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Warnings Against Gender Stereotypes In Early Twentieth Century American Literature

1343 words - 5 pages

Many early twentieth-century American writers used conflicts based on female stereotypes as a central theme in their works. For example, the titular character from Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's short story A New England Nun lives a life of domestic solitude, happily sewing and cleaning while separated from her husband to be for nearly fifteen years. Freeman's nun uses her domesticity as an excuse to avoid marrying her fiancé, though she leads him on for most of the story and only avoids marriage after learning of her betrothed's love for another woman. Similarly, the much mentioned but never revealed central character in Susan Glaspell's play Trifles seems to embrace domesticity to escape the misery brought on by her marriage, even managing to escape both the guilt and suspicion of her husband's murder through her and her fellow characters’ embrace of her passive, domestic, and harmless feminine archetype. By focusing on the conflict arising from female stereotypes, these two stories reveal the dangers of stereotyping women as passive, subordinate, and domesticated, both to the adopter and the adoptee.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun reveals the hazards of female stereotypes to their adoptees through the actions of Louisa Ellis. At the time of the story, Louisa has been engaged to marry her fiancé Joe Dagget for fifteen years, fourteen of which he has spent away from Louisa (Freeman 1623). Though Louisa admits that "fifteen years ago she had been in love with him," she feels apprehensive about their inevitable marriage after his return (Freeman 1623). Louisa's apprehension towards Joe builds throughout the story, but because her embrace of the female stereotype prevents her from expressing her true feelings and breaking Joe's heart, Louisa seems doomed to her fate. However, a stroke of luck occurs towards the end of the story, when Louisa, nearly at her wit's end with her marital destiny, happens to overhear Joe expressing his love for a woman named Lily Dyer (Freeman 1627). This fortunate revelation allows Louisa to back out of the marriage without fear of upsetting her supposed lover or breaking from her timid persona, for she holds no feelings for him, but doesn't wish to hurt him, nor does she wish to openly share how she feels.
Louisa's stubborn embrace of the timid female stereotype brings her a lot of avoidable trouble. Had she expressed her apprehension earlier in the story, Louisa could have saved herself and Joe a lot of anxiety. Instead, she maintains her stereotype at the expense of her own happiness, and only breaks from the engagement when she learns that Joe would rather be with another woman, using the excuse that "she had lived so long in one way that she shrank from making a change" to avoid following through with her marriage to Joe (Freeman 1627). Though her statement is partially true, she fails to mention how she would have carried through with the marriage if she hadn't secretly learned of Joe's feelings for...

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