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The Literature of Prescription


In the late nineteenth century, at a time when women were
challenging traditional ideas about gender that excluded them
from political and intellectual life, medical and scientific experts
drew on notions of female weakness to justify inequality between
the sexes. Artist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was
discouraged from pursuing a career to preserve her health,
rejected these ideas in a terrifying short story titled “The Yellow
Wall-Paper.” The famous tale served as an indictment of the
medical profession and the social conventions restricting
women’s professional and creative opportunities.


Black and white photograph of Charlotte Perkins Gilman writing at her desk


Charlotte Perkins Gilman writing
at her desk, ca. 1916-1922

Charlotte became an influential advocate for
women's rights and a prolific author. She
wrote numerous treatises critiquing the limited
role of women in society, including her most
famous book, Women and Economics (1898),
in which she advocated financial independence
and meaningful work for women. She was
especially interested in these topics having
experienced profound unhappiness as a young
wife and mother, eventually seeking
medical advice.

Courtesy Schlesinger Library,
Radcliffe Institute,
Harvard University

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, author and
physician, 1906

Charlotte's doctor, nerve specialist
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, had built an
eminent medical career working with
soldiers injured during the Civil War.
He then focused on the treatment of
women with nervous exhaustion,
devising a “rest cure” in which the
patient was not allowed to read, write,
feed herself, or talk to others.

Black and white photograph of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, with handwritten inscription reading 'Yours very truly, S. Weir Mitchell.'

“Live as domestic
a life as possible…
And never touch pen,
brush, or pencil as
long as you live.”

          Gilman describes Dr. Mitchell’s
          advice 1913

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Color photograph of The New England Magazine open to the first page of the 'Yellow Wall-Paper' short story.

“The Yellow Wall-Paper”

Charlotte rejected Mitchell’s prescription to give up all
her intellectual pursuits, and instead picked up her pen
and wrote. First published in 1892, her story, about a
young woman driven mad by the rest cure, has been
reprinted many times and is now considered a classic of
feminist literature.

      The New England Magazine, January 1892
      Courtesy National Library of Medicine


Digital Documents

The Yellow Wall-Paper

“The Yellow Wall-Paper,”
The New England Magazine
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, January 1892

Courtesy National Library of Medicine