View Lessons by Category > Gender Consciousness > English
In 10th grade English I teach the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story, written in the late 1800s and structured as a first-person narrative, details a woman’s decent into madness after being prescribed the rest cure for what we have termed today as postpartum depression.

I begin the lesson asking the girls what sorts of gender stereotypes exist for teen-aged girls in their world (201X). Then we get more specific-- when are women labeled with terms like crazy, nuts, bitchy, moody, etc. The girls are able to speak about how the boys in their lives think PMS makes girls “bitchy.” We go on to discuss the ignorance of such statements and the significance that in 2011, the anatomy of the female body is still commonly misunderstood - at least by male teenagers. We also speak about the importance of educating their male counterparts on the difference between having one’s period and having PMS.

I then explain what medical care for women was like at the turn of the century (1900). I instruct the girls on rest cure and on postpartum depression by also informing them of the medical diagnosis in the late 1800s which would have been hysteria. The root word of hysteria derives from the Greek meaning “womb.” This revelation is always a moment of epiphany for the class. They understand the connection between hysteria and women. They begin to understand how that misunderstanding of female bodies and anatomies has created a lasting effect…the ripples of which we continue to experience today (circle back to PMS and the “bitch” label, stereotypes of pregnant women, etc.).

As a response to the criticism she received after publishing such a bizarre and unusual story, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote what we would call today an opinion editorial to a prominent newspaper wherein she explains why she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The students and I read this piece together. Gilman admonishes the physician who prescribed rest cure and who ordered her to stop writing and to stop being “intellectual.” So we discuss the rights of women in that time period (and of the narrator in the story). The doctor also ordered her to be as domestic as possible. Gilman, after almost committing suicide after the rest cure drove her mad, refused her doctor’s orders and wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.

From this, we learn the importance of using the art or craft of writing as a powerful tool for social justice and for change in the world. Fiction isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales; it’s a fierce nonviolent weapon that the earliest female American writers used to the best of their ability to make the lives of women better. The Yellow Wallpaper, writes Gilman, “saved at least one woman.”
One technique that I use relatively often when teaching a lesson on literature is to give the girls in my class several minutes at the beginning of class to review the previous night’s reading and identify passages that confuse them, inspire them, interest them. Students then write a citation on a small piece of paper and place the paper in a cup. I take a piece of paper out of the cup, and the girl or girls who cited the passage begin a conversation about the passage, asking questions, offering interpretations, etc. Other girls then carry on the conversation, offering different interpretations, embellishing the interpretation offered, asking clarifying questions, etc. When the discussion of passages reaches its conclusion, I choose another citation from the cup. I usually use this technique with ninth graders, though it has also worked with older students. I never get through all of the citations offered, but usually, every girl in the class participates in the discussion.