Charlotte Perkins Gilman: a Woodstock founding mother

Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (Library of Congress)

“If it hadn’t been for Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Woodstock might not be what it is today,” town historian Alf Evers told me one afternoon when I visited his vintage cabin in Shady during the 1970s.

“Who was Charlotte Perkins Gilman?” I asked. For the next hour, Alf gave me an earful. By the turn of the twentieth century, Gilman (1860-1935) had her fingers in many pies as a novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, feminist thinker, controversial social commentator, and women’s suffrage activist.

She traveled widely, went on speaking tours, and stirred up critics after delivering provocative challenges to the dominant culture. She raised the eyebrows of people most everywhere she went and made friends with a wide range of artists and progressive thinkers.

Advertisement

Gilman’s satiric novel Herland (1915) featured a utopian land of only women who reproduced without men by way of parthenogenesis. The work provoked smirks, smiles, and laughter across the nation. Her short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) continues to be included in college and university courses as an example of American feminist literature and a commentary about women’s health issues.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman had strong ties to Woodstock. She visited and went on retreat here to write at a critical point during the women’s suffrage movement after 1910. Historian Alf Evers recognized the significance of Gilman as someone having the ear of two key individuals — Ralph Whitehead and Hervey White — who with Bolton Brown are considered founders of the Woodstock art colony. Evers documented how Gilman took the pivotal step of initially introducing White and Whitehead to each other.

Both men were interested in the establishment of art colonies as part of a larger social movement inspired by John Ruskin, William Morris and others who advocated abolishing and reversing the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. They supported the production of handmade arts and crafts, as well as returning to a more direct connection with the earth. These interests mirrored the views of other generations of cultural creatives who have lived and worked in the town since the art colony’s founding in 1902.

But what if Hervey White and Ralph Whitehead hadn’t met? What if establishing an art colony in Woodstock, New York had developed into a road not taken? What if Charlotte Perkins Gilman hadn’t acted on her instinct to bring her two close friends together in collaboration? What if she had placed both Hervey and Ralph on the backburner and instead related to them separately? Would Woodstock have evolved in a significantly different way? Or would the collaboration between White and Whitehead have manifested in another form?

Years ago I posed these questions to Alf Evers, then Woodstock historian. I sat on an overstuffed old chair on the fringe of his kitchen in his Shady home. There I listened to Alf’s anecdotes involving Whitehead, blue blood to his core, interacting with White, the charming zany and gifted artist, writer, and earthy innovative thinker who loved democracy and dreaming up projects involving performance, theatre, music, art, and publishing.

When Hervey White established his own artists’ colony called The Maverick in 1905 following his break with Byrdcliffe, others joined him to participate in a creative community not considered as stiff and formal as the Byrdcliffe arts enclave administered by Ralph and Jane Whitehead. The Maverick splinter arts colony developed a reputation for fresh creative perspectives. Hervey White was said to be energetic, lusty, warm, and supportive of the creative expression of others.

Art colonies and related communities had the potential of nourishing what was then a countercultural movement involving many, including social commentator Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) who founded an arts and crafts community producing handmade furniture, books, metal work, and lamps known as Roycroft in 1894 near Buffalo. It wasn’t enough to simply establish an art colony or win voting rights for women, according to Perkins Gilman. She believed the social and economic system required substantial adjustments.

Gilman’s publication of Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution in 1898 proposed changes in marriage, the family, and society as well as shifts in the nature of woman herself. Gilman wasn’t alone among those calling for both reform and revolution. Many who valued a connection between art and activism like Hervey White stepped out into the public arena and made their views known as well. Gilman was a fan of White’s novels, and she encouraged him to continue writing.

Gilman’s visits to Woodstock and her long-term friendship with White and Whitehead were documented in Alf Evers’ book, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (Doubleday, 1972) and his later work from Overlook Press in 1987: Woodstock: The Story of an American Town. Even with the attention of a respected historian like Evers, Gilman has remained relatively unknown in Woodstock as well as throughout the nation. Alf referred to her as one of the nation’s prominent social commentators and theorists of the period as well as a significant figure in local history.

Evers liked telling stories about how Hervey White mixed with socialists, anarchists, union organizers, artists, activists, and innovative writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Hervey and Charlotte met through Chicago settlement work with Jane Adams and Hull House. After one of Gilman’s speeches in New York City, Ralph Whitehead introduced himself to her and they developed a friendship. Hervey and Charlotte visited Ralph at his West coast estate Arcady prior to the formal search for a site that led to the establishment of Woodstock as an art colony in 1902.

Perkins Gilman believed in women’s voting rights, Alf said, but she also suggested that women might not be able to reach their potential without substantial changes in the social structure, the law, mores, and in women themselves. She advocated the establishment of cooperative kitchens and housework fitting into professional skill sets rather than requiring domestic responsibilities weighing down women who she believed needed the freedom to reach toward their personal potential.

Gilman found Woodstock to be a supportive community where she wouldn’t be dismissed as lonely or dysfunctional or viewed as an inadequate mother because she allowed her young daughter to be raised by her ex-husband and a close friend who married each other. Freed from domestic obligations, Gilman devoted herself to social activism and writing.

From Charlotte’s perspective, the dominant culture was dysfunctional. From this position, she rejected the idea that conventional society should pass judgment on her. Gilman could relate to Woodstock’s art students and dissidents, those who chose other paths than those offered by the mainstream culture so they’d be able to sketch, paint, compose music, write, and skinny dip in the Millstream.

Some of Woodstock’s early settlers raised their eyebrows at the artists and newcomers who jigged at the drop of a hat, napped on meadows when tired, and gathered maple leaves from the ground to examine their veins, their texture, their taste. It would be difficult for Gilman to have written with humor, with joy, with sharp criticism if she hadn’t been able to relax and rest in a lounging chair at Lark’s Nest in Byrdcliffe. She wasn’t afraid of people not understanding her. She realized that her thoughts were not always linear or close enough to the ground to capture and train.

I was a sponge soaking up this kind of content. Alf was a Woodstock institution. Most everyone living locally recognized him on the streets if they weren’t already acquainted. He established a practice of scholarly study of the Woodstock landscape and its population when serving as town historian and later on when devoting himself to producing regional and local histories. He collected and studied women’s history, not by isolating it, but integrating it into a comprehensive summary of the past.

Evers did more than study history. He discussed its social, political and cultural context, analyzed it, told jokes about it, and stirred up considerable interest in the vital connections between the past, present, and future. He spoke to many individuals, researchers, historical societies, and organizations over the years in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountain regions prior to his death in 2004.

Alf interviewed any and all with personal experience about the art colony’s founders Whitehead, White, and Brown as if they were his cousins, siblings, or close friends — as if he visited them often and couldn’t help but share their news and adventures with anyone who asked. With the exception of Madame Livingston in the town’s history, Alf noted that most women appearing in the early official records functioned in the roles of wives, daughters, and relatives of men rather initiators, movers and shakers on their own.

When Woodstock women increased their participation in town government and the community during the twentieth century, Alf made sure it wasn’t buried in the historical record. He stressed the importance of more research. In the more than two hundred years of local government, only two women (Val Cadden and Tracy Kellogg) had served as Woodstock town supervisors.

As a researcher Alf carried a pack of index cards in his pocket, handy for scribbling notes of conversations with any old timer who could remember the establishment of the art colony of Byrdcliffe in 1902, the Maverick succession in 1905,  in addition to any and all waves of those arriving in Woodstock and impacting the community’s culture and politics over the decades since the town’s founding in 1787.

A visit with Alf Evers filled many afternoons when he presented me with exhaustive answers to my basic questions. His interest in history was infectious. He collected primary documents and facts like others might collect stamps or souvenirs. He told me how Charlotte Perkins Gilman retreated to Byrdcliffe to write and visit with Woodstock friends. She interacted socially with Ralph Whitehead, Jane Whitehead, Hervey White, and others when in residence here. I often wondered if she may have written or reflected on parts of the novel Herland while on retreat in Woodstock.

How would the town have evolved if Charlotte Perkins Gilman hadn’t brought Hervey and Ralph together? What if Amelia Bloomer hadn’t introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York in 1851? They may have discovered each other in some other way and launched a collaboration that changed the course of the nation. And just as likely, they may have worked alone as activists facing an uphill struggle when advocating for equality between the sexes.

Advertisement

A statue on display in downtown Seneca Falls, New York today of Bloomer introducing Anthony to Stanton raises the possibility of a statue being created in Woodstock in the future featuring Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the center with Hervey White on one side and Ralph Whitehead on the other.

The farming community of Woodstock in 1900 seemed ripe for the art colony seed Gilman soaked, planted, and tended. She sensed the time had come for a new arts colony, one resistant to creative drought and with the potential of perpetuating a flowering throughout the twentieth century and beyond. She played a pivotal role in manifesting this vision by introducing Hervey White and Ralph Whitehead to each other and functioning as a supportive resource through her friendship with them both.

Alf Evers made it his business to document as much of Woodstock’s history as possible, not just part of it. He included women and their contributions in the larger story of Woodstock by preserving the part Charlotte Perkins Gilman played as integral to the chronology of Woodstock’s development.

When I asked Alf “Who was Charlotte Perkins Gilman?” years ago, I was foreshadowing the interest of others over the decades who insist on finding out as much about the historical sweep of events as possible. The story of Woodstock and its arts colony requires more than embellishing the headline makers. Alf Evers set the pace and now others are continuing in his footsteps today. A direction like this that adds to and expands a people’s history of the town makes me want to dance.

Marguerite (Culp) Kearns is a writer of creative nonfiction. She started working for Woodstock Times for its first issue in 1972 and stayed through 1990. She loves the stories her grandfather Wilmer Kearns told her as a child about her suffrage movement activist grandmother Edna Kearns about a time in American history when women couldn’t vote and equality must have seemed like an impossible dream.

Post Your Thoughts