This post was written by Lauren Bailey, a CUNY graduate fellow at the New-York Historical Society who helped to process the James G. Harbord Papers.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) has an enduring legacy of feminist political and social activism via her prolific writing and public engagement. She not only published hundreds of texts over her life, including articles, stories, dramas, poetry, and novels, but she also spoke at close to one hundred events between the 1890s and 1930s. Gilman was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, healthcare and education reform, and various other radical social policies which openly challenged and condemned the predominant assumptions about gender and status quo.
Portrait from The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935). New-York Historical Society.
Gilman is primarily known for her 1892 “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” a Gothic-esque story of a woman’s imprisonment in a room and her resulting mental anguish. Scholars have long read this story in conversation with nineteenth-century gender roles and the lack of understanding of women’s illness from a female perspective. Other notable publications include the 1898 Women and Economics—A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution and the 1915 feminist utopian novel Herland. Though Gilman’s personal papers are located at Radcliffe, the New-York Historical Society houses several texts by and about Gilman, mostly scholarship, but also primary texts such as In this our World, a collection of poetry, and many issues of Forerunner: A Monthly Magazine, a self-published periodical in which she wrote at length about social problems.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Forerunner: A Monthly Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1 (January 1913). New-York Historical Society.
The fact that one of her political essays, “What Our Children Might Have: A Little Educational Fortune-Telling,” originally published in 1925 in Century Magazine, appears in the collection of Lieutenant General James Guthrie Harbord’s papers weaves together two seemingly disparate narratives—one of an ardent feminist, socialist, woman writer and one of a socially elite, conservative, Republican military man. Both Harbord and Gilman were indeed politically active, but their spheres of interest generally seem worlds apart.
Harbord, both in his capacity as an officer in the United States Army and as President and Chairman of the Board of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), had vested interests in associations and causes related to the broad category of social progress. However, his activism generally involved paid positions on committees that openly embraced nationalism and imperialism, membership in organizations promoting “traditional values,” which often implied prescribed gender and class roles, and harsh criticisms of the New Deal and any social programs which would require government spending.
Portrait of James G. Harbord. Circa 1918. James G. Harbord Papers, MS 1493. New-York Historical Society.
Harbord’s membership in the many, many different organizations (in fact, his archives at N-YHS house several boxes of just such correspondence) that furthered a vision of supposed social improvement does provide an interesting overlap with socialist tracts such as Gilman’s “What Our Children Might Have: A Little Educational Fortune-Telling.” Though his methods and ideologies are not, for the most part, in sync with Gilman’s ideal feminist society, it is interesting to note some of the shared perspectives in this particular case.
Gilman’s “What Our Children Might Have: A Little Educational Fortune-Telling” dovetails with Harbord’s interests in that she calls for the “nature of democracy [to] be made clear, not as a pointless personal liberty, but as the freeing of initiative and energy for wider service and more general responsibility,” which here she envisions through a process of education reform that includes direct civic engagement. She also argues for the importance of “imagination,” or forward-thinking, in early childhood education, advocating for classroom lessons that would improve society rather than merely perpetuate its trends.
The merging of these two figures—Gilman and Harbord—in these records is a good reminder that not only do our definitions of liberalism and conservatism grow and change over time, but the figures which we hold up as models of particular values and/or prejudices are often just as nuanced and equally susceptible to inconsistencies.