her other books, which are unbelievably inspiring. The 1890’s being that period in which there was an intense political debate, the Women’s Movement was seeking the vote and reforms, and where women were published, the material available is powerful and palpable.
The Yellow Wallpaper itself is one of the first pieces of feminist literature in the United States that is taught in high school English classes and colleges for Women’s Studies programs. That is where I came across it the first time. The story itself is written in the first person and is semi-autobiographical which Gilman wrote after a severe bout of postpartum depression. It is only 6,000 words long with a focus on women’s health both physically and mentally. It was first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent American feminist, sociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a Utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. (from Google Books)
Her treatise, Women and Economics — A Study of the Economic Relations Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution was the thing that cracked open the writing of my adaptation as I leveraged many of her words and turned them into monologues. These became Charlotte (the character’s) spoken lectures as part of my interpretation of the character being not only a writer but a speaker who was lecturing while pregnant and then going through postpartum depression. It was important to me that every word of Gilman’s novella stand in my adaptation unchanged. I wrote additional dialogue, a few monologues and added in Gilman’s own words taken from her writing and speeches.
“The labor of women in the house, certainly, enables men to produce more than they otherwise could; and in this way, women are economic factors in society. But so are horses.” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics
Women and Economics is a must read in the history of women’s rights, suffrage and frankly a map of modern feminism by encouraging conditions to change humanity and gender roles from within. To remember that this struggle to find one’s place, to earn money, to be a mother has been going on since 1890 (well longer than that) is something to blend into our blueprints of where we are in this very moment today. Women and Economics was translated into seven languages and is hailed as the “bible” of the women’s movement. Gilman was a classical theorist asking the questions of how men and women came to have their respective roles and why societies have ended up developing gender inequalities.* Gilman’s life story is one that is unconventional and full of breaking societal norms as well.
I read two articles this morning that made me think of all of this today in Time Magazine — Melinda Gates: The World is Finally Listening. Me Too. Me Too. Me Too and When Women Reach a Critical Mass of Influence.
One voice lights the spark, millions of voices move mountains. We are at a place of critical mass, and I couldn’t be more fired up about what is to come. Don’t get me wrong there is a constant level of pissed-off-ness that runs through my everyday brain. But there is a crack in the fissure of roles, power, and influence that has taken shape over the outrageous goings on of this past year, and past 200, maybe 2000 years that is ripe and ready to burst. I truly believe that in remembering and reading and studying those that have come before us, we see and understand that this struggle is real, and real damn long and ready for an explosion. I keep saying that empathy makes us human, action makes us warriors. I am adding “words” to this phrase after reading a quote by my fierce friend and beautiful writer, Justine Musk yesterday.
Maybe the truly revolutionary thing
is to be a warrior
who can write poetry,
a lover who knows how to fight.
So, Empathy makes us human, (words and) actions makes us warriors.
I want to be a warrior, a writer, a lover that also knows how to fight.
I give gratefulness, thanks, a hell yes to the women who have come before us, saying the same things that we are today. I hope that with this additional critical mass, the volume of our voices, and along with the good men in our lives, we truly change the shape of gender roles, equality for race and gender and what it means to be human for decades to come.
It has been humbling to see my adaptation continue to be produced in colleges and universities across the world and used for graduate student’s thesis projects. With thanks to Rob West, the beautiful cast and crew of our Theatre Schmeater production, Mary Jane Gibson who was an extraordinary Charlotte, to Melinda Benton-Muller for producing/directing the first college production, and to James Newman, my guidepost and editor in chief.
If you are so interested here are a few of Gilman’s other works, if they don’t get you fired up, I don’t know what will.
The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
Women and Economics (1898)
Concerning Children (1900)
The Home (1903)
Human Work (1904)
The Man-Made World (1911)
She also founded the journal Forerunner (1909–16),
Info & rights to The Yellow Wallpaper Adaptation by Heather Newman
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Written by Head Maven & CEO, Heather Newman, Creative Maven
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Photo found on Pinterest, props to who created it. Thank you.