The Desires of a Woman vs Her Limitations
By Tamoy Tracey
“There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish!” These are words that former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama uttered as she articulately delivered her women empowerment speech in 2016. This quote speaks great volumes to the capacity that women in today’s society have, a privilege that women in the 19th century did not have. It iterates that there are no limits, meaning that there is absolutely nothing that can stop women from doing what they put their minds to. There will be barriers and obstacles, but that should not restrain women from moving forward.
The ideological debate about what has been deemed a woman’s place in society becomes prevalent throughout the 19th century into the 20th century and in the stories that will be discussed. A woman’s limitation in society and the obligation of a woman to a man while maintaining her place is addressed in the discussed stories. The focus of this paper will be centered around the concept of a woman’s place in society in what became known in the 19th century as “The Woman Question” in relation to the occurrences in “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin (1894), “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros (1991) and “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston (1976). These stories were written some one hundred years apart and in different time periods addressed the barriers imposed upon women.
The article entitled “The Woman Question,” written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in New York in the year 1869. The article powerfully aims at discussing and observing the prescribed roles and expectations of one gender as opposed to another. It addresses a social-based stigmatism that was transpiring throughout that time. Stowe, in addressing the woman question, tells how women had to suffer the unfair treatments of society and the law: Women “can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at the moment the property of her husband, who can take and use her wages without consulting her” (Stowe 2). This is how a woman’s place was seen in society under the English common law, a way of life that was widely accepted and practiced in the United States during that timeframe. Stowe compared the woman-to-man relationship in the 19th century to that of the “Negro Slave” (2). Men were expected to be the sole owner of everything; men were able to vote, to sign documents, etc., while on the other hand, women did not have those rights. Women were not able to vote or have any access to basic human rights. Equality was not there.
According to the article, men (the husbands) sometimes acquired great “fortune” or inheritance through the woman. However, due to the law dictating a woman’s standing, they had to submit to their husbands; they were not obligated or entitled to the pleasure of their fortune, “He is sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny” (Stowe 2). In addition, the article gives a vivid representation of what it was like for women. It shows how the life of a man and woman was different in terms of the amenities they had and did not have access to. It focuses on the position of a woman from an economic, social and political standpoint.
This era of woman oppression and total male dominance influenced debates and opened doors to initiate various interventions that protected women and placed emphasis on their rights: right to freedom, speech and independence. It was an era that defined women as being subjected to or defined by matrimony. Women did not have access to education, social life or any amenities that would uplift them. This is what the woman question is centered around and deals with. It challenged the minds of many as the place of a woman in society was being questioned. Debates surrounding what was known as the woman question did influence women and the laws that evolved around them. It has certainly influenced woman in American literature in the decades ahead. The woman question, the question regarding a woman’s place, was gradually being answered from the late 19th century through the 20th century when women began to earn their place within American society.
Written in the era when the woman question was being defined, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin presented a woman, Mrs Louise Mallard, who has been confined to matrimony with her husband, Brently Mallard. The story is focused on the aspects of freedom and confinement – both due to marriage. Chopin tells a story of how the tragic news of Mrs Mallard’s husband caused her to go through a period of self-introspection and enlightenment. It was showcased how between a few moments the thoughts of a woman can differ. Sometimes women are placed in a situation that they are aware of and wish to remove themselves, but they are not fully aware of the issues associated with the position they are placed in. Even though Mrs Mallard was in a stable relationship, she still had that empty feeling within her; she had a void that wanted to be filled: “She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose face bespoke repression and even a certain strength” (Chopin 447). She is of the impression that the problem could not be her relationship because her husband was a good man. Louise Mallard became aware of her situation when the tragic news of her husband’s death was told to her.
In addition, “The Story of an Hour” slightly elaborates on the lifestyle that women lived in the 19th century. It introduces minimal social interaction, but also sheds more light on how confined women are, all in the name of “marriage” and “love.” The news of Brently Mallard’s supposed death met Mrs Mallard at home, while her husband was at work. She later closes herself in her room. This is where the symbolism peeked through while she went through a moment of epiphany. She wept and strongly uttered under her breath, “free, free, free!” “Free! Body and soul free!” (Chopin 47, 48), she says, showing the mental bondage that she faced, the significance of confinement and the lack of freedom that women had. This story places emphasis on aspects of the woman question because Mr Mallard was at work while his wife was at home. During those times, women had little to no social interaction outside the home. They were expected to stay at home, wrapped with aprons around their waist as housewives – they cooked, they cleaned and nurtured their children. Mr Mallard was fulfilling his role out in the ‘village’ at work – being the family’s breadwinner. In addition, the setting of Mrs Mallard in her room at her window opens up more room to question her confinement to a physical space. She was free in thought but not in action.
As the story develops, it is noticed that though Mr Mallard was not a bad or abusive husband, as she described his “tender hands” and the way he looked upon her in admiration (Chopin 447). This seems rather contradictory because though Louise Mallard was in a presumably happy relationship and was getting the opportunity to now focus on herself as a result of her husband’s death, she was having second thoughts. She openly accepts the fact that she can be free but is hesitant to take the risk to separate and part ways. Richard Mallard came home and Mrs Mallard realized that her husband had not died. She later dies of what seems like happiness but is perhaps disappointment that she did not take the opportunity to act as quickly as she would want to. “The Story of an Hour,” in general, responds to the woman question in terms of a woman wanting the freedom to do as she pleases without consulting a man. It responds to the debates surrounding the woman question as it shows how marriage and its confinement can impact the life of a woman and allow them to stay within insufferable situations.
The independence of a woman can sometimes be challenged in the most discrete manner. A woman’s place in society during the 19th century was under the subjection of a man who would sometimes make them feel inferior. Moving forward to the 20th century, 100 years later, the challenges that women faced are still being addressed and the woman question is still fueling debates and is the focus topic for many. “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros (1991), tells the story of a suffering woman who was entirely dependent on a man. It shows that due to her lack of independence and a high level of dependency on her husband, she does not see her returning home as an option to escape the abuse she was facing. Unlike Louise Mallard, Cleofilas is experiencing domestic violence from her husband, Juan Pedro, the man she waited all her life for. Though her husband is conforming to the breadwinner role, he is lazy, abusive, controlling and does not see the need to communicate with his wife. His entire life revolves around work and drinking; he does not focus on what was going on inside his household. He is more focused on the outside world. Cleofilas, perhaps unlike Mrs Mallard, does have the option to leave and escape the mental oppression, but Cleofilas has it more difficult. She has a language barrier – she speaks Spanish, she is living under the violent hands of her husband, she has children and is socially isolated. These issues prevent Cleofilas from escaping and entering the outside world. However, the exposure and ability to interact socially does evolve and does some justice of showing how having moral support and togetherness of women can be beneficial to one’s freedom.
During the era of this story, the social interaction of women started to increase. In the article “The Woman Question,” Stowe mentioned that women’s rights and protection movements were rising as women were now getting the opportunity to uplift themselves and evolve (2). Even so, women were gradually gaining equal opportunity, the chance to vote, work outside the home or be independent. So many years later, the influence of a man’s power plays an integral role in the life of Cleofilas. Though she is mistreated and would like a better life for herself, her individuality, independence and self-confidence are stifled. Cleofilas does not stand up for herself; she basically gives her husband the authority over her to disrespect her and the opportunity to silence her. She is forced to deal with her situation as she is not able to have a say in the relationship or to retaliate. This too shows how sometimes women have to remain silent and suffer. The social laws did not protect her. They protected the male, the person who wore the trousers in the household, irrespective of the treatment the woman was receiving.
Cleofilas is stubborn to the idea of returning home and it may become a form of defeat. The need to part ways with her significant other is beneficial but difficult, this to Cleofilas was a form of defeat that she experienced, and she thought was right until she was able to cross over the river. For Cleofilas it would be a ‘disgrace’ and embarrassment to return home, especially with a “child on her hip and one in the oven” (1618). “The Woman Question” and the whole notion of a woman’s structured place in society was changed in “Woman Hollering Creek.”
Cisneros, through this story, emphasizes how the system and the laws were made to keep women at a lower level. Presumably, women were already looked down on as being inferior, so keeping them from uplifting themselves was an additional step to block them from gaining access to their fortunes. She writes, “The towns [were] built so that you have to depend on husbands. Or you stay home. Or you drive. If you’re rich enough to own, allowed to drive, your own car.” This shows how it was strategically set up so that women had to depend on their husbands. “Woman Hollering Creek” plays a vital role in presenting how women can challenge the phenomenon of confinement to marriage. She used her work of art to challenge societal expectations. She does this by shifting the paradigm. Cleofilas was exposed to strength, autonomy and independence in the person of Felice. Things later took a change for the better. Cleofilas was exposed to something she had never seen before as she expressed that “[Felice was] like no woman she’d met” (1622). She was introduced to the doctor and Felice who both formulated her escape plan. However, the emphasis is placed on Felice as she is portrayed as the person who goes against the entire expectations of society. She realizes that women are strong and do not need the support of a man.
This aspect of the story demonstrated how naïve and exposed women can sometimes be. They accept their position that was given to them. They place no effort in challenging the position and just take it as it is or however their husbands or society force it upon them. Cleofilas’ real eye opener was to know that women, like Felice and herself, can be free; they can be free and leave abusive relationships. She also recognized that women can yell; not just yell to indicate pain and suffering from being abused or held captive but yell to indicate freedom and happiness. Cleofilas became aware that women, like Felice, can own things, be independent and be happy, “Just like that” (1622).
In the 19th century, patriarchal roles were dominant. Families and society, tribe and village played a significant role in shaping the morals, norms and values that individuals had to follow. “No Name Woman” from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston embraces the belief that marriage is a must and that both family intervention and continuity should be taken seriously. The story is told about a woman who figuratively had no name. Kingston recalls the story that was told to her by her mother in secret. This story introduces practices that were a mixture of Chinese and American culture. Kingston explains the incident that took place causing her aunt to be completely erased from the minds of her family. She also recalls her mom saying, “Don’t tell anyone you had an aunt. Your father does not want to hear her name. She has never been born” (1552).
Kingston’s mother was upholding the patriarchal roles of the family as well as using it to her advantage to drive fear into Kingston and silence her, just as the aunt was silenced. Kingston was told by her mother that her aunt had got pregnant outside of wedlock and by someone else other than her husband: “She could not have been pregnant you see, because her husband had been gone for years” said her mother (Kingston 1544). “No Name Woman” like “The Story of an Hour and “Woman Hollering Creek” bring light to the fact that men have duties beyond the home and for them to fulfil those duties, they have to be away from home. Kingston’s aunt, unlike Louise and Cleofilas, was not confined to marriage but she was under severe pressure and judgements by her family and village.
This story by Kingston was written in a way that it gives exposure to the significance of cultural intervention that the other stories didn’t. It showed a different way in which women can be oppressed and left to suffer. Kingston’s aunt went through the terrible trauma of not having anywhere to go while in labor. She had nobody to turn to, but her motherly traits led her to make a promise to protect her child. Kingston’s aunt had no other option but to have the baby in a pigsty. When the aunt gave birth to the baby, she still experienced severe oppression. The law did not protect her, and she had no family support. She finally gave in to her oppression and committed suicide by drowning herself in the family well. Though the aunt had committed suicide perhaps to end her suffering and take the shame off her family, her suffering and oppression did not end.
The Chinese tradition had influenced the way in which the aunt was treated. The spirit of Kingston’s aunt was still left to suffer. Kingston stated that “Goods are not distributed evenly among the dead” (1552) Though Kingston was told to not mention her aunt, she was sympathetic with how vulnerable her aunt was. She felt as though her aunt might have had personal reasons and desires for what she did. Kingston, unlike her family, sees strength within the heart of her aunt. She sees a woman who fought all odds and impacted her life, her experiences and how she was led to question the Chinese American culture.
In conclusion, women are known to be more vulnerable than men, yet oppression is still forced upon them. Women are powerful individuals who should have a place in society. For some in the 19th century, a woman’s place was in the home but as time progresses, that idea shifted and a woman’s place in society is anywhere. Kate Chopin, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston and Harriet Beecher Stowe fueled questions and debates about female autonomy and their confinement due to marriage. In addition, they set the platform for people to understand what women go through. They took the chance to explicitly explore the field of women and discover the unfair treatments that they undergo and overcome, whether it is adultery, family issues, abuse, oppression, etc.
These authors have influenced the way in which readers now see the bigger picture. They shed light on topics that were once not addressed. In fact, these events generally influenced how things are done today. There is still room for improvement, but aspects of a woman’s life are gradually changing. The actions of those in the 19th century did influence the laws and societal doings of the 21st century. A woman’s place has shifted from the home to the outside world, from not being able to vote to being able to decide and cast a vote, from not being able to choose marriage to having the freedom to live on their own, from not being able to gain an education or work to being CEOs and business owners. However, though these opportunities are openly available to women, there is still that glass ceiling that affects them. Women now, unlike Kingston’s aunt, do have a right to get healthcare while in labor, they have the right to register a child without the presence of a father figure.
There are still debates regarding the woman question and a woman’s place in the 21st century, which means that more can be done to improve the different movements and rectify the issue of double standards. Like Former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish!” This is not only to say that a woman can be anything she desires to be because of the gradually fading limits due to the rights and laws that enforce women’s protection, laws and rights that have proven to have a deeper significance in a woman’s life. She shows how the uplift of women has evolved over the years. Women are unapologetically more woman’s place has unquestionably changed, and women are now emancipated, but there is still more that can be done.
Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Norton Anthology, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976, pp. 446-47.
Cisneros, Sandra. “Woman Hollering Creek.” The Norton Anthology, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976, pp. 1613-21.
DeMaria, Meghan. “Michelle Obama’s Most Feminist Quotes.” Bustle, Bustle, 17 Dec. 2018, http://www.bustle.com/articles/125061-the-most-feminist-michelle-obama-quotes-will-remind-you-how-shes-everything-a-flotus-should-be.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “No Name Woman.” The Norton Anthology, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976, pp. 1544-53.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “The Woman Question.” Hearth and Home. Pettengill, Bates & Co., 1869, pp. 1-3.
“The Woman Question.” The Norton Anthology, 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976, pp. 11-12.
Course: ENG 222 American Literature II
Assignment: Literary analysis
Instructor: Jeff Partridge
Instructor comments: In this essay, Tamoy Tracey explores the 19th century idea of “The Woman Question” and traces its reemergence in three short stories that span from the 1880s to the 1990s. What I find particularly remarkable about this paper is the patience with which Tamoy explores each story and the variety of issues she draws from them. This ability to expound at length without drifting into inconsequence is a feature that student writers should emulate. In the same vein, I would call the reader’s attention to Tamoy’s conclusion. Conclusions should not be brief and repetitive but should explore the implications of the paper’s argument. As in the body, Tamoy spends time in the final paragraphs drawing “conclusions” from her explorations in the body.
Photo credit: “Women’s March NYC” by astoller. Licensed through Creative Commons.