Sunday, January 23, 2011

Think About the Self

I am only myself;
I cannot be
anybody else.

Lately, I've been consumed in my research on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, studying her life and her writing in order to write the 10+ page critical essay that I need to submit as part of my grad school application. I originally picked her for a subject because I wrote a paper on her a couple of years ago; I thought I could merely expand on my previous research. That sounds fairly simple, doesn't it?

There certainly is a wealth of information about Gilman, and I've become so fascinated by her that I want to read as much of it as I can. I've taken many pages of notes and marked up and highlighted several books (the ones I own). But, as I was sitting down at my computer yesterday to finally compose a rough draft of the essay, I was suddenly overwhelmed at the largeness of this project. So many possibilities.... But, as I tell the student I tutor at Read For Literacy, "Don't look at the whole [word, story, newspaper] all at once; just take one part at a time." My student often forgets to do this, and so do I.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was known in her time (late 1800s/early 1900s) as a writer, poet, and lecturer. In the twenty-first century, she is best known for her story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," and her book, Women and Economics, the latter sometimes referred to as a culmination of her life's work, as it contains most of her ideas regarding society, education, and work that she most often lectured about.

Looking at the overwhelming "whole" of Gilman, one might say that she had a lot of "issues." But, in following my own advice, I will explore just one "part" of her here.

Much of Gilman's struggle throughout her life focused on her sense of self. When she married the first time, she felt that she had lost who she was as a person. This was partly because of the pressures of that particular era, which required many women to choose between having a career or getting married. In general, wives were expected to be docile and submissive. Gilman was not these things; still, she tried to be somewhat of the person her husband expected her to be. But, she could not be who she was not. When she left her husband after just a few years of marriage, she felt relieved.

On her own (and with a young daughter to support), she finally became who she had been becoming before she married. She re-found the important things in [her] life--exercise, both physical and mental; writing; reading; art; and expressing her thoughts of social reform (which she did via the lecture circuit).

When she married the second (and final) time, the result was much happier. Her second husband was sensitive to her needs, which included letting her support herself after they were married (one of her stipulations of marriage). The two of them were intellectual equals as well, which was possibly what Gilman considered the most important aspect of a marriage. They pursued their hobbies and careers in a bliss of equality. She loved and respected him; he loved and respected her. They were the dearest sort of friends and lovers, which seems to me the best sort of marital union. That kind of union, though, can rarely be met if each partner has not realized his/her true sense of self. One needs to know who she is and what she wants to do before entering into a relationship where she will, hopefully, be allowed to continue to be who she is: herself.

Although I think Charlotte Perkins Gilman would be pleased at how some aspects of our society have changed since her death in 1935, I think she would be appalled at other aspects. Among the things I think she would be pleased about is this organization: Hardy Girls Healthy Women. Not only does this organization stress physical activity for girls (which Gilman was a major proponent of), it also lets girls be themselves and discover who they are in healthy ways.

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