Literature is a means by which people can raise questions about the society they live in and address issues of concern to them. One of the questioned often raised relates to the role of women in society. Female writers are able to use literature to express their opinions and explore what it means to be a woman in society. This was especially true in the times when women did not have the power and were not taken seriously enough to question their own roles openly. One text clearly describes the role of women saying that women were "supposedly the most stable of all elements of American nineteenth-century life, fixed firmly within their sphere of home and hearth" (The Literature of an Expanding Nation 21). When women are viewed this way, they are not capable of openly questioning their role or how they are viewed. Literature then becomes a means by which women can express their opinions. Susan Glaspell, Edna St. Vincent
Millay and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are three female authors who have used literature to present their opinions on he place of women. Glaspell used the genre of drama to present her opinion in the play "Trifles." Edna St. Vincent Millay challenged the accepted role of women in her poem "I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed." And Charlotte Perkin Gilman used the short story genre, with her work "The Yellow Wallpaper." All of these works mentioned share the same overall message, showing that woman are suppressed in society and should be freed. However, each of the messages are expressed in a different way, with the methods used linked to the genre used a medium for the message. These works will now be explored to show how each author uses the genre to present her message.
Susan Glaspell shows her views of the role of women in her play "Trifles." The genre play has two important features that influence how Glaspell presents her views. The first is that the play is a visual genre. A play is designed to be performed, rather than read. This means that Glaspell needs to show how women are suppressed and the place they are given, rather than focus on how women feel about it. Unlike a short story or a poem, a play cannot be largely focused on a woman's interior dialogue or what she thinks. Instead, a play must deliver its message via the action that happens. The second important feature of a play is that it is a way of depicting life. Glaspell is able to look at life, observe what she sees is wrong with society, and then put a representation of life on the stage so that other people can see what she sees. This is exactly what she effectively does in the play. One of the major ways the play makes its point is by showing how men act and how they view women. This is seen when the sheriff is looking in the kitchen and states that there is "nothing here but kitchen things" (Glaspell 997). While the sheriff is not saying directly that women are nothing, he is showing his general views via this statement. The kitchen is used to represent the role of the women and the sheriff is showing that he sees women as inferior to men. It is no coincidence that it is a sheriff who makes these statements. Glaspell uses the sheriff and the law to represent how men have the power in society and make all the rules. This is seen at another point where Mrs. Peters says, "But Mrs. Hale, the law is the law" (Glaspell 999). This is a female character saying this now, which shows that Glaspell is not saying that men are necessarily evil. Instead, she is showing how society overall accepts men as being in power and women as being inferior. The main point is that this view is so accepted that there is no ability to question it. Saying that the law is certainly not a way of making a valid argument. It is not like Mrs. Peters is saying that the law should be followed because it is right, or good, or necessary. Instead, she is showing that she accepts things as they are simply because they are the way are. In doing this, the person watching the play can begin to question whether the law in the play is correct and whether the rules of society are valid. This same question is asked in the scene where Mrs. Peters hides the bird. Based on the laws of the time, this is a crime since she has repressed evidence. But Mrs. Peters is also driven by a moral law and this is why she hides the bird, despite knowing that it is technically a crime. The audience must wonder whether she actually did anything wrong, and if she didn't then this suggests that the laws of society are not set, even if they are generally accepted. A similar idea is explored when it is considered whether Minnie's husband John Wright did anything wrong to deserve to die. When considering whether he technically did anything wrong, Glaspell has Mrs. Hale express her opinion. As she states, "He didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts" (Glaspell 998). Again there is a sense that at least according to the law, Wright did not do anything wrong. But the events of the play hint that there is something greater to consider here. After all, Wright was killed and yet it seems Minnie will get away with her crime. At the same time, Glaspell creates a view where this is seen as a valid ending and the right one for Minnie and Wright. This shows that despite the laws saying that Wright did nothing wrong, there is a moral view saying that he did. This is what leads to a view where a person can see that there is more to understanding life than judging it by its rules. Since the play is a representation of real life, viewers can extend this questioning to the real world and see beyond what they have accepted as normal and never questioned. This is how Glaspell uses the genre of the play to show people a new vision and open their eyes to what they had previously accepted as normal. With the play focusing on issues of men and women and their roles, this level of previous acceptance is applied to how women are seen, both by themselves and by men. In this way, Glaspell expresses her concerns about the suppressed role that women are placed in and challenges others to question what they have accepted as normal.
Edna St. Vincent Millay challenges the accepted role of women in her poem "I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed." Like Glaspell, she presents woman as they are viewed. This is seen in the first five lines of the poem (Millay 895):
I, being born a woman, and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body's weight upon my breast
In this case, however, Millay is focusing on how women are seen as sexual beings, with this their primary purpose. In the first five lines, Millay appears to be accepting the male view of women. However, the entire poem is actually a way of Millay taking a man's power from him and putting herself in control. Importantly, while the general view of women as sexual beings might be accepted, this does not mean that women are supposed to accept that view. Millay's poem is a statement saying that men are not putting her in that place, but that she is in that role because she chooses to be. This changes though at the end of the poem with the following lines (Millay 895):
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
In the first half of the poem, she was stating as if she accepted how men saw her. In the final lines, she is reclaiming her power by telling the reader that this is not suitable and not enough. One of the important points about the use of the poem genre, is that the poet is using her own voice to express her opinion directly. Unlike Glaspell's use of drama, there are no characters or situations to deliver the message. Instead, Millay is just stating exactly what she thinks and speaking directly to a male reader. Millay also makes good use of voice and tone in the poem to maker her point. Note that in the first line, Millay is stating that she is a "distressed woman" with "all the needs and notions of my kind." The…