Brenna Svoboda 31 July 2013 The Roles and Portrayal of Women in American Literature



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Brenna Svoboda 31 July 2013

The Roles and Portrayal of Women in American Literature

Helen Keller once said, “I fall, I stand still… I trudge on. I gain a little… I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory." Keller’s ideas embody the change that occurs in women’s roles in American literature. The first writings of 16th century America contained little reference to women at all. In the early 19th century, women play somewhat larger roles but remain only in supporting roles until later in the century when a shift takes place and women now hold leading roles as the heroines of stories. Not only does the character’s role change, but also beginning in the 1800s, a continual shift occurs in the portrayal of women. Initially, women were portrayed as members of society who served as the man’s wife and remained silent influences to a man’s judgment. Eventually, this portrayal progressed to women of thought who desire to rebel from social norms. In the 20th century, the shift continues as women persist in challenging for equality with women characters who embody power and success, free from oppression by men. The changing of women’s roles in American literature parallels the transformation of American women through history as they struggle to gain equality amongst men.

The character role that women held in early American literature was nearly non-existent until the 1800s. First accounts of America like Cabeza de Vaca’s The Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition provided very little or no account of women throughout the story. For instance, the only mention of women in de Vaca’s tale occurred in the very last chapter when he mentions “ten married women, one of whom had foretold the governor many things that afterward happened to him” (Cabeza de Vaca 106). The largest role that any woman held was that of the woman who foretold events and Cabeza de Vaca only wrote a few lines of text pertaining to her. In later centuries, women grew from the background and closer into the spotlight. They became more prominent supporting characters as in John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquin Murieta where a few of the outlaws’ women, especially Joaquin’s Rosita, are present in many scenes alongside the men. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, women characters reached a new frontier in American literature when they were continually used as main characters. At this time, an important shift occurred, not only in that of women into main character roles, but also in the portrayal of women.

In the late 19th century, the portrayal of women in American literature reflected the emergence of Realism and of women’s suffrage movements in America. Prior to this time, women served only as the wives or lovers of men and the mothers of children with very little influence in anything other than emotions. For example, the previously mentioned women of John Rollin Ridge’s novel from 1854 play the roles of supporting characters that mostly appear at the outlaws’ sides throughout the story with no larger role than just being there for the men. In a few instances, however, the women seem to exhibit some kind of emotional influence over the men that ultimately provides to aid in the men’s better judgments. One such case takes place when Joaquin and his men capture a group of hunters near their camp. A young man with the hunters attempts to talk Joaquin out of killing them, and a woman with “pleading eyes” whispers to Joaquin to “‘spare them’” (Ridge 78). Joaquin at last releases the men. At this time, for a woman to intervene in a man’s affairs was seen as improper, but the ability for her to emotionally appeal to a man gave the woman power to change the man’s mind without actually interfering. The power of emotion was the spark that ignited the flame in the development of the portrayal of women in American literature.

By the end of the 19th century, authors like Kate Chopin and Louisa May Alcott placed women in leading roles to portray women who deviate from the social norm in pursuit of their own happiness. Women, historically, were expected to marry and care for their home and family and were not encouraged to get an education or pursue a professional career (“Rights for Women”). The heroines of American literature, though, tended to represent the female figures what women desired to be. Take the main character Mrs. Mallard in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” for example. Upon learning that her husband died in a train wreck, she “saw a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely” (Chopin 11). Rather than mourning her husband as social normality dictated, she seized the opportunity to reflect that “she would [finally] live for herself” (Chopin 12). To live independently, without a husband or family to care for, provided reason enough for a woman to be an outcast in her society during the 19th century. Rebellious characters like Mrs. Mallard served as an inspiration to many women to live for themselves. At the same time in American history, women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were leading a fight for their own rights to education, voting, and equality (“Rights for Women”).

The female image rapidly continued to change into the 20th century. Within the first decades of the century, both female and male authors began to portray women characters with new freedoms and responsibilities. Alexandra, the main character in Willa Cather’s 1913 novel O Pioneers!, exemplifies the new characteristics of a single woman with much responsibility after her father’s death. She gains the duty of raising her youngest brother, as is typical of social expectations, but she is also tasked with the duty of running the land (Cather). Alexandra takes on the role of the lead farmer and succeeds in what she does, which is unusual for women of the time. Another strange characteristic of Alexandra is that she does not marry until late in her life. Being married any older than 25 years of age in the early 20th century was extremely unusual (US Census Bureau). The characteristics embodied by Alexandra may be attributed to the great gains that American women made at the time in their struggle for equality. In 1896, women in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado gained the right to vote and in 1920, the rest of American women were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment (“Rights for Women”). These two major breakthroughs provided women with the fuel they needed to begin living their lives for themselves as Alexandra did and Mrs. Mallard desired.

Since the time of the first explorers to the present, women’s roles and portrayal in American literature reflect the changes occurring historically for women. The insignificance and oppression of women prior to the mid-19th century is related by the small roles of females in literature. The big shift of women becoming greater figures in the late 19th century in both literature and America is realized as the time that female Americans began the fight for equality. As women gained equality, the heroine continued to change. By studying these changes, it is observed that not only do the characters embody the American female identity, but also the heroines transform into the new figures that women aspire to be. Even to this day, one sees that American women aim to become the women they read and fantasize about in American literature.

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!. Vintage Books, 1992. Print.


Chopin, Kate. "The Story of An Hour". Virginia Commonwealth University. Web. 31 Jul 2013.
Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nunez. Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2002. Print.
Ridge, John Rollin. Joaquin Murieta. Oklahoma: Oklahoma Press, 1955. Print.
"Rights for Women: The Suffrage Movement and Its Leaders." The American Woman Suffrage Movement: 1830s-1920s. National Women's History Museum, 2007. Web. 31 Jul 2013. .
United States. US Bureau of the Census. Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890 to Present. 2004. Web. .


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