Example Of Have Women Really Changed? The Changing Face Of Women In History And Literature Essay

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Women, Family, Law, Business, Husband, Commerce, Sociology, Property

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2020/09/26

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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook once said of women, “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” But, how much have women really changed across history? While the minds and hearts of women have differed very little through the ages, the role they play in society has undergone several major changes. With each revolution came a new set of standards for women to live by, and a new set of limitations for them to overcome. Kate Chopin’s Story of An Hour, Updike’s short story A&P, and Auburn’s Proof all represent women who are on the cusp of just such a change. Mrs.Mallard, Queenie, and Catherine each represent a changing of the guard between an old and new way of thinking, championing the height of feminist right for their era.
Kate Chopin wrote the short work The Story of an Hour in 1894, at a time when the role of women had just under gone major change in America. It was the year that Kentucky Passed the Married Women’s Property Act, which gave women the right to own property regardless of their marital status. Up to this point in history, women had technically become their husband’s property at the time of marriage, along with any and all of her possessions. Until the passage of such a law, only the husband could own or dispose of property of any kind. A woman had no property rights unless her husband was dead. While we do not know exactly what the language of the law was, which Mrs. Mallard had endured during the years of her marriage, we can assume that it carried much the same spirit as the Texas law from 1879:
Art. 2181. The surviving wife may retain the exclusive management, control and disposition of the community property of herself and her deceased husband in the same manner, and subject to the same rights, rules and regulations as provided in the case of a surviving husband, until she may marry again. . . . .
Art. 2852. All property acquired by either husband or wife during the marriage except that which is acquired by gift, devise or descent shall be deemed the common property of the husband and wife, and during the coverture may be disposed of by the husband only (Library of Congress).
Though by the end of 1894 all 50 states had passed laws protection women’s writes to possession, they were largely ineffectual because they were poorly interpreted and enforced. The law was on the leading edge of social change in the battle of equal rights for women and many still found the laws “distasteful” and “unladylike.” Mrs. Mallard’s internal struggle highlights the way in which the social acceptance of the Women’s Rights movements was behind the development of a legal system to protect those rights. Her actions were ultimately dictated not by what was legally possible, but by the societal expectations of her peers. Only in her husband’s death would her life belong “absolutely to her” and she embraced that independent future. Chopin wrote: “But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’ (Chopin, 1894). She saw a window of opportunity open, the only social acceptable way for her to achieve autonomy was for him to die, leaving her in full command of their worldly goods.
John Updike’s short story A&P was written at a similarly volatile time in American Women’s history. 1960 was the year that women gained the right to use “The Pill” as birth control, regardless of a designated medical need or their marital status. Society saw this as an excuse for girls to become promiscuous, and out of this new freedom was born the “sexual revolution” of the 60’s. According to a historical overview, it was a time of great contradictions, in which women were told “This was a mixed message, effectively telling women, "Go! Learn! Flourish! Do! but also, have babies and put your husband's needs before your own (McLaughlin, 2014)." What McLauglin is pointing out is that despite a relaxing of sexual normal, fashion guidelines, employability and other issues, women were still ultimately destined to act as their husband’s property, This is reflected in Sammy’s language when discussing the group of girls in A&P, who he repeatedly refers to as “my girls” (1961). Another major social change in the 1960’s was the growing acceptability of being out in public in a bathing suit. According to RMN’s legal research division “By the 1960s, bikinis started to rise in popularity, mostly because of Bond Girl, Ursula Andress’s scene emerging from the ocean in a white bikini in Dr. No. Because of the rising popularity of two-piece bathing suits, laws started to become more relaxed and less strict (2014).” While it was legal to go out in public in bathing suits in many places, businesses often had policies against such practices, and society certainly hadn’t accepted the practice at large at the time Updike was writing. By not only wearing her bathing suit out in public, but off the shoulder, Updike places Queenie on the cusp of the era’s sexual revolution, writing: “You know, it's one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along (1961).” Her behavior was unacceptable, but not illegal. Updike goes so far as to suggest that, perhaps, her actions are vulgar. First, he describes her skin as “dirty pink,” and then later, he allows the store-owner Lengel to berate her for being indecently dressed (1961). According to Nancy Cohen, author of "Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America the degree to which her behavior was indecent was defined largely by the critics who opposed the sexual revolution as a whole: “In a desperate effort to stop cultural change in its tracks, the critics of the new sexual order accused the sexual revolutionaries of destroying the traditional American family (2012).” Queenie defends herself however, by firing back “I am decent” as if to insinuate that her bathing-suit clad body does not make her promiscuous, or a threat to American tradition (1961). In short, Queenie embodies that battle of wills that raged in the 1960s, in a social effort to find a balance between “decent” and “indecent, and between modern sexuality and “tradition.”
David Auburn’s modern play Proof, at first glance, has little to do with the social oppression and morphing women’s rolls of Turn of the Century America or the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s, but in reality Catherine is just as much a woman on the brink of social change as Queenie and Mrs. Mallard, and in many ways she is just as confined by the “traditional role of women” as her literary predecessors. Catherine spends the entire play trying to prove that she wrote a mathematical formula, or a “proof” and meeting with opposition to her claim. The primary opposition seems to be, simply, that she is a woman. Hal, who is the primary male antagonist of the story tell’s Catherine the work cannot be her’s because “"You have to be your Dad to do something like that (2001)." This quote highlights a major theme in the plays storyline, that there are still areas of mathematics and science where women are seen as inherently inferior to men. This social construct was supported by a 2008 study that found both genders are equally likely to believe that men are better at math than women. According to John Bohannon, the study found that “Men and women employers alike revealed their prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical ability” in spite of the fact that they performed equal well on a basic math test. Catherine is also bound to the traditionally female gender roles of caretaker and nurse. When her father becomes ill, she abandons her study to provide him with care. This shows that, despite her interest in a male field, Catherine is ultimately forced by her responsibility to her father, and the social expectations placed on her, to fill the traditional female roles assigned to her. Ultimately, despite 100 years of revolution, and redefinition, she struggles to escape the limitations of her femininity.
We, as a society want to believe that we have come a long way since the women’s suffrage movement of the turn of the century. We have been given the rights to vote and own property, sexually revolutionized, allowed in the to the workplace, and given “every advantage” and yet a 2014 political poll showed that women are still making only .77 cents to the dollar when compared with men (Jacobson, 2014). While the limitations placed on women have changed significantly, the reality is that when one barrier is removed another comes to light, and literature consistently demonstrates that women will always have to battle the “definition” of their sex, regardless of the era. Kate Chopin’s Story of An Hour, Updike’s short story A&P, and Auburn’s Proof all show women walking the fine line between filling the traditional gender roll assigned to them by society and embracing change and social progress.. Mrs.Mallard, Queenie, and Catherine each represent a shift in the female paradigm, but ultimately stop short of effecting any real change on society, instead choosing to live in the grey area between what is social acceptable and what is at the forefront of the battle for women’s rights in their era.


Auburn, D., Sullivan, J., Foxworth, R., Heche, A., Hopkins, K., Sisto, J., & L.A. Theatre Works. (2003). Proof. Venice, Calif.?: L.A. Theatre Works.
Bohannon, J. (2014, March 10). Both Genders Think Women Are Bad at Basic Math | Science/AAAS | News. Retrieved from http://news.sciencemag.org/math/2014/03/both-genders-think-women-are-bad-basic-math
Chopin, K. (1894). "The Story of an Hour". Retrieved from http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/
Cohen, N. (2012, February 2). How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever | Alternet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/story/153969/how_the_sexual_revolution_changed_america_forever
Jacobson, L. (2014, January 29). Barack Obama, in State of the Union, says women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns | PolitiFact. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/jan/29/barack-obama/barack-obama-state-union-says-women-make-77-cents-/
Library of Congress. (n.d.). Married Women's Property Laws:Law Library of Congress. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/property_law.html
McLaughlin, K. (2014, August 25). 5 things women couldn't do in the 1960s - CNN.com. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/07/living/sixties-women-5-things/
Updike, J. (1961). A&P. Retrieved from http://www.tiger-town.com/whatnot/updike/

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