“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

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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.

Jane Addams and Life after College

Jane Addams offers an answer to the question “what is there after college?” for the young woman at the turn of the last century. Addams spoke about the topic often and wrote about it directly in the texts: “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” (1892/1893), and “Filial Relations” (1902).

Jane Addams, 1900

These texts sought to change the limited cultural and familial roles of middle-class women and bring more bright, energetic women out of the stifling confines of nineteenth-century gender roles and into the vibrant and messy world of the immigrant communities of Chicago.

While these two texts differ slightly in their focus, both were written as much to address the parents of young people who are working in, or wanted to work in, social settlements as the young women themselves (Tichi 102). “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements” was delivered as a speech at the School of Applied Ethics, a six-week summer program organized by the Society for Ethical Culture in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was not only well received when it was delivered with its companion speech, “The Objective Value of a Social Settlement,” but both speeches were subsequently published broadly. “Filial Relations” was published in the book Democracy and Social Ethics alongside chapters entitled “Charitable Efforts” and “Political Reform.” This text reflects Addams’s commitment to a larger ethical outlook and the need to include everyone in the democratic life of the nation.

What will become evident is that the suggestions made in these texts and speeches led many women to break from their families and form affiliative attachments with the women (and men) with whom they worked. This outcome is only barely suggested in Addams’s writings, but the reality of the separation was borne out in the lives of the women who resided and worked at Hull-House. It would have been unwise to discuss the strength of the relationships that women could form in a collegial and collaborative environment in these arguments, though today the quality and strength of relationships between unrelated adults is seen as a marker of maturity and individuation. In Addams’s world, however, the focus, at least for the lives of women was on a woman’s relationships and commitments to her family first.

The text “Filial Relations” in particular appears to have been written to parents of middle-class women, which is a rhetorical strategy she uses in hopes of liberating young women from the limitations of domestic life. Addams begins by establishing that the bulk of people do not “share the effort toward a higher social morality,” but are content to express a general conservatism, which takes as its standards the well-worn roles and cultural expectations of the past. Those who hold those notions of social conservatism judge harshly anyone who deviates from these behaviors or viewpoints. There is a logic in this, Addams observes, because these practices are proven and offer stability to the community. Yet in this age of expanding democracy, new relationships are being tested. In order to fulfill the higher call that our flourishing democratic ideals and social relations demand, some will need to (and want to) reorient their energies from the family and themselves to a loftier social goal. Thus, Addams has laid forth the changing social and political landscape of America and identified the reasonable intentions of individuals who feel no call to reform and service and adhere to traditional roles and behaviors in an attempt to win over the skeptics to her work (76-77). Continue reading

Settlement House Spinsters

While I am just about to set forth on my trip to Philadelphia for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference, I am also thinking pretty seriously about the paper that I will present at the Pacific and Ancient Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in San Francisco two and a half weeks from now. At the PAMLA conference I will be presenting on a panel about Marriage in Nineteenth Century America.

My paper: “Settlement House Spinsters: How Settlement Houses Saved Women from Marriage” pretty much starts at the premise that marriage is something that women should be saved from, especially in the nineteenth century. I am interested in examining the ways that settlement houses offered women an alternative to heterosexual marriage, child-rearing, and domestic duties.

This paper is focused more on white middle-class women than much of the other research I have done thus far. In part this is because I am focusing on the women who worked in the social settlement, not those who lived in the neighborhood and in part this is because I will be focused on the community at Hull-House.

Hull-House and the writings of Jane Addams are at the core of this paper. At this point I plan to look at the rhetoric that she is using in two articles/speeches: “The Subjective Necessity for Settlement Houses” (1892) and “Filial Relations” (1902). I examine how Jane Addams crafts her arguments which state that young, middle-class men and women (only women in the case of “Filial Relations”) have been educated to value work that helps others; that many young people have a natural desire and inclination dedicate their time and energy to making the world a better place and righting injustices in the world, but nineteenth century middle-class society is often uncomfortable with their children leaving the comfort of their sheltered worlds, committing themselves to this kind of work and living in the poorest neighborhoods of the cities.

Moreover, Addams argues young, educated, middle-class women especially are in a bind because they have been trained to be socially committed but they have very few options when they are done with school. Young women can become wives and mothers and precious little else. Addams suggests that we should begin to think about the good it will do to allow young women to embark on work in settlement houses after college.

Working in the settlement house also offers certain benefits for young women who don’t wish to marry, but want to be out of their parents’ homes and doing something useful. For instance, there is a broad array of work that is available for the women to do. These women have useful skills, passionate social concerns, and are eager to apply themselves in places where they are needed. Also many women were interested in seeing the world outside of the cloistered worlds of home and school that they in which have been trapped for most of their lives. Also, for women who are uninterested in marriage altogether perhaps because they are not interested in heterosexual monogamy or desire to live in a women-centered communal living situation social settlements allow them the freedom to do this, under the coverage of an institution, but not in a traditional marriage. The social settlement allows these women a place for autonomy and independence.

For background I looking at books about the history of marriage in America, like Hendrik Hartog’s Man and Wife in America: A History and Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. I am limiting this paper to Hull-House for the sake of focus. I will also check out Eleanor Stebner’s 1997 dissertation The Women of Hull House: A Study in Spirituality, Vocation, and Friendship and literature on the lives of women like Addams, Julia Lathrop, and Florence Kelley in order to augment my analysis of Addams’s writing with historical context, biographical examples, and hopefully find some critical connections between the philosophies at work in social settlements, women’s rights groups, the nineteenth-century American family, and an evolving national identity.