“The Role of Women in the 19th and 20th Centuries” by Pamela Balanza

In today’s era, women’s activities and interests are recognized in literary and cultural fields. They have demanded their position in the community, openly exercising their rights, and thus are acknowledged as significant members in society. However, this was not the case a century ago. A woman’s place was in the home, as domesticity and motherhood were considered by society at large to be a sufficient emotional fulfillment for females (Abrams). The period of the mid-nineteenth century until the dawn of the twentieth century witnessed a patriarchal male society and female dependence, with women struggling to attain social equality. Women were solely controlled by the society crafted by men and expected to act as a feminine ideal of that period. Analyzing the characters in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”; Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”; and Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” shows how these expectations affect the behaviors of women and reflect the desire to change the traditional gender roles in the demanding society they are obligated to adhere to.

Throughout history, women are constant victims of society’s ideals. Traditionally, women were defined physically and intellectually as the ‘weaker’ sex, in all ways subordinate to male authority (Marsh). There are certain rules imposed and standards implemented that women must follow. They are expected to comply with these ideals set by the society and, as a result, opportunities are limited to them and their importance in the society are abbreviated.

The roles that 1900’s men and women were expected to live up to may be offensive and objectionable by today’s standards, but it was a very different world than the one we have become accustomed to in our time (Harvey). In the later half of the eighteenth century, men and women were seen to live in ‘separate spheres’. According to Kathryn Hughes, a professor at the University of East Anglia, “the ideology of Separate Spheres rested on a definition of the ‘natural’ characteristics of women and men”. Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. It was clear that the contribution of women in the society was limited and solely controlled under patriarchal authority. Their main role in life was to marry and take part in their husband’s business. They were excluded from the public sphere and forbidden to get involved with politics, legal, or economic affairs as men dominated all decisions about those matters. As a result, they were denied education or gaining any knowledge outside the home, as it was man’s world. They could never be allowed to be man’s intellectual equal; this was perceived as too challenging, too threatening to most men of the era. So a woman’s attending college was strongly discouraged (Harvey). The domestic sphere was a cultural expression of the female world. Their fashions, etiquette, domestic furnishings, social engagements, religious devotion and charitable activity all served to delineate a universe within which women could demonstrate their power (Abrams).

Before the 20th century, women had no legal identity apart from their husbands’. The biological role of women, ‘to give birth to and take care of offspring’, was considered to be the main and only job of women. Women were not allowed to do labor-intensive work, as they were considered to be physically weak. While men were exposed to diverse career opportunities, women’s career opportunities were restricted to jobs related to the home. Women ran the household, undertaking domestic work and childcare themselves, as well as supervising the servants employed to cook, clean, and run daily errands.  At times, women were not allowed to go outside the house for any reason unless it was approved by their husbands. They were denied any significant social and economic statuses (“Women’s”).

The increased interest in their social class position drove women to start a movement redefining their traditional roles in the society. This has been seen particularly through literature, when women began to vindicate their rights through writings. These writings outline the desire to redefine women’s role in marriage and society and opposition of the social norms imposed on women. The women writers also challenged the patriarchal society and the view that marriage and motherhood were the only careers best suitable for women.

Some of the most prominent female writers of their time include Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jamaica Kincaid, Marge Piercy and Adrienne Rich, who were praised by both female and male readers, and continue to influence the current generation.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known for her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which was published in 1892. Born on July 3, 1860 in Hartford, Connecticut, Gilman was a successful lecturer and intellectual. Aside from being known as a famous writer, Gilman was also regarded as a feminist. She called for women to gain economic independence and this helped her to build up her standing as a social theorist at that time (“Charlotte”).

Gilman’s famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, is a fictionalized account of a woman’s descent into madness (“Woman”). The story is written in a journal-style, first-person narrative and revolves around a creative women who is supposed to be recovering from what her husband, a physician, calls “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency” (Gilman 316). In order to keep her within the society’s norms of what a wife is expected to act like, the husband pursued efforts to oppress his wife, which eventually drove her to mental destruction.

The protagonist’s husband, John, a well-known and established doctor who should know better than to diagnose a close family member, had a false diagnosis of her and prescribes, among other things, a “rest cure”, which restricted women from anything that labored and taxed their minds (e.g., thinking, reading, writing) and bodies (“Charlotte”). She is confined in a temporary house her husband procured, which John believes necessary for her fast recovery. The woman is forbidden from doing anything intellectual even though she believes that “excitement and change” would do her good (Gilman 316). Afraid of being caught, she keeps her journal in secret.

Over the course of three months, John treats her like a child, calling her names like “little girl”. Even the room in which she is staying appears to be a nursery. Its “windows are barred for little children” (Gilman 317). John denied her freedom. When the narrator tries to have a “reasonable talk” with him about her situation, depending on his own judgment, he does not acknowledge her problems and views her as irrational and an unreliable person. He makes all the decisions for her and isolates her from the things she cares about, a clear illustration of male dominance in the marriage. This also suggests that John is more concerned with the cultural norms in society than his wife, which was commonplace in a marriage during that era. But taking a closer look at John’s personality gives a hint that he cares for his wife. He can also be viewed as a victim of the cultural norms because he is caught in society’s ways of dealing with the situation he is facing.

The narrator’s fascination with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom is the first hint of her degenerating sanity. She analyzes the incomprehensible pattern in the wallpaper and becomes obsessed; she concludes that there is a women creeping around behind the wallpaper. In an effort to free the woman trapped in the second layer, she starts peeling off the wallpaper. As the narrator works to continue, she finally reveals the identity of the women and ultimately loses her sense of individuality. The narrator allows herself to become free only by confronting her fears of what society and her husband would think of her. In the end, she achieved her independence by trading her sanity for freedom.

Born as Elaine Potter Richardson in St. John’s, Antigua on May 1949, Jamaica Kincaid is one of the innumerable female authors that called for redefining women’s role in society. Kincaid changed her name to pursue her career as a writer and to hide her identity from the people of Antigua (“Jamaica”). Her relationship with her mother features as a recurring theme in her work, especially in her short story titled “Girl”.

As an accepted standard in the society, marriage and motherhood are viewed as the most suitable occupation for women. In addition to having a good manner and social etiquette, a woman is expected to know how to run a household properly and Kincaid’s short story specifically discusses these certain qualities a gentlewoman should possess. “Girl” is a brief narrative short story consisting of a series of instructions and advice that the mother apprises to her daughter – directions on how to manage domestic matters, how to behave like a lady and act in front of people and how to prevent herself from being a “slut” she seems bent on becoming (Kincaid 118).

The story starts with what seem to be a long list of practical instructions to the girl. Guidelines in doing common household tasks such as washing clothes, cooking pumpkin fritters, and how to sweep the whole house and yard are imparted to the unnamed daughter. The instructions shift towards the end of the story, as the mother talks about sexual advice and guidance. She teaches the daughter how to behave in front of someone she likes, as well as in the presence of someone who she does not like at all. The mother also comments on how to establish a relationship with opposite gender and offers compassion about the bullying that happens between a man and a woman, and relationships that never work out, giving her advice that it is not wrong to give up.  Although the instructions imparted to the girl seem demanding, these are all preventative measures to control what the society has to say to her (the girl) and the mother’s effort to guide her into becoming a decent women she ought to be.

Marge Piercy, born on March 1936, is a feminist writer of fiction, poetry, and memoir. She is known for examining women, relationships, and emotions in new and provocative ways (Napikoski). She is also known for her highly personal and emotional poetry. Her poem “Barbie Doll” grasps the cultural and societal expectations on women, particularly young girls (Woodson). Despite the advances of the women’s movement for the past decades, society still has a hold on women’s lives (when the poem was written). Society tells how a woman should particularly dress and present herself to other people in a certain way to be accepted. The open-form narrative poem of Piercy outlines a brief tale of a “girlchild” whose life, apparently influence by people’s opinions and societal expectations, comes to a tragic ending.

“This girlchild was born as usual,” the poem begins. The opening sentence gives the impression that the protagonist was born like any normal child and nothing is wrong with her. As a child, the girl was “presented dolls that did pee-pee, and miniature GE stoves and irons, and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy,” all of which are symbols of traditional female gender roles. As the story progresses, the girl reaches maturity and “then in magic of puberty,” her body begins to change. With the change of her body comes criticism from one of her classmates: “you have a great big nose and fat legs.” This is where the main character starts to question her physical appearance and becomes conscious of herself.  The poem continues to follow the girl until her young adult years and describes her positive qualities as a human being. Despite the fact that “she was healthy, tested intelligent possessed strong arms and back abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity,” traits that would be considered to be the pinnacle of “correct,” she was unacceptable to culture and viewed negatively by others (Woodson). She was herself blind to her own positive qualities as she attempts to please others. “She went to and fro apologizing” wanting herself to be appreciated but soon “her good nature wore out” and so she finally decides to end her life (Piercy 477).

The final stanza describes the girl, now dead, lies in a casket with fake makeup and fake dress, the people, or society, are finally happy. “Doesn’t she look pretty? Everyone said. Consummation at last. To every woman a happy ending.” Laced in irony, the author states that finally, the girl has achieved acceptance, but not on the merits of her character or her being; rather, through the unwilling compromise to culture (Woodson).

Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” is another poem that deals with the theme of inequality in the marriage due to male dominance. Widely read and hugely influential, Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), explored issues of identity, sexuality and politics in her works (“Adrienne”).

The poem centralizes on a woman, Aunt Jennifer, who is trapped in a bad marriage. The first verse of the poem illustrates the fearless tiger Aunt Jennifer creates from wool. Opposite to herself, who is restricted and dominated by her husband, which is symbolized by the wedding band that “sits heavily upon her hand,” the creatures she creates are free and proud. The final verse resolves that theme of the poem that even death will not free Aunt Jennifer’s from the “ordeals” and controls of her husband but her artistic work will live on “proud and unafraid” (Rich 485).

Women’s lives have changed in permanent and profound ways over the past decades. Through the women’s liberation movement that altered people’s ideas about the role of women in society, women’s roles have changed at an accelerating rate and made a lot of improvement politically, socially, and educationally, allowing them to have a high place in society. Also, through the active participation of prominent authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jamaica Kincaid, Marge Piercy, and Adrienne Rich, whose works challenged the notion that women were supposed to spend their lives in the private sphere and the ideal traditional family, which often tied women to oppressive relationships, women have achieved a position and attained power in society today.


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