A few days after refusing a proposal from the man who would eventually become her husband, Charlotte Perkins Gilman — turn-of-the-20th-century writer and social reformer — wrote a document in her private diary that she titled “An Anchor to Windward.” It details her reasons for wishing to remain single.
A little context: Walter Stetson proposed to her within seventeen days of their first meeting, but they did not become engaged until a year later. The marriage ended in divorce for reasons depicted, through a thin veil of fiction, in her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Hill 490).
After reading a fragment of “An Anchor to Windward,” I HAD to track it down. It is remarkable. Considering that it was written in 1882 makes it even more remarkable. It’s so good, in fact, that I am going to post it fully here.
This is for me to hold if, as I fore-fear, the force of passion should at any time cloud my reason, and pervert or benumb my will.
Now that my head is cool and clear, now before I give myself in any sense to another, let me write down my Reasons for living single.
In the first place I am fonder of freedom than anything else.—I love to see & be with my friends, but only when I want them. I love to have pleasant faces in my home, but only when I want them. I like to have my own unaided will in all my surroundings—in dress, habits, diet, hours, behavior, speech, and thought.
I increasingly like to feel that my home is mine, that I am free to leave it when I will & for as long as I will.
I like to start out in joyous uncertainty of where I am going, & with no force to draw me back—like it beyond words. I like to go about alone—independently.
The sense of individual strength and self-reliance is sweeter than trust to me.
I like to be able and free to help any and every one, as I never could be if my time and thoughts were taken up by that extended self—a family.
If I were bound to a few I should grow so fond of them, and so busied with them that I should have no room for the thousand and one helpful works which the world needs. As it is now, or rather as it will be, I can turn to any one in distress and give them my best help; my love, my time, my interest and sympathy.
I am cool, fearless, and strong; and have power which can do good service in proper circumstances, if I can only trust in them and coming opportunity.
It is a matter of futurity in any case, and I am willing to risk my life—yes, and another’s too, to prove the question.
It is after all a simple case, for I mean to do right, and [if?] I am on the wrong track, shall do a lot of good work anyway, and merely miss a few year’s happiness.
For reasons many and good, reasons of slow growth and careful consideration, more reasons than I now can remember; I decide to Live—Alone.
God help me!
[Charlotte Perkins Gilman, January 31, 1882]
I am currently teaching a course on marriage in history and literature, which includes the decision not to marry, and this week we are doing a segment on the figure of “the spinster.” Although we initially read Perkins Gilman because of her incendiary exposé of paternalistic gender roles in “Wallpaper,” I cannot think of a better articulation of aspirational spinster identity than this document.
(I wonder if Briallen Hopper, whose fantastic essay on spinsters from the LA Review of Books my students are now reading, ever encountered it.)
Perkins Gilman has a complicated legacy marred by a few unpleasant beliefs, but as a figure in the history of feminist life and economics she is absolutely fascinating. Her utopian plans for feminist apartment hotels are still #goals 100 years later. If you want to learn more about her — which I highly recommend — Mary A. Hill’s 1980 article “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Feminist’s Struggle with Womanhood” is a great place to start.
Single or otherwise, we could all take a page from her diary, and trust in our power.
Credit to Elaine Marie Cullen, in whose dissertation I found the full text of “An Anchor to Windward” reprinted (“Women Coming to Voice Through Writing,” University of Minnesota, 1999).