“Why Study a Syphilis Novel?”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Medicine at Austin College

“Why Study A Syphilis Novel?: Eugenics and the New Domestic Ideology in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Crux (1911)”

Randi Tanglen, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Austin College, Sherman, Texas

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

imgres

Yesterday afternoon Randi Tanglen, an Assistant Professor of English at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, discussed Charlotte Perkins Gilman, medicine, eugenic practices of nation building, and Gilman’s 1911 novel The Crux in a lecture that coincides with the college’s exhibition of “The Literature of Prescription”. Gilman is perhaps best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), which shed light on the detrimental effects of the rest cure treatment for neurasthenic women. Tanglen contextualized her lecture about the lesser known novel by beginning with “The Yellow Wallpaper” which is familiar to a wide and general audience.

Professor Tanglen explored the way in which Gilman is a troubling subject for scholars and feminists. Gilman was rediscovered and recovered by literary scholars in the 1970s as a feminist foremother, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” was quickly added to course syllabi and American literature anthologies. However, Gilman’s commitment to eugenic practices and her blatant racism make her canonization as an American feminist writer problemmatic, to say the least.

In yesterday’s lecture, Tanglen presented The Crux as a novel that demands that white women take up their duty as the morally and racially superior members of the race to regenerate the nation. However, in order to do this, the novel suggests, some social changes must take place. For instance, women must stop competing with one another in a marriage game that pits woman against woman for the honor to marry, not the best man, but whatever man is available. According to Gilman, the dynamic needs to be turned on its head–men should be competing for women–and women should be able to choose from a field of men, in order to secure the best possible mate in order to make strong, healthy, racially superior American babies. The Crux, more a lecture than a novel, admonishes male doctors for maintaining a veil of secrecy which protects men from having their sexual fitness made public. Women need to be educated about the realities of sexually transmitted diseases so that they can choose a healthy, clean mate and fulfill their nation-building destiny.

Professor Tanglen’s lecture is part of her an on-going project in which she explores the influence of the elder Catherine Beecher on her great-niece Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In particular, Tanglen links Beecher’s advocacy of Christian womanhood and motherhood in the service of millenialism in the U.S. to Gilman’s advocacy of motherhood in the service of American racial and cultural development.

The traveling exhibition, “The Literature of Prescription”, that is currently being displayed at Austin College will be there for the rest of the month. The National Library of Medicine on Gilman is a rich site, especially for students. Focusing on Gilman and “The Yellow Wallpaper” the exhibition does not, however, explore the very troubling racial implications of the Gilman corpus.

2 thoughts on ““Why Study a Syphilis Novel?”: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Medicine at Austin College

  1. Gilman’s commitment to eugenic practices and blatant racism may be “problemmatic” to the feminist, but they should not be surprising if one has an comprehensive knowledge of the movement. Gilman has nothing over Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and other proponents of radical
    feminism.

  2. You are right. Randi’s talk was aimed at a general audience, so she presented Gilman within the historical context, which was probably new to many of the listeners.

Comments are closed.