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A highly discussed subject about Willa Cather is whether or not she was a
lesbian. There are arguments for every side of the topic, but given the
amount of information we have, its clarity, and the vagueness of the
period itself, all of it can be used for every side.
One aspect that people questioning Cather's sexual preference concerns
gender identity greatly. This gender labeling system that everyone is
familiar with is very simple and logically sound, but not true to all
points of nature. It creates stereotypes, and stereotypes by definition
are attributes to certain things thought to encompass all that share its
label. The common idea that is bred into everyone's minds during childhood
is that girls act girly and boys act like boys. Girls that play with dolls
and have tea parties are girls, and when they grow up they will like boys.
Boys that play with trucks and army stuff are boys, and when they grow up
they will like girls. But, if girls play with trucks, they will grow up to
be boys and like girls, and boys that play with dolls will grow up to be
girls and like boys. This image generates the idea that these children
will grow up trying to be something they're not.
This mainstream way of thinking has flowed into gender roles, including
roles of the lesbian community. According to these unknown rule makers
that happen to be everywhere like Big Brother, there are butches and there
are femmes. Butches are not attracted to other butches, and vice versa.
Hence, butches take the male role and femmes take the female role,
reproducing a heterosexual couple. Because of his dominant ideology, women
who identify as both or neither are ridiculed and scorned by their own
community. Those that are both are seen as freaks of nature. The set
structure says you must be one or the other.
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Let's apply this system to Cather. She dressed as a boy, constantly
sporting a male hair style of short hair, and preferred the name William
to Willa. Using the gender rules stated earlier, Cather was a lesbian.
This gender ideology is used by everyone, including those who try to
defineCather's sexual orientation. It is very strict and leads to false
stereotypes. There are butch women and feminine men that are heterosexual.
One can try to obtain more evidence of which team Cather played for by
looking at My Ántonia, assuming that Cather used this work to convey all
her internal opinions and feelings. Cather writes in the first person
perspective of the male character Jim Burden, who has a great deal in
common with Cather. They both moved from Virginia to southern Nebraska as
children and moved away to attend this university and eventually ended up
in New York. Both had many immigrant friends growing up. One could argue
that Jim Burden was Cather's male persona and she was living through him,
considering it was an absurd idea at the time for two women to be
romantically involved. Cather wrote through Jim, becoming Jim, in order to
love women, especially women she was familiar with from her own life,
because in her circumstances she could not do it in reality.
Also in My Ántonia, there is more emotional connection to women than men.
Jim's life is greatly affected by mostly women. We see Jim with his
grandmother more than his grandfather. All of Jim's friends except for
Charley Harlingare female, and even that one we don't see for very long.
We do hear the history of Peter and Pavel, but quickly afterwards they
disappear from the story and aren't thought of again. We find out a great
deal about Mr. Shimerda, but through his inability to speak much English
and his early death, we don't really get to know him. We meet other male
characters, such as Jim's grandfather, Wick Cutter, Otto Fuchs, and
Ambrosch, but we are kept distanced from them. We know them and their
history, but it is all facts. We feel little emotion for them. We see more
emotion and history of the female characters. While granted, th book is
about one woman special to Jim Burden's life, Cather has an entire novel
to give Jim more male friends. Jim has more female influence than male.
Men are not displayed in a most positive light. There are more male
villians than female villians. In fact, I can only think of one female
villian without rereading the entire book, Mrs. Cutter. Other women show
flaws to their character, such as Mrs. Shimerda's distrust of her
neighbours and Jim's grandmother speaking to immigrants as if they were
deaf, but these hardly make them evil people. On the other hand, there is
Krajiek and Wick Cutter who constantly try to con immigrants out of
things, Larry Donovan who played Ántonia like her father's violin, and Ole
Benson who couldn't control himself and kept chasing after Lena Lingard.
One could argue that Cather was an introverted stereotypical angry
feminist, a stereotype that wasn't even born until almost thirty years
after her death, who disliked men so much that naturally she would be
attracted to only women. She had so much disgust for those who really were
men that there was no way she could love one and turned to the exact
The act of getting married is not portrayed as a happy event. We learn
from the very beginning that Jim marries a loud and outspoken woman, his
complete opposite, which seems like a state of being rather than a union
of love. Some of the characters never marry, including Lena Lingard. Larry
Donovan promised to marry Ántonia, but did everything but that. Eventually
Ántonia marries Anton, and even though it is a fruitful marriage, it's
uncertain whether it was a happy one. The Cutters marriage is never happy,
and eventually leads to both their ends, an odd competition to see who
would outlive whom. Cather herself never married, and to this day people
of the same gender aren't allowed the priviledge of a legal marriage. One
could argue that Cather was trying to portray the whole heterosexual
marriage as a terrible thing, making her desires seem like a perfect
In my humble opinion, I have no idea if Cather was a lesbian because I
didn't know her personally. I don't share all the arguments that I've just
stated, only producing them and evidence that supports them. I admit that
a few of them are a bit 'out there.' I try my hardest to not assume
anything about anyone because so many people in the world assume enough to
make up for my lack of assuming. I prefer the company of women who also
prefer the company of women, but I don't identify as 'lesbian' because I
don't like labels. The only labels I am comfortable with are "Mary" and
"writer". Labels set strict boundaries, just like the example of defined
gender identity earlier, and have stereotypes that come with them. If
someone is a lawyer, they must be sneaky and deceptive. If someone is from
Texas, they must be heartless bigots that will send anyone to the electric
chair, including anyone who isn't white. It's amazing how small little
words carry the largest meanings, and sometimes people don't even know it
until they become a victim of it.
What literary critics continue to do is try to label Cather. Since they
can't ask Cather any questions, they grasp at any information and convey
it into any way they need it to. Until a letter from Cather is discovered
that says, "Hi, Mom, I'm a lesbian. Love, Willa," no one can be certain.
The debate of whether or not Cather was a lesbian becomes another
whirlwind unending discussion, just like abortion, politics, and religion.