Aspects of Women: A Bird's-Eye-View

Kelly McCarty


Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, The Home: Its Work and Influence is an extremely interesting look into the way women were viewed in the late 1800’s. One would think from reading the first few chapters that the book was about the wondrous attributes a woman had to offer within a home. After all, the book is written by a woman about women in the home; and subsequently their influence on the home as a whole. With chapter titles such as "The Home as a Workshop: 1. The Housewife," "Home-Cooking," "Domestic Art," "Domestic Ethics," and "The Lady of the House," one is lead to believe that the theme of the book is the positive influence a woman has on the home. However as the book reads on, one feels as though this book was written to confuse. The notion of the "wondrous" influence of the woman is lost in the lash of the pen in the concluding chapters. After reading the book in its’ entirety, one feels as though Gilman saw the women of her time as weak and sheltered; men as strong and superior; and by the end of the work, women were no longer the center of the family.

Gilman defines the home as "the shelter of the family, of the group organised for purposes of reproduction" (15). The home was not a mere four walls to Gilman; it was the essence of the family. The home was the center of life. (Life as defined by Gilman was "an unbroken line, a ceaseless stream that pours steadily on…" [14]). The home was the place of gatherings and festivities. At the center of this home, was the woman, the mother. For as Gilman asked, "What is a home without a mother?" Gilman answers that there would never have been a home if it were not for the mother. A mother provides the main necessities for a home. These necessities are what she calls, life’s first and most constant joys. They are shelter, quiet, safety, warmth, ease, comfort, peace, and love. All of these would not be possible if it were not for the mother figure. Therefore this makes the maternal influence necessary to the development of the home.

Gilman goes on to discuss the limits of the housewife. Gilman states that the limits include, but are not limited to, not doing things for herself (the housewife) well and due to wealth and power, the housewife is unable to see how to make things easier for herself. One might agree with this notion when it concerns a mother figure. Although more women are in the workforce today than ever before, maternal figures still do not indulge themselves. If they do, it always follows the indulgences of the children and husband. In her life, her family always comes first.

According to Gilman, the role of the wife goes unappreciated. Or in some cases, it is under-appreciated. In Gilman’s days, the woman’s priorities within the house were first and foremost, cooking. It was estimated that the average time a woman spent in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up afterwards, came to six hours a day (94). Following the priority of daily cooking came the secondary tasks. Those tasks include, but again are not limited to: cleaning, sewing, nursing (the sick), and tending to the home. The one task, which was left off of the list, is the task of tending to the children. It was left off of the list because it is not considered a task. It is considered the initial purpose of the home. And in turn the initial purpose of the mother, second to reproduction, is the care of the children. All of these tasks and purposes of the women of the late 1890’s still pertain to the women of today. The difference between the two variations of women is the fact that the women of today are more efficient. Women of today do not spend six hours daily in the kitchen (unless they are cooking a holiday dinner – and that is stretching it a bit). On the contrary women have evolved into the working mothers of the "nineties" who are able to take on any and everything. Women of today may be looked on as stronger and more masculine. This is due to the fact that women have taken on more tasks and are therefore looked upon as more "masculine" (in the sense that they have balanced the home with the workplace).

Gilman feels that a man would never be able to survive the life of a housewife. She claims that while the man "had to spend all his time providing for his family, no man ever had, or ever could have, time, strength, or ambition to do more" (101). A person of today’s time would laugh over this notion. The notion that man is unable to tend to the home and all its’ contents, is absurd. While it is a huge transition, a man is able in today’s world to take care of the home, and be successful as well. Just as a woman is capable of running a top company.

The home is based on the maternal figure. That has been established. However, once the home is established, it needs to be enhanced. This is done through art and ethics. Gilman wanted to know why more people did not make their home more beautiful. She believed that through the design of the home, we had made it ugly but comfortable. Beauty had been sacrificed for the comfort of the home. Gilman believed that the comfort of the home while important, should not have been the deciding factor in decoration. She believed that while the housewives had little, they did have the opportunity to decorate. Decoration was where the influence of art would come into play in the life of the home. This was meant to be the place women could express themselves. After all, the only things women had to do were cook and go to church. The ethics of the home are based on religion. This is due to the fact that ethics do not originate in the home. However they are learned in the church. Domestic virtues, such as charity, did and do, originate in the home according to Gilman (160).

According to Gilman, the "Lady of the House" was extremely deprived. The Lady of the house had the chance to leave the house three times in her life. They were to be baptized to be married and to be buried. One got the feeling that Gilman looked at the life of a housewife, or Lady of the house, as a depressing existence. She stated that the housewife was "little-minded" through no fault of her own. The Lady of the house was this way because she was confined to the home. She was never in contact with anyone other than other housewives and children. Making her knowledge limited to those she came into contact with. Nowadays if someone is confined to a home in this fashion, there are arrests. Whoever was confined, goes to see a counselor because they have trouble dealing socially with others.

Due to the fact that the Lady of the house is confined to the home, her body suffers far worse, according to Gilman, than her mind. Gilman describes the housewife’s body in comparison to a man's. Gilman says that the "figure of the man is far and way more beautiful than that of a woman" (211). She continues on to say that a man has better proportions and that a woman is not as well "set-up." A woman according to Gilman has an "undeveloped chest and the over-developed hips" (211). Today we know through scientific research and common sense, that the bodies of man and women are different for various reasons. The woman has those hips in order to make childbearing possible. A man and woman are not supposed to look alike. Gilman did not understand that fact. She believed that women looked so absolutely different because they were consistently confined to the home. Their appearance could be blamed on the notion that they never got to see daylight. Gilman saw a "soft and whiter" body as a downfall, not as the asset we see today.

According to Gilman’s apparent change in feeling towards the role of women in the home throughout the book, one would think the title should have been The Home: A Prison. One got the impression that Gilman was not a part of the "housewives club." She was an independent woman who seemed a bit bitter towards women and men in general, and she used the power of the pen to portray her hostility. Gilman seemed more of an outsider looking in and portrayed a birds-eye-view on the role of women of her time. One can also get many of the same messages in various other pieces Gilman wrote.

The notion of the trapped woman and the useless husband are popular themes throughout her work. The Home: Its’ Work and Influence was a view portrayed by one woman on the nature of women in the home. One is able to get the idea of women during that time (late 1800’s through the early 1900’s), but one must also remember that it is one-sided and therefore has a bias. A view that is from a woman who began the piece with the strength of the maternal figure in the home and its’ "wondrous" impact on the family. And ended the piece with women being trapped in the home because they were incapable of doing more. Gilman, as always, seems split between ideas; but as always, does a good job portraying all sides of the argument.

last updated: 02/07/2008
maintained by: Rick Van Noy