Of all the technologies and cultural phenomena human beings have created, language, and particularly writing, is arguably the most powerful, because it is the means by which all human experience is expressed and ordered. As such, controlling who is allowed to write, and in a modern context, be published, is one of the most effective means of controlling society. This fact was painfully clear to women writers throughout history because women were frequently prohibited from receiving the same education as men, and as the struggle for gender equality began to read a critical mass near the end of the nineteenth century, control over women's access to education and writing became a central theme in a number of authors' works, whether they considered themselves feminists or not. In particular, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 story The Yellow Wallpaper features this theme prominently, and Virginia Woolf's extended essay A Room of One's Own confronts it directly, revealing "the extent to which the patriarchal pressures of that period posed severe obstacles" to women (Ramos 145). By considering The Yellow Wallpaper in light of Woolf's arguments about the power of education and writing to restrict or liberate, as well as Gertrude Stein's lecture "Composition as Explanation," one is able to see how restrictions on female education and literary expression in may ways represent the underlying basis for the perpetuation of all other modes of gender inequality and female disempowerment, and furthermore, how The Yellow Wallpaper represents a kind of horrible ideal of this phenomenon.
Before considering these three works in conjunction, it will be useful to briefly discuss the notion of the "rest cure," because it plays a central role in Gilman's story and, as will be seen, represents a particularly developed form of the ever-changing means by which female agency, especially in regards to writing, has been restricted and condemned. Based on a woefully ignorant understanding of psychology (and in the case of The Yellow Wallpaper, postpartum depression), the "rest cure" was supposedly intended to help people "who've broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living" (Saki 128, qtd. In Lane 784). The individual undergoing the rest cure is prohibited from any kind of strenuous activity, and in the case of Gilman's narrator, is "absolutely forbidden to 'work' [meaning write] until" she recovers (Gilman 3). Gilman herself was forced to undergo this "cure" when her physician, Weir Mitchell (who is mentioned in the story) enforced "strict isolation, limit[ed] intellectual stimulation to two hours a day, and forbid her to touch pen, pencil, or paintbrush ever gain" (Bak 39).
One need not go into detail about psychology or physiology in order to point out the central flaw in the rest cure, because this flaw has little to do with science and much more to do with a fundamental miscategorization of different kinds of activity. That is to say, proponents of the rest cure assume that strenuous activity in general, whether physical or mental, is the cause of whatever particular psychological malady, without any regard for the actual emotional or psychological effect that activity has on the individual. Put another way, the rest cure assumes that stimulation is the problem, and as such a lack of stimulation is cure, rather than acknowledging that different modes of stimulation have different effects, and that prohibiting the individual from experiencing any and all stimulation can actually exacerbate the problem, rather than cure it.
That the rest cure was used disproportionately to control women is evidenced by the fact that it fits quite nicely into a pseudo-scientific discourse about women's health that has persisted even until very recently, a discourse that views women as inherently more fragile or delicate than men, both physically and mentally. While this discourse has existed in some form throughout recorded history, it reached new heights of social acceptability when it received the imprimatur of "science" through psychoanalytic discussions of women's perceived "hysterical tendency" near the end of the nineteenth century (Gilman 2). The diagnosis of hysteria depends upon one of the many false dichotomies purporting to describe inherent differences between the sexes, and in this case the supposed dichotomy between reason and emotion, as embodied by male and female, respectively. The rest cure and its psychoanalytic underpinnings were so closely tied to this false dichotomy that "prominent medical authorities [argued] that the pursuit of masculine activities [such as education and writing] could actually damage or retard women physiologically, an unsexing that harmed both mental and reproductive health" (Carstens 63-64). Thus, the rest cure and treatments like it simultaneously depend upon faulty stereotypes about women and perpetuate them by enforcing destructive and damaging medical practices, and as will be seen, demonstrate a form of hegemonic perpetuation common to nearly all modes of female disempowerment.
The narrator is The Yellow Wallpaper is deemed nervous and hysterical because her husband supposedly "knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him" (Gilman 10). From his privileged perspective, the narrator's suffering is unreasonable, because in his view, she wants for nothing; he forces her to adhere to "a schedule prescription for each hour in the day" and "takes all care from" her, and as such he views her disempowerment as a gift, as if taking away her agency is an act of kindness (Gilman 6). The rest cure, then, is a faulty solution to a mischaracterized problem, whose mischaracterization is dependent upon to the historical, sexist assumptions which have permeated society, and furthermore, this "cure" only serves to perpetuate those very same assumptions.
As mentioned above, one element of this study's thesis is that most, if not all, modes of female disempowerment can be traced to a prohibition on female education, and subsequently, female expression through writing. One can see how this is the case with the rest cure in general by noting that it was developed within a system of medicine almost exclusively dominated by men. Gilman's narrator hints at this fact when she notes that both her husband and her brother, who are ultimately responsible for her confinement, are physicians "of high standing" (Gilman 2-3). One can quite reasonably presume that if more women had been allowed to study and become physicians, then the medical profession at the end of the nineteenth century would not have depended upon and subsequently perpetuated clearly sexist notions about women's health, but instead would have produced a more reasonable, equitable view of women (a statement that infuriatingly has continued resonance even now, over a hundred years later).
In addition, The Yellow Wallpaper reveals how female disempowerment specifically depends upon restricting the ability to write due to the fact that the narrator's writing is the only thing in the entire story that benefits her psychological health, and as such, denying her this outlet contributes to her mental decline. The narrator realizes that "congenial work, with excitement and change, would do" her good, and goes so far as to exclaim that "I must say what I feel and think in some way -- it is such a relief!" (Gilman 3, 25). By prohibiting the narrator from writing, her husband actually exacerbates her condition, which only lends more credence to his claims; just as keeping women uneducated appears to validate the notion that women are inherently unintelligent, so too does keeping the narrator from writing appear to validate her husband's claims regarding the unreasonableness of her affliction.
Having discussed the rest cure and how it functions as a means of restricting female expression, it will now be possible to discuss The Yellow Wallpaper in the context of Woolf and Stein's theories about writing, and especially how the narrator's experience in The Yellow Wallpaper represents exactly the kind of issues confronted by Woolf and Stein. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf orients her entire discussion around a relatively simple proposition, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," but this simple proposition reveals a number of important things about how women have historically been disempowered through denial of access to education and writing. Woolf notes that for a woman "to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble," because women were quite simply denied access to all the physical necessities required for study and writing, not to mention actual institutions of formal education (Woolf 56).
In noting this, Woolf confronts one of the oft-perpetuated lies regarding creativity that has helped to keep women (and other disenfranchised minorities) from establishing their own voice and agency; namely, she reveals that "as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth" (Woolf 117). In reality, only those with the time and space to write afforded by money are ever able to truly exercise their creative capacities, because otherwise they are concerned with all of the…