The Interview | With Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

A struggle for sanity and rights

By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

“The Yellow Wall-Paper,’’ a chilling depiction of a woman’s descent into madness, was written in 1890 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who drew on her own experience of mental breakdown and her struggle for women’s rights to write the story that established her as a writer and public intellectual. In “Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper,’ ’’ Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz brings Gilman’s life and work together in an engaging portrait of the woman and her times.

Horowitz, a history professor at Smith College, is the author of “Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America’’ among other works. She spoke from California.

Q. When did you first read “The Yellow Wall-Paper’’ and what impression did it make on you?

A. When I was a graduate student in the late 1960s, the women’s liberation movement was kicking in, and a student of my husband’s gave me a copy of New England Magazine to read. Xeroxing had just come in and I remember that faded copy so well. It was passed from hand to hand. At the time I was thinking of working on William Dean Howells. I knew that he had a daughter, Winifred, who died after years of suffering from hysteria. That was my first encounter with nervous disorders in the 19th century. I began to think about all those women in the attic.

Q. What led you into Gilman’s life?

A. That came much later. While writing my last book “Rereading Sex,’’ I became fascinated by the “nerves’’ diagnosis, and I immersed myself in the neurological literature of the 19th century. Here were all these doctors disseminating theories about “nervous prostration’’ — to each other in medical journals and to the public in popular books like “Fat and Blood: And How to Make Them.’’ I started with a list of people who were self-proclaimed sufferers and I finally settled on three: William James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Elizabeth Garrett, who, by the way, was the money behind the Johns Hopkins Medical School. The only one whose papers I hadn’t researched was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and she took over.

Q. What was the biggest revelation in the primary sources you read?

A. The Schlesinger Library at Harvard holds the diaries of her first husband, Charles Walter Stetson, much of which has been published. But when I examined the manuscript diaries I found crossed-out passages and that was like throwing meat to a wild dog. One day while I was in the reading room, a sudden burst of October light flooded the space and I could see underneath these crossed-out lines. Just for a flash. So the staff set me up with some really bright lights and I started to decipher things, letter by letter. I learned that when Gilman was questioning her relationship with Stetson, she said in essence, “I will give you my body but not my soul.’’ She was struggling with the issue of attaching herself to this man she desired and yet remaining independent.

Q. What did you conclude about the connection between Gilman’s life and her work?

A. I had lived with the long-held interpretation that she wrote “The Yellow Wall-Paper’’ as a response to S. Weir Mitchell. But I finally concluded that her rest cure in May 1887 under Mitchell was not very consequential. She did it; she felt better afterward; she came home eager for the sexual embrace but within weeks she began another pullback from Stetson. What I believe — and this remains contested — is that in the story she was really addressing the nature of her marriage and her relationship with a traditional man who lived psychologically under the conventions of 19th-century marriage. It was being bound to him that was so destructive to her under the rules that he set.

Q. What reading influenced Gilman?

A. For this book, I read what she read (including some really boring Scottish novels). Her intellect was oddly formed because her impoverished mother moved the family so often. She lived mainly with her mother and her brother in relative isolation. Her father sent her Popular Science Monthly from the time she was in her early teens. This magazine was the principal promoter of the British philosopher Herbert Spencer’s work — she was profoundly affected by Spencer — and of Darwin’s. When she became engaged in 1883, she started a subscription to the Alpha, a monthly dealing with sexual reform. In a letter to her friend Grace, Gilman says, “What pleases me most is that when I leave Walter entirely out of my calculations, and make no attempt to fulfill my wifely duties toward him; why strait way his various excellences become visible again and he becomes a loved companion instead of a nightmare husband. And under that arrangement a certain approximation to Alpha doctrines becomes possible as my health improves and conscience does not gnaw unceasingly.’’ Alpha doctrines involved a high evaluation of sexuality and of magnetism within a marriage but required sexual continence except for the purpose of procreation. Many of Gilman’s ideas come out of articles in the Alpha including ones that arise in “Herland,’’ the utopian romance of an all-woman island.

Q. Did the success of “The Yellow Wall-Paper’’ distract from her true relevance?

A. Writing the story was a cathartic moment that enabled her to emerge as a brilliant thinker on what we think of today as gender relations. But I would like to restore to public consciousness “Women and Economics,’’ which I believe is her great masterpiece. It starts out with the proposition that the human species is the only one in which the female depends upon the male for food. Everything else follows. Secondary sexual characteristics grow in order to appeal to the powerful male who will provide protection. (Laughs.) When I read that, I see today’s heels getting higher and skirts getting shorter.

Anna Mundow, is a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts. She can be reached by e-mail at