Charlotte Perkins Gilman was once one of the most famous women in the world. Modern readers may recognize her name from the classic horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and the utopian science fiction novel “Herland”—both required-reading standbys for high school students—or the many articles and books she wrote on women’s rights. During her life (1860–1935), Charlotte was a leader in dress reform and women’s physical fitness. Her personal life frequently made front-page news.
Born to Run
One fact often left out of literature textbooks: Charlotte absolutely loved to run. She was 5-foot-5-inches, swift and graceful. But in the 1880s, young ladies were taught to be poised and dainty. Running was undignified, unladylike, unfeminine. Any girl who ran about in-stead of walking demurely risked damage to her “female anatomy” or, worse, her reputation. Charlotte didn’t care about any of that.
Running made her stronger and kept her sane. When Charlotte lost her first love, she created a gym for women only, one of the first of its kind in New England. Later, ambivalent about her upcoming wedding, she ran daily to cope.
In 19th-century America, only men ran competitively. Women were considered physically and intellectually inferior and couldn’t vote or own property. From a young age, Charlotte read every book she could find, studying science, history and evolution, planning to improve the human race beginning with herself. Even her dreaded housework was an opportunity. She’d run up two flights of stairs reciting poetry, a bucketful of coal in each hand.
As a child she ran, climbed trees and walked the barn roof for the thrill of it. At least in the Rhode Island countryside, there was little chance she’d be seen. But when she was 15, her family moved into Providence where, much to her mother’s dismay, Charlotte kept running.
Respectable young women at the time wore boned corsets, dresses with layers of petticoats and pointy high-heeled boots. Charlotte liked to cut the heels off her shoes and forgo restrictive undergarments, which she once described as “idiotic as a rubber band around a pair of shears.” Charlotte knew she had to support herself if she was go-ing to change the world. At 18 she persuaded her mother to let her attend the Rhode Island School of Design. Frustrated with her long skirts, she created a garter and belt contraption to hold them up as she ran and sewed pockets for her belongings. She’d burst out her door, down the steps, through the gate and down the hill in flying leaps. By her second week of classes, she reached her goal of running up all four flights to beat the elevator.