ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Feminism in late nineteenth century literature: A brief discussion

Updated on August 25, 2013
PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award-nominated author based out of Juneau, Alaska.

Source

Gilman and Perkins

Feminism has been around a long time. Long before Gloria Steinem, long before the woman’s suffrage movements. In Western culture, women has long expressed a desire to be seen as equal—perhaps even superior—to men. Even though women are generally viewed as equals to men, in many industries, being a woman means less pay and less respect. It often means snide comments and sexual harassment. It often means that women must work twice as hard as men in order to succeed. This has been no different in the world of literature.

Some could argue that Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson wrote with strong feminist leanings, though, they were mostly quiet about their political leanings during their lifetimes. IN a field, literature, largely dominated by men and often times misogynistic, these strong women stand out as forces for equality and change in a world that treated them like second class citizens. This inequality was not without cause. Freed former male slaves earned the right to vote (1870) a full five decades before American women of any color (1920).

For the purposes of this brief exploration into feminism in American literature, I would like to examine the works of two women living and writing in the late nineteenth centuries who explored feminism in their works in vastly different ways. This is not a political statement. This is not about right versus left nor democrat versus republican, or even man versus woman. It’s about the perceived roles of men and women and how women in particular view these roles.

Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman both wrote with a feminist viewpoint. In the late 1800’s, women were struggling for equality. Then as now, they made much less money than men, did not have the right to vote, and found it difficult to acquire divorces from their husbands. It was truly a man’s world, which is what made the writings of Gilman and Chopin writing so controversial.

Texts and videos detailing these stories appear in each section.


The Storm

Source

Chopin

As an example, Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, was denounced by critics because it portrayed a woman coming of age sexually. This was not a time when women were expected to glorify their sexuality, yet, this novel celebrated it. Even more so, in Desiree’s Baby, we see Desiree forced to leave her husband after her husband discovers (erroneously) that she is of Negro descent. She leaves him and her child. The fact that Desiree was forced to leave shows how few rights women had. The husband wanted the woman gone and she was, leaving behind her beloved child. The grounds for divorce, in the case of this story, were that Desiree’s husband believed her to be of Negroid decent. In The Storm, another Chopin piece, we see Alcee have an affair with Calixsta and go home to his wife, Clarisse, who seems either ambivalent or ignorant of her husband’s infidelities. These stories portray the women as helpless victims of a society that is against them. It does not empower them nor explicitly ask for or demand empowerment.


Perkins

The Yellow Wallpaper

Source
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Source

In Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, we again find a woman living in distress while living in a luxurious summer home. She is ill and largely confined to a room with “hideous” wallpaper; away from her friends and her child (she is also trapped by motherhood, as will be revealed later). She gives in to her husband John’s treatment (“John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage”) and doesn’t seem to fight too much for her rights as the story (told as a series of journal entries) opens.

While John is concerned for her, he also serves as her physician, giving him a great deal of power in how to treat her condition. He has the power to forbid her from going out, to see visitors, to write (“I don’t know why I should write this…And John would think it absurd”) and to even see her child, Jane.

As the story unfolds, we see the narrator become obsessed with the wallpaper to the point of hallucination. The narrator eventually sees a woman trapped behind the wallpaper and takes it upon herself to free the woman. Before long, the woman behind the wallpaper becomes the narrator and the struggle to free the woman becomes a struggle to free herself. When she finally peels away the wallpaper, and her husband discovers what she’s done, she cries: “I’ve got out at last! In spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back!”

The story is in many ways autobiographical. Perkins Gilman was herself a mother, she battled with mental illness and felt trapped by both roles. By the end of The Yellow Wallpaper, she is no longer trapped, nor able to be trapped. Her husband faints, shocked by what he sees. The last line of the story puts her in a position of dominance, rather than of subservience: “Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so I have to creep over him every time.” [emphasis mine.]


Conclusion

These stories display the plight of women trying to live in a male dominated society. The fact that each author approaches these issues in a different way is quite interesting and may say a lot about the women themselves (though students of literature are taught to refrain from assuming the author and the characters are one in the same). The stories begin with women in subservient roles. By the end, we recognize their plight and position—even if the characters do not.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile imageAUTHOR

      Justin W Price 

      4 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Thanks msdora. Let me know how you like these stories. Glad i could introduce you!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for introducing and exploring these two stories. They should still make good reading for today. Women will appreciate the distance feminism has traveled.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)