September 28, 2008
While performing my duties as an employee of the Rhode Island Historical Society, I came across a letter written by the author and feminist activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). The letter reminded me that Gilman spent much of her young life in Providence.
Gilman is best known for “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a semi-autobiographical short story that details a woman’s confinement in a remote house due to her “hysterical condition” and her subsequent decent into madness. Gilman loosely based the story on her own experience of what we currently term post-partum depression. She had this breakdown in Providence, and the house she attempted to raise her daughter in still stands on the Eastside. After further research, I discovered that most of the buildings in Providence connected to Gilman are still standing. The exception to this is the Butler Exchange Building, where on the 5th floor from 1881-1884 Gilman established the Providence Ladies Sanitary Gymnasium to promote women’s physical fitness and autonomy.
Gilman’s work as an author and lecturer attempted to demystify gender roles and equalize household responsibilities. In my work Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Providence, I made portraits of these buildings not only as an homage to Gilman, but also as a consideration of the power and history of these structures. The buildings she lived and worked in are important sites to consider as the physical spaces where radical feminist ideas germinated.
The Following are a list of addresses associated with Gilman’s time in Providence.
32 Gilmore Street, off Bridgham Street between Cranston Street and Elmwood Avenue
The House where Charles Stetson, Charlotte’s First Husband and father to her only child Katharine Beecher Stetson, boarded while he established an art studio in Providence. He would eventually help found the Providence Art Club and grant Charlotte an amicable divorce. Stetson raised Katharine in Providence with his second wife, Grace Ellery Channing, one of Charlotte’s closest friends.
22 Manning Street, at Ives Street
This is one of the several childhood homes of Gilman. Her mother rented a portion of this house while Charlotte attended RISD. After graduating RISD, she worked as a commercial artist for the Kendall Soap Company. In her Autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography, Gilman recounts her time in this building and reprints a poem she wrote as a child about her joy gazing out the 3rd floor window of her bedroom across Providence.
21 Humboldt Avenue, at Taber Avenue
The house Charlotte moved to after her marriage to Charles Stetson. In this house, she gave birth to her daughter, suffered from post-partum depression.
Butler Exchange Building, on Westminster Street at Kennedy Plaza
Built in 1872, it housed The Providence Ladies Sanitary Gymnasium on the 5th floor, the Rhode Island Commercial School an antecedent to Bryant University, as well as the grocers and importers Dodge and Camfield and Waite Auto Supply Company.
I would like to expressly thank the following individuals for their assistance on this project:
Karen Eberhart, Special Collections Curator; Phoebe Simpson, Technical Services Librarian / Conservation Specialist; Lee Teverow, Reference Librarian, Dana Signe Kindstedt Munroe, Registrar- all of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library and Elizabeth Delmage currently of the Savannah Historical Society for answering all of my pesky questions and tolerating my various interests. In addition, I am grateful for the assistance of Jane Lancaster Charlotte Perkins Gilman Scholar and author of "'I Could Easily Have Been an Acrobat': Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Providence Ladies' Sanitary Gymnasium 1881-1884," American Transcendentalist Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 1, 35-52 (1994).
I dedicate this piece to my mom, Thea Kovac.