Tuesday’s Teacher: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
To the Young Wife
BY CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
Are you content, you pretty three-years’ wife?
Are you content and satisfied to live
On what your loving husband loves to give,
And give to him your life?
Are you content with work, — to toil alone,
To clean things dirty and to soil things clean;
To be a kitchen-maid, be called a queen, —
Queen of a cook-stove throne?
Are you content to reign in that small space –
A wooden palace and a yard-fenced land –
With other queens abundant on each hand,
Each fastened in her place?
Are you content to rear your children so?
Untaught yourself, untrained, perplexed, distressed,
Are you so sure your way is always best?
That you can always know?
Have you forgotten how you used to long
In days of ardent girlhood, to be great,
To help the groaning world, to serve the state,
To be so wise — so strong?
And are you quite convinced this is the way,
The only way a woman’s duty lies –
Knowing all women so have shut their eyes?
Seeing the world to-day?
Having no dream of life in fuller store?
Of growing to be more than that you are?
Doing the things you know do better far,
Yet doing others – more?
Losing no love, but finding as you grew
That as you entered upon nobler life
You so became a richer, sweeter wife,
A wiser mother too?
What holds you? Ah, my dear, it is your throne,
Your paltry queenship in that narrow place,
Your antique labours, your restricted space,
Your working all alone!
Be not deceived! ‘Tis not your wifely bond
That holds you, nor the mother’s royal power,
But selfish, slavish service hour by hour –
A life with no beyond!
It’s remarkable to me that Gilman was discussing issues about women and their potential in the late 1800′s that we are discussing now — or perhaps we are not discussing them — perhaps we think that they are natural places for women. When we are young we dream of our wedding, guessing the number of children we will have and the kind of man we will marry. Once we find him, we say I do not only to the man — but also the kind of life he provides us. All our dreams of being something more, someone great, become muted as we aspire more to the ideals of marriage, children, being stay-at-home moms, and taking care of the needs of our beloved. We become what Gilman terms “Queens of cook-stove thrones” (8). We are the Queens of our home — we are in charge of our children and their needs, as well as our husband’s needs, while our own needs are laid to silence — falling into the trap of believing that by meeting their needs we are somehow fulfilling our own — when all we are doing is denying them.
According to Gilman, we may sit upon these supposedly enshrined thrones of the maternal — but the spaces that we govern are small and limited — we become selfless and self-sacrificed Queens with great loss of personal pride and power. Even within the home, the man has the power since he works in public spaces, makes money,and produces more than dinner and children. He determines our worth and he allows us to control what we think we have control over. She finds that being a wife and mother only, each woman is ”fastened in her place” (12) and commits only to “slavish service” (39). There’s nothing noble in this. Nothing empowering, or strong.
A Victorian period feminist, Gilman wrote extensively on economics and how women could improve the economy as well as find value in herself by working in the public spaces that were exclusive to men and participating in the work force instead of functioning as a consumer, spending her husband’s money. Having divorced her own husband, Gilman wrote and provided financially for herself and her daughter, finding great value in her work and her role as a woman and a productive member of the society in which she lived — as opposed to existing as a frail and feminine appendage dependent upon her husband’s dominance. In the closing lines of this poem she claims that women would benefit by striving for more than simple domesticity — which enslaved them. Playing a dominant role in the economy and in the other public spaces of society would make them better wives, better mothers, and more fulfilled women. Taking care of the home, the husband, and the kids without work, without a public function, without financial independence, robbed them of their voice, volition, and power because it was an empty life — “A life with no beyond!” (40). We should desire more than motherhood and wife-hood, for we are unlimited in our potential.
What do you think? Was she too harsh on women who resigned so easily to motherhood and wife-hood? Are you satisfied as a wife and mother — or do you think we should aspire for more?
Copyright© 2011 by Marina Delvecchio. All Rights Reserved.