Suffrage, madness and creativity

Suffrage, madness and creativity

We owe thanks to Charlotte Perkins Gilman for empowering women and enlightening men through her writing.

By Ellen Snortland 06/09/2011

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A historical house in Pasadena, near the Foothill (210) Freeway  and Fair Oaks Avenue, has a commemorative plaque that pays tribute to a brave woman to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude: Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Born in 1860, she died in Pasadena in August 1935. She took her own life by breathing chloroform after learning that she had breast cancer. While she died in Pasadena, we have more of a claim on her than that. It was here in the Crown City that she became an incredibly prolific writer, speaker and progressive over several productive years.

Wow. Talk about someone who talked her talk and walked her walk! She was an early progressive thinker and argued for ideas that we as a society are still grappling with: gender roles as pertaining to profession, domestic duties, child care and even euthanasia, a still shocking proposition for a lot of people.

Gilman is most famous for her Pasadena-penned, ground-breaking short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which, although fiction, was based on her actual life experience with the depths of post-partum depression. She was given astoundingly bad but typical-for-the-era advice from a physician when she became suicidal after the birth of her daughter. The medical thinking at the time was that women were naturally inferior to men, and that they could literally die from over-stimulation. So Gilman was sent to bed, essentially house arrest, for her depression. To give you a context for the time, serious people — women and men — often promulgated lame-brained ideas, such as a woman’s ovaries would shrivel up if she voted. (I’m sure some women, after their eighth child said, “Hey, I wanna vote, and soon!”)

Charlotte’s utopian novel, “Herland,” was cited as “An important feminist work, long forgotten…” by David Pringle in his “The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction” (1990). In 1915, Gilman was using gender as a provocative science fiction trope, one familiar to “Star Trek” lovers: gender-bending as a way to view current absurdities.

Gilman is listed as one of the top 100 influential women to gain the vote for women. She undoubtedly held suffrage meetings in Pasadena, an urban area that had a strong presence with men who supported women’s suffrage.

I recently visited the Pasadena Museum of History, where I got access to an unknown scrapper’s Women’s Suffrage scrapbook. So few people know about how women in California won the right to vote in 1911, the same year that Pasadena celebrated its 25th anniversary, and how prominently men figured into the battle to enfranchise women.

Article after article mentioned prominent male citizens who stood shoulder to shoulder with their wives, sisters and daughters in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment that would “allow” women to vote at the federal level.

We owe Charlotte Perkins Gilman for contributing mightily to the conversations that continue to be part of the public discourse. It’s fitting that this issue pays tribute to her. n

Ellen Snortland leads a writers’ workshop in Altadena. Contact her at

PS: For the first time in Pasadena I’m teaching 6- to 12-year-olds how to set boundaries through the nonprofit IMPACT Personal Safety. This co-ed class will be held on June 18 and June 25 at St. James Methodist Church at 2033 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena.  For registration information, visit


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