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Historical Context of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

September 17, 2011

By the turn of the century, magazines, art galleries, and novels were flooded with advice about how to be a proper woman in middle class society. With industrialization, urbanization, a declining birth rate, increased divorce rate, the shift away from the home, the increase in the number of single men and women in the professional class, a growing non-WASP immigrant population, and the new freedoms made available by the anonymity possible in cities, Americans feared that their families would fall apart. As a result, one of the most significant changes to American culture in the late nineteenth century was the transformation in the perception and representation of gender roles due, in large part, to the evolution of the role of the home.

In addition to the changes in social structures, Americans experienced profound shifts in the economy. Large corporations replaced small family businesses and workers were at the mercy of their employers. The disparity between the wealthy and the poor drastically increased. These changes created a strong middle class, while also removing economic power away from the home and family. This sense of disempowerment resulted in an understanding of the home as the last refuge for traditional values for both men and women. However the responsibility for maintaining the home and the culture of the home was shouldered solely by women.

Despite the new feminist activism inspired in part by women’s roles in the Abolitionist movement, as well as the Temperance and Suffrage movements, women were expected to embody the traditional values represented by the home. In this way, women were equated with the home; both were symbols of the morality Americans hoped to preserve. The home became a female gendered domestic space in which women, as the guardians of culture and morality, both gained and lost control.

Exulted as morally superior members of society who would shelter the family from the evils of commerce and modernity, women were expected to be pure, charitable, selfless, cultured, optimistic, supportive at all costs, educated in the proper fields, and frugal. This construction of womanhood empowered women to become more educated and manage domestic finances, while also limiting them through strict rules concerning what they read, how the home should be designed and maintained, the ways that they used their time, what families should purchase, how to behave in public, and all other actions that could be construed as a reflection of the family’s morality. Most importantly, by relegating women to the domestic sphere, many women were excluded from the new economy and therefore increasingly dependent on their husbands for income.

Without the creation of the separate female gendered domestic sphere, the process of developing a male centered corporate culture would not have been possible. Too many Americans were nostalgic for the values that they believed were threatened by burgeoning urban centers and a growing professional class of single men and women. In much the same way that Americans needed to be convinced that abundance was good in order to cultivate a consumer culture, the creation of the myth of the moral center in the home was a necessary part of selling corporate culture.

 

Domesticity in Literature

Throughout the nineteenth century, domesticity was romanticized in literature, particularly in literature by women. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, politicized the home by making it central to social action. Many of the pivotal scenes in the novel (e.g. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby’s discussions, Rachel Halliday’s dinner, Cassie in the attic) occur in the home and in most instances women are a central part of making moral Christian-based choices. In Catharine Beecher’s 1869, An American Woman’s Home, she attempts to elevate women’s positions in the home to the same level as professional men because according to her, women’s work in the home is essential to the preservation of morality and culture.

By the turn of the century, women, like Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, created novels that defied traditional women’s roles in the home. In each text, the female protagonist fantasizes about escape and freedom. While many critics argue about the source of their frustration, the result, women refusing to maintain the home and play the role of devoted wife, provided a powerful subversive text to the advice literature that dominated popular culture by the turn of the century.

If we can understand the proliferation of advice literature and art as a form of resistance to the threat of losing traditional family structure and values, perhaps we can also consider the texts by Chopin and Perkins Gilman as a form of resistance to this advice.

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