Reading “Making a Change” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Note: I got to know Charlotte Perking Gilman through Lois Tyson‘s amazing book Critical Theory Today. In her book, where she discusses feminist criticism, The Yellow Wallpaper is suggested to be analyzed through a feminist reading. I ordered a Dover Edition where there are seven short stories; that’s the edition to which I will be refering the page numbers here. I then decided to analyze Making a Change which seems to have appealed less, than the other stories, to the readers. I have only been writing analysis since a while ago so I don’t know to what extent this so-called analysis is going to be one.

The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion.

The Damnation of Women – W. E. B. Du Bois (1919)

Characters:

Julia: Mother of a new-born baby and a former music teacher who has given up her career as a teacher for the sake of her husband. She’s quite upset about not being able to take care of her child as she’s expected to and furthermore by her mother-in-law’s uninvited interventions in her childrearing.

Frank: Julia’s husband, who works as an electrician and is devoted to providing for his family.

Mrs. Gordins: Frank’s mom who seeks to take over the business of taking care of the baby.

Greta: The noisy housekeeper who is eventually dismissed and replaced by the French Celia.

The story is set in a regular patriarchial family in the early 20th century. A married man and his wife are lodging the man’s mother whose “tiny store in the saving bank did not allow of a separate home.” (Page 50) Frank is the regular patriarchial man. He has “bent his faculties to a man’s task – how he can earn enough to support a wife, a mother and a son” (Page 51) who since he came “filled [Julia’s] heart with love and devotion.” (Page 51) Furthermore, Frank regards home as a place of quietude, where he and everyone else are supposed to “have peace.” However, he refuses to partake in creation of such a peace by attending to the baby; since in the patriarchial setting we face in the story, taking care of a baby at home is not included in a man’s to-do list.

There are various dichotomies in the text of the story:

Old & Young: Mrs. Gordins, being an old woman, is believed to be the finest embodiment of “mother” whereas Julia who has recently given birth to little Albert, to her displeasure, is considered to be an incompetent mom in Frank and his mom’s opinion: “There’s no need at all for that child’s crying so, Frank. If Julia would only let me ______” (Page 49) or “Why, Julia, my mother knows more about taking care of babies than you’ll ever learn.” (Page 50)

What comes to be paradoxical within the patriarchial ideology is that Frank is “the only son of a very capable and idolatrously affectionate mother” which indicates that Mrs. Gordins has only brought up one child and what renders her capable in being a mother is not her experience in motherhood but her womanness. Such a gendering, undermines itself in Julia’s case whose womanness does not lead to motherhood.

Man & Woman: As stated in the previous section, the text represents a gendered family. In this stereotyped setting, Frank “had fallen deeply and desperately in love with the exalted beauty and fine mind of the young music teacher,” (Page 50) but being conditioned by the patriarchial ideology, which he must have lived through in the late 19th and early 20th century, his reluctance towards a working woman leads his enamored wife to give up her music. Moreover, Frank’s desire for a wife in charge of “decoration and artistic management of their little apartment” (Page 51) does not crystallize in Julia since “the musical temperament does not always include patience; nor, necessarily, the power of management.” Giving up what must have been a part of her identity, and her failure in living up to her husband’s expectation leads Julia to be the unachieved woman that we meet in the story.

Frank, on the other hand, is conditioned to act like a successful man who in addition to providing for his family, has to project his conjugal dissatisfaction in a different manner to his work fellows. To his colleagues, he must seem the figure whose leadership can solve any sort of problem in the household. This exhibition of managerial prudence at home goes as far as taking credit for the crisis that Frank did not have any role in going through: “This being married and bringing up children is as easy as can be – when you learn how!” (Page 56)

Frank and Julia’s love for each other in such a circumstance turns to be quite self-destructive. Julia, who has given up on music, is no longer the person Frank had fallen in love with; Frank, whose work laid “not in woman’s nerves” fails to be the understanding man whom Julia “so worshipped … that she used to wish she had been the greatest musician on earth – that she might give it up for him.” (Page 50) The love that the man and woman are giving to each other is indeed an alienating patriarchial exertion. Such an integrative force overwhelms Julia and drives her to attempt a suicide so “[Frank’s] mother could take care of the baby all she wanted to, and Frank could have some peace. (Page 52)

Altruism & Egotism: There is an oscillation in Mrs. Gordins and the way she appears in the story. Her insistence on wanting to take care of the baby at the beginning of the story “with even more definiteness, but less politeness” (Page 49) seems more an act of selfishness rather than a desire of being a helping hand. Whereas at the moment of Julia’s suicide attempt “her loving arms around [Julia]” (Page 53) she seems to have realized the depth and the gravity of her attitude towards her daughter-in-law. At the beginning, her suggestions to Julia where “great plans were discussed and decided on” (Page 53) seem to be merely an effort in order to revive Julia whereas we later notice that she has, knowingly, proposed something for the good of both women.

The text, in this regard, has a brilliant demonstration of Sisterhood:

Women came together in small groups to share personal experiences, problems, and feelings. From this public sharing comes the realization that what was thought to be individual is in fact common: that what was thought to be a personal problem has a social cause and a political solution.

The Politics of Women’s Liberation, Jo Freeman (Quoted by bell hooks in: Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center)

Activity & Idleness: For both women in the story, the activity they initiate is a means of revival; it’s not merely a hobby… It’s what they hold a belief in and rejoice in. Whereas previously there was “a little alcove …. where Julia’s closed piano and violin case stood dumb and dusty – nothing there,” (Page 53) the situation changes to the point where even Frank, who in this case has had no comradeship in the women’s struggle, is influenced by it as Julia “made music for him in the evening …. he felt as if his days of courtship had come again.” (Page 53) The same goes for Mrs. Grodins who “seemed to have taken a new lease of life.” (Page 53) However, this activity and its subsequent effects are undermined in the novel by the dominant classist and sexist ideologies; women get the chance to take the helm of their own life only when it is lucrative and brings in exchange value. Frank only comes to concede when he is introduced to numbers and the benefit the family is going to make through it.

In Perkins’ works, not solely in Making a Change, female solidarity plays a key role. This is quite in contrast to the widespread notion today by the conservatives that feminism is about seeking victimhood. It is about solidarity and bridging the other gaps that divide the women who can share similar personal experiences, problems and feelings.

Sexism, racism, and classism divide women from one another. Within feminist movement, divisions and disagreement about strategy and emphasis led to the formation of a number of groups with varied political positions. Splintering into different political factions and special interest groups has erected unnecessary barriers to Sisterhood that could easily be eliminated.

Feminist Theory, from Margin to Center – bell hooks (1984)

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