“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


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.

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.

On Social Settlements, Relationships and Marriage: Breaking It Down

For this project I initially thought that I would write one chapter about how marriage in Progressive Era America was effected by social settlements, half devoted to how settlement houses fostered cross-class relationships, with a particular focus on Yezeriska’s Salome of the Tenements and the other half devoted to how women were able to avoid heterosexual marriage and domestic obligations through their participation in settlement house work.

The settlement house offered women much of the coverage of marriage but without all the duties and obligations of marriage and raising a family. There must have been a breadth of experience for women in the settlement house, some institutions offering more autonomy and personal expression than others, while others were directed in a heavy-handed and paternalistic manner. I am curious if there is any correlation between the social settlements that were organized and run by women and those that were organized and supervised by men. Moreover I wonder if there are patterns of difference between different social settlements based on their individual missions. For instance Henry Street Settlement began (as I understand it from my limited research) after Lillian Wald had done a visiting nurse stint in the Lower East Side just after she was done with nursing school and saw that there was a rather profound need. Thus, HSS was begun as an institution that would take young women fresh from nursing school and send them into the local neighborhood to tend to the welfare of the local families. That kind of a project might need more direction and structure than Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr’s rather amorphous project in which they leased a ramshackle mansion and threw open the doors, asking their neighbors what they need. It seems to me that the leadership at Hull-House allowed their residents and neighborhood participants a lot of leeway in determining the needs of the community and then crafting a plan of action to meet those needs. This seems to be the kind of environment that would grant more agency to the young women who worked in it.

Thus for the chapter focused on “Settlement House Spinsters” I will want to look at Addams’s “The Subjective Necessity of the Settlement House” and also other articles on the young women who arrived took up residence in the social settlement. Moreover I think that some research on Florence Kelley might be useful since she left a heterosexual marriage and had three kids and was able to live a vibrant and professionally fulfilling life at Hull-House. Beyond that I will need to look at materials that address marriage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That might offer some insight into what women were trying to avoid by seeking the coverage of the social settlement.  I know there is plenty of research about women’s colleges during the Progressive Era, including material about the different women’s schools, how they prepared the women for their lives after college. I believe that Bryn Mawr was particularly focused on turning out women who had a social mission, but that this lead to great frustration for many women, who upon graduation found that there was little for them to do. It is important to keep in mind that this situation is all wrapped up in issues of class, because poor women worked and raised children and had little choice about it. There wasn’t the middle-class ennui for them, though that claim might not hold water. There was dissatisfaction, but was related to different causes.

In Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother she writes about her mother’s complaints about the unfairness of the gendered household situation. Yezierska wrote particularly about the excruciating experience of being a woman who had once worked and then is forced into the home upon marriage and childbearing – to be the supported woman. However, Yezierska’s situation suggests a certain amount of money and privilege. Yezierska had only one child and could even afford to hire her nieces to help her around the house. She lived in what seems was a much larger apartment than her sister Annie. Whereas Annie had many children and her husband didn’t make much money. Her apartment was described a cramped and squalid – that is much different that the situation that Anzia Yezierska is describing in her true-confessions notes about “The Supported Wife.” While this is an interesting topic, it might not be that pertinent to my focus on just how the settlement house offered women an alternative to marriage.

The other chapter that could emerge from this work about the way in which social settlements and reform initiatives allowed for cross-class relationships has already begun to take shape in my previous blog post: “On Being a Specimen and Picturesque: Anzia Yezierska and the Modern Gaze.” While this post is more focused on the larger social phenomenon of the immigrant woman in the world of the social settlement and as she is interpreted by the modernizing forces of society that sought to interpollate the Southern and Eastern European immigrants into the new national identity, there are hints of how these phenomena played out in one-on-one romantic relationships. However, I think that is a post ripe with ideas that need to be explored further; it deserves a follow-up. A good place to start would be Carrie Tirado Bramen’s article and her bibliography. Moreover, my reading about Yezierska and my reading of her work is yielding a lot of material about her critique of social settlements, reform initiatives and social science. I think some of that material may be very appropriate for the introduction or conclusion of my dissertation.

In order to focus on the cross-class relationships in and around the settlement house I need to look more closely to Yezierska’s writing directly and her depiction of these relationships in texts such as novels Salome of the Tenements, and Arrogant Beggar, and short stories “Wings,” “The Miracle,” “To the Stars,”and “Children of Loneliness.” Another source that might be both academically fruitful and very interesting are the newspaper articles about Rose Pastor and Graham Stokes’s courtship and marriage. According to Yezierska’s biographer (and daughter) Louise Levitas Henriksen after Yezierska had spent Thanksgiving 1917 with Pastor Stokes she was committed to writing a story that captured some of what she had heard her friend tell her about the Pastor-Stokes marriage. In newspapers and magazines at the time of the wedding, the Pastor-Stokes relationship was presented as a Cinderella story – Pastor, dirty and laboring amid tenement squalor, finds her Prince Charming in a fortuitous encounter with a rich philanthropist. I will be curious to see how the newspapers spun that story.

It is not surprising that each of these topics is worthy of their own entire text. But my arch nemesis is a bunch of shiny balls of intellectual tin foil that beckon to be batted around.

Women’s Enslavement: Yezierska on Marriage and Children

Initially I expected that I would focus my Anzia Yezierska research on cross-class relationships, but while reading Louise Levitas Henriksen’s biography of her mother today I came upon some juicy passages on marriage and having children. Clearly Yezierska had a fraught relationship with marriage and family and felt she was much more suited for a bohemian artist’s life without the shackles of domestic duties. Her daughter’s book is replete with descriptions of her spotty housekeeping and distracted and self-centered parenting.

After a very brief marriage to lawyer Jacob Gordon in 1910, (Yezierska left him the night after her marriage) she rekindled her relationship with Arnold Levitas. Gordon’s suit for separation from Yezierska six months after their wedding made the papers due in part to Yezierska’s rather unusual ideas about marriage, unusual as judged by the standards of the time. She states in the newspaper report in the New York American (May 23, 1911) that she had believed marriage was an “ideal state of perfected friendship, of flawless mental companionship” and “the work of propagating the race can be carried on by those whose convictions are in accord with natural lines upon this subject” (qtd. in Henriksen 37). Apparently she had married a man she admired greatly but was not sexually attracted to him. Curiously this article earned Yezierska a flurry of letters from people across the country praising her statement about the power of the platonic marriage.

In July of 1911 Yezierska married Levitas in a religious ceremony, but never had a civil ceremony because the annulment of her marriage to Gordon was not final.  Yezierska was about 30 at the time. In May 1912 gave birth to Louise during a lengthy stay at her sister Fannie’s house in Los Angeles. Louise’s father would ultimately adopt her to make her “legitimate.” According to Henriksen, almost immediately upon returning to New York and life with Levitas Yezierska began taking notes for a “true-confessions-style” piece entitled “The Supported Wife.” Yezierska writes:

Women who have known the independence of earning their own livings before marriage . . . feel most poignantly the humiliations they have to live through while being ‘supported.’ If there was some way out, they would all rush back to the offices, shops or factories. But they cannot go back . . . . By the time they realize the full meaning of being ‘supported,’ they have a baby or two to care for. A baby is like the ball and chain of the prisoner that keeps him bound to his cell. (qtd. in Henriksen 58)

A man can always put on his hat and go, I said bitterly to myself. But a woman with a baby– The massed social pressure of the entire world is against the mother who wants to get away from her place of bondage. . . . They do not have to use dogs . . . to hound the slave back to [her] master, they simply make it impossible for her to leave her baby anywhere (qtd. in Henriksen 58).

Henriksen suggests that many of Yezierska’s insights about marriage, money, and oppression come from her reflections about the marriage of her older sister Annie as “a poor man’s wife” (qtd. in Henriksen 60). After Louise was born Yezierska would often visit her sister Annie to commiserate about the drudgery and the inequality of their situations. Annie lived downtown on the Lower East Side in a crowded apartment with her husband and six children (six children at that time–more children were on the way), where she was also active in reform projects and local organizing. An experience Annie had with a social welfare agency was the original inspiration for Yezierska’s first published story “The Free Vacation House.”

By the time that Louise was four Yezierska and Levitas’s relationship was at its end. At this point Yezierska had already left once without advance word for more than a month to stay with her sister Fannie in California (this time without Louise), and then after spending nine more desperate months living with Arnold Levitas in the Bronx she moved out, coming back a few days later, during the workday, to retrieve her daughter from the nursemaid. Sometime soon after that Yezierska took Louse to California. Levitas learned that Yezierska had taken Louise and moved to California from a letter he received from a friend of his wife. In California she lived with her sister Fannie near Los Angeles, and then moved to San Francisco to pursue a relationship with poet Hugo Seelig. Seelig rebuffed her advances and Yezierska was devastated. In late October 1916 Yezierska’s sister Fannie took Louise back to New York to live with her father and paternal grandmother. After the age of four Louise lived primarily with her father, but visited her mother and seemed to maintain a close relationship with her especially in adulthood.

In December 1917, now back in New York and casting about for fulfilling work, Anzia Yezierska marched into the office of Columbia University Professor John Dewey with the intention of getting him to help her find a job in the public school system. Dewey had recently given a speech in which he decried the unjust firing of three teachers and she challenged him to put his words into action. She however had never liked the teaching positions that she had as a cooking teacher and didn’t really want another one, but she didn’t want the other jobs she could get either. In the end Dewey did not help her get a teaching job, but instead ended up giving her first typewriter to her, giving her a job with his Philadelphia project, and becoming the great love of her life. Their relationship lasted less than a year, but when it ended she threw herself into four years of self-imposed exile during which she wrote and enjoyed seeing one story after another in publication.

At this point Yezierska was free of the shackles of marriage and motherhood. She was no longer a “supported woman” but a working artist who made her own living, paid her own rent, and was free. Though life for Yezierska was never easy, even during her most successful years in the 1920s. She was an intense, intemperate, albeit charismatic woman who was driven to work and create at the expense of those around her.

Henriksen, Louise Levitas. Anzia Yezierska: A Writer’s Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1988