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Feminism In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

Feminism. Arguably one of the most misunderstood terms to date. In order to move forward and grow as a society, feminism is vital. Of course, sexism still exists and I doubt, there will ever be a time in history where it does not; much like racism- but generally, we have come a long way. The road for equal rights has been a long and sometimes, dangerous one as can be observed through texts such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette and Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

This idea of gender inequality can be readily observed through the aforementioned texts and in fact, many others, regardless of the era in which they were first written. Women being treated as possessions, the subservience of women to males and women being entrapped by a patriarchal society, are just three significant themes that course through the hearts of these texts. The recurring prominence of these particular themes gives insight into human behaviour and the affect societal conditioning has over all of us.

One important connection that can be observed through all of these texts is the way women were treated as possessions. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s fate is trivialised and turned into a game of arranged marriages by her deceased father- solely because he owned her and therefore had utter control over her, even after death. This theme can also be seen running through Robert Browning’s My last duchess. The duke owned the late duchess, and that is how she came to meet her demise.

He became so irrational with unnecessary jealousy, that he took her life in his hands and then had the audacity to reduce this larger than life female, to a painting on the wall. In Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, the female protagonist was forced into receiving the ‘rest cure’ for her depression. This cure was enforced by her ‘educated physician husband, whom had possession over her and thus, the power to make her do something that contributed to her detriment.

All three of the women mentioned above are prime examples of how women in these times were treated as the possessions of man. Because these women were owned by men (fathers and husbands), they were almost always forced into completing things they were uncomfortable with. This can be seen clearly when Portia talks to her friend Nerissa about her arranged marriage: ‘O me, the word “choose! ” I may neither choose whom i would or refuse whom i dislike. ‘ Despite this obvious reluctance of marriage, Portia was unable to do anything about it’.. o is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father’. Women in these times often conformed to their husbands and fathers as their options outside of the ‘domestic sphere’ were very limited.

This can be seen through Portia conforming to her father and The Yellow Wallpaper’s protagonist allowing her husband to decide what is best for her, even though she knew better. John controls her and constantly disregards his wife. The narrator of this short story (female), recurringly quotes her husband and his thoughts on her sickness i. ‘he said’ or ‘John says,’ Although unlike Portia, the narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper does begin to question John ‘I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day’ but like every male in the texts I have studied, he is unwilling to listen. Failure to conform to one’s ‘owners’ wishes, often resulted in death, such as what became of the late duchess. The duke had obedience from his wife, yet wanted more. He wanted her to absolutely worship him and she refused.

He became irrationally jealous and came to the realisation that no matter what he did, he could not force orship. It was then that he decided to have her killed. This was natural and completely understandable by others as, he had sole possession over her; the ability to do with her, whatever he pleased. He wasn’t required to justify his actions to anyone because after all, she was merely a possession to him. The Duke ‘gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. ‘ Societal conditioning is a powerful tool and, I believe, a significant contributing factor in the common mindset of the male characters in my studied texts.

Every male saw women as something to be owned, because that is how they were taught; it’s all they saw and it was not discriminatory to them. This concept of societal conditioning having such immense power over the entire human race is absolutely astounding, and extremely relevant to this day. Due to the nature of the societies in which these texts were set, it was very rare for anyone to question societal norms- more so if the social norms were in their favour i. e did not have a negative impact on one’s self.

It had nothing to do with people’s morals, and although now, we see women being treated as possessions as immoral and wrong, in that certain era, people had nothing else to compare it to. It was the standard practise of the time and anyone who questioned it did face repercussions, such as the Duchess. This shows how society is constantly evolving and things that are socially acceptable now, may not have been so readily accepted in history. As society evolves, so does people’s perceptions of what is right and just.

Many years from now, people will see some of the things we do as inhumane, immoral and wrong; yet to us it is just standard practise and we see no error in our ways- much the same as the men in my studied texts. With this common theme of women being owned and kept as possessions comes complete subservience to males, however Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Maud Watts in Suffragette and the Duchess in My Last Duchess were seen to rebell against this societal norm and as a result these women’s actions evoked change.

During the time period these texts were set (1596-1912), women still had little to no human rights. They were unable to own property, had no legal rights over their children, and their success in life was measured by their husbands worth and achievements- not their own. Jessica was not only a female, but also a jew and daughter of a money launderer- a highly illegal and frowned upon practise. These factors put Jessica into the bottom of the social hierarchy, just above the prostitutes, which meant her options were extremely limited.

She was still ‘owned by her father- his prized possession, and he expected her to be sold off to another Jewish man for a dowry, but Jessica had other ideas. She chose to marry for love, eloping one night with a Christian man. This act of elopement was extremely rare in 1596, and as a result, Jessica challenged the social norms of this time period. ‘O Lorenzo.. I shall end this strife, Become a Christian and thy loving wife. ‘ Jessica gave herself the power of choice by marrying Lorenzo and escaped her ‘hell’ish home environment (created by her father), despite the restrictions placed on her by the society she lived in.

Maud Watts in Suffragette also showed a similar rebelliance. Despite her initial unwillingness to label herself a ‘Suffragette’, Watts grew into an extremely strong feminist against what a stereotypical woman living in her society should be i. e subservient. She fought for women’s rights even though her husband and ‘owner’ despised it. She was such a powerful and thought provoking female that shared pioneering ideas- ‘We break windows, we burn things. Cause war’s the only thing men listen to! Cause you’ve beaten us and betrayed us and there’s nothing left!.

The Duchess in My Last Duchess, much like the precedingly discussed females, also opposed to being completely subservient to men. ‘Sir, ’twas not, Her husband’s presence only, called that spot Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek’ states the Duke upon discussing his late Duchess. She did not want to marry the Duke and as a result, challenged gender stereotypes of the time and flirted with other men- which was seen as an insult to her husband even though it would be socially acceptable if he were to do the same.

All three of these women, living in a heavily patriarchal society, defied social norms. This act of defiance and standing up for what they thought to be fair, was an act of extreme courage and valour. It took years of being constantly mistreated and abused by the power males held for these women to decide enough is enough’All my life I’ve done what men told me. Well I can’t have that anymore. They had enough inner strength and will to do the things they believed were right and just- when society told them subservience to males was merely a female requirement.

These women were instigators of a positive change, in a male dominated world. Although societal conditioning provides insight into the way men treated women, these women are examples of how the unfairly treated are the usually the only ones to challenge common conventions. The males in these texts did not question the way they treated women, as that was how society taught them; yet because these females personally experienced these discriminatory instances they were often the only individuals evoking thoughts of change.

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