Warnings Against Gender Stereotypes in Early Twentieth-Century American Literature

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Many early twentieth-century American writers used conflicts based on female stereotypes as a central theme in their works. For example, the titular character from Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's short story A New England Nun lives a life of domestic solitude, happily sewing and cleaning while separated from her husband to be for nearly fifteen years. Freeman's nun uses her domesticity as an excuse to avoid marrying her fiancé, though she leads him on for most of the story and only avoids marriage after learning of her betrothed's love for another woman. Similarly, the much mentioned but never revealed central character in Susan Glaspell's play Trifles seems to embrace domesticity to escape the misery brought on by her marriage, even managing to escape both the guilt and suspicion of her husband's murder through her and her fellow characters’ embrace of her passive, domestic, and harmless feminine archetype. By focusing on the conflict arising from female stereotypes, these two stories reveal the dangers of stereotyping women as passive, subordinate, and domesticated, both to the adopter and the adoptee. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's A New England Nun reveals the hazards of female stereotypes to their adoptees through the actions of Louisa Ellis. At the time of the story, Louisa has been engaged to marry her fiancé Joe Dagget for fifteen years, fourteen of which he has spent away from Louisa (Freeman 1623). Though Louisa admits that "fifteen years ago she had been in love with him," she feels apprehensive about their inevitable marriage after his return (Freeman 1623). Louisa's apprehension towards Joe builds throughout the story, but because her embrace of the female stereotype prevents her from expressing her true feelings and breaking... ... middle of paper ... ... escape their undesirable predicaments. The ease at which the problems in both stories could be solved by abandoning presumptions of how women should behave suggests that Susan Glaspell and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman want people to follow their own desires rather than the conventions of gender roles. Furthermore, this moral continues to be true today; modern readers can still benefit from relinquishing their assumptions about how others should behave based on their gender, religion, or ethnicity. Works Cited Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. A New England Nun. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1620-1627. Print. Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Shorter Seventh Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1968-1976. Print.

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