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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 16, 9th March 2021
The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
00:00:00 01:20:59

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be discussing the first, and possibly the only, work of fiction on our list of essential texts. It’s a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and if you haven’t read it, or if you haven’t read it in awhile, then I encourage you to press pause on this podcast, go read it, and then come back. Or even easier, you can go listen to it! It’s about 40 minutes long, and you can find it on Audible, or for free on Librivox or YouTube. It was written in 1892 so it’s in the public domain now, which means it’s free, and it’s a really, really good story, so go read or listen and then come back.

Ok, so welcome back! Today we are going to be discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but first I want to introduce my reading partner, Shannon Johnson. Hi, Shannon!

Shannon: Hi, Amy!

Amy: I will always remember the moment that you and I met, Shannon - it was at the welcome dinner for our master’s program at Stanford, and I was feeling so nervous that I would be the only mom there, and I wouldn’t have anything in common with anyone… and I stood up and introduced myself and mentioned that I had four kids, and you piped up from across the room and said “I have four kids too, and I think we went to the same college, so we need to talk afterward.” And we did, and it turns out we have tons in common and speak the same language and have been fast friends ever since. But can you tell us some more about yourself - where you come from, etc?

Shannon bio

I’m descended on both sides from white Europeans who came to the U.S. in the 1800s. My middle name, Olena, actually comes from my great-great-great grandmother who emigrated from Norway. She and her husband and several children (one of whom worked as a boot boy in Brigham Young’s house) left the Mormon church a few years after settling in Utah, probably because of polygamy. 

I grew up mostly in Utah and went to BYU, where I met my husband online before that was a thing. I’ve taught conversational English in Japan and Cairo, and now I work in admin at Stanford. I am currently procrastinating writing my master’s thesis on the Mormon church’s history of racial restrictions and revelations and how the memorialization of these events serves the present moment. 

I like to view Mormon history as a case study in patriarchal American culture. I also like hiking, yoga, British tv, and trashy romance novels. I live in Santa Clara, California with my four daughters, aged 10-20, and my patient husband.

Amy: Shannon and I were both English majors, and when we were talking about how to present the book, of course we discussed which critical approach we wanted to assume as we introduced the text. So Shannon, why don’t you start us off. 

Shannon: Jump into the book - let’s read the story as a story

I re-listened again this week, and I was struck by how appropriate it is for Halloween (since we’re lucky enough to be recording on October 30th). It’s a deceptively simple tale that functions so well as both thrilling short story and parable on the dangers and consequences of unchecked patriarchy. It employs the tropes common to Gothic Romance (think the Bronte sisters, Ann Radcliffe, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Shelley), elements of atmospheric sensory description, a creeping, mounting sense of disquiet, even the stock characters of naive, Mary-Sue protagonists, unsympathetic housekeepers, and insensitive/hyper-rational love interests/husbands. 

Last warning to those who don’t want spoilers, I’m going to go over the plot briefly, including the ending. So really, go listen or read first.

A young woman is brought to a grand summer rental house by her physician husband. She has mixed feelings about the house, and even mentions how “romantic” it would be if the house were haunted in the second paragraph. She has been unwell, and though her husband doesn’t think anything’s really wrong with her, he hopes that an enforced rest will help. A quarter of the way in, we learn that she has recently had a baby. She expresses love for the baby, but isn’t attached to him or engaged with his care. Her husband forbids her writing or any kind of “work,” but she finds solace in describing the house in a secret journal. She focuses on the room she is in at the top of the house, and the yellow wallpaper that calls to her even as it repels her. She begins to see a woman being held captive behind the outer pattern of the wallpaper, and as her psychosis deepens, she contemplates suicide, plots to free the woman stuck in the paper, and, on the evening before the couple’s departure back to the city, she tears off great swaths of the wallpaper and becomes the woman from the paper. 

This is a woman’s genre story written by and for other women, not a philosophical or academic treatise. Gilman wanted to reach a specific audience. She also wasn’t a wealthy woman writing for other wealthy woman; she was similar in circumstance and literary connections to Louisa May Alcott, who, 50 years earlier, was writing potboilers to support her family before she made it big with Little Women. 

Gilman’s choice of form suits her purpose perfectly. Because she employs an un-named, unreliable narrator to unself-consciously report dialogue, she is able to include such bald statements as “John laughs at me,” but we’ll get to that in our discussion of patriarchy in marriage. 

For now, I want to look at Gilman’s central image -- the Yellow Wallpaper itself -- to explore how it functions both as a physical barrier and the focal point for the dramatic action of the story, and as a pretty straightforward metaphor for the coercive/restrictive/oppressive nature of patriarchy. Notice Gilman’s energetic and evocative word choice.

Wallpaper metaphor 

The wallpaper is introduced as just one decorative element of the room her husband insists on inhabiting:

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide - plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. (3)

As the narrator’s illness worsens, the wallpaper becomes something more:

Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.” and it seems to her that “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.” (8)

Later, she describes the pattern as being like a “bad dream” that “slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you.” (9)

By the end the wallpaper is explicitly trapping not only the woman the narrator identifies with, but perhaps all women:

The front pattern does move - and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles so. I think that is why it has so many heads. (12)

Amy, you noticed some fascinating aspects of the wallpaper that might relate to your entire project. Do you want to talk about those? 

This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so - I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design. [Can’t see the oppressive system clearly, first notices the figure trapped behind] (6)

I determine for the thousandth time that I will  follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion. I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.  [sounds like me trying to figure out the logic/history of patriarchy - and yes, this is what led me to do this project! I eventually had to figure it out.] (6)

Amy: Historical Context

Ok, so now let’s back up and look at this book in context of the time in which it was written and the woman who wrote it. After that, we’ll go back to the story and highlight some of the themes that jumped out to us as important. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman published this story in The New England Magazine in 1892. To set the stage, here are a few features of society in the late 1800’s, which would have been familiar to readers at the time the book came out:

  1. Laws of coverture (which comes from femme couvert, or “covered woman”) just barely (gradually) being abolished 

We’ve mentioned laws of coverture before on other episodes, but just to review, Coverture (sometimes spelled couverture) was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman's legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, in accordance with the wife's legal status of feme covert. An unmarried woman, a feme sole, had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. Coverture arises from the legal fiction that a husband and wife are one person.

Coverture was established in the common law of England for several centuries and throughout most of the 19th century.

William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law- a feme-covert; is said to be ...under the protection and influence of her husband, ...and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. ... For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself.


This attitude - that the man “covers” the woman and doesn’t see her as an adult peer - affects every aspect of society. Women are regarded as perpetual children.


[Source: https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/coverture-word-you-probably-dont-know-should#:~:text=Coverture%20held%20that%20no%20female,last%20names%20of%20their%20husbands.



  1. Separate Spheres Ideology. From this legal construct that kept women as dependents in their husbands’ households grew a notion called the “Separate Spheres Ideology.” 

The patriarchal ideology of separate spheres, based primarily on notions of biologically determined gender roles and/or patriarchal religious doctrine, claims that women should avoid the public sphere – the domain of politics, paid work, commerce and law. Women's "proper sphere", according to the ideology, is the realm of domestic life, focused on childcare, housekeeping and religion.

In Europe and North America, the idealization of separate spheres emerged during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840)



  1. Notion of female “hysteria.” You may be familiar with the stereotype of the fainting woman who always needed smelling salts on hand, or the emotionally out of control woman. John Stuart Mill talks about this in The Subjection of Women, but we didn’t have time to cover it in that episode. But there’s this perception in the culture that women are super emotional and that they freak out in “hysteria” all the time. 

The word hysteria originates from the Greek word for “uterus,” hystera. The oldest record of hysteria dates back to 1900 B.C. when Egyptians recorded behavioral abnormalities in adult women on medical papyrus. The Egyptians attributed the behavioral disturbances to a wandering uterus—thus later dubbing the condition hysteria. To treat hysteria Egyptian doctors prescribed various medications, like putting strong smelling substances on the patients’ vulvas to encourage the uterus to return to its proper position. Another tactic was to smell or swallow unsavory herbs to encourage the uterus to flee back to the lower part of the female’s stomach.

The ancient Greeks accepted the ancient Egyptians’ explanation for hysteria; however, they included in their definition of hysteria the inability to bear children or the failure to marry. Ancient Romans also attributed hysteria to an abnormality in the womb; however, discarded the traditional explanation of a wandering uterus. Instead, the ancient Romans credited hysteria to a disease of the womb or a disruption in reproduction (i.e. a miscarriage, menopause, etc.). Hysteria theories from the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and ancient Romans were the basis of the Western understanding of hysteria.

Later, in the Christian tradition, hysteria was thought to be caused by satanic possession, and many patients of hysteria were prosecuted as witches and underwent interrogations, torture, and execution.


[Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_hysteria#:~:text=Female%20hysteria%20was%20once%20a,food%20or%20sex%2C%20(paradoxically)]


So those are just a few of the cultural paradigms that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born into. Shannon, do you want to tell us a bit about Gilman herself?

Shannon: Charlotte Perkins Gilman bio

Charlotte Perkins was born in 1860 in Connecticut. She had one brother. Her father left the family during Charlotte's infancy, and the remainder of her childhood was spent in poverty.

Since their mother was unable to support the family on her own, the Perkins were often in the presence of her father's aunts, who included Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Her mother forbade Charlotte from making strong friendships or reading fiction. In her autobiography, she wrote that her mother showed affection only when she thought Charlotte was asleep. Despite her father's absence at a young age, years later he contacted her with a list of books he felt would be worthwhile for her to read.

At 18 Charlotte enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design with some monetary help from her father. She also worked as a painter of trade cards (like a Victorian visiting card or modern business card) and as a tutor.

In 1884, she married the artist Charles Walter Stetson, after initially declining his proposal because a gut feeling told her it was not the right thing for her. Her only child, Katharine Beecher Stetson, was born the next year. Charlotte then suffered a very serious bout of postpartum depression. She was treated by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, whose advice was: 

"Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time... Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live."

The family moved to Southern California where they lived with a friend, Grace Ellery Channing (who was the granddaughter of WEC). In 1888, Charlotte separated from her husband, who married Grace after the divorce was official. 

Charlotte became active in several feminist and reformist organizations, including the Nationalist Clubs which worked to "end capitalism's greed and distinctions between classes while promoting a peaceful, ethical, and truly progressive human race." She published poetry, earned a living on the lecture circuit, and wrote essays and The Yellow Wallpaper in 1890. She gave it to her friend, William Dean Howells, who sent it to The Atlantic Monthly, whose editor thought it would make readers “miserable.” It was published in 1892 in the New England Magazine. 

In 1894, Gilman sent her daughter east to live with her former husband and his second wife (her friend Grace Ellery Channing). Gilman wrote that she was happy for the couple, since Katharine's "second mother was fully as good as the first, [and perhaps] better in some ways." Gilman also held progressive views about paternal rights and acknowledged that her ex-husband "had a right to some of [Katharine's] society" and that Katharine "had a right to know and love her father."

After her mother died, Charlotte decided to move back east herself. She reconnected with her first cousin Houghton Gilman, who she described as being "pleasurable.” They were married in 1900, and were apparently quite happy. She continued to lecture and write, and in 1915 she published a feminist-utopian novel called Herland that is a forerunner to the island of Themyscira in Wonder Woman.

In 1932, Charlotte was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. She was an advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, and so she took an overdose of chloroform on August 17, 1935. In her autobiography and suicide note, she wrote that she "chose chloroform over cancer" and she died quickly and quietly. (note how she took control of her health and life in the end!)

Amy: OK, so now let’s highlight three of the main themes that we identified. I’ll start with  patriarchy in marriage, and then Shannon you’ll do patriarchy within the medical field at the time, and then I’ll talk about women writing.

  1. Amy: Patriarchy in marriage 

One of the main features of the narrator’s marriage with her husband John is that he makes her feel like she’s crazy. This is called gaslighting, which is a term people use a lot, but some listeners may not know where that term comes from.

The term comes from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light, where an abusive husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment and insisting that she is mistaken, remembering things incorrectly, or delusional when she points out these changes. The play's title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights, noises and voices, but in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane.

[Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaslighting]

So that’s gaslighting. Manipulating someone to make them think the problem is them, or they are crazy, when they’re not the problem, and they’re not crazy.

This is one of the major themes of the story - the woman constantly being told she’s wrong, that there’s something wrong with her, that she’s crazy. And interestingly, that is what leads to her mental deterioration.

In addition to that theme of gaslighting, I’m going to share some excerpts to show how Gilman depicts this marriage, all from the point of view of the wife.

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage. (1)

I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition. But John says if I feel so [angry], I shall neglect proper self-control; so I take pains to control myself - before him, at least, and that makes me very tired. (2)

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction. (2)

He takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more. (2)

Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn’t able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished. (7)

These two are abusive tactics that I have seen many times - the person who has power - whether a husband or father or even the authoritarian leader of a country - knows that the dependent person or people are in their debt, and they leverage that and use it to manipulate. So any time the dependent says “wait, this isn’t fair,” or “this is hurting me,” they can hold it over their heads and call them ungrateful.

And another is seeing the display of emotion with such disdain that if you cry or your voice waves, they won’t even listen to you. Gaslight with “you’re so emotional,” placing the fault on the person who is being abused.

And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head. He said I was his darling and his comfort and all he had, and that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well. (7)

It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so. (8)

“What is it, little girl?” he said. “Don’t go walking about like that - you’ll get cold.”  [John to his wife] (8)

Here I thought of Thomas Paine’s quote: “If we take a survey of ages and of countries, we shall find the women, almost – without exception – at all times and in all places, adored and oppressed.” 

This describes the vast majority of patriarchal relationships. Some are truly misogynistic, where the man actually loathes women and thinks they’re evil. But more often, the man actually does love his wife or daughter, and he thinks - and she thinks! - that his love for her excuses his controlling or abusive behavior. They are all tangled up together and that’s often why it’s so hard to get out.

2. Shannon: Doctors not believing women

Amy, you mentioned the roots of the scientific understanding of hysteria, but the problem of doctors not listening to women’s health concerns continues to this day, and I want to acknowledge here that it is especially serious for non-white women. Annually, 700 women die and 50k experience severe complications of childbirth in the U.S. Black women die at 3-4 times the rate of white women, according to the CDC. 

(Source :https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5915910/]

When Serena Williams gave birth via c-section in 2017 she had a history of blood clots and knew what the common method of identification and treatment.

So she was “having trouble breathing and immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism. She alerted a nurse to what she felt was happening in her body and asked for a CT scan and a blood thinner, but the nurse suggested that pain medication had perhaps left Ms. Williams confused… Ms. Williams insisted, but a doctor instead performed an ultrasound of her legs.

“I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” Ms. Williams, 36.

When the ultrasound revealed nothing, she underwent a CT scan, which showed several small blood clots in her lungs. She was immediately put on the heparin drip. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/sports/tennis/serena-williams-baby-vogue.html (Serena was bedridden for 6 weeks and had to be operated on more than once.)

Amy, you mentioned the concept of couverture and how much legal and medical power this granted men over the women seen as being in their stewardship (husbands and fathers). One of the most famous examples of involuntary psychiatric commitment in the U.S. was one that Gilman would have been familiar with -- the case of Elizabeth Packard. 

Mrs. Packard was committed to a Jacksonville, Illinois, asylum in 1860 at the behest of her husband who was a clergyman. Mr. Packard initiated the hospitalization of his wife to punish her for having an unclean spirit, a decision that he based on her exploration of spiritual traditions outside the Presbyterian faith. Mrs. Packard was diagnosed with “moral insanity” and held involuntarily in the hospital for three years before ultimately being declared sane. Once released, Mrs. Packard learned that she had lost custody of her children and ownership of her property. She filed a lawsuit for wrongful confinement and won. She then devoted her life to promoting change in civil commitment laws. (link for show notes: (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3392176/)

The Yellow Wallpaper is so emblematic of medical misogyny that it is featured in the National Library of Medicine (part of NIH.gov) in an exhibition called The Literature of Prescription. (Source: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/theliteratureofprescription/index.html). 

One of the biggest ironies is that the narrator’s husband does not believe she is sick (something she mentions on the first page), 

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do? (1)

Even so, he still treats her with lots of medications (phosphate and phosphites), tries to control her diet, and even her air intake, exercise, mental outlook. He moves her physically at a time when she’s still recovering, upending their routine, moving their entire household for the summer (tho this is possibly pragmatic since they’re having work done)

Basically, he is trying to control everything she does, but then he turns around and says she is responsible for her condition: 

He says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let any silly fancies run away with me. (8)

Here is another example of Gilman’s narrator reporting dialogue that almost sounds too bad to be true. As the narrator feels herself worsening in her physical environment and under his treatment plan, he says: 

“You really are better dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you.”

“I don’t weigh a bit more,” said I, “nor as much, and my appetite may be better in the evening when you are here, but it is worse in the morning when you are away!”

“Bless her little heart!” said he with a big hug, “she shall be as sick as she pleases!” (9)

There’s also a time-period-appropriate fear and ignorance of mental illness, a feeling that even acknowledging a problem will make it worse. Ironically, postpartum and clinical depression have a chemical/physical component (ie. are based in the physical body as much as the mind) 

“My darling,” said he, “I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind! There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours. It is a false and foolish fancy. Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so?” (9)

Another great irony is that the narrator has just undergone a tremendous physical upheaval that we now know involves massive amounts of hormones, and even just the energy involved in increasing blood volume during pregnancy, and loss of calcium stores from bones and teeth to support fetal growth, and didn’t I read somewhere that we don’t actually lose brain cells during pregnancy, but they do shrink a bit? But the fact that she has just given birth isn’t connected with her current illness at all. Even though giving birth and “hysteria” are both female things, they’re just like, I dunno, this female seems to have experienced both, what connection? 

John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him. (3)

This is where an unbiased examination of gender’s impact on health would be helpful. I.e. it’s not that gender isn’t significant for health, but that it’s significant in ways that seem to elude doctors of this time period (and perhaps our own).

Shannon: Rest Cure and West Cure  (as per separate spheres)

The American Psychological Association has a “time capsule” feature on Dr. Mitchell, the doctor the narrator is threatened with in the story, whose patients included Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Walt Whitman, and Theodore Roosevelt. 

[Source: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/go-rest]

Dr. Mitchell’s prescription for both men and women diagnosed with “neurasthenia” involved taking a rest of “brain-work,” but his positive prescriptions were highly gendered. Men with a nervous disposition were given the “West cure,” ie. sent West to “engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding” and to write or paint about their experiences. Besides Whitman’s poetry, there’s Owen Wister’s The Virginian, and Thomas Eakin’s paintings that come out of this, for e.g.)

In contrast, Gilman’s narrator (whose experience is highly autobiographical to Gilman, minus the hallucinations) is on the “rest cure”: 

“absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again (1)

To me the whole “rest-cure” is as if Serena William’s doctors had looked at her blood clots and other complications right after giving birth and said, “See, tennis is for men!” So often anti-feminists accuse feminists of wanting to pretend there are no differences between men and women. Clearly biology is important (and here I want to acknowledge our transgender sisters and brothers. The whole point of feminism or better yet, womanism, would be to treat people as individuals). 

And she’s also denied the company of close friends:

When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now. (4)

Rest and west -- The west cure wouldn’t have solved her postpartum depression because it was rooted in a chemical imbalance, but the physician could have tried to “do no harm” by listening to her and starting with what she said she thought would make her feel better (writing, visits with friends.) The stuff that she says will make her feel better is the stuff that will get her out of the domestic sphere.

Compare the narrator with Emily Dickinson, for example, who was a famous recluse, but had a vast circle of friends that she corresponded and shared her poetry with. In this sense, the separate spheres of men and women are literal, physical spaces, but also metaphorical spaces of what concerns it’s appropriate for a person to fill their mind with. And that leads directly to Amy’s section.

3. Amy: Women writing - their one outlet

Starting back in our episode on The Creation of Feminist Consciousness with Hrosvitha of Gandersheim and Christine de Pisan, and continuing through de Gouges and Woolstonecraft and Grimke, we see women writing to help themselves identify what is wrong in their world and make sense of it. It’s therapeutic and necessary for their own mental health because their entire culture was gaslighting them to make them feel like they were the problem and they were the only one who was seeing anything wrong.

So in this story in particular:

  • I look at the main character and feel so frustrated that the men in her life don’t trust her intuition and wisdom that writing will make her feel better

  • [Women thought of as weaker mentally, emotionally, physically - instead of encouraging them to get stronger, men restrict opportunities for them to develop strength]
  • So sad to see how writing is helping her at first, but as people around discourage her from writing and her depression grows worse, she slowly loses the will to write. Trace this process through quotes:

[Narrator is talking about how she feels bad doubting John’s wisdom] - she says “I would not say it to a living soul, of course but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind” (1)

I did write for awhile in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal - having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition (2)

There comes John, and I must put this away - he hates to have me write a word. (3)

[Pride and Prejudice movie where the women scurry around to hide all evidence that they had been doing anything]

I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try. [Because she has so much opposition working against her] (4)

I don’t know why I should write this.

I don’t want to.

I don’t feel able.

And I know John would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way - it is such a relief!

But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief. (7)

We’ll continue to see women overcoming opposition in order to write, and we’ll even talk a bit about mental illness and the woman writer when we get to Virginia Woolf. 

For now though, this brings us to the end of our discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper! Shannon, do you have any takeaways that you want to share from this book?

Shannon: [Takeaways]

I want to end with a quote from something Gilman wrote after being asked over and over why she wrote The Yellow Wallpaper (this document is also in the NLM exhibition). She said that after barely surviving the “rest cure,” she “cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.”  (here I want to point out that in glorifying “work,” she wasn’t intending women to be cogs in the capitalist machine, see work for the Nationalist Clubs, above)

She goes on “The little book . . . has to my knowledge saved one woman from a similar fate -- so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.” Even Dr. Mitchell changed his treatment after reading it. She concludes “It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”

Amy: One takeaway: if anyone listening recognizes any of those behaviors in a relationship and you have a little glimmer of thinking “I think I’m being manipulated or abused,” I want to encourage you to talk to someone about and get help. Trust yourself. Trust your intuition. Don’t let it go on even one day longer.

Thanks so much for being here!! 

Our next episode is another work of fiction from the 19th Century - the iconic novella The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. I had heard of this book for years, and of course its title is evocative and sounds like it should be relevant to some of the themes we’re discussing on the podcast, but reading it, I really honestly couldn’t believe it was written in 1899. It felt so current and relatable, and I highly recommend buying a copy and reading it this week. My copy cost $3.99 and it was actually just a really great story in addition to being an important work of literature. So see if you can get a copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and then join us for the discussion, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Compost Pile 

The windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls. (3)

I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already! (3)

The he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose (4)

4. Other female characters

[Jennie is successful in her role because she’s not ill]

There comes John’s sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick! (5)

[Women who feel no other longings can be so hard on women who do! Most women uphold patriarchal ideals, so women who feel trapped also feel judged and alone]

 Even Jennie has an inexplicable look. ...she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry - asked me why I should frighten her so! Then she said that the paper stained everything it touched, that she had found yellow smooches on all my clothes and John’s and she wished we would be more careful! Did not that sound innocent? But I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself. (10)

Jennie wanted to sleep with me - the sly thing!  - but I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone. (13)

Jennie looked at the wall in amazement, but I told her merrily that I did it out of pure spite at the vicious thing. She laughed and said she wouldn’t mind doing it herself, but I must not get tired. (13)

[The woman behind the wallpaper becomes a character]

That was clever, for really I wasn’t alone a bit! As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her.  I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper. (13)

I’ve got a rope up here that even Jennie did not find. If that woman does get out, and tries to get away, I can tie her! (14)

There are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? (14)

[She becomes the woman behind the wallpaper] “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane [Jennie?] And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back! (15)


The thing about her being happy to bear the wallpaper room so that her son doesn’t have to (“There’s one comfort, the baby is well and happy, and does not have to occupy this nursery with the horrid wallpaper. If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a  room for worlds. I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.” p. 8 in Amy’s edition)

Does john ever say you can write but write just description of the house? Or maybe she says, i’ll just write a description bec it’s not quite what he prohibited. 

Rachelle called it

That story about postpartum depression


Quotes shannon is not using

The pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. ...those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. [Always being watched] (5)

...it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be. ...By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. (10)

Personally, I disgree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (1) (this should go in the work section?)

“...Really, dear, you are better!” 

“Better in body, perhaps -” I began, and stopped short, for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word.

“You know the place is doing you good” (4)

I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time. [Clearly suffering from a chemical depression, probably postpartum, and doctors don’t take it seriously] (6)

And yet I cannot be with [the baby], it makes me so nervous. (4)

V stephen hawking 

Spheres are literal and physical and also metaphorical and figurative

Phosphates and phosphites -- allowed  

Why are these experimental cures okay and the others (writing and stimulating people) were not?