Finding Sanity in an Insane System: The Yellow Wallpaper Symposium

Written and Photos by: Casey Mitchell

A museum famous for skull collections and jarred fetuses seems like an unlikely location for a literary panel to occur. It was my love for literature, feminism, and grotesque medical oddities that drew me to the Yellow Wallpaper Symposium at the Mutter Museum on April 14th.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a 6,000-word short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman largely describing her disapproval of the wallpaper of a room where she is confined for a summer while enduring the “rest cure,” a treatment for neurasthenia. She was diagnosed with a fatigued nervous system, common for “hysterical” women at the time.

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The work reads more like a short horror story but is actually the non-fiction account of Perkins Gilman’s experiences and mental degradation. From this short synopsis, “The Yellow Wallpaper” may not seem lasting or impactful, but it is just the opposite. The piece has become a cornerstone of American feminism, and was picked up by the Mutter Museum in Center City, which held a panel with health and gender experts.

The panel featured Cynthia Davis, author of “Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Biography,” Michael Blackie, associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University and Jennifer Brandt, assistant professor of English and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at High Point University. They explored the relationship between physical health and productivity, as well as the connection between mental and physical health and the politics of the woman’s body.

“In the month before her second marriage she resumed her gymnastics practice of stripping down to the buff and performing high kicks, toe touches, leg circles and other feats in order to be fit for the marriage,” Davis said, painting a picture of Perkins Gilman as an athletics enthusiast.

Davis stressed that Perkins Gilman had a deep-seeded belief that steady good health was the most important quality for success. In her mind, one had to take care of oneself in order to be useful to society and productive in their own life. Perkins Gilman so deeply believed life requires usefulness that she took her own life when she became ill, famously choosing “chloroform over cancer.” She was adamant about the responsibility of our health and she often blamed the sick for being unwell, going so far to call illness a “sin.”

Women during Perkin Gilman’s time of the late 18th to 19th century were viewed as inferior to men, but it came as a surprise to me to learn they had no authority over their own health. Women were to follow the prescriptions of their doctors against their will or better judgment. Not only this, but women were considered particularly prone to illness because doctors viewed them as “governed by their wombs,” stated Davis.

It is therefore very telling of Perkins Gilman’s mindset that she took full responsibility of her health in a time when it was not considered the woman’s responsibility. Her views were a rebellion against the status quo, or perhaps even a form of self-hatred.

According to Davis, Perkins Gilman was sick for most of her life. Granted, in her youth Perkins Gilman experienced such wonderful health, she was not even aware that she had a body. It was not until after her first marriage the exhaustion and nerves set in, and she eventually was hospitalized.

“It’s tempting to imagine what she could have accomplished in good health,” said Davis.

Surely, having never experienced illness, Perkins Gilman would not have the empathy and perspective that allowed her to write works and encourage women to take responsibility of their own health. But there is a reason she focused so adamantly on trying to encourage health: she did not wish her illness of mind or body on another woman.

Throughout the panel, the relationship between mental and physical health was thoroughly examined. A line was hardly drawn to separate the two. The rest cure was used as a treatment for people suffering from neurasthenia or other “nervous diseases” involving hysteria. Neurasthenia is sometimes called “Americanitis” because of its prevalence in the U.S.; it seems a modern equivalent to anxiety disorder, or manic depression. The rest cure was also an unbelievably dated idea. It’s the medical equivalent of telling someone with anxiety or depression to try and “sleep it off.”

Physicians agreed there was an epidemic of exhaustion and nervousness but disagreed on how much rest was necessary to qualm the epidemic. Salas Weir Mitchell, creator of the rest cure, recommended some of the longest periods of rest: up to a year or more.

“Absolute rest in isolation from family and friends, and a closely monitored diet consisting largely of milk,” Blackie said, but he then noted the difference between psychological and physical health. “Psychological well-being cannot be measured in pounds and inches.”

Brandt finished out the panel by discussing the role of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in relation to pop culture and feminism, considering Perkins Gilman an important figure in first wave feminism, although she considered herself a “humanist.”

Oppression and pre-assigned roles were the everyday reality of women and the lasting effects of this view of woman are still relevant today. Brandt put the pop culture of Perkins-Gilman’s age into perspective through a speech by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing women who chose not to be mothers. He compared them to traitorous soldiers who abandoned the country and their duties.

“Motherhood was seen as the highest form of achievement for women,” Brandt said. “What Gilman was advocating was that women were economically trapped in their roles, leaving them dependent on men. She was really ahead of her time in her views on gender construction.”

It is undeniable that the works of Perkins Gilman were revolutionary. Her accomplishments should not be boiled down to “The Yellow Wallpaper” alone, but it’s certainly a tribute to her remarkable literature that today events such as the Yellow Wallpaper symposium discuss Gilman’s ideas. 

I have found that the women that were prescribed this prescription were not sick but rather, in mental distress because of the situations they were placed in. Women at the time were to hold the role of helpmate, housewife and mother and if they were unhappy in these positions it was deduced that they were ill. Thankfully, women like Perkins Gilman and numerous women today find sanity in rebelling against an insane system. SocialMedia 2

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