Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, to Frederick Beecher Perkins, a noted librarian and magazine editor, and his wife, Mary Fritch Perkins. Although Gilman’s father frequently left the family for long periods during her childhood and eventually divorced his wife in 1869, he directed Gilman’s early education, emphasizing study in the sciences and history. During his absences, Perkins left his wife and children with his relatives, thus bringing Gilman into frequent contact with her independent and reform-minded great aunts: Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Catherine Beecher, a prominent advocate of “domestic feminism”; and Isabella Beecher Hooker, an ardent suffragist. Their influence-and the example of her mother’s own self-reliance-were instrumental in developing Gilman’s feminist convictions and desire to effect social reform. Early in her life, Gilman displayed the independence she later advocated for women: she insisted on remuneration for her household chores, and later she paid her mother room and board, supporting herself as a teacher and a commercial artist.
At 24 she married Charles Walter Stetson, who was also an artist. Following the birth of their daughter in 1884, Gilman suffered a severe depression. She consulted the noted neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed his “rest-cure”: complete bed rest and limited intellectual activity. Gilman credited this experience with driving her “near the borderline of utter mental ruin.” The rest-cure served as the basis for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman’s best-known work. She removed herself from Mitchell’s care, and later, attributing her emotional problems in part to the confines of marriage, left her husband.
After her separation, Gilman moved to California, where she helped edit feminist publications, assisted in the planning of the California Women’s Congresses of 1894 and 1895, and was instrumental in founding the Women’s Peace Party. She spent several years lecturing in the United States and England on women’s rights and labor reform, and in 1898 she published Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. In 1900 she married George Houghton Gilman, who was supportive of her intense involvement in social reform. From 1909 through 1916 Gilman published a monthly journal, The Forerunner, for which she wrote nearly all of the copy. In 1935, having learned that she had inoperable cancer, Gilman took her life, writing in a final note that “when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.”