“New Women” During The Gilded Age

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).

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The Gilded Age A Term Coined By Mark Twain

The Gilded Age was a time where America saw a massive divide in the socioeconomic statuses of the rich and the poor. The World Fair of 1893 was a perfect example of how the rich favored off the poor’s labor. Ray Stannard Baker noted, “What a human downfall after the magnificence and prodigality of the World’s Fair which has so recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month: depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next.” When we look at this quote we can really analyze the division of class inequity.

The World Fair was a great way to cover up the recession that was going on in the rest of the country. Chicago uses the World Fair to fight the effects of the recession and is successful due to their entertainment. When the Chicago World Fair said they were going to have the first Ferris Wheel people from all over the globe flocked over to come see it. They went around the wheel for about 20 minutes to escape reality and feel on top of the world. Another way we saw the divide in class was through culinary. According to an article written by Rebecca S. Graff and Megan E. Edwards they talk about how people from all over the world have come to see the fair so in order to please all the tourists and the rich people they made sure their cuisine was up to par. Examples of these were Shark Fin Soup from China or seaweed-and-anemone porridge from Japan. These dishes served as a souvenir that visitors could remember and when tasted again or recreated it would take them back to Chicago’s World Fair. By including dishes from all over the world it helped remind people that America is a “melting pot” even though during the fair African Americans and Native Americans were seen as entertainment rather than human beings. The World Fair is a “snapshot” of the socioeconomic status to the country in the late 19th century.

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We see extreme contrasts between the rich and poor when the World Fair came to an end and all the workers who were once employed, and made the World Fair possible, were left in the dust and sent back to what was known as the “Black City.” Due to the lack of employment many workers went on strike and brought hell to Chicago. Meanwhile, Chicago was the only place in decent economic shape thanks to their World Fair. When the unions burn down the buildings in Jackson Park Burnham isn’t angry or upset. In fact, he is pleased at the fact that the World Fair has finally come to an end. Another way we see this injustice of the poor being mistreated is when the World Fair causes some of the problems that arise such as crime, murder, dirtiness, and immoral behavior. Unfortunately, while people are going missing the police are too busy protecting the rich and famous to look out for the rest of the people. For Anna the slaughter houses symbolize Chicago’s drive to become wealthy and powerful and any cost and after the World Fair many people also came to that conclusion.

The Gilded age, a term coined by Mark Twain to represent that what looks glittery and put together on the outside is actually falling apart on the inside. The World Fair was just another reminder to the lower class that they had to work for the rich and could never really be as successful. For Burnham, he watched his Fair burn down but, he wasn’t mad. He was pleased because he would rather see it burn down quickly then to watch it slowly turn to garbage.

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