volume 4, number 1 page 3 of 8

The Woman Question Reconsidered:

Gender, Race, and Class in the Work of Kate Chopin and Frances Harper

Melissa Adams

page 4



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She goes on to find a husband who is worthy, honest, respectful, understanding, who encourages her desire to help her race. Instead of denying her the right to self-expression, Dr. Latimer joins Iola in a partnership to better the black community. He says, “ I think, Miss Leroy, that the world’s work, if shared, is better done than when it is performed alone. Don’t you think your life-work will be better done if someone shares it with you?” (Harper 242). For Frank and Iola, marriage is not a static conclusion, but rather, the beginning of a partnership dedicated to serving others. It is no surprise that Dr. Latimer is a trusting, egalitarian husband. Black men, Frank among them, were forced to recognize the physical, emotional, and intellectual strength of black women; women who had worked side by side with them in the fields, who had survived the endless indignities of slavery, and who continued to fight racism after the Civil War. In a literal sense, the doctrine of separate spheres could not apply to black women because of the unique cultural experience of American slavery. Thus, women’s cultural attitudes, family experiences, and marital relationships significantly influence their capacity for self-realization and equality within marriage. While the length of time these two couples have been married is an important consideration in establishing the power dynamic of the marriage, it is perhaps more valid to demonstrate the variance in each couple’s goals. The Awakening begins several years into marriage, when Edna and Leonce have grown accustomed to one another and to their roles as husband and wife. At the end of Iola Leroy, Iola and Frank are still flushed with newlywed pleasure. Iola’s brother Harry says, “I don’t believe that there is a subject I could name him, from spinning a top to circumventing the globe, that he wouldn’t somehow try to bring Iola in. And I don’t believe you could talk ten minutes to Iola on any subject, from dressing a doll to the latest discovery in science, that she wouldn’t manage to lug in Frank” (Harper 277). Compare this infatuation with Edna and Leonce’s relationship: “Looking at [her hands] reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm” (Chopin 45). The differences in communication style and content serve as indicators of the progression of the marriage relationship while also marking the uniqueness of each couple’s goals. For Frank and Iola, communication and consideration function as the basis of their relatively equal partnership. The above quote from The Awakening illustrates the significance of ownership and control in Edna and Leonce’s relationship. Leonce is master and Edna’s rings symbolize his claim over her. Consequently, differing goals prove more influential to the power dynamic of these two couples than the length of their marriages. Harper promotes Iola’s marriage to Dr. Latimer, not, as many critics claim, to convey a conventional romance plot, but rather to promote the necessity of equality for a felicitous marital relationship. Claudia Tate points to the allegorical nature of the novel, claiming that Iola’s happy marriage is symbolic of the success and prosperity of the black community. Upon closer examination, the reader understands that marriage is not the conclusion for Iola; marriage will not complete her. This partnership is only the beginning of a life dedicated to serving others. Iola’s plans for the future do not end here, nor do the aspirations of the black community. Frank and Iola have a freedom not to be found within white marriage. With the relative newness of the Emancipation Proclamation, many black couples have had little time to develop strict gender roles within a “legal” marriage. The power dynamic between black men and women, especially between former slaves, was not comparable to that between white men and women. Black women worked in the fields alongside men, proving their strength and independence on a daily basis. When Iola’s husband encourages her to find some way to help her race, he is acknowledging Iola’s capabilities. Thus, Iola and Lucille find male support for their interest in the public realm, while Edna stands on a pedestal out of reach of her desires. Race and class are often inseparable in the work of Chopin and Harper, especially when comparing Iola and Edna. Though both start out as privileged white females, Iola’s circumstances change dramatically. Once labeled a “Negro,” she becomes less than human when auctioned off by her white uncle. Even after the war, Iola remains a second-class citizen despite her middle class aspirations. For Edna, the pedestal of upper class white womanhood is simply unfulfilling. She seeks a wider avenue of sensuality and sexuality which was at


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