Charlotte Perkins Gilman—writer, philosopher, feminist, and social critic—contributed significantly to 20th-century political and feminist theory. Born in 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, she lived much of her childhood in poverty after her father left the family when she was seven years old. She taught herself to read, studied music, and was largely self-educated in the fields of history, sociology, biology, and evolution. She attended public school sporadically until age 15 and later studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Gilman became active in women’s issues at a young age. She founded a women’s gym in Providence when she was 21 at a time when overexertion was thought to cause hysteria in women. She later gained recognition as a lecturer and writer, focusing her talents on the Nationalist Movement, a type of socialism based on Edward Bellamy’s thought and portrayed in his novel Looking Backward (1888). Gilman’s philosophy, activism, and writings showed enormous breadth, and included works on political and social reform, support for the Labor Movement and women’s suffrage, poetry, essays, and studies on gender issues in economics, anthropology, and history. She is also known for her famous work of short fiction The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), a semi-autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown following the birth of her daughter, which, like Virginia Woolf’s [q.v.] Mrs. Dalloway (1925), includes a searing critique of the manner in which the medical community treated women’s mental health near the turn of the century.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932. Before this diagnosis, Gilman had written about euthanasia and right-to-die issues. In one passage from her posthumously published autobiography The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she remarks after visiting her ill father in a sanitarium that a future civilized society would not “maintain such a horror.” In 1935, after living three years with a cancer she had been told would kill her within a year and a half, Gilman ended her life by inhaling chloroform. She left a letter, conventionally called a suicide note, which stressed her view of the primacy of human relationships and social responsibility (“Human life consists in mutual service”) and ended in the famous line: “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”
At the time of her death, she left with her agent the manuscript of an article entitled “The Right to Die,” a defense not only of suicide but also of voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary euthanasia, requesting that it be published after her death. It was intended as a piece for discussion at the height of the euthanasia movement in the United States, before the horrors of the Nazi holocaust became known.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.), 1935, pp. 215, 333-335, 331; “The Right to Die”, The Forum and Century, Vol. XCIV, no. 5 (Nov. 1935), pp. 297-300.
from THE LIVING OF CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
“Mother gets letter saying Father is worse. Go to see him at sanitarium, Delaware Water Gap. He is much better and seems glad to see me.” I stayed overnight, next day: “Little talk with Father. Give him $5.”—if from me or mother I do not recall. There were many such visits when I was in or near New York. He seemed to value my coming—so long as he knew me. He lingered on, till the beginning of 1900. Softening of the brain. It is not right that a brilliant intellect should be allowed to sink to idiocy, and die slowly, hideously. Some day when we are more civilized we shall not maintain such a horror.
…In January, 1932, I discovered that I had cancer of the breast. My only distress was for Houghton. I had not the least objection to dying. But I did not propose to die of this, so I promptly bought sufficient chloroform as a substitute. Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one.
Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.
Going to my doctor for definite assurance, he solemnly agreed with my diagnosis and thought the case inoperable.
“Well,” said I cheerfully, “how long does it take?” He estimated a year and a half. “How long shall I be able to type?” I asked. “I must finish my Ethics.” He thought I might be quite comfortable for six months. It is now three and a half years and this obliging malady has given me no pain yet.
Then came what was pain—telling Houghton. He wanted an expert opinion, and we got it. No mistake. Then, since I utterly refused a late operation, he urged me to try X-ray treatment, which I did with good effects. He suffered a thousand times more than I did—but not for long. On the fourth of May, 1934, he suddenly died, from cerebral hemorrhage.
Whatever I felt of loss and pain was outweighed by gratitude for an instant, painless death for him, and that he did not have to see me wither and die—and he be left alone.
I flew to Pasadena, California, in the fall of 1934, to be near my daughter and grandchildren. Grace Channing, my lifelong friend, has come out to be with me. We two have a little house next door but one to my Katharine, who is a heavenly nurse and companion. Dorothy and Walter, her children, are a delight. Mr. Chamberlin, my son-in-law, has made the place into a garden wherein I spend happy afternoons under an orange-tree—the delicious fragrance drifting over me, the white petals lightly falling—in May! Now it is small green oranges occasionally thumping.
One thing I have had to complain of—shingles. Shingles—for six weeks. A cancer that doesn’t show and doesn’t hurt, I can readily put up with; it is easy enough to be sick as long as you feel well—but shingles!
People are heavenly good to me. Dear friends write to me, with outrageous praises. I am most unconcernedly willing to die when I get ready. I have no faintest belief in personal immortality—no interest in nor desire for it.
My life is in Humanity—and that goes on. My contentment is in God—and That goes on. The Social Consciousness, fully accepted, automatically eliminates both selfishness and pride. The one predominant duty is to find one’s work and do it, and I have striven mightily at that.
The religion, the philosophy, set up so early, have seen me through.
SUICIDE NOTE, AUGUST 17, 1935
Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortunate, or “broken heart” is excuse for cutting off one’s life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to die in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this open choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer.
from THE RIGHT TO DIE
Should an incurable invalid, suffering constant pain and begging for a quicker, easier death, be granted that mercy?
Should a hopeless idiot, lunatic, or helpless paretic be laboriously kept alive?
Should certain grades of criminals be painlessly removed—or cruelly condemned to the cumulative evil of imprisonment?
Is suicide sometimes quite justifiable?
We have changed our minds more than once on these matters and are in process of changing them again. On the above questions, asked a hundred or even fifty years ago, there would have been scant discussion. Humans were mainly agreed that certain criminals deserved death, that suicide was a sin, and that agonized invalids and healthy idiots were to be cherished carefully.
The influence of the Christian religion has done much to establish a sort of dogma of the “sanctity of human life,” but the ancient religions of India went further, holding all life sacred, to such an extent that the pious Jain sweeps the path before him lest he step on a worm.
What is the “sanctity of human life”? Why is it sacred? How is it sacred? When is it sacred?
Is it sacred where we lavishly reproduce it, without thought or purpose? While it is going on? Or only when it is about to end?
Our mental attics are full of old ideas and emotions, which we preserve sentimentally but never examine. The advance of the world’s thought is promoted by those whose vigorous minds seize upon inert doctrines and passive convictions and shake them into life or into tatters. This theory that suicide is a sin is being so shaken today.
Why has not a man the right to take his own life? Shaw, the inveterate shaker of old ideas, says that his own life is the only one a man has a right to take.
Against this apparently natural right stand two assumptions, one that it is cowardly, the other that it is a sin. The brave man is supposed to endure long, hopeless agony to the bitter end, as an exhibition of courage; the moral man similarly to bear incurable suffering, because to shorten his torment would be wrong.
How much more reasonable is the spirit of the sturdy old country doctor who was found dead in his bed, with a revolver by his side and the brief note, “There’s no damn cancer going to get ahead of me!”
Why it should please God to have a harmless victim suffer prolonged agony was never made clear; but those who so thought also assumed that whatever happened was God’s will, that He was afflicting us for some wise purpose of His own and did not like to be thwarted, balked in his plan of punishment so to speak. Astonishing calumnies have been believed of God.
There is a pleasant tale of an ingenious person, captive of savages and obliged to watch the horrors of his comrades’ dreadful deaths. When his turn came, he told the credulous natives that he knew of an herb which, when rubbed upon the skin, rendered it impervious to any weapon and which he would show them if they would spare him.
So they accompanied him here and there in the forest, till he picked a certain rare plant, which he rubbed well on the side of his neck. Then he laid his head on a log and told them to strike as hard as they liked. Down came the ax, and off went a grinning ghost, enjoying their discomfiture—at least it is pleasant to think so. At any rate he was not tortured. But he had lied, to be sure, and practically committed suicide. Was it sin?
Suicide was a gentleman’s exit in ancient Rome, as it is yet in the Orient. It must have been too popular in the misery of the Dark Ages, for a discerning church soon decided that it was extremely wrong. It was a difficult offense to penalize, the offender having escaped, so they punished the corpse, burying it with a stake through the body, at a crossroads, that, instead of enjoying seclusion and consecrated ground, it might be trampled over by all who passed.
A very special damnation having been provided for such rebellious souls, suicide fell into disrepute. It is now becoming popular again, not merely as a justifiable escape from an unbearable position but as a hopeful experiment for discouraged youth. And no more pathetic instance of the blind groping of such religionless young people could be asked. They no longer believe in the kind of God worshiped by their ancestors, not in “His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” They quite repudiate the earlier moral sense and have not yet succeeded in evolving any satisfactory substitute.
It might be advanced, as consolation in these too-frequent tragedies, that minds so word-befuddled would not in all probability have been of much service to the world had they survived; but such harsh criticism fails to estimate the capacity for suffering which belongs to youth.
As with most moral questions, the confusion lies in our outdated sense of individuality, our failure to recognize social responsibility. Youth is, of course, naturally egotistical, and in home, school, church, and ordinary contact little is done to develop social consciousness.
That an individual’s life, growth, and happiness are dependent on interrelation with other people and that each of us owes to others the best service of a lifetime is not accepted by those who back out of life because it hurts. Such premature and ill-based suicide is timid, feeble, foolish, and, in respect to social responsibility, dishonorable. It is desertion, not in the face of the enemy but before imagined enemies.
On the other hand, military law forbids the attempt to hold an indefensible position. There are times when surrender is quite justifiable. If men or women are beyond usefulness, feel that they are of no service or comfort to any one but a heavy burden and expense, and, above all, if they suffer hopelessly, they have a right to leave.
But, while we are beginning to open the door for a man to take his own life with good reason, we are trying to close it upon the right of society to take the life of a criminal. The opponents of capital punishment rest their arguments largely on the alleged sanctity of human life and further on the fact that the severe and cruel penalties of earlier times did not prevent crime.
This sudden application of sanctity to man at the point of death, a life neglected and corrupted from babyhood, is unconvincing. It is true that severe punishment does not prevent crime, but neither does light punishment or no punishment at all. Can we prevent crime after it has been committed? The prevention must begin with birth, must ensure the best conditions for growth and education, for rightly chosen employment, for rest and recreation.
But, unfortunately, criminals sometimes appear from families of the enlightened and well-to-do, cases of atavism, primitive characters breaking out into the modern world most mischievously. And, furthermore, society is open to many kinds of perversion and disease.
Since we have criminals, engaged in transmitting and increasing evil, what are we to do with them? The most tenderly sentimental would hardly suggest leaving them at large.
To remove such a diseased character as this is not an act of “punishment”; it is social surgery, the prompt excision of the affected part. Those who call death cruel and urge imprisonment instead do not realize the greater cruelty and cumulative danger of confinement.
Much of vice and crime is distinctly infectious. “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” and no antitoxin has been found to prevent that corruption. We may call our prisons isolation hospitals if we like, but if the prisoner is really isolated he goes mad—no punishment is so cruel as solitary confinement. Not being isolated, the prisoners infect and reinfect one another. The cumulative influence of these carefully maintained collections of diseased characters affects not only the prisoners but those who restrain them. It is held by some that the care of the helpless develops noble qualities in those who tend them. These theorists have failed to study the effect of such activity on warders, keepers, guards, and those who wait on and serve utter idiots and maniacs.
The elimination of diseased parts from our body politic should not be discussed as punishment but as an operation on the social body. One does not either “forgive” or “punish” an inflamed appendix but one does cut it out.
The same position may be taken in regard to the incurable idiot or maniac. If, to the best of our present knowledge, such cases are hopeless, why should we isolate and preserve the affected parts? Why should we not painlessly remove them? Affection, gratitude for previous services may be urged, but this attitude is based on the assumption that it is some pleasure or advantage to the ruined minds to live thus ignominiously.
Here is a case of a fine woman who has lived a good and fruitful life. She is affected with a progressive mental disorder, and for fifteen years two daughters are sacrificed to the unfruitful service of increasing idiocy, their lives crippled, wrecked.
But she is their mother, she has loved and served them, we protest. Yes, and what would any mother feel, if she could know it, to realize that she who loved them was now the means of slowly ruining her children?
In another instance we see a man once strong and intellectual, eminent in scholarship, honorable in service to society, now a paretic. Slowly he fails in physical and mental power, reaching the condition of a gross baby, a huge, brainless baby lying like a log in an unclean bed, while nurse and doctor wait for him—for it—to die. What is sacred in that dreadful ignominy? When intelligent consciousness is gone forever, the man is gone, and the body should be decently removed.
The record of a previously noble life is precisely what makes it sheer insult to allow death in pitiful degradation. We may not wish to “die with our boots on” but we may well prefer to die with our brains on.
In New York, some years ago, an elderly woman was suffering from a complication of diseases; recovery was impossible; she know that she must die; and her constant and terrible pain was such that she begged piteously for release. She was attended by a devoted daughter and by a trained nurse, a sturdy Nova Scotian, rigidly religious.
The patient died somewhat sooner than was expected by the physician. The nurse testified that she had seen the daughter put something in her mother’s drinking glass. Careful inquiry ascertained that there was no inheritance to offer a “motive” for murder and that this mother and daughter had been attached and congenial friends, wholly devoted to each other. The inquest ignored the nurse’s testimony, and no charge, fortunately, was brought against the daughter.
More recently, in England, a man whose beloved little girl was in constant suffering from an incurable disease, after long daily and nightly care and tender nursing, relieved the child’s agony with a quick death. The judge, in charging the jury, pointed out how long and lovingly the poor father had nursed his child and urged upon them that, if he had allowed a dog in his possession to so linger in pain, he would have been liable to punishment for cruelty. The prisoner, and rightly, was not convicted.
Practical Germany has discussed a law allowing physicians to administer euthanasia in certain cases. It was not passed, the two principal objections being the chance of a safe variety of murder and the effect of the patient’s loss of confidence in his physician. That confidence is a valuable asset in the cure of disease. If a sick man felt that, if his doctor decided he could not recover, anesthesia would be promptly administered, it would certainly add fear to his other difficulties and jeopardize his chance of life.
No such power should be left to any individual, physician of other, though it might be advanced that no doctor would voluntarily shorten his “case.” Too many mistakes in diagnosis have been made, too many patients have been given up to die and rebelliously recovered, to permit of any one man governing such a decision.
But suitable legal methods may be devised by a civilized society. When the sufferer begs for release or when the mind is gone and the body going, as in a case where intestinal cancer is accompanied by senile dementia and when the attending physician gives his opinion that there is no hope, then an application to the Board of Health should be made.
That Board should promptly appoint a consulting committee, varying from case to case, to avoid possible collusion and including a lawyer as well as doctors for inquiry should be made in regard to possible motives for the sufferer’s death, among members of the family, and in regard to their attitude toward the patient.
If this committee recommends euthanasia, the Board of Health should issue a permit, and merciful sleep end hopeless misery. What rational objection can anyone make to such procedure?
There is the suggestion that sometimes doctors are all mistaken, and recovery is made after life has been despaired of. That is of course true.
There might be a small percentage of error, even with careful consulting assistance. This error is present in all matters involving the human equation. It is too small to weigh equally with the mass of misery to be relieved. And it does not apply at all to those still able to decide for themselves.
Our love, our care, out vivid sympathy with human life should be applied most strongly at the other end. With eugenics and euthenics, care and education from infancy, better living conditions for everyone, all that can be done to safeguard and improve human life we should do as a matter of course.
But the dragging weight of the grossly unfit and dangerous could be lightened, with great advantage to the normal and progressive. The millions spent in restraining and maintaining social detritus should be available for the safeguarding and improving of better lives.
Instead of being hardened by such measures of release, we shall develop a refinement of tenderness which will shrink with horror at the thought of the suffering and waste we now calmly endure. Death is not an evil when it comes in the course of nature, and when it is administered legitimately it is far less than the evil of unnecessary anguish.