Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Unnatural Mother

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)
From Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Novels, Stories & Poems

From 1880 to 1884, when she was in her early 20s, Charlotte Perkins Gilman provided the illustrations for Soapine detergent trade cards (including the one above), which she and her cousin Robert Brown designed for the Kendall Soap Company. Many of the cards depicted women performing various household tasks: laundry, ironing, dusting, etc. (University of Rochester Libraries)
     Two decades later, in her then-controversial treatise The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903), Gilman questioned the traditional housekeeping role for women. “How are the duties of the mother compatible with the duties of the housewife? . . . Hour after hour, day after day, the child sees his mother devoting her entire life to attendance upon these things—the daily cleaning, the weekly cleaning, the spring and fall cleaning, the sewing and mending at all times. . . . Must the child always associate womanhood with house-service?”

“I’ve just made a fool of myself,” Charlotte Perkins Stetson wrote on Christmas Day, 1899, in a letter to George Houghton Gilman, whom she would marry the following June. “Went across the way to call on some old neighbors, and—I foolishly supposed—friends, and got violently slapped in the face. . . . I’ve been so used of late to friendship—affection—honor; that it was painfully surprising. It’s the ‘unnatural mother’ racket—same old thing.”

She had returned for the winter to Pasadena, California, a place she had lived in the late 1880s with her first husband, Walter Stetson, and daughter, Katharine. In 1890, she and Stetson separated; he moved back East to attend to his ailing mother, and two years later she moved with her daughter to Oakland. Between 1892 and 1895, Charlotte would be widely and publicly condemned in the press and by her neighbors on two counts: first for her divorce from her husband and then for relinquishing custody of her daughter to him.

When Walter Stetson petitioned a Rhode Island court for divorce in late 1892, The San Francisco Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst, led the charge against the couple with headlines like “The Wife and the Writer: Should Literary Women Be Addicted to the Marriage Habit?” and “His Wife’s Plans for Bettering the Universe Annoy Him.” Charlotte was attacked as a “muscular” woman with an interest in gymnastics who refused to wear “corsets or even waistbelts.” In his weekly column for the Examiner, Ambrose Bierce wrote, “Apart from her work in literature, she is said to be a very good man.” It didn’t take long for the newspaper’s reporters to discover that, before Walter had separated from Charlotte, he had fallen in love with Grace Ellery Channing, Charlotte’s closest childhood friend. “There Was Another Woman. She Gives Him to Another,” read the Examiner’s headline trumpeting a story with lurid details about a love triangle.

The court in Providence denied Stetson’s petition for divorce in June 1893, but Charlotte’s subsequent petition was granted by a court in California the following April. With the Stetsons’ divorce finalized at last, Walter and Grace planned to marry that summer in Providence—an arrangement Charlotte fully supported.

In May 1894, Charlotte wrote in her diary, “I am about to give up my home, send Kate to her father, and begin new; being now a free woman, legally and actually.” She planned to move that summer from Oakland to San Francisco, “in a place unsuitable for a child,” to take a new job as president of the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association and editor of its weekly newsletter, which she renamed The Impress. “To hear what was said and read what was printed one would think I had handed over a baby in a basket,” she later recalled in her autobiography.
Since her second mother was fully as good as the first, better in some ways perhaps; since the father longed for his child and had a right to some of her society; and since the child had a right to know and love her father—I did not mean her to suffer the losses of my youth—this seemed the right thing to do. No one suffered from it but myself. This, however, was entirely overlooked in the furious condemnation which followed. I had “given up my child.”
Walter agreed to assume the responsibility for Katharine’s care but requested that her departure be delayed until after the summer, when he and Grace would be married and would have had time to settle into a new home. Charlotte’s father decided to return to the East Coast in May, however, and the availability of a chaperone for her nine-year-old daughter probably seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. So—apparently without any warning—Katharine arrived with her grandfather months sooner than expected. Grace, still working in Boston on the editorial staff of the Youth’s Companion magazine, had to travel to New York to pick up Katharine, who ended up using Grace’s bed, while her future stepmother slept on the sofa. Decades later, when Katharine was 90 years old, she told Gilman biographer Mary A. Hill that Grace “had to come and fetch me because she knew my father could not take care of me in a studio and do any painting.”

Years later, Charlotte wrote to her daughter and indirectly acknowledged her obliviousness. “I did try so carefully not to hurt you, and to love and pet you as I so longed to be loved and petted and never was. But I suppose you were hurt in ways I never knew.” Katharine never quite forgave her mother for (as she put it) “seizing the opportunity to get her freedom by shipping me East to my father because it was ‘his turn’” or for imposing on her future stepmother. “My mother had not the ability of putting herself into the place of another person,” she told Hill.
She had very strong principles and was very honest, which does not mean that she always saw herself as others saw her. . . . And she of course never never would have willingly hurt anyone. I think she did at times, probably, because if you are pretty honest and you do disagree with people there is always a good chance of hurting their feelings.
“By all accounts,” writes Cynthia J. Davis in her biography of Gilman, “Katharine flourished under Walter and Grace’s care”; in 1895, the Stetsons moved back to Pasadena, and eventually the Stetsons and Gilman would share custody of their daughter until she came of age. Gilman remained convinced she had done the right thing. “In the years that followed [Katharine] divided her time fairly equally between us,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but in companionship with her beloved father she grew up to be the artist that she is, with advantages I could never have given her. . . . It would have been of no benefit to her to keep that dear child away from her father and a pleasant home, to drag her over land and sea on lecture trips, or board her with strangers while I traveled. That might have been ‘natural,’ but not good for the child.”

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Charlotte was beginning to realize that her social reputation had doomed her prospects for a living. She later reported that Helen Campbell, her fellow editor on The Impress, “made some inquiries as to the rather surprising lack of support, either in subscribers or advertisers, and was answered, ‘Nothing that Mrs. Stetson does can succeed here,’ and, ‘You risk your own reputation in joining her.’” Charlotte’s editorship of the newsletter lasted twenty weeks before she was forced to relinquish her position. “This fiasco was what showed me my standing in that city,” and she left for Chicago to live for several months in Hull House at the invitation of Jane Addams. In the last issue of The Impress, she answered her critics with a short story, “The Unnatural Mother,” which has been included in the new Library of America collection of Gilman’s writings and is provided below as this week’s selection.

The quotes by Katharine Stetson in the above introduction are all from Mary A. Hill’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist, 1860–1896 (1980). Numerous biographical details for both Gilman and her daughter have been culled from Cynthia J. Davis’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography.

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“Don’t tell me!” said old Mis’ Briggs, with a forbidding shake of the head; “no mother that was a mother would desert her own child for anything on earth!” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.