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The Women's Movement, Early 20th Century

The Womens Movement, early 20th century and the American Short Story

CONTEXTUALIZION. Prior to the Womens Movement, women in America did not have very many rights and men treated them unfairly. Women were considered inferior to and weaker than men. Women were seen as property of the man in their life, whether it be her husband, father, or another male relative. A woman's place was in the home and her job was tending the house and her children. Once a woman married, she was considered dead in the eyes of the law and became unable to own property, manage money, sign a contract, or vote. A woman who remained unmarried was considered a legal minor. Woman were taught to refrain from education or labor because it was believed by men that physical and intellectual activity was harmful to a delicate female's biology and her ability to reproduce. Wives were not allowed to hold opinions or thoughts that conflicted with their husbands. Men made many decisions about a woman's affairs, such as birth control.

The Womens Movement began in 1848. It was conducted by women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. These were women with no real rights, who were considered legally dead after marriage or legal minors if unmarried, who were not permitted to get any real education and were limited to minor knowledge on embroidery and French, who had no political status, who could not sign their own legal documents or gain custody of their children after a divorce. The Womens Movement was a series of campaigns on different issues such as equal rights, women voting, reproductive rights, and equal pay.

Many advances were made on getting women more rights in the early 20th century. Legislation was passed in 1900 giving women some control over property and earnings. Margaret Sanger initiated the birth control movement. This movement focused on a woman's right to choose when and if to have children, which previously was not up to the woman. Sanger argued that until a woman was able to make decisions about reproduction she was not truly free. Sanger opened a birth control clinic in 1916. Although it shut down ten days later, it paved the way and eventually even support was won in the courts to open up another clinic seven years later. Sanger also fought to have birth control information no longer seen as obscene and for doctors to be able to advise married women about birth control. Anna Howard Shaw and Carried Chapman Cott gained for women the right to vote in 1920. After that battle was won an organization was formed called the League of Women Voters to make sure that women took their vote seriously and use it wisely. In 1910, legislation was passed to improve working conditions and limit hours for women and children. The Women's Bureau of Department of Labor was established in 1920 to do research on the situation of women at work and to fight for change if change was needed. After 1920, women began to see legislation passed to provide employment for women and equal pay. Despite all the advances made in the early 20th century, women still faced discrimination.

SALIENT POINTS. The Womens Movement in the early 20th century achieved many things, all of which improved the treatment and view of women. As discussed in the above section, this is the time when legislation was passed giving women more control over their property and wages. Women finally were given the right to vote. Working conditions of women were improved and wages for men and women were set at a more equal level. Women were finally given some say in when and if they wanted to become mothers. Birth control was declassified as obscene information and doctors began to be allowed to discuss birth control with married patients who requested it for health reasons. Women were found to be equally as qualified as men were to serve on juries. The early 20th century part of the Womens Movement made great strides in getting the world to see that women are not inferior to men, which is something the world should have known already.

INFLUENCE ON THE SHORT STORY. The Womens Movement brought us great feminist writers such as Kate Chopin, Tillie Olsen, Louise May Alcott, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Womens Movement also bought us great works of fiction such as The Awakening, Desiree's Baby, I Stand Here Ironing, Little Women, and The Yellow Wallpaper, which are centered on feminist issues. In the past, most works of fiction presented women in ways congruent to how women were viewed by society. Out of the Womens Movement came the development of strong females as main characters of stories and females are heroes. The Womens Movements brought education, voting, equality, and other rights into the lives of women and it brought those same things into the plots of stories.

The Womens Movement influenced the American Short Story in much the same way it influenced all of fiction. It gave the short story new authors to write and new topics to write about.

CONNECTIONS TO OUR CLASS. There are three stories discussed in this class that show a connection to the early 20th century Womens Movement. They are Desiree's Baby by Kate Chopin, I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Desiree is the main character in Desiree's Baby. At a young age, Desiree was abandon by her natural parents and found by Monsieur Valmonde. She was adopted and loved by Monsieur and Madame Valmonde who were childless. When she as eighteen years old she won the heart of a rich plantation owner named Armand Aubigny who did not care about her origin and namelessness as he only wanted to love her and give her a new life and a new name. They were married and shortly after had a baby boy. Desiree and Armand were very much in love and extremely happy for a few months until the baby was about three months old. Around that time, Desiree began to sense a change in her husband and his feelings for her and the baby. On a hot afternoon, an African American servant stood fanning Desiree's sleeping child when she noticed a similarity of the servant and her baby's coloring. When she asked Armand what that meant he told her that it meant that she and the baby were not white. This upsets Desiree who writes her mother begging her to say it was not true. Her mother writes back and tells Desiree to come home. Desiree asks Armand if he wants her to leave and he tells her yes. Desiree goes home to her mother. A few weeks later Armand is burning things belonging to Desiree and the baby when finds a letter his mother wrote to his father, that reveals it is he who is not white.

I Stand Here Ironing is about a mother who is asked to talk to someone from the school about her oldest daughter (Emily). While talking to the person from the school she is ironing. The mother talks about the hard time she had raising Emily and all the things she, as a mother, did wrong. The mother talks about the strained relationship present between Emily and herself. The mother tells the person from the school that she got remarried and had more children, which only further weakened the bond between Emily and her. The bond was weakened because Emily saw the mother being able to show the younger children love and being able to spend time with them. The mother never showed Emily love easily and she was not able to spend much time with her in the years before she got remarried because she was a single mother who had to work. The mother talks of how little confidence Emily has in herself and then about her, in later years, performing comedy acts which gave her some confidence. The mother then tells us how Emily is now. Emily is somebody now because of her comedy acts; she is lovely; she is happier; and most importantly she is someone who will find her way.

The Yellow Wallpaper is about a woman narrator who is suffering from nervous depression. The husband (John) of the narrator is a doctor and he is treating the narrator for this condition. John feels that the best treatment for the narrator is rest and avoidance of things like work and writing. The narrator feels that activity, work, and writing would be better and tells John this but John brushes them aside and forces the narrator to do what he says. The narrator and John are vacationing in a summer home and here the narrator keeps a secret journal where she discusses things such as the house, her condition, and John. During the narrators stay at the house she becomes fixated on the yellow wallpaper in the bedroom she is occupying. The fixation starts out as a feeling of disgust towards the yellow wallpaper and over time, the narrator develops a fondness towards it. In the sub-pattern of the yellow wallpaper, the narrator begins to see a woman who looks to be creeping and crouching. At night, the woman in the wallpaper shakes the wallpaper as if she is trying to escape from the main pattern. The narrator tries to tell John about the woman in the wallpaper, but John belittles what she is saying and the narrator eventually stops trying to get John to understand. On the last day the narrator is to be in the house, she locks herself in the room and tears the yellow wallpaper off the walls in an attempt to free the woman from behind the wallpaper. When John gets home and busts through the locked door he finds that the narrator has gone completely insane. She believes she is the woman from behind the wallpaper and is creeping around the room. John faints in the path of the narrator, which causes the narrator to have to creep over John every time.

These stories show the unequal view of women and the dominance of men prior to the start of the Womens Movement. Desiree was accused of being not white by her husband. The husband never considered that maybe he was not white. In the mind of the husband, he was male and superior to Desiree therefore it had to be Desiree who was not wholly white. The mother in I Stand Here Ironing was abandoned by the father of Emily a little after Emily was born. She later remarried and had more children with her new husband. In this story, it was the male characters, which either helped or hindered the narrator in her ability to raise children. After the father of Emily left, the narrator had to work in order to support herself and Emily. The narrator having to work caused her to be unable to spend enough time with Emily. After the narrator remarried, she was able to stay at home with the younger children and was thus able to provide them more love, time, and attention then she could with Emily. In The Yellow Wallpaper John, the husband of the narrator, dominates the narrator and treats the narrator like a child. Women were often seen as children before the Womens Movement so this story plays into that view of women. In the end, the way John treats the condition of the narrator is what drives her to insanity. Chopin, Olsen, and Gilman are three feminist writers who beautifully depict just how life was for women before they were treated as equals.