Interpreting Themes in “If I Were a Man” By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

                                                                                    By Blair Metallic

 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) argued that the traditional male and female roles were outdated, artificial and no longer necessary for survival: "There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver" (from Women and economics, 1898).

An ardent and eloquent supporter of women’s suffrage and their societal and economic independence, Gilman fought for the equal treatment of women and encouraged them to pursue interests outside of the home and therefore find freedom. The themes of gender identity, gender knowledge, patriarchy, therefore control of money, and of all other public aspects in society are apparent in Gilman’s short story “If I Were a Man. These themes and ideas are played out through the female main character who finds herself transposed into her husband’s body through a fantasy of androgyny. At first, in the story, the protagonist is ironically described as being a “true woman,” “pretty,” and “small.” “The ideal woman," Gilman wrote, "was not only assigned a social role that locked her into her home, but she was also expected to like it, to be cheerful and gay, smiling and good-humored”(Wikipedia). Furthermore, within the masculine consciousness, women were seen as submissive and controlled, perceived as finding true joy in keeping their households clean as free slaves.

The main conflict of the story is one about money because women were considered to have “no business sense” according to men. Mollie Mathewson questioned her subjugated role concerning power and money in the household.  It is important for the readers to recognize the power system of patriarchy within the text and how the characters are socialized into this mode of thought. For example, men and women belonged to separate social spheres under patriarchy in 19th century Britain. The men were in charge of the public sphere; whereas the women’s domain was the private sphere and they were not allowed to occupy any positions of power.

Gilman conveys, in her writing, her critique of the 'sexual-economic' relationship that she saw binding women to men, and relying on men as economic providers. For example, when Mollie has a revelation about “how it felt to have pockets” and “all at once, with a deep rushing sense of power and pride, she felt what she had never felt before in all her life – the possession of money, of her own earned money – hers to give or to withhold, not to beg for it, tease for, wheedle for – hers” (Gilman 570). In her writing, Gilman urged women to move in the direction already pointed out by leaving their ancient, unspecialized, home occupation. (Cott 41).

Through this fantastic tale of androgyny, the female character becomes more aware of gender conflicts, gains perspective, and a deeper understanding of the other sex. “A man! Really a man – with only enough subconscious memory of herself remaining to make her recognize the differences”(Gilman 569).

Through the text she slowly learns to understand what men really think about women and how these same men really are through their behavior, train of thoughts, and senses. “Now came the feeling of open-eyed acquaintance, of knowing men – as they were” (Gilman 571).

As a man, the spender of money, Mollie had a new perspective on economics and fashion.  “With the eyes of a man and a brain of a man; with the memory of a whole lifetime of free action wherein the hat, close fitting on cropped hair, had been no handicap; she now perceived the hats of women […] Never in all her life had she imagined that this idolized millinery could look, to those who paid for it, like the decorations of an insane monkey”(Gilman 570). She now saw spending money on these things only useful for the pride of the women themselves and therefore, for the superficial look of things.

 

On the whole, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story still offers a subtle critique of society that still rings true in today’s world. In her works like “If I Were a Man”, Gilman attempts to raise the standard of life for women of her time by deconstructing institutions such as the home and the economy by creating new worlds for women to thrive in.

 

Works Cited

 

Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1987.

 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Wikipedia:The Free Encyclopedia. Internet.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman Page consulted on November 16, 2007.