19th Century Feminist View of Contraception and Motherhood in Kate Chopin s The. Awakening

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1 Cooper 1 Caroline Cooper ENGL 305 Professor Pennington November 23, th Century Feminist View of Contraception and Motherhood in Kate Chopin s The Awakening In America during the Nineteenth-century the Feminist movement begins to make an appearance in society. In 1899 Kate Chopin wrote her short novel The Awakening which was not received positively by the critics or the readers. Chopin took the negative comments of her work to heart and her social network judged her harshly for what she wrote leaving her ostracized. This extreme response by the public mainly occurred because the protagonist, Edna Pontellier has an affair outside of her marriage. However, the negative responses were also because Chopin brought up and hinted at issues regarding the Feminist movement within her work, which although was gaining support, most people did not agree with. Some of these issues being redefined roles as a wife and mother, women s sexuality, and even contraception. These are issues Chopin felt were important and they were demonstrated in her personal life. The Awakening demonstrates the issues of sexuality in Nineteenth-century America and how the Feminist movement treated contraception and motherhood in light of the growing desire for women s sexuality and independence from the domestic sphere. Some statistics regarding contraception is discussed in Deborah R. McFarlane and Kenneth J. Meier s book The Politics of Fertility Control chapter 2 Contraception and Abortion: A Historical Overview contraception in Nineteenth Century.. One fact from this book is that in

2 Cooper , a native-born white American woman bore an average of 7.04 children. By 1860, that number was 5.21, and by 1900, it had plummeted to 3.56 (McFarlane, Meier 28). This statistic demonstrates that contraception has begun to take effect within the sphere of average women. Contraception was becoming available throughout middle class marriages focusing on middle class married white women. Although contraception was at first seen as a very private affair, public lectures on contraception were held frequently. By mid-century, dozens of pamphlets and books on contraception had been published and were widely available (McFarlane, Meier 28). The early forms of contraception during this time included cervical caps, douching, coitus reservatus, coitus interruptus, vaginal sponges, vaginal diaphragms, and the rhythm method (McFarlane, Meier 28). McFarlane and Meier also discuss the increase of sexually transmitted diseases in America during this time. Although the condom was invented its use was limited in the middle class because they were very expensive. However, in the 1850s the price of condoms dropped dramatically after the invention of vulcanized rubber even though they did not become a popular contraceptive in middle class marriages because of their association with prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases (McFarlane, Meier 29-30). However, Most feminists believed that the real cause of this public health problem was the double standard of sexual behavior for men and women; that is, extramarital sex was tolerated for men, but not for women. In turn, men contracted sexually transmitted diseases from prostitutes and then infected their wives. (McFarlane, Meier 30-31) This double standard of sexual behavior is clearly seen in Kate Chopin s life as well as her character Edna Pontellier s life in The Awakening. Both women have a longing for the world and

3 Cooper 3 are attuned to their sexual desires as women. And both women felt stifled by their duties in the domestic sphere as wives and mothers. However, even as birth control and contraceptives were becoming more available to women in the middle class Edna does not use them. She merely stops having relations with her husband and begins having an affair with another man. Chopin herself had six children so it can be assumed that she was also not using contraceptives in her marriage. One reason for this may be that, while the feminist community promoted voluntary motherhood, it unanimously opposed the use of birth control devices (Stange 276). Much of what Chopin wrote about dealt with many feminist ideals that were just beginning to surface at the time. It would make sense that her writing would reflect this feminist view of contraceptives during nineteenth-century America. As stated previously there were many different contraceptive technologies available to middle class women at this time, but in the end whether or not birth control was considered acceptable was determined by ideology. According to Margit Stange in Personal Property: Exchange Value and the Female Self in The Awakening contraceptives threaten to separate motherhood from sexuality. Stange writes, in the prevailing ideology of even the most radical feminist reformers, motherhood was an inextricable part of female sexuality (Stange 276). There was a strong resistance to contraception by feminists at this time because these women did not want to sever motherhood from female sexuality. Separating sex from motherhood, appeared to threaten the family structure that provided most middle class women their own social standing and economic security (Stange 277). Without their husbands and children women held little to no power which is why the feminist movement at this time did not support or promote birth control. This could be a reason, other than the personal nature of contraceptives,

4 Cooper 4 that Chopin did not mention birth control at all when it comes to Edna and her relationship with her husband or her lover. Many of the feminist ideas that are reflected in Edna s life come from Kate Chopin s personal experiences in one way or another. For one thing, Chopin loved to take walks and thus, so does Edna. Chopin married her husband Oscar, eventually moved to Louisiana with him, and had six children. Oscar Chopin later died leaving Kate to provide for her children. She took up writing and published her first novel At Fault in Chopin was a very independent woman and her husband gave her liberties many other wives did not have. According to Emily Toth in Kate Chopin not everyone liked her having these liberties and felt, to allow Kate to go on, always in her own way was more than unusual, it was horrible (125). This statement itself shows that women during the nineteenth century were not given as much freedom as men because it would have been unusual and in many cases unladylike. One of the liberties Kate enjoyed was to take long solitary walks through New Orleans as she smoked Cuban cigarettes. Toth comments in her book that, women were not supposed to smoke in public - and ladies were not supposed to smoke at all and that, her solitary walks were a statement of independence (125). Independence is a major theme in The Awakening. Edna is a wife and mother and feels stifled by her marriage. During this time in history many women would have felt confined by their marriages and would not have had a way to get out of it. This is a possible reason as to why Edna commits suicide at the end of the novel. Edna even says, I don t mind walking. I always feel so sorry for women who don t like to walk; they miss so much - so many rare glimpses of life; and we women learn so little of life on the whole (Chopin XXXVI). This comment demonstrates again that women are controlled by the patriarchal society during the nineteenth-century and that Kate herself felt her creativity and her

5 Cooper 5 intelligence was being stifled by gender stereotypes and obligations she had toward her husband and her children. Edna Pontellier does not marry Leonce for love and she [Edna] became a mother without particularly wanting to be one, and she silenced her own voice (Toth 210). According to Toth the way Edna felt for her marriage may be the way Chopin felt in her marriage and the way many other women during this time felt trapped within their marriages. They could not leave and had been previously taught to ignore their emotions and sexual desires whereas now with the rise in feminism at this time many women are beginning to realize their desires and are recognizing their sexuality. According to Toth this increase in sexual desires and want for personal freedom is shown in The Awakening when, Edna begins to ignore her wifely obligations. It is by withholding herself sexually, then, that Edna exercises the eternal rights of women in insisting that she has a self and that she owns that self (Stange 282). She takes long solitary walks when she is supposed to be receiving callers; she has no sympathy with her husband s complaints; and she stops having relations with him ( We meet in the morning at the breakfast table ) (Toth 210). Edna begins to slowly realize that she is not solely a wife and a mother essentially property of her husband, but that she is her own person. No longer sleeping with or even living with her husband, Edna declares herself free to have sex with whomever she chooses. She tells Robert, I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose (Stange 282).Once she realizes this she begins to embrace her specialties such as art, moves into her own space, and begins an affair because of her heightened awareness of her sexuality.

6 Cooper 6 The negative reviews of her novel were a harsh blow to Chopin. She took the criticisms of her novel seriously and personally. According to the majority of 1899 reviews, The Awakening s Edna Pontellier is a selfish wife and mother who not only does not appreciate her good husband, but she also rebels in the worst possible way - by taking a lover or two. She is not sympathetic; she is wicked, foolish, or both (Toth 209). Chopin would not have described her novel in this way. Chopin saw The Awakening as just that, an awakening of women s possible independence from their husbands and children. Chopin s ideas connect back to what was going on in the world around her which was the beginning of the Feminist movement which explains Edna s movement away from her husband and toward her independence with her art and the affairs. It also connects back to the rise in use and discussion over contraceptives. Edna feels disconnected with her children and does not want much to do with them or motherhood. All in all, Chopin wrote for an audience that was not ready for her ideas about women s independence which caused her grief over the harsh reactions to her novel, The Awakening. Works Cited Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications, Print. McFarlane, Deborah R., and Kenneth J. Meier. The Politics of Fertility Control. New York: Chatham House Publishers, Print. Rowe, John Carlos. The Economics of the Body in Kate Chopin s The Awakening. Kate Chopin Reconsidered Beyond the Bayou. Ed. Lynda S. Boren and Sara desaussure Davis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, Print.

7 Cooper 7 Stange, Margit. Personal Property: Exchange Value and the Female Self in The Awakening. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin s, Print. Toth, Emily. Kate Chopin. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., Print Unveiling Kate Chopin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, Print.

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