Women's Contribution to Early American Literature
Female Perspectives in American Literature
Women’s literature presents a unique view into the female American experience. America experienced many changes following the Civil War. The country was in a period of transformation, including political, economic, social, and literary shifts. As the country emerged into the Industrial Revolution female authors were forging a place for themselves in literary cannon. The feminist movement called into question the role of women in society and female authors responded by creating works presenting strong, self-reliant, intelligent women.
America was a country experiencing vast changes from 1865 to 1912. Reconstruction began following the Civil War. Issues over how to rebuild and the fate of those who rebelled led to hostility and the impeachment of President Andrew Jackson. Economic climate shifted from primarily agricultural to industrial as America entered the Industrial Age. America created the first transcontinental railroad changing the shipping process and allowing people and merchandise to be transported easily and efficiently (Rogers, 2013). Scientific advancement and growth of education affected the nation. Immigration expanded as people came into the United States for work and the chance at a better life. This led to the mass poverty, poor working conditions, and industrial monopolies owned by the first American wealthy, such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The people fought against their industrial bosses through vigilantism and eventually the formation of the first labor unions (Baym, 2008). Class struggle was rampant, and issues of racism blossomed as immigrants and freed slaves learned to live among one another. Women’s suffrage fought against the limitations enforced by a patriarchal society and the idealism of the “Cult of True Womanhood” providing expectations of women as submissive, pious, wife, and mother relegated to the home (A & E Television, 2013). Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as well as many other women, fought for the Women's Rights Movement. The feminist movement claimed a huge victory with the right for women to vote in 1920. Literature of the period reflects the many changes of the era, including the 3,000 new words introduced into American language with new slang and dialects represented in realistic writing and painting a picture of America at the turn of the century and early 20th century.
Role of Feminine Literature
Women’s literature gained widespread prominence by the end of the 19th century. Feminist causes and the expansion of education for women led to many more female writers than any preceding century (Bomarito & Hunter, 2005). Despite living in a patriarchal society, female writers fought for acceptance in the literary community. In previous eras women’s writing was relegated primarily to writing for children and poetry. These works were characterized by sentimentality, morality, and depth of feeling considered works of feminine genres (Bomarito & Hunter, 2005). During the nineteenth century the women’s suffrage movement reacted to the social, legal, and political inequalities placed on women. Women’s literature reflects the feminist movement through theme, characterization, and situations. Works of Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman reveal women’s individuality and speak out against social expectations of women. Louisa May Alcott created strong, self-reliant female characters presenting a new definition of the role of women in America. Feminine literature of the late nineteenth century to the early 20th century served the purpose of presenting readers with realistic views of women’s intellect, desires, and potential ranging far beyond the limitations of submissive domestic life.
Female Authors of the Period
Kate Chopin grew up around strong women, and these early female influences shaped Chopin’s views. Her first works were published following the death of her husband as she tried to support herself and six children (Baym, 2008). Chopin claimed that she was neither a feminist nor suffragist, but that she believed that women’s freedom was more a matter of spirit, soul, and character living within the constraints placed on women by God (Chopin, n.d.). Despite her political views Chopin’s work emphasized women as individuals. Her stories “The Awakening,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “The Storm” present strong female characters that do not live by the social expectations of society. At the end of “The Awakening” Chopin writes “she understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children” (Chopin, 2007, p. 1303, para. 1). This sentiment was considered scandalous but brought into question the social expectations of women.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Unlike Kate Chopin Charlotte Perkins Gilman was quite interested in the feminist movement. She considered herself a commentator of the evolution of social order and the status of women in America (Beekman, n.d.). Her childhood proved difficult as her father left and her mother withheld affection so that Charlotte would grow up strong and self-reliant. Gilman was raised to support the feminist movement by her mother. She did marry, but the marriage ended in divorce. Gilman’s experience with marriage, her feminist beliefs, and personal encounter with post-partum depression provided insight to write her famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” This story presents the repression of a patriarchal society through the threats of her husband and psychological treatment. Gilman writes “I am absolutely forbidden to work, personally, I disagree with their ideas” (Gilman, 2008, p. 508, para. 12-13). Gilman also subtly speaks out against sensational journalism with this piece. With this single story Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents the issues facing women in society during this period while presenting a strong thematic and symbolic piece offering views into the intellect of the author.
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott wrote stories about strong female characters. Her famous fiction story “Little Women” is a work of Realism that presents the story of youth in New England (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013). Alcott’s other stories were considered potboilers containing lurid and violent tales with strong, self-reliant female characters (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013). Alcott writes in of women’s potential through the behavior and ideas of her characters, such as ““I've got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen” (Alcott, 2013). One of these stories was “A Long Fatal Love Chase” which presents issues of religion, love, betrayal, seduction, and cruelty (Good Reads Inc., 2013). Although the story was not revered as a classic, Alcott presents a different side of women as the protagonist reveals her strength and tenacity against deadly forces. Louisa May Alcott’s writing may not be as aggressive as her female counterparts, but her work presents her perspective of women taken seriously as equal to men with dreams, ambitions, thoughts, and spirituality of their own (Elbert, 2011).
Several social issues influenced women’s literature during this period. The feminist movement strongly shaped writing. Whether female writers of the era were active in the feminist movement or not, they all expressed similar views: women recognized as individuals and equal to men. The feminist movement worked in favor of political and social equality. Literature of this period presented the affects of the patriarchal society calling attention to inequalities. Racial discrimination was a social issue of the period. Following the Civil War African Americans were freed, but they were still not recognized as equals. Issues among Whites and African Americans arose as America tried to deal with reconstruction following the war. The increase in immigration also caused discrimination among the various ethnicities. Also Native Americans were still facing hostility from White America further oppressing their population. Zitkala Sa presents the plight of Native Americans in her story “In the Land of the Free” “having defrauded us of our land the paleface forced us away…both your sister and uncle might have been happy with us today, had it not been for the heartless paleface” (Sa, 2008, p. 663, para. 10). Another issue was the social expectations of women. Social expectations of women did not vary much from generations past. The ideal woman fit the “Cult of True Womanhood” expecting females to be submissive, pious, wives, and mothers (A & E Television, 2013).
Comparison to Male Contemporaries
Both female and male writers of the period used Realism to create stories that accurately depicted American life. Women’s literature embraced this form of writing as a means of conveying Regionalism beyond their male counterparts. In the past women were confined to domestic life so Regionalism offered the perfect opportunity to present stories of real American families and communities (Baym, 2013). Examples of women’s literature of this period representing family life are Edith Wharton’s “The Other Two,” Kate Chopin’s “Deseree’s Baby,” and the Native American stories of Sarah Winnemucca “Life Among the Piutes” and Zitkala Sa’s “Impressions of an Indian Childhood.” Literature by male writers often focused less on family and more on broader social issues such as war, as in Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and racism as in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Male writers also presented more works of Naturalism, such as Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” or Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage,” although Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth” and Ellen Glasgow’s “Barren Ground” are also considered works of Naturalism; these female works center more on the family than their male contemporaries (Campbell, 2010).
American literature from 1865 to the early 20th century offered realistic views of society. Female writers were in a unique position to provide representations of America’s social expectations of women as well as realistic female characters that broke this outdated mold. Kate Chopin and Louisa May Alcott’s Regionalism offer stories with accurate depictions of specific American regions, including dialects and family life. Charlotte Perkins Gilman shares patriarchal views and the issues women face in society. Social factors, such as racism and reconstruction, are also present in women’s literature of the period. Much like male writers of the era female writers provide works of Realism and Naturalism. The differences between the genders are the female focus on family and gender issues and the male focus and social issues such as war and racism. Women’s literature provided readers with a realistic portrait of the American women departed from the submissive, pious housewife and mother of the past.
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Elbert, S. (2011). Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism. Retrieved from http://louisamayalcottismypassion.com/2011/07/05/louisa-may-alcotts-brand-of-feminism-final-thoughts-on-moods-thanks-to-sarah-elbert/
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