Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gender Roles in the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

My 2nd paper for American Lit. class this past semester.

Around the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were specific roles for men and women as dictated by a male dominated society. Literature written about this time, especially those by women, told stories which described certain traditional gender roles. Examples of such included Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" and The Awakening, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "To the Indifferent Women." The traditional gender roles that these two authors included in their stories and poem involved: women not working outside but men did, so men were the moneymakers while women were homemakers and mainly responsible for the family and home, but men did have some extent of responsibility inside the home as well. Women had more expectations put on their shoulders so when it became too much, some women did want to break free from the typical role of housewife and mother.

Primarily, women in society back in the late 1800s and early 1900s were not usually seen in the workforce. They were expected to keep to the house and take care of their family and home. Some women were even discouraged from any sort of work, even if it was done inside. For example, Gilman writes in "The Yellow Wallpaper", "So I… am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again" (792). The "work" that is being discussed is later described as writing: "There comes John, and I must put this away- he hates to have me write a word" (Gilman 793). The simple task of writing that women used for expressing themselves was even denied. Furthermore, the lack of females working is also evident in Chopin's The Awakening. The fact that "Mr. Pontellier gave his wife half the money which he had brought away from Klein's hotel the evening before" (566), shows that he wanted to keep his wife satisfied for not having an income of her own. Mrs. Pontellier's contentment is seen in the following words: "She liked money as well as most women, and accepted it with no little satisfaction" (Chopin 566). Because women were made to stay indoors, they didn’t have the opportunity to earn money on their own. Any form of work other than housework was discouraged and made up for by giving some sort of "allowance" by men.

Due to the role of women staying at home, men were left to go out and be the breadwinners. In "The Yellow Wallpaper", the husband and brother were both "physicians of high standing" (Gilman 792). Since the family depended on the income of the male head of the household, the men still had to work, even if it meant working long hours and going away for days. This situation occurred in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Gilman writes, "John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious" (794). Mr. Pontellier also had a few similar circumstances in The Awakening. For example, "He was returning to the city to his business, and they would not see him again at the island till the coming Saturday" (Chopin 566) and "As the day approached when he was to leave her for a comparatively long stay…" (Chopin 617). While women were meant to do all that was necessary to ensure a happy home, men had to do everything to secure wealth to make a happy home possible.

Since wealth was brought into the home by men, women had to take care of their family and home. These tasks as homemakers included the typical chores of looking after the safety and well being of children and spouse, and food and clothing being ready, whether done by the wife or maid. Generally, being a successful wife and mother was desirable. A lot of this behavior is seen in The Awakening. Mr. Pontellier had certain expectations for Edna and when she lacked the mother/wife role, his displeasure was mentioned. Chopin writes, " He reproached his wife with her inattention, her habitual neglect of the children. If it is not a mother's place to look after children, whose on earth was it?... He could not be in two places at once; making a living for his family on the street, and staying at home to see that no harm befell them" (565). Mr. Pontellier's mentality was common during his time period. Men believed their job was only outside and their wife's is inside. The mother role was further described as being easily recognizable. Mothers were seen "fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands…" (Chopin 567). Some women were accepting to this position of homemaker, like John's sister in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Gilman writes, "She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession" (795). Women had more responsibilities at home as a wife and mother and were praised for their dedication to their family and home.

Although men's priority wasn’t inside the home, they still had some responsibilities. Men had to make sure their family's well being was fine. John in "The Yellow Wallpaper" illustrated this behavior clearly. His care went so far as to actually hurting his wife. John is described as "being very careful and loving, and hardly lets [his wife] stir without special direction" (Gilman 793). This special direction looks more like control than care. John's wife didn’t seem to agree with her husband's or brother's advice: "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good" (Gilman 792). Even though it may not have been their intention, men sometimes harmed women believing they were taking care of them properly. Louise Mallard felt this way. She thought, "…powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime…" (Chopin 556-557). Women generally weren't outspoken back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but some did recognize that they were being impaired.

With the lack of understanding from men and women having more responsibilities put on their shoulders, some women were struggling to break free from the gender roles in their time. People crack under pressure, so when it became too much, some women attempted to change their lives and experiment outside of the norm. They looked forward to a new life where they were independent, such as in "The Story of an Hour." At the news of a railroad accident and her husband's name being on the list of those killed, Mrs. Mallard was at first upset, " but she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome. There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself" (Chopin 556). Little did Mrs. Mallard know, her husband was far away from the site of the accident and was alive to everyone's surprise. This surprise caused Mrs. Mallard to "die of heart disease- of a joy that kills" (Chopin 557), so she never got the chance to experience freedom.

Edna Pontellier did however get opportunities that other females were not able to have. For example, Edna socialized a lot, unlike John's wife from "The Yellow Wallpaper." One would think that she enjoyed the company she had and not being made to stay at home all day. But, even with this freedom that Mrs. Mallard was looking forward to in "The Story of an Hour" and that Edna had in The Awakening, Edna was not truly happy. Edna's awakening to the double standards around her turned her into a rebel by the end. She took her new freedom too extremely by taking off all her clothes, standing "naked in the open air" (Chopin 651). Again, people break when things become to overwhelming, so just as women desired freedom, when Edna got her wish, she drowned herself.

Because some female authors became aware of the double standards, they wrote against this. Gilman's sestina, "To the Indifferent Women," addressed women who are told to stay in their homes and work and that is their only duty. Gilman writes, "You who are happy in a thousand homes, or overworked therein... who told you that you need not know or care about the sin and sorrow of the world?" (1-6). The speaker makes strong points throughout the sestina to get the message across to women that they are important and needed both inside their homes and outside in society. For example, "The one and first duty of all human life is to promote the progress of the world in righteousness, in wisdom, truth and love" (Gilman 13-15). The solution that the speaker provides for the inclusion of women in society to better the world is, "When woman's life, in its rich power of love is joined with man's to care for all the world" (Gilman 38-39). Men and women both need to work together to make the world a better place.

Texts such as this sestina encourages women to get out of their "comfort" zone at home and help make a positive difference outside in the world. As for the other roles mentioned in the three stories that men and women had in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people need to be more open-minded. Men and women both need to change if they want to see improvement in the human race. Instead of thinking and acting like men from the past who preferred women to stay at home and not get involved in public, men need to accept that if women can be good mothers and wives, women can also be good members of the community. Women need to stand up for their rights and get involved in the outside world. They should not be passive, but active. Of course there is nothing wrong with women having a family and taking care of them, but life involves more people than just those in one's immediate surroundings. Men and women today are becoming more outspoken and outgoing, but there are still some changes that need to be made. This is possibly through education and exposure to the truth, whether through literature or media.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. "The Awakening." The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 565-651. Print.

---. “The Story of an Hour.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 556-557. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte P. "The Yellow Wallpaper." The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 792-795. Print.

  ---. “To the Indifferent Women.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 805. Print.


  1. Well written! I agree change is still needed and exposure to the truth and education can make this happen.

  2. What I would expect to read about women of that era...nothing new or surprising, really.

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