Bachelor of Arts
Beth Savage, PhD
Robin Bates, PhD
Alisha Marciano, PhD
As I began to make decisions about what I wanted to write on, I started to consider the novels that have impacted me. After realizing that many of my favorite novels featured female protagonists from the early twentieth century, I came to the conclusion that I could use these novels to discuss feminism, a topic I am passionate about. I selected O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Each of these authors use their protagonists to represent women who do not conform to the gender norms placed on them, and who often suffer as a result. Alexandra Bergson, Willa Cather’s heroine in O Pioneers!, inherits her father’s farm when he dies and brings the land back to life single-handedly, rather than her brothers. The protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is trapped in a room by her husband and doctor in order to help her “condition.” As a result, she becomes insane over time. Wharton’s Lily Bart is a twenty-something socialite struggling with the idea of marriage and freedom in high-class society. Edna Pontellier, of The Awakening, becomes more and more aware of the hold that the patriarchy has on her. She becomes dissatisfied with her life and marriage and seeks out ways to reclaim her individuality.
While this is not the first paper of its kind, it is apparent that similar works do not always acknowledge characters as a whole – leaving out their failings and their differences. An emphasis on the diversity even among these four stories is vital. They are not simply “women,” they are individuals, although fictional, who navigate the patriarchy differently; they reflect women’s different experiences under the thumb of masculine “superiority.” The research began with an examination of the articles in relation to both the four stories and the literature of the time period in general as it relates to women. This thesis also analyzes feminist criticism as well as cultural contexts. I found that what enables these characters to subvert the patriarchy is maintaining their identities, particularly in regards to sexuality, spirituality, and work. With this information and an analysis of the characters’ roles within the novel, this work intends to uncover the significance of certain components of individuality in women under the patriarchy and what this means for women of their time and of today. Edna is the archetypal feminist character, and by comparing her behavior with those of the other three heroines, we can find what makes a feminist in early American literature. What is truly significant, overall, is how each character takes on a different kind of feminism that adheres to each of their personalities, each defying the patriarchy in their own way.
Short, Julie, "Pioneering Feminism: How Early American Female Authors' Heroines Defy Gender Norms" (2020). Undergraduate Theses and Capstone Projects. 182.