Representation of gender in American literature


American literature has a long history regarding its developments and themes. Similarly, American literature covers many aspects of life as well as issues on what takes place in our everyday society. However, American literature has much influence from European settlers dating back during the colonial period. The influence these colonial masters brought to America has shaped today’s literature. Interesting topics that can be learned from American literature is the representation of gender and sexuality in American society. This is a topic that many authors have discussed and time tends to bias against women. When gender issues are addressed, attention is drawn to women because they are the subject. American literature has focused heavily on the representation of gender and sexuality as it depicts women in a certain way to demean their integrity. This paper will argue that American literature is biased on gender as it was a continuation of European male supremacy in America.

The European settlers established their social and cultural gender bias in America. The installed systems favored men but treated women as second-class citizens. The Europeans regarded women as the same throughout the world, and they never paid much attention to what they had to offer. Thus, their space was confined into the private sphere, which was in the domestic setup (Strand 64). This arrangement had a significant impact on women’s progress because they had limited opportunities to climb the social ladder and their voices could not be heard beyond their houses. In turn, women saw this as oppression and began to challenge the colonial structures in America that confined them to household help. Women began to fight for their rightful space in the society by organizing movements to guarantee them equality (Strand 64). This was achieved in the 20th century when they were allowed to vote and representation in different spheres. Despite all this happening, the belief that they were inferior still dominated the airwaves and male authors began to depict them as worthless beings. In fact, the inferiority women suffered made some shy and could not present themselves to do anything useful for self-development.

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Most authors in the 1850s, during the colonial period in America, were already influenced by the colonial structure that undervalued the worth of women and they showed all these in their work. For instance, the earlier work was about the place and expectations of women in American society as well as the double standards that ruined women and left men as heroes. During this period, religion was used to monitor the behaviors of women in the society while men had all the privileges and rights to do all they could. In the work, The Scarlet Letter, it shows how the society applied a double standard by only punishing and humiliating women despite them fornicating with (Haslam 73). In this work, women were forced to wear a symbol that shows they committed adultery but men were freed and never condemned. This example shows the extent to which American literature placed the burden on women because they handled all the evil responsibilities and guilt, as men were not brought into the limelight. To this extent, it can be seen that American literature was a continuation of the colonial regime that depicted women negatively but glorified the actions of men.

American literature has also talked about the role of women in the colonial and post-colonial period in America. According to some authors, the culture defined the works that women were to do as well as their possibilities (Strand 80). The women who happened to be domestic servants during this period shared their experience. For instance, Little Women is a reflection of a woman author who worked as a domestic servant and shares experience on labor inequalities towards women and workplace conflict that limits their work (Strand 89). In the ancient time, women were not allowed to work outside their homes and working outside was only approved for female occupations. Despite all this gender representation, women overcame them and began to look for work outside their homes so that they have a decent life just like their male counterparts. The limitations of women have been talked about and became themes in many works by both women and men. The end of the 19th century was promising, and it came with reversal of gender roles, as women became the center stage of development (Strand 72).

Although women had progressed and were on the right path towards prosperity, all these were not required to be written in the literature. The progress among women regarding sex, independence and working outside the home was better said than written (Haslam 53). The work that documented these women’s advances were condemned and criticized, and they were labeled as vulgar and inappropriate.  For instance, the work, The Awakening was a documentary of women’s progress, and it was not given a warm reception in the market because it contained what the readers did not want (Haslam 56). Through this work, it is evident that American literature during this period was to portray particular gender in a manner that maintained the status quo. The society was unwilling to read the positive stories emanating from women’s progress. The condemnation of this work is an indication that American literature was to demean women and portray them like a second-class citizen. Anyone who praised or glorified the progress that women made was regarded to have broken the social convention.

In other instances, the American literature has condemned women who went against the societal expectation that was coined by the colonial masters. Although women have been registering progress in every sphere, the literature does not recognize all these but instead goes by the traditional notion that they are subordinate to men (Haslam 64). For instance, women who want to define their personal space after realizing the existing opportunities around them are not allowed. Why are the men fearful that women’s progress is a threat to them? This is the question that many women in literature ask themselves as any slight progress is met with rebellion. Women who were not part of the family setup or those who want to be independent-minded are rebuked and humiliated in public. In many pieces of literature in post-colonial America, the space of women is pre-defined and going against this traditionally defined concept is treated as being a traitor. Male authors seem to have perfected this art as seen in the way they portray women as characters in the play. In fact, women are given subordination roles just to show their societal depiction and to continue with the colonial social structures that placed them as second-class citizens.

In the work, The Handmaid’s Tale is a portrayal of a society where women’s only purpose is reproduction and labor (Birnbaum 24). However, the environment where these women live is characterized by high concentration of pesticides, radiation and nuclear that makes some women infertile. According to this author, women do not have sexual freedom, and it is only allowed during reproduction and nothing else (Birnbaum 24). In this work, the role of women is limited to reproduction and domestic labor and thus do not enjoy any freedom like men. This connotation developed in the colonial period where the colonialist viewed women as an object of oppression and the same perception was adopted by the American authors who continued with the negative portrayal. Women had limited representation as heroines in many American works, and the fact is that there are strong women who have advanced even their actions in building the society than many able men who ought to have done much. Thus, it is evident that American literature is turning their blind eyes on the achievements of American work in literature but instead focus on their failures to denounce them. Overall, this can be traced from the social structures they inherited from their colonial government that transferred their way of life to the colony.

Although women managed to progress steadily in the post-colonial period and began to express themselves, it was not freely because they faced opposition from the male chauvinist who did not want to buy their ideas (Strand 49). During this period, men regarded themselves as the ‘know it all’ and women were not to match them or move closer to them. It is because of this that women who were interested in writing pieces of literature sometimes approached men and used them as authors. This means that women wrote their experience but gave them to men whom they were close with to publish as the author. The society was unwilling to absorb literature from women who glorified themselves and who were independent thinkers. It is because they left their roles of being in the private sphere to public expression against the societal norms of that time. The feminist movement that began years later was a reprieve to many women who had desired to express themselves but lacked the space. Women began to challenge the rules of the games that had played along, as it was oppressive and limited their expression. Through the constant and radical women’s movements, the literature changed, and women began to receive recognition for their contribution thereby expanding their political, social and economic space to give them the much-awaited freedom.

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In conclusion, American literature has always portrayed women negatively because it follows the tradition that was established in the colonial period. The position of women remained the same even after independence, and this significantly influenced the literature at that time. The position and space for women were predetermined, and those who went out of the defined space were ridiculed, humiliated and sometimes punished. Thus, many women were fearful of getting out of this space. Thus, they continued to be treated as second-class citizens and provided labor and reproduction services in the domestic setup. However, this was until the feminist movement began and expanding the women space to go beyond the domestic setup and literature began to appreciate their roles in the society thereby being given the attention.

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  1. Birnbaum, Michelle. Race, work and desire in American literature. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Haslam, Jason. Gender, race and American science fiction: reflections on fantastic identities. New York: Routledge, 2014.
  3. Strand, Amy. Language, gender and citizenship in American literature. New York: Routledge, 2008.
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