A literary discourse on the evolution of gender & sexuality in the first & second waves of feminism : Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" deconstructs established gender roles as Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" reconstructs them Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/m326m4828

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  • The two literary touchstones of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Willa Cather examined in this thesis anchored a larger discussion of the discourse about gender and sexuality during the First and Second Waves of feminism in America. "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Gilman deconstructed the notion of "femininity" manifested at the turn of the century in America, while Cather's "Paul's Case" reconstructed the notion of "masculinity." Both Cather and Gilman wrote their short stories at the turn of the century in America during the First Wave of Feminism yet they resurfaced in discussions about gender and sexuality in the Second Wave of Feminism. Readings of both Cather and Gilman's writings have evolved with the First and Second Waves because their protagonists defied and undercut the established social norms enabling them to be re-examined much after their publication date. Although their writing styles are different, Gilman and Cather share a complex understanding of gender and sexuality that earmark the social position of women in America which can be interpreted by the most contemporary critics of present date. During the First Wave of Feminism, women discussed how their ability to reproduce contributed to unbalanced gender relations, caused middle and upper class women to remain confined to the household, and economically dependent upon their husbands. This devaluation of women's participation in valued economic work sickened many women and left them reliant on their physician's care as well. Challenging this social structure, Gilman recorded her experience after being diagnosed with neurasthenia by Dr. Mitchell, ordered to remain in bed for months while consuming fatty foods and with no support from friends. Meanwhile, Cather expressed her discontent with the social construction of gender in America by asserting a male character that reconsidered the established norms for men and women of Victorian America. When the Second Wave of Feminism emerged in America, the discussions about gender and sexuality reread these touchstone texts of Gilman and Cather as flexible visions of reality but in different discursive contexts depending on the social time frame in which they reviewed them. In the 1960s, the Women's Rights Movement and the Women's Liberation Movement generated most theoretical discussions on the condition of women themselves, the issues pertaining to women's confinement like establishing a political voice and the "problem with no name." While in the 1970s, discussions about gender and sexuality concluded that the "sex/gender system," also known as patriarchy, defeated their purpose toward complete liberation because of its economic structure aimed at benefiting men. Although they appreciated the notion of a collective voice for all women, the development of individual voices among women played a more significant role in the 1970's discourses about gender and sexuality. Because men have predominantly controlled the medical field, women in the 1970s, who wrote about gender and sexuality then, also attacked physicians like Dr. Mitchell who diagnosed women with strange treatments and also worked for the prohibition of the practice of mid-wifery in America at the turn of the century. Other critics of the 1970s decided that Cather's life reflected that of a lesbian, so that by the 1980s, literary discourses involving gender and sexuality began asking questions about the purpose of Cather and Gilman's writings. If female authors like Cather and Gilman lived such politically conscious lives, then why did they not create narratives that reflected their political agendas? After questioning their narratives, some critics decided that Cather and Gilman carried a "duplicitous nature" or a twofold message in their short yet complex stories. This duplicitous style of writing explained how that by the 1990s discussions about gender and sexuality had evolved into the "crafting of characters" that resulted in "gender performances," and one acting out one's gender. While First and Second Wavers fought for the elimination of binary gender divisions and a balance in gender relations that supported the economic development of all women in America, Cather and Gilman's writings facilitated discussions during both Waves that contributed to the reasons why the social construction of gender and sexuality did not result in equal human treatment, and should therefore be reconstructed. The literature concerning women during the First and Second Waves of Feminism can be summarized as a tactfully-formulated, continuing rumination on the question of the nature and genesis of women's oppression and social subordination, and how to change its effects on the future of the human race. What started off as strictly constructed and enforced gender roles in Victorian America evolved into gender performativity in the latter part of this century. This socio-sexuo evolution lies within the protagonists' discontent and total rebellion in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Cather's "Paul's Case," whose stories both surfaced at the turn of the 20th century in America, when socially-conscious citizens inspected these rigid Victorian ideals, and whose stories later resurfaced again during the Second Wave of Feminism at the middle to end of the 20th century, when individuals re-enacted these same socially constructed gender roles, and deconstructed them. Lather's "Paul's Case" functions as a touchstone of her short fiction that even Cather agreed valued notice, since she only allowed it to be reprinted of all her other stories. With consideration toward conducting future research, a more thorough examination of say The Professor's House and A Lost Lady as well as My Antonia to explore more glimpses of Cather confirming this fluctuating, non-conforming, even elusive authorial approach toward gender and sexuality that has made her reputation outlast herself, should reveal even a deeper sense of her literary complexities. Gilman's utopian novels, Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland, that came after "The Yellow Wallpaper" deserve a closer look in the same respect as she struggled to portray the possibilities and barriers facing a woman who attempted to combine love and work. The movement in Gilman's writing progressively develops the possibilities and highlights the key barriers for a woman: female resistance to social change and male incomprehension concerning the necessity for love and work in a woman's life. She visualized the transition from the present to the future as one of internal conversion to an egalitarian society. This is a dual process of women awakening to their own interior power and men renouncing oppressive power structures as individuals and as a society. Perhaps too this is why Gilman, like Cather, switched to a male narrator in order to express her utopian vision.
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