Women of the Gilded Age
Women of the Gilded Age At the beginning of the 20th century the term ‘new woman’ came to be used in the popular media. More girls than ever were going to school, working in factories and administrative jobs, and living independently. Critics "feared that feminism, which they interpreted to mean the end of the home and family, was triumphing" (Women in History). However, the traditional role of the American woman was going through little change. Most women still married, became housewives, and were expected to maintain the home and raise children.
Women of the Gilded Age had made modest gains since the 18th century in the form of limited rights and dignity. They had achieved the right to own property and had been employed outside the home for several decades, mostly in textile mills and garment shops. The first woman Mayor had been elected in 1887 (Moya 3). Higher education had opened its doors to women with the recent edition of women’s colleges. By 1900 one-third of college and university students were women (Women in History). Most were trained in nursing or other female dominated fields, but the prized occupations of doctor and lawyer were still almost exclusively male. Traditionally, in the American culture girls learned the homemaking skills of cooking and cleaning that would be expected of her as she became an adult (Women in History). The right to vote was still 20 years away.
During this period women experienced social growth but had yet to show much real progress. They had learned to organize through labor activities and social reform movements. The concept of women as a unique social group was taking hold, as women’s suffrage had become an issue. However, the concepts of masculine and feminine were deeply divided. A late 19th century play titled Marriage portrayed the woman’s place as, "A wise marriage is one…in which a man binds himself to a pretty little woman…in short assist him to hold that social position so essential to progress in business affairs" (qtd. in McLennan 348). A man would indulge his wife with domestic finery, but it was well known that she was the servant of the male and her role was at his pleasure.
Kate Chopin’s short story titled "The Story of the Hour" tells of the release a woman feels from the traditional role when she is informed that her husband had died. She reacts first with the expected fright and mourning. She then goes behind closed doors and alone she relishes the newfound freedom from her chains. She was expected to grieve as the sister fears her being alone and says, "open the door – you will make yourself ill". Yet, the woman whispers, "Free! Body and soul free!". This was probably typical and echoed the feeling of slaves that were freed into an unknown and uncertain future.
Women have made progress during the 20th century, but many things remain the same. The social status of women is still subservient to the male in marriage. They have attained the right to vote but are still a minority in politics. It wasn’t until 1949 that the US appointed the first woman ambassador, and not until 1981 was a female the US ambassador to the UN (Women in History). Educational opportunities have been made available to women and this has allowed them to be more independent. By the end of the 20th century, women were earning nearly one half the masters degrees and about one third of the doctoral degrees (Women in History). Women’s employment has seen greater equality and equal pay laws have helped to reduce wage disparities.
McLennan, Kathleen A. "Woman’s Place: ‘Marriage’ in America’s Gilded Age." Theatre Journal 37.3 (1985): 345-56. JSTOR. 22 Jan. 2007.
Moya, Hector. "A Small List of Firsts for Women." Coyote Express 26.7 (2005): 1-8. 22 Jan. 2007 .
Women’s History in America. Ed. Claudia DeMetz. 1995. Women’s International Center. 22 Jan. 2007 .