The Widow’s Might


Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Widow’s Might Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Widow’s Might. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1960 in Hartford, Connecticut but grew up mostly in Providence, Rhode Island. Gilman grew up in poverty after her father abandoned the family when she was just an infant, leaving her and her brother with their harsh, unloving mother who forbade them from reading books. She attended school only until she was 15. At 18, she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, where she began a relationship with another woman, Martha Luther, who eventually left her for a man, which devastated Gilman. Shortly thereafter, Gilman married a man and had a daughter, and the post-partum depression she experienced afterwards was the basis for her most famous story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She left her husband and moved with her daughter to California, where she entered another serious relationship with a woman. Gilman is widely known for her feminist beliefs, which were considered progressive and unorthodox. She was a delegate for California at the National American Women Suffrage Association as well as the International Socialist and Labor Conference, where she advocated against capitalism. At odds with these progressive commitments, however, Gilman was an outspoken and virulent eugenicist, going so far as having published an article advocating for the reinstatement of slavery. This reality reveals the severe limits to her progressivism and is at odds with how she is remembered broadly as a feminist icon. Gilman was an advocate for assisted suicide, and after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she ultimately died by suicide, which for her was preferable to dying from the cancer.
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Historical Context of The Widow’s Might

Gilman was living and writing in the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era sought to alleviate many of the social ills that resulted from increasing industrialization, with a focus on worker’s rights and the regulation of businesses. Gilman was one of many political writers of the time who critiqued capitalism. For example, Jacob Riis’s well-known How the Other Half Lives highlighted the horrible living conditions of immigrant workers in a rapidly industrializing New York City. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle highlighted how unchecked and unregulated capitalist enterprise resulted in an unsafe and unsanitary meat-packing industry. Additionally, the end of the era would mark the end of first-wave feminism, when women gained the right to vote in 1919, just eight years after “The Widow’s Might” was published. First-wave feminism was primarily concerned with women’s right to vote, but largely advocated for the rights of white women, ignoring and excluding women of color. Gilman often simultaneously explored both of these Progressive Era issues in her writing, focusing on how the economy impacted women specifically, and especially critiquing the way that the traditional family and gender roles limited women’s economic independence. At odds with its name, the Progressive Era coincided with the height of the eugenics movement in the United States, and Gilman was an outspoken member of this problematic movement.

Other Books Related to The Widow’s Might

“The Widow’s Might” reveals how traditional family and domestic life can prevent women from living out their own goals and desires and suggests that economic independence frees women to live life on their own terms. Gilman explored these same ideas in her books Women and Economics and The Home: Its Work and Influence. “The Widow’s Might” puts forth an unorthodox critique of marriage, another major theme throughout her work and one that she extensively explores in her most famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman’s work is also similar that of Kate Chopin, who was writing feminist literature in the same era. Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” likewise features a protagonist who finds her husband’s death liberating, an extremely controversial idea at the time. Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, explores controversial ideas about motherhood, another theme present throughout Gilman’s work. In addition, Gilman was publishing at the same time as some of the first-wave feminist movement’s most prolific leaders. This includes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose novel The Women’s Bible advocated for women’s self-development.  Gilman’s later works explore utopian feminism, an ideology that wasn’t common within feminist circles until the 1970s.  Her best-known utopian feminist work is Herland. The novel paints a picture of a society of women who live and reproduce without men, and Gilman suggests that this kind of society is the antidote to all social ills and conflicts.
Key Facts about The Widow’s Might
  • Full Title: The Widow’s Might
  • When Published: 1892
  • Literary Period: Naturalism, First-Wave Feminism
  • Genre: Short Story, Feminist Fiction, Horror
  • Setting: Denver, Colorado 
  • Climax: Mrs. McPherson reveals that her husband’s will is null-and-void because he transferred all his assets to her, which is why she doesn’t intend to move in with any of her children.
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Widow’s Might

Traveling Salesperson. Before finding success as a writer, Gilman was a traveling salesperson who sold soaps.