Plunging Gilman’s Women and Economics

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women As a Factor in Social Evolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

Though it was discussed widely in both the U.S. and Europe following its publication, Women and Economics has now dropped out of economic discussions, though its questions and study of women beyond enfranchisement and toward full equality remains an important one. Her purpose in this study is defined first in a lengthy poem, then in a short preface:

This book is written…to show how some of the worst evils under which we [women] suffer, evils long supposed to be inherent and ineradicable in our natures, are but the result of certain arbitrary conditions of our own adoption, and how, by removing those conditions, we may remove the evils resultant. (xxxix)

Not only are her questions surprisingly pertinent to our contemporary era, but her language even seems easy to confuse with a post-modern theorist, emphasizing arbitrary conditions of possibility over inherent, natural ways of being in the world. Her subject in this book is the working women, the mother and her working power, whose food and clothing “bear relation only to the man she marries, the man she depends on—to how much he has and how much he is willing to give her” (21).

Despite the fact that Women and Economics was published within the same year as Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, many of the ideas in the book speak to Veblen, especially Gilman’s proposal that “the immediately acting cause of sex-attraction is sex-distinction” and that “the more widely the sexes are differentiated, the more forcibly they are attracted to each other” (31). For Veblen, sex attraction of the male was formed through idleness and conspicuous consumption, but for Gilman, it is a willing dependency on men, an overt performance of weakness in constitution, a background of good racial stock, and others that will be elaborated upon, its fundamental idea being that “because of the economic dependence of the human female on her mate, she is modified to sex to an excessive degree” (39). It is through women also that this social norm is reproduced in children, where it is “steadily implanted in the human constitution the morbid tendency to excess this relation” (39).

Gilman uses the concept of “sex-distinction” to identify ways of acting and thinking that is meant to distinguish femininity or masculinity. For males she identifies sex distinctions as “the intensity of male passion,” “the tendency to fight…to protect and provide for,” “the belligerence and dominance of the male,” while for the female it is the “modesty and timidity,” the “comparative smallness and feebleness,” and “the relative weakness of women” (46). Yet all of these sex-distinctions for women are always thought to be “feminized,” while those of the male—“passion” and “fight”—are those of human kind in general.  Therefore sex-distinctions are seen greater in the female than in the male, and they are over-sexed.

Having become used to weakness as a sex-distinction vital for attracting a mate, the woman’s power and “impulse to create” have been kept always in the home, and only on a level competitive with other women for the attention of the male, never on that of the professional or artist:

She might work as she had worked from the beginning—at the primitive labors of the household; but in the inevitable expansion of even those industries to professional levels we have striven to hold her back. To work with her own hands, for nothing, in direct body-service to her own family—this has been permitted—yes, compelled. But to be and do anything further from this she has been forbidden. Her labor has not only been limited in kind, but in degree. Whatever she has been allowed to do must be done in private and alone, the first-hand industries of savage times” (67).

Specialization, professionalization and organization have been forbidden to women, often with the justification that love and marriage are best suited. Women for Gilman then are sacrificed for love, to seek gain through love and in the end become victims of it. One of the effects of de-professionalization in the name of love, has been “to produce an elaborate devotion to individuals and their personal needs—not to the understanding and developing of their higher natures, but to the intensification of their bodily tastes and pleasures” (120).

By working only within the home, and stressing all strains of innovation and intensity onto the family life, maintains “an exaggerated sense of the importance of food and clothes and ornaments to themselves, without at all including a knowledge of their right use and value to us all. It develops personal selfishness” (120). The excessive consumption of the female then, to Gilman, is not simply an act of conspicuous consumption, but a symptom of the inability to use one’s intellect and cunning towards a greater purpose than self-ornament. Economically, the result is the creation and maintenance of a “false market, this sink into which human labor vanishes with no return” that seeks no value in “industry,” “art,” “science, discovery, and progress” (121). Rather, the commercialization of sex-distinction—the over consumption by women—“hinders and perverts the economic development of the world.”

Gilman follows the social Darwinism of her time when she focuses not only on race-preservation as “almost entirely a female function,” which perhaps we can all agree with, but that a main reasoning behind full equality with males is that “it has been proven better for the race to have two highly developed parents rather than to have one” (131). The freedom of women, too, is not only good for the children, but good for a fully democratic society, where attention to the family seems to deny individual liberty, and rather, full equality would make possible “the full social combination of individuals in collective industry…also a union between man and woman such as the world has long dreamed of in vain” (145). As with many arguments for the abolishment of slavery, Gilman takes a wise position here by portraying the full equality of women as a social good, a parental good and a political good.

Among the working classes, children mean extra burdens, and women’s place, to Gilman, is devalued by the “strong feeling against large families,” but among the wealthy, the daughters and mothers also need not perform domestic duties, and are instead “absolutely non-productive in goods or labor of economic value, and consumers…limited only by the purchasing power of their male relatives” (170). Maternity then gives no pleasure to the female in either of these cases, and Gilman finds that overall “the force of economic advantage acts against maternity instead of toward it” (171). Yet, of course, motherhood is assumed as an essential life experience and sometimes even the only life goal of the women. For Gilman, this assumption is “more sacred than religion, more binding than the law, [and] more habitual than methods of eating,” and so engrained that few consider “whether or not we will enter upon the duties of maternity, but how best we can fulfill them” (178).

Though the rule of women as housewife makes little economic sense, but she tests out the motherly roles in women as reproducers and educators, and finds naturally, that without determined professionalization in either, women have not proved effective at these, especially when they are subjected to it and are not allowed education or labor for themselves. What is really being achieved in the motherhood of women is the omission of “the father and his responsibility, and that when the women is able to fully incorporate equally in a professional society, she “will make better men,” “will hold herself socially responsible for her children,” and “will do half duty in providing for the child” (186). If the women is denied “enlarged activities,” “developed intelligence” or “education of the will which only comes by freedom and power,” the

children of humanity are born into the arms of an endless succession of untrained mothers, who bring to the care and teaching of their children neither education for that wonderful work nor experience therein: they bring merely the intense accumulated force of a brute instinct—the blind devoted passion of the mother for the child. (196)

Gilman spends the rest of her book elaborating on the effects of these blind and devoted passions, particularly on the effects in raising children that seek more after the appreciation and pleasure of the household rather than their well-being and education. As she says of purchasing groceries, “the dilution and adulteration of food products is a particularly easy path to profit [for companies], because the ultimate purchaser has almost no power and very little intelligence” (227). If the food itself is diluted or against nutritious living, the mother further adds ingredients only for flavorful effect rather than health benefits, catering

to the palate instead of faithfully studying and meeting the needs of the stomach. For uncounted generations the grown man and the growing child have been subject to the constant efforts of her who cooked from affection, not from knowledge—who cooked to please. This is one of the widest pathways of evil that has ever been opened. (232)

Gilman’s answer for these “injuries to the race” is both cooperation and professionalization. Cooperation she defines as “the union of families for the better performance of their supposed functions,” and finds in it a hopeful alternative to family-centered life, since cooking, cleaning, education and the purchasing of goods, would be done by specialists who are well trained and educated in their tasks, rather than left to the ignorance of women who have been forbidden an education. Therefore cooperation leads to “trained professional service,” for “it is a trained hand that the baby needs, not mere blood-relationship” (291).


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