Jun 1, 2010

The Man-Made World by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Man-Made World by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Perhaps it is worth while to repeat here that the effort of this book is by no means to attribute a wholly evil influence to men, and a wholly good one to women; it is not even claimed that a purely feminine culture would have advanced the world more successfully. It does claim that the influence of the two together is better than that of either one alone; and in especial to point out what special kind of injury is due to the exclusive influence of one sex heretofore.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Man-Made World is a 1911 book-length essay about what she calls “our androcentric culture.” By this she means a culture built mostly for the convenience of one gender and which disregards the other; a culture in which the male is seen as the default and the female as a deviation from the norm. Gilman carefully analyses the consequences of this patriarchal culture on several areas, including the family, health and beauty, art and literature, education, ethics, religion, law and government, politics, economics, and so on.

The idea that the world is structured in ways that benefit men is by no means new, but ninety-nine years ago Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the first to extensively address the issue, and to careful consider its consequences for both genders. The Man-Made World is a fascinating book for anyone interested in the history of feminist thinking. And it’s almost startling to realise how many of the points Gilman makes are still relevant today—namely its central idea, which is that while “male” and “human” can be used interchangeably, anything that has to do with women tends to be considered of “special interest”.

But despite the many excellent points it makes, The Man-Made World is very clearly an early twentieth-century book: Charlotte Perkins Gilman may denounce androcentrism, but she remains true to the spirit of her time in that she seems to be completely blind to anthropocentrism. The book is full of talk of “savages” and of references to “superior” and “inferior” civilizations, and it relies quite heavily on social Darwinism. The chapter on health and beauty is particularly dated: while I certainly do believe that women should be free to choose their partners instead of being passed on from fathers to husbands, I remain sceptic that this freedom of choice would “improve the race” in terms of health and looks. It’s not that I think humans are above natural laws, of course, but the factors that come into play in our selection of mates are a little more complicated than that. Her theory assumes that there’s a universal standard of beauty and physical superiority, for example, which she seems to define as white and Northern European. Naturally, I call shenanigans on that. Interestingly enough, she echoes the thoughts of some of today’s evolutionary psychologists, but then again I tend to call shenanigans on them too – on anything that is mere untestable speculation wrapped up in a pretty bow, really.

This is yet another example of the blindness to other forms of privilege that so often plagued early feminism. And let me make sure I’m being completely clear - sometimes when I talk about these things, I have the feeling that people assume that if I I
’m bringing them up at all, I can only be doing it self-righteously and accusingly, but that’s certainly not what I mean. When I mention the racist assumptions that underpin Gilman’s thinking, I’m neither ignoring their historical context nor clamouring for the book to be burned in a bonfire. I also don’t think that to take notice of them is to judgementally point fingers at Gilman and declare that she was a Horrible Human Being. I just think it’s interesting to notice this discrepancy – both for historical reasons, and because I believe that this is far from irrelevant for an accurate understanding of how people think about gender, race or class even today. Blind spots may work differently today than they did a century ago, but they’re definitely still at work.

As revolutionary as The Man-Made World no doubt was for its time, it has another flaw: Gilman is not above slipping into occasional gender essentialism, no matter how much she calls attention to the fact that what men and woman have in common far surpasses their differences. But she puts far too much emphasis on motherhood as the “goal” of women’s lives, for example, and she still equates certain innate personality traits with “maleness” or “femaleness”. But then again (and much to my dismay), so many people do even today. Charlotte Perkins Gillman was no Judith Butler, but perhaps we needed a Charlotte Perkins Gilman first so that there could eventually be a Judith Butler.

Dated though it may sometimes be, The Man-Made World is vital reading for anyone interested in the history and progression of feminism. And it’s a passionate, highly readable, and sometimes moving account of one woman’s struggle against the tyranny of gender roles.

Favourite passages:
We have been so taken up with the phenomena of masculinity and femininity, that our common humanity has largely escaped notice. We know we are human, naturally, and are very proud of it; but we do not consider in what our humanness consists; nor how men and women may fall short of it, or overstep its bounds, in continual insistence upon their special differences. It is “manly” to do this; it is “womanly” to do that; but what a human being should do under the circumstances is not thought of. The only time when we do recognize what we call our “common humanity” is in extreme cases, matters of life and death; when either man or woman is expected to behave as if they were also human creatures. Since the range of feeling and action proper to humanity, as such, is far wider than that proper to either sex, it seems at first somewhat remarkable that we have given it so little recognition.

The girl-child, peering out, sees this forbidden field as belonging wholly to men-kind; and her relation to it is to secure one for herself—not only that she may love, but that she may live. He will feed, clothe and adorn her—she will serve him; from the subjection of the daughter to that of the wife she steps; from one home to the other, and never enters the world at all—man’s world. The boy, on the other hand, considers the home as a place of women, an inferior place, and longs to grow up and leave it—for the real world. He is quite right. The error is that this great social instinct, calling for full social exercise, exchange, service, is considered masculine, whereas it is human, and belongs to boy and girl alike.

When we are offered a “woman’s” paper, page, or column, we find it filled with matter supposed to appeal to women as a sex or class; the writer mainly dwelling upon the Kaiser’s four K’s—Kuchen, Kinder, Kirche, Kleider. They iterate and reiterate endlessly the discussion of cookery, old and new; of the care of children; of the overwhelming subject of clothing; and of moral instruction. All this is recognized as “feminine” literature, and it must have some appeal else the women would not read it. What parallel have we in “masculine” literature?
“None!” is the proud reply. “Men are people! Women, being ‘the sex,’ have their limited feminine interests, their feminine point of view, which must be provided for. Men, however, are not restricted—to them belongs the world’s literature!”
Why hello, “women’s fiction”. Ninety-nine years later here, here we are.
Now see our attitude toward child’s play—under a masculine culture. Regarding women only as a sex, and that sex as manifest from infancy, we make and buy for our little girls toys suitable to this view. Being females—which means mothers, we must needs provide them with babies before they cease to be babies themselves; and we expect their play to consist in an imitation of maternal cares. The doll, the puppet, which interests all children, we have rendered as an eternal baby; and we foist them upon our girl children by ceaseless millions.
The doll, as such, is dear to the little boy as well as the girl, but not as a baby. He likes his jumping-jack, his worsted Sambo, often a genuine rag-doll; but he is discouraged and ridiculed in this. We do not expect the little boy to manifest a father’s love and care for an imitation child—but we do expect the little girl to show maternal feelings for her imitation baby. It has not yet occurred to us that this is monstrous.
How sad she would be to know that all this time later, this still hasn’t occurred to the majority of us.

(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)


  1. This sounds fascinating - I read her novella, the Yellow Wallpaper and it sounds like this gives a lot of insight into that.

  2. yeah, it IS sad that the last quote is still relevant today. And it goes even further than that. Parents and grandparents decide what their babies are gonna like from BIRTH! from choosing their clothes colors to choosing their early toys. It was almost offensive for our customers when I suggested they bought a soft pink or flowery book for their 3-months-old son. 3 months! how can that make a difference, if it would? and why a baby boy shouldn't like flowers and fairies? or viceversa, why baby girls shouldn't be attracted to trucks and trains? seriously, we're disturbed.

  3. I think your point should be well-taken. Obviously there are some flaws in her message, but because of her, perhaps, others were inspired to step forward and make their mark. You always read some interesting stuff Ana! Where else would we get a review of such a thing? Between you and Rhapsody Jill, I always learn something!

    HOpe you had a great "down" week, and great to see you back!

  4. Ah yes, "Men are people", great review! This sounds like a fascinating read, despite the obvious flaws. I really think you´re right when you suggest that these early feminists were needed for the modern works. And who knows, maybe in the future new feminists will be appalled by the current works.

  5. This sounds like an incredible read. Of course I am adding to my wishlist :) I would also find her racism hard not to point out, especially her thoughts that we have a built in beauty code that makes us look towards white North Americans (gross assumption on her part), but overall, sounds like there is a lot of great stuff in the book as well.

    Glad to have you and your reviews back!

  6. This sounds like a great read despite the flaws, but I'm thinking that I might love your review more than I will like the book. It's so important to point out the other assumptions in these works. I love your observations on hopw pointing them out isn't the same as judging or condemning and author for it. It's very important to keep that in mind. I come across such things all the time.

  7. "And let me make sure I’m being completely clear - sometimes when I talk about these things, I have the feeling that people assume that if I I’m bringing them up at all, I can only be doing it self-righteously and accusingly, but that’s certainly not what I mean. When I mention the racist assumptions that underpin Gilman’s thinking, I’m neither ignoring their historical context nor clamouring for the book to be burned in a bonfire. I also don’t think that to take notice of them is to judgementally point fingers at Gilman and declare that she was a Horrible Human Being."...I love how you stated this, Ana. I know for me, my head can understand the historical context of such things, but that doesn't totally immunize my heart against hurting when I read them. I don't think it's being judgmental to notice. And I love what you said about blind spots as well. We'd be fools to believe we don't have them ourselves...but if we knew what they were without having them pointed out, well, they wouldn't be blind spots, would they?

  8. This sounds like a very interesting book, but one filled with ideas that may conflict a bit with the ideas of a more modern reader. I think that though there seem to be some problems with the book, it does sound like something I would get a lot out of. Great review, Nymeth. This one goes right on the list!

  9. I often wonder what my own blind spots are...sometimes they get pointed out and it's never fun!

  10. Sounds fascinating, and troubling at the same time :)

  11. A beautiful review of an interesting book! I don't know whether I will read the book, but I loved your insightful review of it - I have to say I liked your review more than the book :)

    On the comments on "savages" and "superior" and "inferior" civilizations that the book makes - have you seen a movie (it is an old one) called 'Gods must be crazy'? It shows what happens when people who we would think are 'civilized' come in touch with African bushmen and the hilarious things that happen because of that. For me it just showed how people who have lived in a particular environment for generations are wise to its ways, and how outsiders make all kinds of judgements without knowing much about the environment.

    It was also interesting to read your comment - "Her theory assumes that there’s a universal standard of beauty and physical superiority, for example, which she seems to define as white and Northern European." I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this kind of assumption that Perkins makes :) Isn't Zadie Smith one of the most beautiful authors around? (One can argue that she is Northern European, but she is definitely not white!) If we just look at some of the athletes and footballers around, we can see that it is difficult to make any kind of generalization. So, I totally agree with your comment "I call shenanigans on that" :)

  12. What an interesting sounding book! I guess Perkins wrote a lot more than I realized!

  13. I wonder what Gilman would have thought of way women today often feel that they have to explain/defend/deny their own feminism. If I never hear the phrase, "I'm not a feminist, but..." again, it will be none too soon. "Feminist" has become a synonym for "harridan" - how did this happen, when probably 95% of women believe in what feminism stood for - equal rights, equal wages, equal access, equal respect?

  14. Verity: I read The Yellow Wallpaper some time ago on Claire's recommendation but never got around to posting about it. I think I need to revisit it and do that, as there was so much I wanted to say!

    Valentina: I know, I know :S I suspect that if I DO become a children's librarian, I'll have to deal with that a lot.

    Sandy: Aww - I'm so flattered that you linked me to Jill! As I keep telling her, her blog is an education. And thank you - it's great to be back :D

    Bina: I hope so, as it will mean we'll continue to learn to see further and become more emphatic and aware.

    Amy: This is definitely right up your alley!

    Iris: I do too. I think it's important not to give in either to the temptation to let these things make us reject these books altogether OR to try to minimise them or explain them away.

    Debi: Yes, exactly!

    Zibilee: They're not so much problems as things that date, I think. But sadly there's also a lot that remains absolutely contemporary.

    Amy: I wonder about mine too. I suspect that economic privilege might be one. The fact that I've always been comfortably middle class makes me take many things in life for granted, and because I read less about it than I do about gender or race privilege (note to self: change that) I'm not always aware of what these are.

    Fence: Yes, it's both! The contemporary bits were actually almost more troubling than the dated ones. All these years later and here we are still.

    Vishy: Zadie Smith is wonderful, isn't she? I like to think that if Gilman were alive today she would have actually loved her (same with, I don't know, Virginia Woolf), but she does show her biases quite clearly. And The Gods Must be Crazy! You know, the sequel is one of the very first movies I remember ever seeing in the cinema. I LOVED those movies when I was younger and need to watch them again.

    Rebecca: She wrote a lot of non-fiction, actually! I didn't know it either until I came across this book.

    Mumsy: I know! I hear "I'm not a feminist, but..." all the time and it makes me want to scream. Or "I'm a feminist, but not one of those crazy, radical ones", as if the explanation were necessary because the majority of us *are* crazy. On the other hand, it's interesting how even back then there were women who rejected the term - Virginia Woolf famously, and even the wonderful Dorothy Sayers. I wonder why they did it.

  15. I've read a bunch of her short stories, and had both the same criticisms and appreciation for them as you did with this longer book. Interesting! Enjoyed your review.

  16. Sounds familiar after reading Dorothy Sayer's essays...

    I wa interested in the passage you quoted about baby dolls. They *do* foil dramatic doll-play. I remember being frustrated with them--thinking how ugly and useless they were with their big bald heads and scanty wardrobes. I couldn't imagine them having adventures like my kid-shaped dolls could.

    But I think she has got it wrong about it being monstrous to give them to to children before they cease to be babies themselves. That is actually the *only* time they are an appropriate gift. There's a brief developmental stage when small toddlers are absolutely fascinated by infants. They're identifying themselves as not-babies, which makes them very interested in what babies are. After that, I say give them a more versatile doll, boys and girls both.

  17. Sounds thought provoking!
    I read The Yellow Wallpaper years ago.
    That last quote is still very true today.

  18. I've read a few of her works and enjoyed them immensely. Makes for great discussion!

  19. The idea of male as the norm and female as the deviation always makes me laugh a little, because it's actually the opposite way when humans develop in the womb.

    And I totally agree that pointing out the flaws in something is not necessarily calling it awful and bad- while I'm quite aware of some of the racism and other unfortunate implications in Firefly, I also enjoy the show.

    This sounds quite interesting. You always read such interesting early twentieth century books, Nymeth- I can only wonder where you get your recommendations!

  20. I’ve never read anything by her- perhaps this book will be a good one to start… I don’t know that much about feminism but I am interested, I’m trying to learn more. And yes, it is sad that the last passage is still valid today.

  21. This sounds like an interesting work. I read her short story 'The Yellow Wallpaper' at my university when we compared it to Jane Eyre.

    But I haven't read anything else by this author. Thanks for highlighting this book!

  22. That last quote is great! It's interesting that there is still such a prevalent thought of only pink things for girls and blue for boy along with toys for girls and toys for boys. I wonder if the lines will ever be really blurred. Granted I feel like totally play into this myself when I buy things for children of friends and family. Anyway, thanks for bringing up this book. I hadn't heard of it.

  23. Emily Jane: I loved The Yellow Wallpaper and look forward to reading more of her fiction. It doesn't surprise me to hear it shares some of the limitations of her essays, though.

    Trapunto, you definitely have a point. At a certain young age infants are just fellow-creatures. But after that they begin to be creatures-towards-which-you-have-to-behave-in-a-strictly-gendered-manner.

    Naida: Isn't it? So many of her points were.

    Staci: Yes, that it does.

    Clare: I found this one while randomly browsing through The Book Depository, and much to my joy they offered it as a free e-book. And that's an excellent point about the biological irony of the male-as-the-default assumption.

    Lua: This is a great book to find out how it began - and just how much of what we struggle with today isn't new!

    Andreea: Oooh - that sounds like such an interesting class!

    Iliana: I think the majority of us do play into it, not only because most of the toys/clothes/etc for babies available are gendered, but also because it's hard to predict how the parents will react if we deliberately break the traditional codes...

  24. This sounds fascinating, though some of her social attitudes would make it difficult for me to read. Thanks for the wonderful review. I have been wanting to check out this author -- I'll probably read The Yellow Wallpaper first.

  25. I picked up a copy of this at a secondhand bookshop a few months ago and look forward to getting around to reading it. I always thought it ironic about how early feminists were blinded by race and often class as well. It also makes me wonder what, in 50 years we will look back at the "second wave" and "third wave" movements and shake our heads at. Fantastic review!

  26. This sounds SO interesting, especially if you read it within the social context in which it was written (not just for feminisim but social history too). I'm sure it was a thought-provoking and revolutionary text when it was written. I love your analysis which has given me lots to chew on. To think we still struggle with some of her gripes makes me a little sad...


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