Updated: 08 Jan 2013
Women's roles in the Nineteenth Century
Dickinson, Chopin, and Gilman
America in the mid to late nineteenth century was full of potential. Settlers were taming the west, once-captive blacks were no longer enslaved, and the role of women in society was undergoing a metamorphosis. Marring this progress, however, was a hard, cold reality. Blacks were by no means at equal status with whites, American Indians were being herded west like cattle, and women were still considered second-class citizens. America's power-brokers were still overwhelmingly white, male, and upper/upper-middle class. Variances were merely exceptions to the rule. Women in the nineteenth century were dependent on men for their lots in life. Most states barred women from voting and from owning property. Job choices were sparse and clearly defined: nurse, maid, grade-school teacher, seamstress, etc. The only hopes women had for financial prosperity were in marriage or inheritance. (Robles) Even in marriage, many women were virtually enslaved; not treated cruelly, but pigeon-holed into certain tasks and affairs. This virtual enslavement is made evident in three distinct ways by authors Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Emily Dickinson, the famed Massachusetts poet and writer, is an enigma. Her 1700-plus untitled short poems challenge our intellect or, as critic Joanne Feit Diehl puts it, "tease the intelligence." (Diehl 1) One must admit that Emily rarely wrote poetry just to pass the time. She was very passionate and very intense. Her poetry and personal letters became her primary emotional outlet; correspondence was her primary outlet for love. "Given her propensity for passions more intense than her recipients could return, Dickinson used physical distance and language, to deal with love." (Juhasz 2) Thus, through her correspondence and poetry (some of which was no doubt inspired by correspondence), Emily unwittingly, and posthumously, became America's most well-known nineteenth century woman poet. From her works we glimpse into her world and gather clues as to her role as a woman in society. Her poetry, original in both subject and form, offers commentary on these societal roles and in many instances, challenges our intellects.
Although her unmarried, reclusive lifestyle was untypical, her insights are just as valid and perhaps just as objective when compared to women of her day. Skeptics may claim that Emily was out of touch with the world. How could a woman who rarely left the confines of her house offer keen insights on sex issues, religion, authority, God, and the like? Undoubtedly, Emily was well-educated; she was just as much a student of literature as she was a creator. (Auerbach) By living more or less alone and undisturbed, Emily could focus all her energies on writing. "This decision was surely what enabled her to be the poet that she became." (Juhasz 2)
Dickinson's poems are frank in their criticisms of the relative inequalities of women. J.61 likens a game of "cat and mouse" to the traditional marriage roles. Dickinson may have believed that men, in a marriage role, overpower or "devour" women, i.e. take over their opinions and possessions. (This situation was not uncommon, as newly married women literally became a possession of their husbands, right down to their names.) The "Mansion" she wants to reserve is her escape from the traditional role of females. The second stanza finds Dickinson outlining her escape plan. Like the rat in the cupboards, she has found her safe haven. She's happier and more comfortable in her reclusiveness. She hides herself away whilst the cycles of courtship, marriage, masculine oppression, and life pass her by. J.61 explicitly stresses her rejection of traditional female roles and offers an alternative.
J.248 deals with role reversals. Dickinson gives the reader many questions and "what ifs." She feels as if she were excluded from Heaven and from joy. The "...Gentleman / In the 'White Robe' -" (lines 9-10) could be a symbol of patriarchal authority — a male-dominated society. She asks if things would be different if the roles were reversed: if they were the ones asking to join the celebration and Emily was the gatekeeper. This poem may have been inspired by envy, appropriate envy nonetheless.
Another "what if" occurs in J.251: "... if [God] were a Boy — / He'd — climb — if He could! (lines 8-9) Dickinson second-guesses herself on something as trivial as climbing a fence to gather berries. This may be due to her fear of the outside world, or it may even be a gender issue. Emily fears staining her apron as a reason not to climb the fence — a feminine response. She reckons that if God took the form of a little boy, he wouldn't have to worry about the consequences; climbing is considered masculine. Emily notes the double standard that exists but is quick to point out that "I could climb — if I tried, I know --" (line 4) This line may reflect a general attitude of women at the time: that females have just as much potential for success as men do.
Thomas Edison once said, "the body's main function is to carry the brain around" or something to that effect. A similar concept can be applied to Dickinson. Her relative isolation enabled her to live not in Amherst, Massachusetts, but within the confines of her mind. It is with this knowledge that J.280 ('I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain') starts to come into focus. Lines such as "A Service, like a Drum — / Kept beating — beating — till I thought / My Mind was going numb -" (lines 6-8) could have been inspired by an intense migraine, but they are more likely the product of Emily turning inward. In some respects, the events that occur in reality are just as important as those that occur within the mind. The women's revolution at the turn of the century was just this: an uprising that started intellectually.
Kate Chopin was one such intellectual author. The Awakening, her most well-known work, was a turning point not only for her career, but for her life. Critics were harsh in their reviews, so much that she fell out of favor with the public. The Awakening was painfully ahead of its time, as critics and potential readers were still slumbering as it passed into obscurity (albeit temporarily).
The novel outlines a year or so in the life of Edna Pontellier, a housewife in an upper/middle class southern family. In presenting Edna as frustrated and trapped in her marriage, Chopin voices the fears and concerns of many housewives discontented with their restrictive lifestyles. Edna has her first awakening on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, learning how to swim whilst on vacation. This single action of taking control of her motions in the water vanquishes her fears of drowning. It instills in her a mindset that yearns for independence and control in all aspects of her life. Our protagonist, although exhibiting numerous character flaws, gains the readers' sympathy in her awakening, but not necessarily in her methods of satisfying her romantic desires. Edna is single-minded in her attempt to establish control in her life. Her sexual dalliances also underscore her selfishness — a trait that factors into her demise. Ironically, Edna never came to have complete control over her life, and ended it where she first had her "awakening". She determines that she could live independently from her husband, yet her suicide stems in part from the actions of yet another male.
In the late nineteenth century, a woman's role as a housewife was to "...be devoted to home and children. . . and that she serve, so far as her husband was concerned, as the means by which he might display his wealth and social standing." (Baym 36) Edna Pontellier romanticized a better life in which she wasn't merely a trophy on her husband's bookshelf. In the process, she echoed the qualms of many housewives, who weren't quite fulfilled, but didn't know what to do about it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wall-Paper, published the same year, have similar themes: a summer vacation, water-front property, small children, servants, etc. But the most telling theme, however, is the husbands in both stories. These men are not intentionally cruel to their wives, nor do they know that their actions are detrimental. These two husbands essentially are "killing with kindness." John, in "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is concerned about his wife's postpartum depression, and being a doctor, does what he thinks is best for his wife's well-being. "Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. . . [he] gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me till it tired my head. . . [He said] that I must take care of myself for his sake, and keep well." (page 11) Clearly, John has good intentions, but Gilman is conveying to the reader the attitudes that were established in the minds of men and husbands across the country. The women's movement took a long, concerted effort precisely because men didn't even know that their actions toward women were considered "oppressive." The intentions of John to bring his wife out of depression were in good faith, no doubt, but their summer respite actually furthered her depression and contributed to her losing touch with reality.
The protagonist's obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom springs from her virtual confinement in the upper bedroom of the summer home. Her "imprisonment" is evidenced by the barred windows, sparse furniture, stationary bed and her curious wallpaper. "At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern [of the wallpaper] I mean..." (pages 13-14) At first, the wife had an aversion to the room and to the papered walls. But as the days turn into weeks, her fixation with the wallpaper became seriously unhealthy.
Gilman could have been hinting at sexual roles in her description of the wallpaper that became metal bars at night. In the nineteenth century, marriage and sex were less for love and more for practical ideals, such as wealth, status, and child production. Gilman may have felt imprisoned at night (or voiced the opinions of women who were), when a woman would be more or less required to submit to a man.
Each of these woman authors yearned for freedom of different sorts. Dickinson, ever paradoxical, appeared to be physically confined and reclusive, but exhibited nary a trace of timidity or compliance in her writings and poems. She gave women avenues by which to break from tradition and establish themselves not only as wives but as individuals. She shows us that even though her physical body appeared to be shut indoors, her mind was set free by her writings. Chopin, with The Awakening, shows us the resolve of women when they realize that they can be proactive in their futures. The end of The Awakening is open-ended; one finishes not knowing whether Edna has transcended her afflictions or merely conceded to them. Gilman's The Yellow Wall-paper confronts injustices head-on and details how much power men really had over women. She touched a nerve when she uses the forbiddance of writing as a theme of her novel. Journalism was a primary source of feminist expression in the late nineteenth century; to deny women even the freedom to express their injustices was cruel and thus compounded their injustices even more. Such was the plight of many nineteenth century women. Freedom (or the lack thereof) is the underlying theme in the works of the three authors outlined herein.
Auerbach, Emily. Study Guide for Introduction to Modern English and American Literature: The Nineteenth Century. Madison, WI: Annenberg/CPB Project, 1987.
Baym, Nina. Introduction to 'The Awakening'. New York: Modern Library, 1981.
Brady, Frank; Martin Price. Poetry — Past and Present. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974.
Chopin, Kate. 'The Awakening' and Selected Stories. New York: Modern Library, 1899, 1981.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. "Emerson, Dickinson and the Abyss"; in Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' and other writings. New York: Modern Library: 1899, 2000.
Juhasz, Suzanna. "The Landscape of the Spirit"; in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, Judith Farr, ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.