Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper"—The "New Woman"

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

"Wash Day" satirizes the suffrage movement at the turn-of-the-century.

"Wash Day" satirizes the suffrage movement at the turn-of-the-century.

Credit: Photograph courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded that there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to 'live as domestic a life as possible,' to 'have but two hours' intelligent life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long as I lived.' This was in 1887…
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wall-paper," 1913

Every kind of creature is developed by the exercise of its functions. If denied the exercise of its functions, it can not develop in the fullest degree.
—Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman),
from Hearing of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., January 28, 1896

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" was written during a time of great change. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, "domestic ideology" positioned American middle class women as the spiritual and moral leaders of their home. Such "separate spheres" ideals suggested that a woman's place was in the private domain of the home, where she should carry out her prescribed roles of wife and mother. Men, on the other hand, would rule the public domain through work, politics, and economics.

By the middle of the century, this way of thinking began to change as the seeds of early women's rights were planted. Specifically, over 300 early feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton convened in Seneca Falls, NY, for the nation's first convention to discuss and promote women's rights and roles. By the end of the 1800s, feminists were gaining momentum in favor of change. The concept of "The New Woman," for example, began to circulate in the 1890s-1910s as women pushed for broader roles outside their home—roles that could draw on women's intelligence and non-domestic skills and talents. This push for change was not without backlash. Adherents of "separate spheres" ideology turned to popular media such as magazines, advertisements, advice literature, and political cartoons to retain the image of women as the queen of the home.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wall-paper" was written during this time of great change.

This lesson plan, the first part of a two-part lesson, helps to set the historical, social, cultural, and economic context of Gilman's story (please note that the lesson is also appropriate as a stand-alone lesson or as a compliment to studying pieces of literature by women during the same time period). Students will examine advertisements, images, magazine articles, and other primary source documents to gain an understanding of the roles of American middle-class women in the mid- to late-1800s. Lesson Two requires a close reading of "The Yellow Wall-paper" itself within the context of students' research and analysis in this first part of the full lesson.

Guiding Questions

  • What was life like for American middle- to upper-class women in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century?

Learning Objectives

  • Upon completing this lesson, students will gain an understanding of the rapidly changing roles of American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
  • Students will understand how factors such as race, class, nationality/immigration status, and marital status affected a woman's place and role(s) at the turn-of-the-century (1890s-1910s).
  • Students will characterize and explain resistance to changing roles for women

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the online workshop "Masculine Superiority Fever": Making Sense of "Spheres" at the EDSITEment-reviewed U.S. History Women's Workshop. (Click second image on left or, for browsers that do not support frames, go directly to the essay.) As you review this site, keep in mind the following key points:
    • The early- to mid-nineteenth century idea of "domestic spheres" suggested that a middle class woman's place was in the private domain of the home, where a woman could rule as a mother and wife; a man's place with in the public sphere of work, politics, etc.
    • This "separate spheres" ideology placed middle class women on a spiritual and moral pedestal as the queen of the home, which often was regarded as a safe "haven" from the tumultuous public world.
  • Explore "Gender and the Nineteenth Century Home," from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Studies at the University of Virginia website, with specific attention to "Domesticity in Turn-of-the-Century Literature."As you review this site, keep in mind the following key points:
    • As industrialization and consumerism changed the ideal of the home as a haven, "Americans desperately clung to the idea of a romantic idealized space where children, morality, and culture could flourish without the influence of industrialization."
    • This ideal of the separate spheres no longer made sense at the turn-of-the-century (1890s-1910s) when women's roles began to change and broaden.
    • Late-nineteenth century American literature by women often wrestled with and critiqued separate spheres ideology.
  • Read a short history of the women's movement at "Brief history of women's movement" via EDSITEment-reviewed National Women's History Project. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments," from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, reads: "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world." Some of Stanton's specific points include the following:
    • Women were not allowed to vote
    • Women had to submit to laws when they had no voice in their formation
    • Husbands had legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity
    • Most occupations were closed to women and when women did work they were paid only a fraction of what men earned
    • Women were not allowed to enter professions such as medicine or law
    • Women had no means to gain an education since no college or university would accept women students
    • Women were robbed of their self-confidence and self-respect, and were made totally dependent on men
  • Review Gilman's brief suffrage commentary in the Votes for Women Collection from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory collection.

If using this lesson plan in conjunction with Lesson Two on Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper":

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The "New Woman"

Divide students into five small groups. Each group will explore the historical, social, economic, and cultural background of American women in the nineteenth century. In some cases, students may wish to use a National Archives document analysis worksheet. Using the list below, assign a different topic to each group. Ask each group to present its findings.

Assessment

Here are some assessment options:

  • Small Group Presentations: Students should present the findings of their assigned topic, referencing strong support from corresponding web sites. They should demonstrate a clear understanding of their online research findings and discoveries.
  • Essay: Ask each student to write a two-page essay that answers the lesson's guiding question, "What was life like for American middle- to upper-class women in the mid- to late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century?"
  • Role-playing Exercise: Have students role-play the home life of the typical American middle class family of the mid-1800s.
  • Journal Entry: Based on research and scholarship, students might write a creative journal entry or an essay in the voice of a person during this time period. What rhetorical perspective might the person take? What are they advocating for, and why? How do those in their homes or communities react to their viewpoints? Emphasize to students that the creative exercise should reveal the students' knowledge of the time period and the competing voices in the midst of change.

Extending The Lesson

  • Have students read excerpts from Gilman's 1898 Women and Economics.
  • Divide the class into three groups, each of which will browse one of three popular turn-of-the-century (1890s-1910s) publications (Harper's, North American Review, and The Century) for editorials on "The New Woman." Ask each group to characterize the general audience of each publication based on the articles (table of contents), front matter, price, advertisements, and any other aspects of the publication at large. (Students can use a National Archives document analysis worksheet.) Students will analyze the editorials and write a group summary of how each publication represents "The New Woman." Each group will present its summary, and a full class discussion will follow.

    Individual periodicals are listed at "Making of America: Nineteenth Century in Print (periodicals)." Students can search individual periodicals with the keyword "New Woman." A sample editorial is: The New Woman. (The North American review. / Volume 158, Issue 450, May 1894), which you can locate using the Search engine.

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

American Memory

American Studies at the University of Virginia

"At Home in the Heartland"

Center for the Liberal Arts

National Women's History Project

Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Short Stories
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Journal writing
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media

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