What Diantha Did and What Olivia Thought
"I'm reading about a novel about a 1910 Martha Stewart!" I told Home & Family Editor Lee last week and then promised her I would share my read, What Diantha Did, with all of you. Working on early twentieth century women’s fiction, I read a lot of lesser-known or even forgotten works. Some are curious, some are riddled with infuriating racism, and then some are speculatively incredible. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s works tend to be all of those things, to different degrees. She talks of savages and uses old words I don’t care to repeat (honestly, if I never hear "savage" again, I will be one very happy academic), but she does amazing things for the time period she wrote in – she creates feminist utopias, introduces women doctors, has women running away from home to launch (very reputable) careers, and she lets her women do what they want to do, whether it’s pursuing a PhD or a husband or neither or both. We, as a society, could still stand to learn a thing or two from her visions.
I read Herland a couple of months ago, and it’s a book that’s stayed with me ever since. It is, in fact, responsible for ruining the recent Wonder Woman movie for me – being all the things I would have wanted the film to be. The novel focuses on a group of three male explorers – all satirically depicted – traveling on an expedition to Herland, a land of Amazons to which no man has traveled and survived. While this suggests violence, the Amazons actually peacefully co-exist and thrive, creating a country that is far better off than early twentieth-century America. The story dismantles sexist stereotypes, has you rolling your eyes at the stupidity of men, and even goes so far to separate “femininity” from “womanhood,” something far ahead of its time. It has its failings, using racist language and turning to a traditional ending where one of the Amazons chooses marriage over her country, but it is an absolutely fascinating read.
The point of this article though is the latest of her novels that I've read: the 1910 What Diantha Did. The novella follows Diantha Bell, a young woman in her early twenties, as she leaves her family home and her fiancé to launch her own business. She scientifically analyzes the work that she does on a daily basis in her father’s home, determining the social and economic worth given to homemakers, and then she moves to another town to work first as a maid and then as a housekeeper. She applies her theories in practice, and she excels at what she does, going on to turn her expertise into a large-scale business. She transforms the domestic into a business and she loves it. She makes a fortune and trains other girls, starts a prepared-food business, a home, and she makes the local townspeople treat her, her girls, and other homemakers with the same respect they’d give to other artisans. She refuses to quit working to make her fiancé happy, even when he threatens not to marry her if she doesn’t, and she always puts her work first.
One might argue that What Diantha Did isn't really that forward – after all, the heroine turns to the domestic to make her fortune. Having read a ton of Gilman's work though, I actually love the fact that that's what she does. Gilman doesn't shy away from women who pursue men's careers. She creates plenty of women doctors with her pen – whether medical or academic ones – and she doesn't force every one of her female characters into marriage. She lets them choose and she recognizes that women are complex. Her Diantha turns to the domestic, yes, but she does so after having had a more intellectual and more "reputable" career as a teacher. She has other options, but she actively chooses to turn what she most enjoys – running a home – into her career. She also certainly doesn't give a damn about what people think of her. That's plenty forward for me.
Neither Herland nor What Diantha Did are literary masterpieces by any means – few of Gilman’s works are, but they’re pleasant to read, were – most importantly – revolutionary, and remain theoretically, economically, and socially fascinating. I highly recommend reading both if you’re interested in feminist utopias or the early twentieth-century. They're some of my favorite reads of the last year, and I look forward to working on them in an academic capacity. Her stories are certainly not timeless, but they remain important historical artifacts and I would argue that they should be on any well-rounded, feminist reading list.
While Gilman’s short stories are easily found in print, her novels and novellas can be found online, in the public domain, and are consequently both on Project Gutenberg and in iBooks.