Concerning Children: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mothering, and Biography
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Concerning Children: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mothering, and Biography CynthiaJ. Davis When I initially decided to write Charlotte Perkins Gilman's biography , I was pregnant with my first child. At the time, I was finishing a manuscript devoted to examining medicine's influence on American literature, which included a chapter on Gilman vis-à-vis both S. Weir Mitchell and Sigmund Freud. To research this chapter I delved into the rich primary materials in the Gilman collection at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library, and I came away with a fascination with the turnof -the-century feminist lecturer and writer that bordered on infatuation . Though increased familiarity with Gilman's complicated life story has somewhat dampened my initial enthusiasm, I still admire her for her unwavering commitment to public service in the face of potentially distracting personal matters. What continues to intrigue me about Gilman is precisely her persistence — despite chronic mental and physical ailments and even despite the demands of motherhood — in grounding her conception of self in impersonal concerns. In this, she joined a number of other progressives who also believed civic responsibility (rather than subjective desire) to be indispensable to identity formation. Like many other biographers, I chose my subject out of a sense of connection with her: though born a century later than Gilman, my struggle to balance personal and professional life in many ways resembles hers, and I could not help but be drawn to Gilman as both role model and warning. When I realized that no exhaustive biography of Gilman existed, I said to myself, "here's your next project." x Litde did I know what I was getting myself into. My primary difficulties thus far—and I'm still in the relatively early 102volume 27 number 1 ConcerningChildren stages of the project—have arisen not from Gilman's life but from my own. At this point, I devote most of my research time to gathering and assimilating data for the biography. This has proven no easy task, as the following anecdote should illustrate. About four months after giving birth to my son, I returned to Cambridge to expand my research on Gilman beyond the particular concerns of the book chapter. When I arrived at the Schlesinger, I asked the generally helpful staff two questions I had assumed they would readily answer: first, did they have any suggestions for child care, and second, did they provide a space for women to pump breast milk? The answer to both questions was a kind but still emphatic "no." Surely other researchers at the library had expressed similar concerns: "what had my predecessors done?" I inquired. A shrug was my answer. Presumably, prior visiting mother-researchers had simply fended for themselves, and thus no attention had been called to these needs as matters for collective concern and institutional policy. Luckily, I had already provided for daycare, but in a manner with which I was not entirely comfortable: I was leaving my son with my mother-in-law, who lived in the Boston area. I had hoped that the Schlesinger might have names of babysitters or centers available to help me partially alleviate the burden I was placing on a woman I still did not know all that well. After some consultation, we did manage to come up with a solution to my pumping needs, though not an ideal one. The Schlesinger has two solo bathrooms on the ground floor, and I was given permission to enter one, lock the door, and pump away as needed. This proved an uncomfortable situation, though it had its humorous moments. Anyone who has ever used or been near a breast pump knows that it's a cumbersome and noisy apparatus. I began trying to pump while perched on the toilet, but soon found it too difficult to remain attached while balancing the pump on my lap. My only other option was the tiled bathroom floor, and there I sat for the rest of my stay. Many a time during that three-week trip a knock would come, followed by a jiggle of the doorknob, only moments after I had commenced pumping. The sound of the motor grinding noisily away Victorian Review103 C. Davis must have...