Facts from Fiction: The Evolution of Women in American Literature

By Jacques Fleury

“When you look down into silence, you see no friend;
When you lift your gaze to space, you hear no echo.
It is like striking a single chord it rings out but there’s no music.”
“Literature: A Rahapsody” Lu Ji

I started writing poetry in high school and was encouraged to continue to do so by my mostly female peers and mostly women teachers. I learned that I could be an “emotional” man without consequences like being ostracized or called “girly.” And so because I identify with women on an emotional level, I studied American literature in college that focused on the relationships between women and men in the 19th century American south.

We know that the past essentially and inevitably informs the present. My hope in writing this article is to establish a juxtaposition of the oppressive and subservient relationships between men and women in the past with the oppressive and subservient relationships between the men and women in Haiti even in the present day. I would like to illuminate the growing trend towards social, spiritual and economic equality between men and women in contemporary society.

I consider myself to be somewhat of a male feminist and with good reasons. I grew up partly in Haiti and I was mostly raised by women. My mother and her four sisters had a great deal to do with the man I have become. I feel a certain level of kinship to women. Perhaps it’s partly because I am a sensitive poet and have a propensity to be rightfully and infallibly “emotional.” In Haiti, being an emotional male is neither encouraged nor tolerated. If you are indeed an emotional male, you best hide it or risk being ostracized from your family and community as well as being labeled a “massissi” or “faggot.” As a result, I kept my emotions to myself and took everything that was thrown at me with the stoical silence characteristic of the typical Haitian male. I was even praised by my aunt for this detrimental albeit desirable behavior. “Jacques is a good little boy”, she said. “He never shows any emotion.” And so during my formative years, I learned that emotions were “bad” and stoicism was “good.” However, all that changed when I came to America.

During the mid- to late-19th century, almost a hundred years since the U.S. won its independence from England, the white women of the American south were fighting their own private war. In particular they waged a war to be free from male sovereignty and oppression and societal constrictions. Indeed, society played a great role in restraining those women; nevertheless, the battles and wars inside their own homes played a greater role in their restricted and limited lives than the society at large. It was the sum of the incidents that contributed to the women’s rebellion. The conditions in which these women were forced to live, the women’s diverse rebellious acts themselves, and female unknowing collusion helping mitigate the emotional and spiritual oppression of women in today’s society.

In order to understand the preceding critical elements, an understanding is needed of the meaning of marriage in the southern states during the nineteenth century. One needs to understand how divorce was perceived and dealt with, the domestic laws of that time, and what a good marriage is and what isn’t. Three stories involving three remarkable nineteenth century women will be discussed to examine these social dynamics: The Yellow Wall Paper, by charlotte Perkins Gilman (1899), The Revolt of Mother, by Mary E. Wilkins (1890) and The Story of An Hour, by Kate Chopin (1894).
“One’s defined role in marriage and gender were key factors in determining a woman’s constitutional rights…in parts of America.” wrote history connoisseur Timothy Crumrin, in his Internet article “Women and the Law in Early Nineteenth Century Indiana.” He also states that, legally speaking, women were detained the role of being “dependent, subservient and unequal.” These women were strong, intelligent and deeply spiritual, however, they were condescended to and bestowed such titles as ”lunatics and idiots” according to Crumrin.
Moreover, Crumrin further elaborates on the marriage issue by affirming that rights normally enjoyed by a woman were often withdrawn when she married. He further expounded on that idea by stating that once a woman became married, she was said to be coming into ” a state of civil death”. He maintains that divorce was downplayed during the first half of the nineteenth century. In order to legally separate, one must have been able to prove signs of “extreme cruelty.” The reader must ask several pertinent questions: who and what defined “extreme cruelty” then? What the laws defined as “extreme cruelty” then that only warrants separation, may in fact be considered a criminal act today that justifies criminal confinement. A good wife was defined as someone who did what her husband told her to do. If a wife disobeyed her husband during that time, he had a legal right to kill her. What constitutes that kind of rationale? There’s a fine line between “extreme cruelty” and murder—which brings Crumrin to defining the laws and regulations of that time.

During the nineteenth century, the U.S. government had domestic laws referred to as “Cult of Domesticity.” In Mary K. Cayton’s article “Gender Roles and Relations” published in the Encyclopedia of American Social History, she discusses how in the early colonial era, the father ruled with his wife as his assistant. Towards mid nineteenth century, this ideology was substituted for a revised version that the wife was to dominate the home environment and the husband was solely the bread winner. To this end, relieved from any other domestic affair, the mother was to create a “home sweet home” atmosphere for the father to come home to, but not to be a part of. Cayton goes on to say how the mother was responsible for the care and morale of her sons and daughters “who would become virtuous citizens of the new nation.”

As the father continuously removed himself from daily domestic affairs, consequently, “The doctrine of separate spheres” or cult of domesticity writes Cayton, “promised women greater respect in family matters, though it restricted the scope of their activity to the home.” In scrutinizing this statement, one can infer that it foreshadows women’s’ erosion of power over their lives for the years to come.

Further more, Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert in their article “The Science of a Good Marriage,” explores the idea of what a good marriage is and what it isn’t. Although the article offers insightful discourse about what a good marriage is by current standards, the basic concepts of it can still apply to marriages from the 1800’s. They speak of “the myth” of marriages in which couples hope to meet and fall in love with an extension of themselves; in that the scenario would assimilate the “perfect” key to go into the “perfect” lock. They go on to say, “And then there is the reality of marriage, which, as any spouse knows is not unlike what Thomas Edison once said about genius: one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” They elaborate on the subject by extrapolating that anger is not the real poison in a marriage and that the “real demons are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.”

Consequently, the preceding statement relates to the stifling conditions of those southern white women. They were often criticized and their ideas were either not taken seriously, treated with contempt, or be altogether dismissed. Their husbands’ defense systems were ‘what I say goes,’ “Stone walling” was a stoical stance to their wives grievances, which was a commonality among husbands of that time period.

To Be Continued…

Jacques Fleury’s book: “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. Contact him at: haitianfirefly@gmail.com and visit his website at: www.thehaitianfireflyproductions.com.

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