March is Women’s History Month. My reading of actual history as of late has focused on the ancient Celts, so I confess to falling behind on modern women’s history. Nevertheless, I came across an often forgotten piece in an unexpected way. For quite some time I’ve wanted to read some work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is known as a gothic classic. Since a short story isn’t enough to make up an entire book, publishers have arranged different combinations of her tales into thin books that can be sold as a unit. I purchased the Dover Thrift Editions’ version of The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories. It was there that I learned Gilman was an early feminist who seems to have become unsung in more recent times. Her fiction, at least as reflected in this particular edition, demonstrates the truth of the assertion.
Most of the tales in this little book require only a few minutes to read. Although written around the turn of the nineteenth century, her stories anticipated many modern developments for women. Her protagonists see the inequalities between the genders and work to overcome them. They prove themselves successful at business and setting up their own houses. There’s a gentleness to these stories that suggests quiet confidence may eventually wear down the often inflated male ego. I found myself captivated even after finishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself. Gilman isn’t judgmental, but she does note how unfairly the system operates. She also offers solutions.
In this month of women’s history, it seems appropriate to rediscover one of the female writers who personally worked for women’s rights and expressed herself so fluently in fiction. Her “If I Were a Man,” although clearly a period piece, takes a woman into her husband’s body. She walks in his shoes, literally, and sees what “the world of men” is like. This leads to both understanding and, above all, learning. This would seem to be the very heart of history. We read to learn both from what we did correctly to what we did wrong. We have done so terribly much wrong. The historical oppression of women is one of the greatest examples of our inability to catch up with our own ideals of justice and fairness. There were historical reasons for this, yes, but we have moved beyond those times. If only we’d act like it. Although my reading doesn’t always keep in sync with the seasons, discovering Charlotte Perkins Gilman at this point in time was somehow more appropriate than anticipated.