”The Yellow Wall-paper”, written by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, explores the attitudes of doctors towards women and mental illness in the late 19th century. Stetson, who herself was treated with the controversial “Rest Cure”, created by Dr. Weir Silas Mitchell, found herself infuriated at her treatment. Women were viewed as weak and perpetually nervous, especially in the medical community, which largely ignored real mental illnesses and struggles such as postpartum depression. Stetson (later Gilman) became a champion for feminism and women moving into careers and roles beyond their homes. In her most memorable work, “The Yellow Wall-paper”, Stetson explores themes novel for their time, including mental illness, the treatment of women in marriage and medicine, and the importance of emotional expression and free thought.
Charlotte Perkins Stetson married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, and after the birth of their daughter Katharine in 1885, Charlotte underwent a bout of postpartum depression. At the time, she was seen by Dr. Weir Silas Mitchell, a prominent neurologist, who prescribed her the “rest cure” for her ailment. During this treatment, Charlotte was not allowed to leave her bed, feed herself, or even turn herself over in bed. The treatment lasted 6-8 weeks, during which Charlotte kept a diary of her misery. While Dr. Mitchell believed that the cure was a battle of morals and will, the cure was almost always assigned to female patients and it put them in a position of total submission to their male doctors, spouses, and family members. During this time period, women were seen as weaker and more fragile, and therefore their minds were also in need of strengthening. Charlotte Perkins Stetson was so incensed by the treatment prescribed to her by Dr. Mitchell that she ended up including him in her short story “The Yellow Wall-paper” and sending him a copy after it was published. Students can read more about “The Rest Cure” and attitudes towards women in medicine at the following resources: