The Role of the Wife and Mother
In the later nineteenth century things for women began to change. No doubt this had something to do with modernity and its intrinsic insistence on change, and no doubt it had something to do with the actions of women themselves, with their desire to break out of the limits imposed on their sex. The nineteenth century therefore apears to have been a turning point in the long history of women. The old tensions were still present between work (at home or in the shop) and family, between the domestic ideal and social utility, beween the world of appearances, dress, and pleasure and the world of subsistence, aprenticeship, and the practice of a profession, and between religious practice as spiritual exercise and social regulator and the new realm of education in secular schools.
"About every true mother there is a sancity of martyrdom- and when she is no more in the body, her children see her with the ring of light around her head."
Godey's Lady's Book, 1867
Motherhood was viewed in advice literature, particularly by the 1890s, as one of the most important contributions women could make to her family and to the nation. With the influx of Southern European and other non-WASP immigrants in the latter half of the nineteenth century, many Americans feared losing what was then considered American. Women were having fewer children because of new opportunities available to them and because children were no longer as necessary as they were when families worked on farms. At the turn of the century, President Roosevelt popularized the idea of "race suicide" and encouraged childbirth to ensure the longevity of the nation.
In most images of women, particularly those with children, you do not see the mother's direct gaze. Rather, the emphasis is on the child and her relationship to the child. Usually the mother or both are romanticized: put in classical clothes or scenes in the home that convey a sense of peace and innocence. One of the most important American painters of mothers and children in this period was Mary Cassatt.
"Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to
suffer; than to remain a dupe to illusions all one's
Kate Chopin, 1899
Love and passion, marriage and independence, freedom and restraint - these are themes of her work distinctively realized in story after story. When Edna Pontellier, the heroine of The Awakening announces "I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself" she is addressing the crucial issue for many of Kate Chopin's women - the winning of a self, the keeping of it.
From the reaction of the readers garnered by the novel, and the attitudes of some of the characters within the novel, it would be easy to classify Edna as a poor mother. However, the textual evidence is to the contrary. Although she does not hover over her children or live every waking moment solely dedicated to them, she attends to their needs and repeatedly shows her affection for them. While Madame Ratignolle sews new winter outfits for her children, Edna is content that her own's needs are currently met. "Mrs. Pontellier's mind was quite as rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter garments the subject of her summer meditations" (Chopin 639). Edna was "fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way" (647). She does not live solely for them, but she does care for them. At times, Edna is very much a mother-woman. She demonstrates physical attachment to her children a number of times.
"Edna took him in her arms, and resting herself in the rocker, began to cuddle and caress him, calling him all manner of tender names, soothing him to sleep" (Chopin 663).
She tells her boys bedtime stories (666). She misses her children when she is away from them. "How glad she was to see the children! She wept for pleasure when she felt their little arms clasping her..." (706). In the end, one of her final thoughts is of her children. "She thought of Leonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul" (723). "They were a part of her life," is the key.
Edna wanted more than to be only defined as a wife and mother. Wanting more out of life does not make her a poor mother.
One of the most significant changes to American culture in the late nineteenth century was the shift in women's roles. In addition to the anxiety experienced by most Americans as a result of rapid industrialization, advice givers, like Catharine Beecher and Sara Hale, were concerned that the home was no longer considered sacred and women were not being appreciated for their role maintaining.
While many women fulfilled their "responsibilities", a large number of women responded to this attempt to define and limit their roles with their own literature and work in the feminist movement.
"Whatever have been the cares of the day, greet your husband with a smile when he returns. Make your personal appearance just as beautiful as possible. Let him enter rooms so attractive and sunny that all the recollections of his home, when away from the same, shall attract him back."
Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms, 1888
It is the wife's responsibility to provide her husband "a happy home... the single spot of rest which a man has upon this earth for the cultivation of his noblest sensibilities."
Despite the reduction of legal requirements and lengthening of residence requirements, the divorce rates surged between 1870 and 1920 (Deglar). Advice givers believed the reasons for the changes to the American family were the result of women's "selfish desires" to pursue opportunities away from the home and a devaluation of the role of motherhood and housewife. In response, images of devoted wives and mothers were featured in numerous advice magazines. In these images, the wife is usually draped over her husband, or holding her child to create the image of a nurturing woman and complete family. In many cases, the husband looks sick or worried to remind women of the pressure and anxiety that men faced with the recent changes to the economy. Again, the woman's direct gaze is almost never shown.
Reforming divorce laws
A number of changes were made to the legal status of women in the 19th century, especially concerning marriage laws. The fact that fathers always received custody of their children, leaving the mother completely without any rights, slowly started to change. The Custody of Infants Act in 1839 gave mothers of unblemished character access to their children in the event of [[Legal separation|separation]] or divorce, and the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857 gave women limited access to divorce. But while the husband only had to prove his wife's adultery, a woman had to prove her husband had not only committed adultery but also incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. In 1873 the Custody of Infants Act extended access to children to all women in the event of separation or divorce. In 1878, after an amendment to the Matrimonial Causes Act, women could secure a separation on the grounds of cruelty and claim custody of their children. Magistrates even authorized protection orders to wives whose husbands have been convicted of aggravated assault. An important change was caused by an amendment to the Married Women's Property Act in 1884 that made a woman no longer a 'chattel' but an independent and separate person. Through the Guardianship of Infants Act in 1886, women could be made the sole guardian of their children if their husband died.
Because her view of marriage is a complex one, Chopin's wives are a varied sort, some of them as contented and devoted to the home shrine as Adele Ratignolle, the mother-woman; others question the ties of marriage lightly or seriously. In "Athenaise" a restless young woman marries Cazeau, an older neighbor, only to find herself appalled by the intimacy of marriage:
"It's jus' being married that I detes' and despise. . . I can't stand to live with a man, to have him always there; his coats an' pantaloons hanging in my room; his ugly bare feet - washing them in my tub befo' my very eyes, ugh!"
But her running away to New Orleans, her mild flirtation with a willing gentleman count for little when she discovers that she is pregnant. As important as recognizing her pregnancy is Athenaise's discovery at her return that she finally truly desires her husband.
In much the same way, "Madame Celestin's Divorce" becomes a means for a young wife to flirt with a sympathetic lawyer and to contemplate a separation in spite of the Catholic ban - until her traveling husband returns, and her blushes suggest how she has forgiven all. "A Visit to Avoyelles" presents Doudouce, a man determined to save his former sweetheart from an abusive husband and the burdens of a hard life, who finds his rescue unwelcome, his Mentine loyal to her husband even in her misery. Just as the heroine of Chopin's first novel, At Fault, errs in attempting to direct the life of the man who cares for her, Doudouce has sought unsuccessfully to move Mentine; she has accepted her bad marriage and seeks no solace. Perhaps it is no surprise that Chopin also wrote an account "In Sabine" in which a similar effort rescues "Tite Reine" (Little Queen), but Chopin refuses to comment on the fate of the returned woman.
Chopin takes on divorce directly . . .
At Fault, privately printed and soon forgotten, had taken on the question of divorce forthrightly and, though marred by melodrama and an engineered ending, implicitly pled for the reality of the end of love and the foolishness of meddling in the life decisions of others. Such meddling and manipulating, Chopin attests in "La Belle Zoraide," may destroy its objects.
One of several stories set before the war, this tale recounts the life of a beautiful mulatta, pampered by a mistress who wishes to marry her to another light-skinned servant. But Zoraide has seen the handsome Mezor dance the bamboula in Congo Square, "his body, bare to the waist, like a column of ebony," and she begs her mistress for the right to marry him. "Since I am not white, let me have one from out of my own race whom my heart has chosen." Refused that right, Zoraide who "could not have helped loving him," bears his child. Her mistress, longing to have her pretty servant back again, sends the child away. Zoraide sinks into madness. Chopin's readers understood in the view of their day that of course the mixed blood Zoraide might yield to desire, but not "A Respectable Woman," in the story of that name. Mrs. Baroda is at first baffled at her interested response to the charming house guest, Gouvernail, but comes to realize her own desire and to look forward to his return. Little is said, much is implied, but the story stops short of explicit description of the anticipated second visit.
Document 26: A.B. Griffin, "Woman's Rights and Men's Wrongs," American Socialist, 5 December 1878, p. 386. "A Woman is Better Than A Man?"
The First Woman in the Republic Carolyn L. Karcher - The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. New Americanist Series. Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8223-1485/ISBN 0-8223-2163-7.
Document 13: "The Perplexed Housekeeper," The Circular, 4 July 1870, p. 128. A Poem Illustrating Contempt by the Oneida Community Held for the Institution of Marriage and its Bondage of Women
Howard, J.B. (n.d.). A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time. Retrieved from http://www.gp-chautaugua.org
Duby, G, & Perrot, M. (1991). A history of women, Emerging feminism from revolution to world war. Gius, Laterza and Figli Spa , Rome and Bari: "Late 19th Century America." Advice for Women. 2002. Web. 13 Oct 2009.