Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 3, 1860, Charlotte Perkins Gilman grew up in difficult circumstances. The family moved often, resulting in a sporadic education. Her father left the family when Gilman was a young child, leaving her mother without the financial and emotional resources to raise her two children.
After her father deserted the family, Gilman spent time with influential relatives, including suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, feminist Catherine Beecher, and abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. These influences proved foundational to her budding feminist views.
Gilman's mother withheld affection in an effort to raise her daughter to be self-sufficient and not dependent on others for emotional fulfillment. In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography, Gilman notes that this was a well-meaning but misguided action on the part of her mother. Her father's desertion, her immersion in a community of forward-thinking women, and her mother's decision to remain unaffectionate clearly influenced Gilman's work with regard to consistent themes such as male power, sexual power, female repression, and marriage.
In 1884 at age 24, Gilman married Charles W. Stetson. She gave birth to their daughter, Katherine, a year later in 1885. Throughout her pregnancy and continuing after the birth, Gilman suffered from depression. She was sent to Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, a physician famous for his "rest cure" for such a condition—called a "nervous condition" at the time. The "rest cure" consisted of doing very little physically or mentally. Gilman abided by the doctor's wishes for three months with disastrous results. This experience became the basis for one of her most famous works, the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," printed in The New England Magazine in 1892. The story chronicles the fragile mental state of a female narrator who is misdiagnosed and mistreated by her physician and her physician-husband. It was followed by a collection of nature, feminist, political, and satirical poetry in 1893, In This Our World.
Gilman separated from her husband in 1888. At the time, she provided for herself and her daughter by running a boardinghouse in California. She also began lecturing, writing, and participating in feminist activities.
In the year of her first publication, Gilman was also the subject of a nationwide scandal. Her husband sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. The scandal was followed in 1894 by more nationwide censure when Gilman sent her daughter, Katherine, to live with Stetson and his new wife. Her decision was criticized, and Gilman was accused of being an "unnatural mother." As much as Gilman was criticized for her choice to send Katherine to live with her father for these few years, her productivity during this period was undeniable.
Over the next five years, Gilman traveled and lectured without a fixed address. In 1895 she lived briefly at Hull House in Chicago, and in 1896 she participated in the National American Woman Suffrage convention in Washington, D.C. In 1897 she renewed contact with her cousin, George Houghton "Ho" Gilman, and published Women and Economics in 1898. Women and Economics was about the necessity for women to engage in worthwhile work suited not to their gender, but to their inherent talents, abilities, and inclinations.
In 1900 after marrying "Ho," Gilman, her new husband, and her daughter, now 15, settled in New York. Unlike her first marriage, Gilman's second marriage did not signify the end of her career aspirations. Over the next several years, Gilman published several more essays, lectured, edited, and even spoke at the International Congress of Women Quinquennial in Berlin. Herland was first published in 1915 in Forerunner, a magazine Gilman wrote for and published from 1909–16.
Gilman was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer in 1932, but her prolific writing, lecturing, and activism continued unimpeded until her death. After her husband's sudden death in 1934, Gilman wrote The Right to Die, arranged for its posthumous publication, and committed suicide on August 17, 1935. She was 75.