Social Sensitivity

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was written and published in 1892. The last three decades of the 19th century comprised a period of growth, development, and expansion for the United States. Following the Civil War, which ended in 1865, the United States entered the era of ReConstruction, which lasted until 1877. There were many social and cultural changes during this time. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) expounded his theory of evolution, and further incited controversy over women’s roles and issues. His theory of evolution flouted conventional wisdom, contending that women were actually more hardy and therefore more necessary than males because they were able to preserve the species. Because women were mothers, they were vital to survival. Darwin’s theory was used to promote both sides of what came to be known as the “Woman Question.” Some scientists argued that because women were physiologically robust, they were capable of being both mothers and professionals. Others contended that Darwin’s theory proved that motherhood was necessary to women and that it should retain a supreme priority in a woman’s life.

Throughout much of the 1800s the common-law doctrine of femme convert was prevalent in the United States. Under this law wives were the property of their husbands and had no direct legal control over their earnings, children, or belongings. Some state laws prohibited women from going into business without their husband’s consent, and some dictated that a husband could decide where the family would live. Other state laws dictated that adultery was not considered sufficient grounds for divorce if committed by a man, but it was if committed by the wife. Women also could not vote; they were not allowed to do so until 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. In 1875, in Minor v. Happensett, the Supreme Court ruled that states could withhold the right to vote from women as they did from criminals and the mentally insane. The rise of women’s consciousness regarding such oppression was influenced by their participation in the abolitionist movement prior to and during the Civil War. In 1869 the first organizations devoted to women’s rights were founded. By 1890 such organizations claimed a total of 500,000 members. While there were more women than men in high school by 1890, higher education was not an option for most women, and the only professions open to them were nursing and elementary education.

As a leading feminist and social activist during the late 19th century, Gilman argued that women’s secondary status in society, and especially their economic dependence on men, was not the result of biological inferiority but rather of culturally enforced behavior. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was, in part, a reaction to the oppression of women prevalent during this time, Gilman emphasized these beliefs. In 1926 she stated, regarding her work in general, “One girl reads this, and takes fire! Her life is changed. She becomes a power-a mover of others-I write for her.”