So, again, this is less of a review than a reading experience. I was immediately captured by the synopsis for Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s (she/her) novel: a woman leaves her fiance and parents’ home to start a business founded on changing the perception of running a home being “women’s work” into skilled, billable labor. Diantha’s fiance’s family includes five lazy women who will not work despite dwindling finances. How odd it is for a woman to work, and thus they rely on their brother, Ross, (Diantha’s finace) to support them. Worried that he is overburdened and they cannot get married until the money situation looks more secure, Diantha explains to her own family that she’s leaving to work. She has a whole grand plan — at age 21. Everyone is appalled.
I loved how What Diantha Did thwarted my expectations. I thought it would be about maids freeing up time for wives who could then do other productive tasks, such as Diantha’s first employer, a woman trained as an architect swamped with cooking and cleaning and baby care. Instead, Perkins Gilman relies heavily on math. She breaks down how much each task would cost a client, multiple it by the time spent, etc. Overall, the family saves money using Dinatha’s accounting, and enjoy better nutrition and a more pleasant living space.
Fighting against expectations is not easy, and while traditionalists nag about the “sanctity of the home” and a woman’s place in it, Diantha trains a squadron of young maids, who were mistreated by their employers, on the art of accounting, doing tasks the smart way, and drafting contracts to protect their interests. She even helps them take down the opportunistic young “masters” of the house who break into a servant girl’s room at night and rape her without fear of punishment. I was pleased as Diantha’s innovation spread through innovation, from live-in maids to maid visits, from a lunch cafeteria into meals on wheels, and from a dorm for maids into a hotel.
Truly, I enjoy the sword of feminism when Perkins Gilman wields it. She’s so smart, and even I, educated and in 2022, listen and learn more about women and society and culture. Women today do not navigate money and financial bargaining as well as Diantha did in this novel that was published as a serial from 1909-1910.
What has your experience been with Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Have you read any older books that made you think we haven’t progressed so much as we’d like to believe?