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Conscientious Objectors: Female Authors Who Consciously Oppose the Idealized Woman Stereotype
Anthony Owens, Copyright 2009
Walter Feinberg and Jonas F. Soltis (2004) define class consciousness as a positive development in which the members of a lower class or caste, for my purposes women, “become aware of their common interest and are able to articulate that interest” (49). This awareness can lead to “progressive social change” (50) for any subordinate class, such as women, if they organize to exert their power and influence. False consciousness, on the other hand, “illustrated by the slave who espouses the values of the master,” believing “that he or she is the master’s property, to do with as the master pleases . . . or by the concentration camp inmate who begins to think like the prison guard” occurs when “members of the subordinate class . . . express the point of view and share the values of the dominant class” (50), in this case men. Hence, when women internalize misogynistic points of view and values, or when they accept and inhabit the role of an idealized woman stereotype, they themselves contribute to the continued hegemony, or a “preponderance of influence or authority” (50) of men over women. Louisa May Alcott, Mary Alcock, and Kate Chopin exhibit class/gender consciousness and combat false consciousness as writers. ’Do you mean to say you prefer to scrub the hearth to sitting in my charming room while I read Hegel to you?’ he demanded, glaring down upon me. ‘Infinitely,’ I responded promptly, and emphasized my words by beginning to scrub with a zeal that made the bricks white with foam. ‘Is it possible!’ and, with a groan at my depravity, Josephus retired, full of
ungodly wrath. (Alcott 1148) Thus Louisa May Alcott’s character Louisa in the autobiographical essay “How I Went Out to Service” (1141-1151) rebels against the abject submission in the guise of entertainment and enlightenment that Josephus (an allusion to the ancient thinker and alleged misogynist) her employer, who is based on Alcott’s one-time, real-life employer, James Richardson, unsuccessfully attempts to inflict upon her mind and spirit. In Alcott’s essay, Josephus would make of Louisa a “passive bucket, into which he was to pour all manner of philosophic, metaphysical, and sentimental rubbish. [She] was to serve his [my bold] needs, soothe his sufferings, and sympathize with all his sorrows—be a galley slave, in fact” (1147). Alcott here viscerally depicts her own awareness of and resistance to such abject subjugation of women by men, evidencing an aware or “awakened” state of consciousness, as Chopin put it (1253). Mary Alcock and Kate Chopin likewise define themselves through their writings as awakened female authors, whose in their writings resist unflattering and disempowering sexist constructions of female nature and identity. Such awakening consists of moving from a state of false consciousness to a state of class/gender consciousness, Marxist concepts that are useful for analyzing and understanding how these writers define themselves through their works in opposition to a stereotypical, misogynistic construct of female identity that may be termed “the ideal woman.” Historically, the ideal woman is a fictional creature who, among other things, is often depicted as and/or expected to be inherently sentimental versus intellectual and selfless and servile versus self-fulfilled and autonomous. The idealized woman is also Alcott’s passive bucket or galley slave. Reading the works of these authors through a Marxist lens reveals how they define themselves in opposition to one or more of these aspects of the idealized-woman stereotype.
Using a hilarious tongue-in-cheek style of writing in the form of a recipe, in “A Receipt for Writing a Novel” (307-308), Mary Alcock lampoons the tired and misogynistic staples of the romance novel writers of her time, singling out female authors of such works. In so doing, she directly defines herself as an awakened female writer consciously opposed to the idealized woman stereotype, a harmful fiction which owes a lot to sexist depictions of female characters common to the popular genre Alcock here parodies. The poet sarcastically recommends that would-be female authors of popular romance novels mechanically follow the recipe for the genre by imbuing their heroines with some of the most absurdly stereotypical female behavior imaginable: e.g., all manner of emotional folly like “hysteric fits” (line 16, page 307), “fainting fits (18, 307), “mad love” (23, 307), and so on. Alcock “presses” female authors to “carry on [this] bold design” (6, 307) at any cost, even “’gainst nature, reason, and sense” (5, 307). This dichotomy between what is natural, rational, and sensible versus what is unnatural, irrational and insensible is the old misogynistic one between man and woman. Some of the more irrational ingredients of the recipe, for example, include outlandishly incongruous and melodramatic plot twists, whose only purpose is to gratuitously generate suspense and surprise in readers; one way to go about this would be to have the madly in love hero and heroine discover that they are siblings (76, 308), a confusion later cleared up by some minor character, thereby clearing the path for a tragic Romeo-and-Juliet (Shakespeare) ending (80-84, 308). The poet laments that such “stores supply the female pen,/ which writes them o’er and o’er again” (69-70, 308), the meter and rhyme of the couplet emphasizing that enough is enough already. The reason the poet singles out female writers is because such writing both constitutes false consciousness on the part of writers and fosters it in readers, thereby exasperating the hegemony of men over women. The
false consciousness driving the mechanical combination of such ingredients can only serve to help keep women in the kitchen, as emphasized by the recipe metaphor. Finally, Kate Chopin takes a radical (for her and our time) step beyond both Alcock and Alcott with her character Edna in “The Awakening” (Chopin 1253-1344). Edna proves a class conscious, or awakened being, an independent and autonomous woman who not only longs for but seizes both spiritual and sexual freedom. She shamelessly throws off the yoke of the idealized woman as servile and selfless wife and mother, just as she casts off the itchy bathing suit at the end of her evolutionary journey (1344). Her lack of shame in situations where women suffering from false consciousness would feel plagued by it evidences her and, by extension, the author’s class conscious or awakened state. For example, take the passage in which we meet for the first time Edna’s antithesis in the novel, Mademoiselle Ratignolle, the epitome of the idealized woman for whom “there are no words to describe . . . save the old ones that have served so often to picture the bygone heroine of romance and the fair lady of our dreams (1259),” both figures of the idealized woman. Embodying the idealized woman stereotype by looking fabulously decorous while doing so, she busies herself in the middle of summer obsessively sewing winter clothing, or “night drawers” for her baby that are such a “marvel of construction, fashioned to enclose a baby’s body so effectually that only two small eyes might look out from the garment, like an Eskimo’s” (1259). When Chopin uses overly dramatic diction of the sort found in romance novels to describe that the drawers were “designed for winter wear, when treacherous drafts came down chimneys and insidious currents of deadly cold found their way through keyholes” (1259), she reveals to readers the absurd sense of urgency that M. Ratignolle, the ever responsible mother, is feeling at the time. If she were not constantly busying herself in such selfless acts of nurture to protect and provide for her children, she would no doubt feel
wracked with guilt. In opposition, Edna’s “mind was quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter night garments the subject of her summer meditations” (1259). In other words, Edna does not feel the same absurdly selfless (given the season) sense of urgency that her friend does. Indeed, she feels as though she speaks a different language than M. Ratignolle, as evidenced by their later argument over Edna not consenting to sacrifice herself, even for her children (1290). We also learn that, although Edna feels a myriad of differing emotions after having sex with Arobin, shame is not one of them (1319). In the end, she shamelessly casts off the itchy bathing suit that reminds us of M. Ratignolle’s winter drawers, the treacherous drafts of censure be damned. There she stands, nude on the beach in broad daylight, feeling the strangeness and awfulness of the situation, tasting the deliciousness of it, but certainly feeling no shame (1344). To conclude, Alcott, Alcock, and Chopin all consciously combat core aspects of the idealized woman stereotype in their writings. In doing so, they also help their readers to move from a state of false to class/gender consciousness. In Chopin’s case, her character Edna shows how difficult and painful awakening to the truth has been historically for women. As Edna blossoms into her own person, as she wrests possession of her spirit and body away from others, she learns that for women of the time, liberty and social status varied inversely, perhaps a realization that was too much for her to bear, but one that is ultimately inevitable for all women, if they are ever to leave behind “the dull old house” of Josephus, “no longer either mysterious or romantic in [their] eyes” (Alcott 1150).
Alcock, Mary. “A Receipt for Writing a Novel.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. Vol. 1. 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. 307-308. Alcott, Louisa M. “How I Went Out to Service.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. Vol. 1. 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. 1142-1151. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. Vol. 1. 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007. 12531344. Fienberg, Walter and Soltis, Jonas F. School and Society. 4th Edition. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. Gilbert, Sandra, M. and Susan Gubar, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. Vol. 1. 3rd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007.
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