37 pages 1 hour read

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

An Obstacle

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1884

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Historical Context

The turn of the 20th century brought dramatic social changes. Perkins Gilman became deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement and saw women nationally gain voting rights during the last few years of her life. This era also witnessed the later stages of industrialization—a process reflected in Perkins Gilman’s many poems about labor conditions and unionization. Her move to California was at the end of the large gold-fueled migration west, notable in many of her poems about San Francisco and other west coast locations.

As a Californian, Perkins Gilman contributed to utopian and progressive publications. She also advocated for socialist and humanist causes in lectures across the country. The poems that follow “An Obstacle” in Gilman’s 1893 book In This Our World directly “subvert patriarchal ideals, challenge female subjugation, and argue for equal rights,” according to Catherine J. Golden in Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Optimist Reformer. This lends weight to the reading that the (male-gendered) prejudice faced by the speaker in “An Obstacle” is sexism.

Literary Context

Perkins Gilman integrated technical skill and a love of free verse in her poetry. She clearly studied masters of formal poetry; she used traditional structures—like sonnets, sestinas, ballads, and many more—in her own work.