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Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Free Spirit

This progressive thinker kicked off her heels and became a pioneer of women’s running.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman was once one of the most famous women in the world. Modern readers may recognize her name from the classic horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the utopian science fiction novel “Herland”—both required-reading standbys for high school students—or the many articles and books she wrote on women’s rights. During her life (1860–1935), Charlotte was a leader in dress reform and women’s physical fitness. Her personal life frequently made front-page news.

Born to Run
One fact often left out of literature textbooks: Charlotte absolutely loved to run. She was 5-foot-5-inches, swift and graceful. But in the 1880s, young ladies were taught to be poised and dainty. Running was undignified, unladylike, unfeminine. Any girl who ran about in-stead of walking demurely risked damage to her “female anatomy” or, worse, her reputation. Charlotte didn’t care about any of that.

Running made her stronger and kept her sane. When Charlotte lost her first love, she created a gym for women only, one of the first of its kind in New England. Later, ambivalent about her upcoming wedding, she ran daily to cope.

In 19th-century America, only men ran competitively. Women were considered physically and intellectually inferior and couldn’t vote or own property. From a young age, Charlotte read every book she could find, studying science, history and evolution, planning to improve the human race beginning with herself. Even her dreaded housework was an opportunity. She’d run up two flights of stairs reciting poetry, a bucketful of coal in each hand.

As a child she ran, climbed trees and walked the barn roof for the thrill of it. At least in the Rhode Island countryside, there was little chance she’d be seen. But when she was 15, her family moved into Providence where, much to her mother’s dismay, Charlotte kept running.

Proper Attire
Respectable young women at the time wore boned corsets, dresses with layers of petticoats and pointy high-heeled boots. Charlotte liked to cut the heels off her shoes and forgo restrictive undergarments, which she once described as “idiotic as a rubber band around a pair of shears.” Charlotte knew she had to support herself if she was go-ing to change the world. At 18 she persuaded her mother to let her attend the Rhode Island School of Design. Frustrated with her long skirts, she created a garter and belt contraption to hold them up as she ran and sewed pockets for her belongings. She’d burst out her door, down the steps, through the gate and down the hill in flying leaps. By her second week of classes, she reached her goal of running up all four flights to beat the elevator.

Delightful Play
After art school, Charlotte fell deeply in love with a young woman named Martha. They were inseparable for two years. When Martha met a man and got engaged, Charlotte tried desperately to talk her out of it and suffered for months.

Depressed and irritated she wasn’t allowed to use the men’s gym in town—“men play and women watch, if invited”—she threw herself into the creation of a gym for women. Most doctors believed overexertion in women led to hysteria and collapse but Charlotte knew all humans needed exercise. “Exhilarating and delightful play,” she wrote, “not domestic labor.”

Charlotte found a large room in Providence’s Butler Building, recruited 30 girls, raised money for rent and equipment, stenciled the walls and ignored teasing from male friends. In the completed gym, she loved lifting barbells and climbing ropes. Her mother was terrified she’d injure herself or become muscular and unable to attract a husband. But Charlotte had vowed never to marry or have children. She was going to change the way women were seen forever.

She also designed a gym suit, a “chemiloon,” as she called it—ugly but practical, a chemise attached to straight long-legged drawers, cotton for summer, red flannel for winter. She sewed elastic straps on her undergarment for more freedom of movement, one of the first modern bras.

Cure for What Ails
Charlotte missed Martha, but the worse she felt the more she ran. She set goals, taking daily note of her progress. Most mornings she ran a mile or more, and soon reported “feeling splendid,” with “great enjoyment and success,” what we now call a runner’s high. She wasn’t yet over her first love when she met a handsome bohemian artist named Walter Stetson, who soon pressured her to marry. She was attracted to him but explained it would be impossible to continue her work as a writer if she was also a wife and mother.

She put Walter off for two years, until at age 23, under pressure from all sides and with his promise to let her work, she agreed. But as her wedding approached, she was unhappy and teary, doubting her decision. Again, regular sessions at the gym helped. “Exercise  delightful,” she wrote. “Home happy.”

Petticoat Problems
But as a new wife with a new home, Charlotte soon became too busy. “Last day at the gym,” she reported a week before the wedding. Ten months later, after a difficult pregnancy, Katharine Stetson was born. Charlotte was too tired and weak to read or write. She cried uncontrollably and felt “on the brink of insanity.” Today we’d call this post-partum depression. Charlotte didn’t run again until Katharine was nearly 2.

“Happy to the point of idiocy,” she wrote her first day back at the gymnasium. She became heavily involved in suffrage work in anticipation of the upcoming vote and ran a mile every Monday. “I feel so much better for it,” she wrote. In Women’s Journal, she published “A Protest Against Petticoats,” a humorous and stinging indictment in which she dared any man to wear a petticoat and try to run. The article led to requests from other magazines and her work piled up.

But that winter was stormy, Katharine was often ill, Walter’s paintings weren’t selling and they were in financial crisis. When Charlotte’s crying jags began again, her husband blamed the exercise. But she was too depressed to write or run. March 28 was her last visit to the gym. In early April suffrage was struck down. Charlotte was 27. She’d be 60 before she could legally vote.

Shocking Split
In late April, Charlotte had a nervous breakdown and went away for what was called the Rest Cure for Women. She was sent home, forbidden by her doctors to read, write or follow an “intellectual life.” Refusing to adhere to those rules, she took Katharine and moved to Pasadena where they hiked, swam and walked for miles—the little girl running in bloomers with no skirt.

Charlotte divorced Walter when she was 32, a shocking event at the time. Her work was already controversial, debated in the press and over dinner tables, so the split was national news. The San Francisco Examiner labeled Charlotte “a crank on dress and physical reform [who] re-fuses to return to her husband.”

Strength and Ability
By 1900, Charlotte’s books were translated into many languages, and her lectures were hugely popular. She tried to advance the notion that women should be paid for their work as wives and mothers; kitchens should be communal, childcare socialized. “A house doesn’t need a wife any more than it needs a husband.” She had loving and intimate relationships with women, then later married another man. At 42, she got a black eye playing basketball with Katharine. At 65, lecturing in an Oklahoma gym, she traveled the hanging rings the length of the room and back.

The Quotable Woman

“Good air and plenty of it, good exercise and plenty of it, good food and plenty of it, good sleep and plenty of it, good clothing and as little as possible.” —Charlotte at age 23

“Here she comes, running, out of prison and off the pedestal: chains off, crown off, halo off, just a live woman.” —Charlotte at age 44

“I was never vain of my looks, nor of any professional achievement but I am absurdly vain of my physical strength and ability .” —Charlotte at age 66