“New Women” during the Gilded Age
How it works
According to Jane Freedman, who defines feminism as “a call for changes in the social, economic, political or cultural order, to reduce and eventually overcome this discrimination against women.” (Freedman 1) Although the feminist movement came along after the Gilded Age, Wharton’s character possesses a similar outlook on feminism decades before the term was coined. The term feminism was coined from the phrase “New Women”, the feminism movement criticizes the fact that women are used to leading a dependent and pessimistic lifestyle, which cripples their self-respect and confidence.
In the short story “Souls Belated”, the narrator brings attention to the fact that women lack freedom in marriages in society, “the individual must always be sacrificed to the family” (“Souls Belated” 5). Lydia gained a new feminist point of view after her first marriage. Her first marriage leads her to recognize the difficulties that women were faced with in their marriages which viewed that males were pressuring on the women’s roles. Holly Benkert mentions Mary Holmes expressed that feminism is women setting their own agenda, which is to be independently of men. (Holmes 236). In the short story, Lydia took it upon herself to create her own path of the life she has desired instead of following the foolish societal norms. Being that this story was written during an era where divorce was not likely common and fondly thought of, Lydia was making a very brave move by leaving her husband and refusing to marry Gannett.
The term “New Women” was coined during the Gilded Age; as obvious as this phrase sounds, it holds a deeper meaning than just a new era for women. By the time the twentieth century came about, the role of a woman changed drastically. They became more visible to the public eye and the false deception of a women’s duty began to be seen differently. Lydia was surrounded by wealthy women that abide by the obligations set for them by society. The role of these women was to submit to their husband, be a mother and a housekeeper. Dorothy W. Hartman wrote an article on the women of the late 1800’s that talks about the poor treatment women dealt with, “the notion that by keeping a clean, neat, pious home and filling it with warmth and inviting smells, women are achieving their highest calling.” (Hartman par. 4) The only source of income for a woman was through her husband, hence why women would often marry a man of wealth. Lydia could not relate to the women of her town as they had a different way of living their lives than she did; she describes them as “the circle of prejudices” (“Souls Belated” 2). The people of Lydia’s town were brainwashed into the societal norm; it has turned them into women who judge those who try to steer away from this lifestyle. Wharton makes it evident that Lydia is choosing to disregard what marriage stands for although it is seen as a sacred thing among the people she is surrounded by. She has come to think of marriage as a piece of paper and list of rules one must follow, “it was based on none of those common obligations which make the most imperfect marriage” (“Souls Belated” 3).
Lydia’s beliefs led her to refuse to marry Gannet. Unlike the women of her old town, Lydia thinks that getting married to Gannet would not be sacred, and they would only be doing so to be accepted by others. Her impression of marriage comes from her past one but more specifically from the failure of Tillotson to be a good husband to Lydia. Their marriage was missing communication, support and love from one another as Lydia was stuck in Tillotson’s shadow, “Her husband, in casting her off,” (“Souls Belated” 2). In conclusion, it takes courage for a woman such as Lydia to express her frustration with the societal norm. Realizing the discrimination and lack of passion in her marriage, Lydia’s feminist point of views starts to become evident. Edith Wharton sheds light on the lack of freedom that women dealt with in American history. There is no denying the social benefits that comes with marrying into a high-society family but none of this mattered in the face of inequalities. Women such as Lydia are reminders to men not to intervene with the freedom of a woman.