Charlotte Perkins was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on 3rd July, 1860. Her father, Frederick Perkins, abandoned the family shortly after her birth and she grew up in poverty and received very little formal education. Her aunts, Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, had a major influence on her upbringing.
In her autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935), she argued that her mother was not affectionate and to stop them from getting hurt, insisted she did not make close friends or read novels. Charlotte added that her mother only showed affection only when she thought her young daughter was asleep.
In 1878 she briefly attended classes at the Rhode Island School of Design, and supported herself as a painter of trade cards. During her studies she met local artist, Charles Walter Stetson and the couple were married in 1884. A daughter was born the following year but soon afterwards "she fell into extreme despondence, leading to near nervous collapse."
The couple moved to Pasadena but in 1890 Stetson returned to Rhode Island to look after his mother. Charlotte began writing stories and articles for various journals including the New England Magazine. This included the publication of her most important story, The Yellow Wallpaper. Published in January 1892, recounts her own mental breakdown. She later claimed she wrote the story how women's lack of autonomy is detrimental to their mental, emotional and physical well being.
In 1892 she gained a divorce and returned her daughter to the care of her husband. In 1894, Gilman sent her daughter to live with her husband and his second wife, Grace Ellery Channing. Charlotte later explained that her daughter "had a right to know and love her father."
Charlotte continued to write stories and articles for various journals. She also gave lectures on women's suffrage and trade unions. In 1895 she settled in Chicago where she lived with Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr and Julia Lathrop in Hull House.
Charlotte was greatly influenced by the work of Edward Bellamy and became a socialist. She joined the Socialist Labor Party and in 1896 she was a delegate to the International Socialist Congress in London. While in England she met leading socialists such as Keir Hardie, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw. As her biographer, Mari Jo Buhle, has pointed out: "As her reputation spread and she became known for her discussion of women's topics as well, she devoted most of her time to the national lecture circuit."
In 1898 Charlotte published Women and Economics where she advocated equal work for women. In the book she criticized men for desiring weak and feeble wives and urged the economic independence of women. This was followed by other books on social issues such as Concerning Children (1900), The Home (1903) and Human Work (1904).
In 1900 Charlotte married her cousin, George Houghton Gilman. The couple moved to Norwich, Connecticut, whe she continued to campaign for women's rights and in 1909 founded Forerunner, a literary journal devoted to contemporary social issues. Most of the journal was written by Charlotte and she addressed questions of private morality, such as prostitution, social diseases and marriage.
Perkins also wrote several novels including What Diantha Did (1910), Herland (1915) and With Her in Ourland (1916). These novels illustrated her feminism and in many of her stories the traditional sex roles are reversed. Herland, considered to be her most impressive novel, is about a community of women without men.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Perkins and a group of women pacifists in the United States, began talking about the need to form an organization to help bring it to an end. On the 10th January, 1915, over 3,000 women attended a meeting in the ballroom of the New Willard Hotel in Washington and formed the Woman's Peace Party. Jane Addams was elected chairman and other women involved in the organization included Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, Anna Howard Shaw, Belle La Follette, Fanny Garrison Villard, Emily Balch, Jeanette Rankin, Lillian Wald, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Crystal Eastman, Carrie Chapman Catt, Emily Bach, and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
Perkins continued to write and other books published included His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers (1923), Our Changing Morality (1930) and a autobiography, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1935).
Suffering from breast cancer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman committed suicide on 17th August, 1935. She left a note that said: "When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. I have preferred chloroform to cancer."