Yellow Wallpaper in Zion: The Friendship between Susa Young Gates and Charlotte Perkins Gilman

By March 17, 2012

On March 8, 1927, the Deseret News published a piece about the upcoming visit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a noted socialist and feminist.[1]  Looking back, it is easy to assume that the piece would have been largely negative.  Gilman?s most famous work is ?The Yellow Wallpaper,? which traces the growing madness of a young woman confined to her room because she has been diagnosed with hysterical tendencies.  Forbidden from working or leaving the room without her husband?s permission, she develops a fixation with the wallpaper, which makes her think of ?all the yellow things? that she has ever seen ?not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.?[2]  Eventually, she comes to believe that she lives within the wallpaper and refuses to leave the room when their summer rental expires.  She gnaws at the bedposts and hides the key so that no one can force her out into the world where everything is too green.  She ends up crawling on the floor, where she can place her shoulder against the wall, and be protected from losing her way.  The room she once hated has become her sanctuary.

Gilman saw ?The Yellow Wallpaper” as a critique of the infantilization of women, the confinement of women to the home, and the treatment of the mentally ill and as such, the short story would be at odds with the current Mormon understanding of womanhood.  Although Mormon husbands are unlikely to confine their wives to their rooms if they show signs of depression or ?hysteria,? Gilman would have critiqued the church?s emphasis on motherhood and domesticity to the exclusion of women?s work.  Gilman believed that women should be able to enter professions and that those women who did perform housework should be paid for it in real, hard currency.  Far from condemning Gilman, however, the 1920s Deseret News praised her.  It told its readers that Gilman had come from a notable family, which included Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, and that she had ?known intimately many of the greatest people of the world.?[3]  The article also lauded Gilman for her efforts to secure women?s economic independence.

Nor was the article the only praise that Gilman received.  Libby Ivins, the daughter of Erastus Snow and the wife of a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was so taken with Gilman when she met her at a luncheon that she vowed to attend every lecture the author gave in Salt Lake City.[4]  The Ogden Standard wrote that it would never be able to describe Gilman?s magnetism and she never failed to ?rivet? the attention of her audience.[5]

Gilman?s lecture in Salt Lake City was part of a much longer relationship with Utah and Mormonism.  The famous author had initially become acquainted with the movement when she met Susa Young Gates at an international women?s conference in London.  As the daughter of Brigham Young, Gates had found herself spurned at the conference.  She and Emmeline Wells had dressed plainly and looked out of place among the tiaras and fancy dresses of the women in attendance.  Gilman, then at the height of her fame, had introduced them to the Duchess of Sutherland.  The three women also dined together in the presence of the Queen.[6]  After their initial acquaintance, the Gates and Gilman became fast friends and life-long correspondents.  Gilman frequently visited Salt Lake City, where her brother Thomas lived.  In her autobiography, Gilman described Gates a ?good friend.?  In their writings, they described their husbands? foibles, commiserated over their losses, and gave advice about which publishers they could trust.  When Gates? daughter Lucy sang in New York, Gilman went to see her perform and wrote to her friend about the success of the ?lovely? girl.[7]

Gilman and Gates were not the only pair of female authors to become fast friends.  Female writers had long formed associations that had allowed them to improve their writing and find support when they were feeling alienated from a largely male publishing house.  I was surprised, however to discover that they had been such close friends.  Gilman considered herself a socialist, wrote about the importance of developing co-operative housing, and was a fierce advocate of Darwinism.  She believed that domesticity was oppressive to women and limited their economic success.  Gates wrote that she always felt energized after talking to Gilman and considered her an important influence on her work.  As I was reading their letters, I wondered what influence other non-Mormon feminists had on the development of feminism within Utah.  Several historians have written about Susan B. Anthony?s visit to Utah and her correspondence with Emmeline B. Wells but few have considered what influence Anthony might have had on her thought. I am thinking about writing an article on the friendship between Gilman and Gates and the influence they had on each other and would appreciate any other instances of friendships between influential Mormon and non-Mormon women.

[1] ?Charlotte Gilman is Visitor in SL,? Deseret News (March 28, 1927), Clipping found in the Susa Young Gates Papers, Box 38, Folder 13, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[2] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ?The Yellow Wallpaper (1899),? The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings (New York: Random House Publishing, 1989), 13.

[3] ?Charlotte Gilman is Visitor in SL,? Deseret News (March 28, 1927), Clipping found in the Susa Young Gates Papers, Box 38, Folder 13, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[4] Susa Young Gates to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, March 24, 1927, Susa Young Gates Papers, Box 38, Folder 13, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[5] Circular attached to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Susa Young Gates, May 23, 1905, Susa Young Gates Papers, Box 38, Folder 11, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[6] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935; reprinted by Salem, NH: Ayer Books, 1987), 264.

[7] Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Susa Young Gates, January 1, 1924, Susa Young Gates Papers, Box 38, Folder 11, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating. Thanks Amanda, for bringing the Gates-Gilman friendship to my attention. I think it represents a fruitful avenue for exploring connections between Utah women and the broader world. I wonder what associations Emily Richards, an ardent Mormon Suffragette, made with the broader movement.

    Comment by David G. — March 17, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

  2. This is a fascinating post, and well written; thanks, Amanda.

    I find it fascinating that female LDS leaders like Gates are corresponding with national figures like Gilman at the very same time that male LDS leaders like Joseph Fielding Smith are corresponding with national figures like George McCready Price who are, well, on the other side of the ideological spectrum.

    Comment by Ben P — March 18, 2012 @ 4:02 am

  3. Thanks, Amanda. And yes, please, on the article.

    Comment by Wm — March 18, 2012 @ 9:26 am

  4. Wonderful!

    Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female State Senator in the US, maintained a correspondence with a non-Mormon friend from med school that is extraordinary. Jill Derr and Matt Grow had a piece in BYU Studies on some ERS correspondence a year or two ago.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  5. Amanda– Well done. I’m glad that you are bringing attention to this relationship between SYG and Gilman. It’s interesting how Susa navigated her way through some very feminist ideas and friendships,and yet stayed remarkably conservative in her views of the place of women, especially in marriage. In her letters to her daughter, Lucy, about her singing career and travels, Susa sometimes indicated regret and perhaps a bit of jealousy at Lucy’s career options that allowed her more freedom and adventure. Perhaps her friendship with Gilman helped her to work out some of this conflict as well, between her overpowering belief in wifehood and motherhood, and her desire to explore more varied roles for women.

    I think that the another friendship that needs more attention is the one between leading Mormon women– Gates, Wells, and Elmina Taylor– with May Wright Sewall. Similar to Gilman’s influence on Gates, Sewall’s ideas about feminism and peace also informed Mormon rhetoric and activism in those areas.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 18, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

  6. I have always found it fascinating how closely aligned the Church used to be with feminists.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — March 18, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  7. Andrea – That’s really interesting — I think there’s a ton of work to do here. If someone ever decides to update Mormon Sisters, one thing I would like to see is an article or two or three on the relationships of Mormon and non-Mormon women. I try to argue in my dissertation that Mormon women considered themselves to be participating in national and even international debates about domesticity and that their relationships with influential non-Mormon women prove that. As a result, I’ve been slowly making way through Gates’ papers. One thing I’ve noticed is that she seems to feel a conflict between her public and private persona. She’s constantly lamenting that her work as a newspaper editor and public figure leave her with little time for housework and that her house is always a mess. I should mention that Gates was also friends with Rebecca West, a British author most famous for “Return of the Soldier” and her coverage of the Nuremberg Trials.

    Ben — That is fascinating. I think Susa recognized the tension as well. In her letters, she constantly assures her male correspondents that Gilman is no extremist and that though she believes in evolution she recognizes its limits.

    J. and David G. — Thanks for the leads. I am beginning to realize that there is a wealth of relationships to explore and that doing so might shift our understanding of Mormon feminism slightly. In the first wave of Mormon feminist history, I think the emphasis was on understanding what place feminism had had in Mormon history. I think the emphasis might be shifting slightly to exploring their interactions with the feminist movement as a whole.

    Comment by Amanda — March 18, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

  8. Amanda, that is interesting about SYG’s personal tension regarding domestic matters. It made me think of Martha Hughes Cannon again. I went and checked my notes, and I misspoke earlier, it wasn’t med school, but the National School of Elocution and Oratory in Philadelphia. In one letter dated May 1, 1885, Cannon wrote:

    When are you going to wed? After all, this to my mind, is the true state of womanhood neither, if properly managed should it interfere with her true advancement, in whatever sphere she might cast her talents. Tis not the bringing of noble spirits into the world ? to me, a mother is woman?s brightest glory ? that dwarfs talent, and retards her intellectual advancement but it is the multiplicity of household drudgery which only belongs to servants ? and the conformity to the vile customs of modern society.

    Barbara, even if we have to be poor let us not waste our talents in the cauldron of modern nothingness ? but strive to become women of intellect, and endeavor to do some little good, while we live this protracted gleam called life.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

  9. I think that there is much to do here. I’m particularly thinking of race in addition to gender. Gilman would advance white women and the expense of women of color. Gail Bederman does really interesting things with race and Gilman in Manliness & Civilization. Bederman argues that for Gilman race was the all-­important feature of civilization and only white men and women could truly become civilized. White men should let white women in, they needn?t open the door to civilization for all. I would be really interested to look at how that element works in for Young and Mormons. Also if Gilman considers Young (and her Mormon-ness) an ally in the forward march of civilization. How does Mormon history look when we use a lens of both race and gender together?

    Comment by Janiece — March 19, 2012 @ 7:51 am

  10. PS great post amanda.

    Comment by Janiece — March 19, 2012 @ 7:52 am

  11. j. — That’s a great quote! As soon as I get done with Gates, I am ordering Martha Hughes Cannon’s papers. Gilman has a similar feeling about the effects of domestic work on women. In “What Diantha Did,” she argues that domestic labor ought to be professionalized and paid, so that women can be freed from its constraints. The women who do it, she argues, should also be educated and respected. The last point is the difference between what Gilman envisions and maids.

    Janiene – Young has eugenicist leanings. As Connell O’Donovan pointed out to me the other day, her work on genealogy often exults the white race and Anglo-Saxons in particular. Whether that’s more generalized, I don’t know and will have to find out.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 19, 2012 @ 8:58 am

  12. Janiece — Your post inspired me to do some searching on Mormon Eugenics. I found this piece on By Common Consent and realized that I had forgotten one of the key arguments of my second seminar paper for graduate school. Mormon arguments about polygamy in the 1870s and 1880s were often premised on ideas that the eugenics movement would later espouse. The arguments that polygamy would improve the race, making healthier children, uses rhetoric that would have been at home in the firesides of the leaders of the eugenics leaders.

    By the way, I love Gail Bederman. I haven’t read her work on Gilman, but I used her piece on Jack Johnson when teaching a course on sports, empire, and gender a few years ago.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 19, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  13. […] T: Southwestern States Mission: Fastingkevinf: Southwestern States Mission: FastingAmanda HK: Yellow Wallpaper in Zion:Amanda HK: Yellow Wallpaper in Zion:J. Stapley: Female healing and non-MormonJaniece: Yellow […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » When Mormon Women Led Out For Peace — March 20, 2012 @ 12:01 am

  14. I finally got around to reading this, Amanda, and am glad I did. Fascinating stuff, and I love when the blog generates the sort of feedback this post has, with folks noting other similar episodes and pointing out potential leads. I do hope you move forward with plans to turn this into an article.

    Comment by Christopher — March 20, 2012 @ 8:25 am

  15. Great piece, Amanda.

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 20, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  16. This is brazilliant! Vai firme, as they say in Portuguese – or you go!

    In Susa Young Gates’ “Surname Book and Racial History” she comes out as an Aryan supremacist. You mentioned to me that Charlotte Perkins Gilmore also had racist leanings (which surprised me for someone with a Quaker background). I wonder why these women were not able or willing to see the intersections of racism and sexism??

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — March 20, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

  17. Connell, unfortunately, the intersections or racism and sexism seem to be rarely recognized. One of the essays that has stuck with me from my women’s studies coursework is one written by a Latina woman, lamenting how she had been accused of being a traitor by her feminist sisters for refusing to villainize the Latino men who had been her compatriots in the fight against racism and by Latino men for allying herself with white women. Much of current feminist rhetoric is similarly race blind — a lot of women’s history assumes a white woman and only talks about Latina/Chicana women, African American women, and Native women in separate chapters.

    The rhetoric of Gilman and Gates is horrifying when it comes to race, but the separation between racism and sexism still exists in a lot of feminist thought, even if in a more palatable form.

    (On a side note, I did a seminar on intersectionality last year. Let me know if you, or anyone else, wants the reading.)

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 20, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

  18. And unfortunately, when the women’s movement re-unified in 1890 after its post-Reconstruction split (over whether to support the 15th Amendment, sans guarantees of gender equality), it definitely had a white supremacist vein. This contributed to a lack of interest from Alice Paul and other national leaders in helping black women in the South exercise voting rights after the 19th was ratified. In part this was a concession to Southern power, which Paul and others felt they needed to ensure rights for white women. So mixing feminism with white supremacy during these decades was not unusual.

    Comment by David G. — March 20, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

  19. Very interesting Amanda. I had no idea. There is a very good critical edition of Yellow Wallpaper (Shawn St. Jean, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Dual-Text Critical Edition (Ohio UP, 2006). I used it in part as a model for some of my work on JS’s funeral sermons. /threadjack

    Anyway, cool

    Comment by WVS — March 21, 2012 @ 12:12 am

  20. Amanda, I finally got to reading this. I don’t have much to add, but I echo the encouragement already given for a longer treatment of these interactions. Also, email me the readings you mention in #17.

    Comment by Jared T — March 21, 2012 @ 12:17 am


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