I FIRST recognized the genuine claims of feminism in 1980 when I was asked to review a collection of stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). Not particularly impressed by her fiction, I got hold of three of her nonfiction books: ``Women and Economics'' (1898), ``The Home'' (1903), and ``Man-Made World'' (1911). Here was the important writing. The wave of feminism that began to swell in the late 1960s did not interest me at the time.
I didn't feel I'd ever been discriminated against as a woman. I believed I was capable of making my own way in any field without the aid of a special-interest group to plead my cause. I was even scornful of young women my age who complained that society had forced them to squander their wits on fashion, cosmetics, cheerleading, and husband-hunting, when they could have been (or so they now claimed) philosophers, nuclear physicists, composers, or corporation presidents.
In my view, women who wanted to do great things had the same chance as men - real, but slim - to accomplish their goals. The women's movement struck me as querulous, carping, and second-rate - when it wasn't just plain frivolous.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's brand of feminism was different. She migrated to California and settled down in turn-of-the-century Pasadena, in a wooden frame house that is still standing (though rather dilapidated) about a block away from where I now live.
The street is still quiet, but traffic roars by in ever-increasing volume just half a block away. Condos and apartment buildings crowd ever closer. I cannot really imagine what her neighborhood was like. Were the roads paved? Were orange groves within walking distance? Did she write by gaslight?
But the arguments developed in her books seem as relevant today as when she first penned them. Gilman called her brand of feminism ``humanism.'' It was her contention that rigid divisions between the sexes not only stunted women, but also weakened men, burdening them with the maintenance of wives, aunts, sisters, daughters, and mothers.
Women were potentially productive members of society, but cultural expectations kept them dependent. With scintillating wit and shrewdness, she dissects a culture that had, to a ludicrous degree, exaggerated the differences between the genders, treating women as mysterious creatures of a different species. Yet she was also prescient enough to see that the problem also included the fear of allowing so-called feminine values - fine for the home - into the masculine world of public life.
Gilman urged the introduction of both masculine and feminine values into public and private life alike. There was danger in segregating the good world of the family from the tougher world of business and politics, where men permitted themselves to behave badly, harming their cities, countries, and the very planet, all in the name of protecting their homes.
Gilman's reappraisal of the values of family life and privacy made her place great faith in the worthiness of public life and the common good. In retrospect, some of her ideas may look naively Utopian.
These days, it's often claimed that the sanctity of private life is a litmus test for freedom. The worst tyrannies attempt to break down the structure of the family and invade the privacy of individuals. But Gilman noted that in her times private life had its own tyrannies: Under archaic ideas of masculinity and femininity the home could become a prison as well as a sanctuary.
Gilman's writings are worth seeking out and rereading. In them, we get to air questions about men and women from a longer perspective. The biases that are the most deeply ingrained in us are the ones that strike us as most natural. Preconceived ideas about gender have long seemed natural to men and women alike. Because they seem the least like prejudices, they are the hardest to challenge. Whenever I see people trying to challenge such preconceptions, I am reminded of how Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writing in a new part of a new country, wrote new definitions for some of mankind's oldest terms.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer living in Pasadena, Calif.