What Diantha Did by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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?

CW: none

17 comments

  1. I was able to listen in on the first half of this as an audiobook while one the move and I have to add that I think the matter-of-fact tone of the reader added to the story. Also, while my attention may have drifted here and there, I kept thinking that the plot felt like a Hero’s Journey situation. Diantha is introduced and you are given a sample of her world, she sees a Problem and must leave home to Solve the Problem, slay the dragon, etc. She meets resistance, overcomes obstacles. The first household she takes on as a study almost feels like the cave part of the cycle, if I am remembering the steps of the Journey correctly. I have to wonder if it ends with a return to home where the fiance is struck by the change in Diantha such that either they cannot remain together. Or maybe they do stay together and he is like a metric by which we see how much she has changed herself or changed her world? Either way, I might have to check this one out so I can hear how it ends!

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    • You so smart. 👀

      What’s funny is Diantha’s journey DOES take years, so by the time the end is wrapping up, she’s a different person, a bit more jaded for all that she has experienced and learned and endured. I hope you grab the audio and finish the novel. I was surprised by the ending, actually.

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    • I’ve mentioned to Sue @ Whispering Gums that I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” when it was assigned in college and didn’t feel much of a connection to it (Was I the wrong age? Did I not fully appreciate what Perkins Gilman was doing?). But I’ve found her writing to be incredibly forward thinking, even for 2022. It still reads new and fresh at over 100 years old. Plus, she’s often funny.

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  2. This sounds really fascinating, and as someone who is always pushing to calculate the value of ‘women’s work’ in the home, I’m especially fascinated by this. I’ve only heard of this woman through the whole Yellow Wallpaper book but I’m here for this!!!

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    • I check on the r/antiwork subreddit and can’t help but think Perkins Gilman would be their default leader if they read her. What Diantha Did truly speaks to the Great Resignation, which should truly because the Great Reshuffling.

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  3. I’m not going to check the dates but Frederick Taylor about this time revolutionised manufacturing with ‘Scientific Management’, breaking down and costing individual taks, leading to the Production Line. It was all very inhuman and anti-labour but Diantha sounds as though she has drawn on similar theory.

    I like Nick’s quest metaphor. You had better give him some more stuff to move (sorry Nick but I am in the same situation with Milly and I haven;t been her husband for 20 plus years).

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    • In Diantha’s case, she was essentially a union organizer who was showing customers why people should be paid, and exactly for what, so that the women working were given fair wages and time off — as opposed to the opposite direction of calculating the cost of a task is evidence of where to push harder and go faster to cut costs. Diantha’s method even saved money by getting customers to pool their resources without thinking about it that way (such as 30 families having dinner delivered hot every night thus Diantha saves by buying in bulk and the family spends less when the wives, who are not trained cooks, stop wasting money by burning food or planning menus that don’t assist in using up leftover goods, etc).

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  4. I’m definitely enjoying these reading experience-style posts! I think most of my blog posts are reading experience rather than review posts, though I’d never thought about it that way before.

    I haven’t read any Perkins Gilman but normally when I read early feminist literature I am struck by just the opposite – how much has changed in a relatively short time, and how thankful I am to all the activists and campaigners who fought to change laws and systems. Maybe this is because my own situation as a single professional woman (especially one from a working class background) would have been so unthinkable to most women a hundred years ago – but I am always struck by how much things have changed.

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    • I picked up Perkins Gilman after I failed to finish reading Wollstonecraft with you! I felt terrible that the language was so dense and I got sleepy reading, so I grabbed Herland, which is described as a feminist Utopia, to see what I could learn. I would argue Perkins Gilman is still forward thinking even in 2022. In What Diantha Did, she’s making an argument that the work women do in the home should be recognized as skilled labor, and she doesn’t even touch parenting (which I found interesting). For instance, to know how to cook good, nutritious meals without going over budget AND being able to overlap so you can buy certain ingredients that are required for more than one meal, but not making them all taste the same, is a skill. When I think of people today saying they can’t cook for themselves or aren’t good at “adulting,” in the past I didn’t think about how these folks are lamenting they lack a skill that is done by a chef in public.

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    • You probably read the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Most everyone does in college. She would be great for the Classics Club. And, I think you would feel some of the same vibes you get when reading Barbara Pym.

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