Blog #4: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an accomplished writer, feminist, and sociologist who published “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which exemplified attitudes in the nineteenth century toward women’s physical and mental health. Her approach to gender reflects on the basic building blocks that tell us about feminist theory to this day of which she drew from Marxism, symbolic interactionism, and Social Darwism.

Gilman believed that the division of labor of the “traditional” family was an immense crisis because it ultimately makes women economically dependent on men. This can be compared to Marx’s idea of capitalism; just as he thought as the system of capitalism exploitative because proletariats do not own the means of production, Gilman considered the traditional family structure exploitative as well because the economic compensation of women bears no relation to her labor. A woman’s social economic standing ultimately comes from her husband despite how much work she does or doesn’t do in her home. Therefore, her labor belongs to her husband and not her. This I can definitely see eye to eye with because so many house wives today feel that they have no say in financial issues because their husband is the one bringing in the money. In agreement with the symbolic interactionist tradition, Gilman also highlighted how differential socialization leads to and prolongs gender inequality. She did this by challenging the very old assumption that innate biological differences excluded men and women from successfully pursuing the same social activities. Instead, Gilman believed that from very little young girls were encouraged, if not forced, to act, think, look, and talk differently from boys, despite their personal interests at that age being similar. However, differential gender socialization is not only seen today as in Gilmans time but in fact in some ways even more apparent. This is due to consumerism and the market, as well as parents being able to find out the sex of their child before he or she is even born. I definitely see this being true because as soon as parents find out the sex of their child they start painting the babies room the appropriate color to match and start picking out pink or baby blue clothing and accessories. Even if you walk down a toy store aisle you will see how children are taught to view themselves and each other as being distinguished as a boy or girl rather than being viewed as human beings. If people see a boy playing with a doll people’s first reaction is to take it away and vice versa with girls with toy cars. This takes me back to when my friends’ father yelled at his son just for watching a “girly” TV show; his son doing something not seen as being “masculine” made him so angry to the point where he turned the TV off.

Despite Gilmans importance of differential socialization, she did not deny that biological differences exist between men and women. She borrowed theoretically not only from origins in Marxism and symbolic interactionism but also from social Darwinism. Gilman used animal analogies to explain biological and behavior differences between men and women. She argued that women and men indeed have different biological principles to which they hold on to. She said that women’s unique capabilities such as love and their concern for others have remarkable social value, though they are underappreciated. She also went on to say that when compared to men, women did not want to fight, take or dominate but rather love. On the other hand, researchers believed that this was contradicting to her beliefs as to suggest that women must and should be primary caretakers of children and that a man could not really play the role of a nurturer. Gilman’s biological determinism seems to be outdated today because there are many fathers that are far more nurturing to their children than were their fathers. Still, Gilman did introduce fascinating issues that are still being looked into by brain researchers today; questions about nature versus nurture that Gilman raised continue to be at the heart of gender theory.

— Nicole Rizzo

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3 responses to “Blog #4: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  1. First-rate presentation and critique of Gilman’s core theoretical contributions, sophisticated analysis. Your insights about how differential gender socialization manifests today — in the consumer marketplace — are right on target. The influence of consumerism in shaping how we think girls and boys should look, act, play is surely massive. As a guest or organizer of countless “baby showers,” I’ve witnessed the pervasive influence of corporate marketing and its gendered assumptions. This is when most expecting parents get set up with all the various consumer products deemed “necessary” for being a respectable parent — and “registries” with department stores of one sort or another (Babies-R-Us or a more “high-end” store like Nordstrom) are usually par for the course; if the sex of the baby is known beforehand, one can expect that many of the items on the registry will be gender-specific. Or simply buy a doll on Amazon and — thanks to online consumer tracking — soon you’ll be seeing loads of recommendations to buy more products targeted at young girls, doll houses, princess outfits, etc. and not toy trucks or chemistry sets.

    A more chilling result of the advancements in biotechnology that allow parents to learn the sex of a fetus as early as five weeks, may be a growth in “sex-selective abortion,” which has been described as “consumerism at its best.”

  2. rosemarieangeline

    Differential gender socialization is certainly still encouraged by the consumer market. It is interesting how during the first days each child is exposed to differential gender socialization by girls put into pink clothes and boys put into blue clothes at the hospital by their parents. What is interesting is at one point in time pink was considered a masculine color. This difference on gender is how we made it. Cooking kitchens sold to girls and cars sold to boys are more simple examples of how we differentiate between genders. Although we continue to differentiate through clothing and toys given to children, differential gender socialization isn’t as strong as past years. Simply because women are encouraged to attend college and more women are working full time jobs and bringing in salaries into the household.

    • Great point about how what’s considered “masculine” and “feminine” is socially constructed — it changes over time and varies across cultures. Our association of the color pink with femininity is hardly “natural.”

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