Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper”—The “New Woman”

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