Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Byrdcliffe Connection

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I share a common ancestor, Abraham Dickerman, with the feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who lived from 1860 to 1935. Abraham’s great-great-grandson was the Yale-educated minister Lyman Beecher, father of 13 children, including abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, feminist educator Catharine Beecher, and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Another Beecher sibling, the modest Mary, became the grandmother of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose most famous work was a novella entitled The Yellow Wallpaper. When my daughter was about 14, she was fascinated by this cautionary story of madness as a rebellion against patriarchal tyranny. The book was her first exposure to feminist literature.

Gilman, my sixth cousin three times removed, was energetic as a young woman, dedicated to self-improvement and the transformation of society, thanks in part to the inspiration of her illustrious Beecher relatives. She married a kindly young artist, had a child, and promptly collapsed into a depression so severe, she could barely function. She spent whole days in bed, exhausted and crying, like the main character in her novella.

A stay with relatives in California improved her condition, and she relapsed when she returned to her family in New England. Concluding that marriage was her problem, she and her husband agreed to what was, in the 1880s, a rare step—separation. (My great-great-grandmother obtained a divorce from her abusive husband in the same decade.)

Charlotte began to support herself by writing and lecturing on social topics, including the right of women to pursue meaningful work. She traveled the US and attended Socialist conferences in England. On her travels, she mentions in her autobiography that she twice met the young British Socialist Ralph Whitehead. She does not note, however, that Whitehead, who was obsessed with John Ruskin’s utopian and anti-industrial vision, later founded the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony in Woodstock, NY, 12 miles from where I live in the Catskills.

In Chicago, Charlotte spent time at Hull House, the innovative settlement house created by social reformer Jane Addams. A brilliant, idealistic Harvard graduate named Hervey White was working there, managing musical and theatrical events. Again, Charlotte does not mention that White became one of Ralph Whitehead’s collaborators and a co-founder of Byrdcliffe, along with artist Bolton Brown. When relations among the founders soured, White moved a few miles south and started his own community, the Maverick, which became famous for its wildly bohemian festivals that are considered precursors to the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.

Several years after her first meeting with White, Charlotte returned to Chicago, and they wrote a play together. According to a 2009 biography of photographer Eva Watson-Schütze, who was connected to both Hull House and Byrdcliffe, it was Charlotte who introduced White and Whitehead. Charlotte’s second husband, Houghton Gilman, was an attorney who drew up papers for the purchase of the Byrdcliffe property, and she was occasionally seen on the streets of Woodstock or in the colony’s idyllic rural setting.

I wonder why her friends’ idealistic project did not merit mention in her autobiography. Perhaps the rift between White and Whitehead made her feel the endeavor had failed as a socialist venture, or she disapproved of the Maverick’s wildness.

In any case, I’m pleased to have a connection, however tenuous, with my distant relative. I practice the martial art of aikido three times a week at the Byrdcliffe Barn. I think Charlotte would be proud.

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4 Responses to Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Byrdcliffe Connection

  1. This is so cool! I used to teach “The Yellow Wallpaper”! What a wonderful connection.

  2. I read your post with interest. I own a painting of Charlotte by her first husband. She is breastfeeding Katharine. It was done just prior to her mental collapse, as you will see in her expression. Chris

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