Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in the selection from Women and Economics, logically works through the idea of women's economic dependence on men. She begins by pointing to nature. "We are the only animal species in which the female depends on the male for food, the only animal species in which the sex-relation is also an economic relation" (205). Her implication is that if such a state were natural, then we should be able to observe it in nature. Since we do not, then the economic dependence of women on men is not natural.

Gilman continues by trying to figure out a way in which this economic dependence could be justified. Although one might try to claim that women provide housework services in exchange for support, when this idea is examined more closely, it becomes absurd. Not only could the poor man never afford to support a wife who was paid for all the services she performed, but no woman could ever become wealthy by solely performing domestic services. 

It may be a measure of the progress made between Gilman's time and World War II, but it is interesting that the situation that she posits would paralyze the economy, that of removing the men from the labor force, was actually played out. Women were able to enter the workforce and keep the economy running while the men went off to war. But the places that they took in the workplace didn't exist in Gilman's time. 

If women did not exchange domestic service for economic support, then what did they have left to offer in exchange? "[N]othing could be more repugnant to human feeling, or more socially and individually injurious than to make motherhood a trade" (209). Motherhood being thus off the table, Gilman comes to the conclusion that women are in fact dependent on men economically. They do not exchange goods or services for this support. 

One thing that I find interesting about this piece is that Gilman never explicitly mentions sex as an economic tool. I am not sure about prostitution laws of her time, but there have been mentions even as far back as Christine of women lacking virtue. Is it that Gilman does not believe that sex should be commodified? Did she think that her audience might not appreciate those sentiments? How could the economic worth of sex be valued? Does woman trade sex for support? Or can she sell sex for other considerations? Although Gilman specifies the sex-relation, I believe she means gender rather than sex. Motherhood can be a result of sex, and probably was more often in her time than it is now, so it might be that by taking away motherhood from the economic equation, Gilman elides sex out of the picture as well. 

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