In 1892, a brilliant short story was published in New England Magazine. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is equally chilling whether read as a horror story, an account of madness, a condemnation of prevailing theories about women's mental health or a withering example of how husbands of that day condescended to their wives. And it retains its power more than 100 years later.
Its author was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, born in Hartford on July 3, 1860, a great-granddaughter of Lyman Beecher and great-niece of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In her lifetime, Gilman wrote thousands of works, including magazine pieces, books and poetry, primarily on feminist issues such as women's suffrage and economic independence. Her 1898 book "Women and Economics" was translated into seven languages.
When Charlotte was a child, her father abandoned the family, forcing them to move constantly and accept the charity of relatives. She vowed never to marry. But while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, she met artist Charles Walker Stetson, and they wed and had a daughter.
The baby's birth led to a depression that lasted several years, and she entered treatment with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell in 1886. He advocated a rest cure and insisted, Gilman later wrote, that she "live as domestic a life as possible, have but two hours' intellectual life a day and never touch pen, brush or pencil again." This was in 1887.
"I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over," she wrote.
She rejected his advice and "went to work again - work, the normal life of every human being."
That experience inspired "The Yellow Wallpaper," in which the narrator, suffering what we now call postpartum depression, is locked - to aid her recovery, according to her patronizing doctor husband - in a room decorated with a hideous, torn ochre wall covering. It is a room where, she fears, others have been locked up before. She sees in the paper's undulating pattern a woman - perhaps many women - entrapped and reduced to creeping around and around the room's periphery. It is both a horror story and a metaphor for the debilitating powerlessness many women felt before they achieved the right to vote and other rights men took for granted.
Her marriage to Stetson failed, and she moved to California and began writing. In 1900, she married her first cousin, George Houghton Gilman. She published her own journal, "Forerunner," from 1909 to 1916, and "Herland," a book about a utopian society made up entirely of women, in 1915. When it was republished in the 1970s, readers found it a sharp and still relevant satire.
When she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer in 1935, the early right-to-die advocate "chose chloroform over cancer," as her suicide note put it.
In 1994, Gilman was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun