Women-writing-women: Three American responses to the Woman Question

Theresa Defrancis, University of Rhode Island


The Woman Question served as a catalyst in Kate Chopin's, Nella Larsen's, and Willa Cather's portrayal of the eroticized female body. The question evolved, in part, from Herbert Spencer's 1873 article “Psychology of the Sexes” and centered around Spencer's “theories” on woman's nature, her function, and her differences—biological, sexological, and sociological—from man. Chapter one historicizes the Woman Question by examining its influence in these three areas. The sciences, however, did not hold a monopoly on the debate. Rather, the question elicited reactions from many arenas—popular newspapers and magazines, literature, political cartoons, public policy—and in different forms—articles, music, caricatures, legislature. Throughout the decades of the question's popularity, open and subtle responses appeared. The aforementioned authors responded subtly. These women may not pointedly, purposely, or specifically integrate the Woman Question within their fiction; nevertheless, their literature contains an indirect reaction to the question and its aftermath through its portrayal of the female characters' sexuality. While other scholars have investigated the Woman Question through literature, ironically the focus tends to be on male authors' treatment of the debate. Also, British rather than American authors—both male and female—received more attention. An interrogation of American women's novels of the period adds scope and depth to the debate by broadening the perspective to include a segment heretofore marginalized: the American woman writer/character. All three authors examine woman's desire for personal independence enacted through her own sexuality, but each comes at this from a different perspective. Chapters two, three, and four analyze one novel by each author. Chopin's The Awakening introduces the literary study because it operates as a transitional text challenging the Cult of True Womanhood while simultaneously introducing the sexualized New Woman. In Larsen's Quicksand, the New Woman is conceptualized within a black female body, a body that boldly confronts racist notions of woman. Likewise, Cather questions heteropatriarchal hegemony through her eroticized, femininized landscape in O Pioneers! Although each author develops her heroine differently, all three construct strong female characters who energize the Woman Question debate, forcing a re-examination of it in ways ignored or unrealized before. ^

Subject Area

American Studies|Women's Studies|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Theresa Defrancis, "Women-writing-women: Three American responses to the Woman Question" (2005). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3186902.